Adultery and the Ideal of the Good Woman: Infidelity in 18th-Century France

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:50 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center)
Nina Kushner, Clark University
The ideal of a “good woman” was remarkably stable over the course of the ancien régime. Chastity and fidelity, and, equally important, a reputation for both, were core components. Brides were supposed to be virgins. Wives were supposed to be faithful. All women were supposed to be chaste in appearance and decorum. When they were not, the aggrieved parties — husbands, fathers, families, communities — had multiple disciplinary legal instruments at their disposal. Suspect women also risked dishonor and public humiliation, with attendant and very real negative material consequences. Yet many women were neither chaste, nor faithful. Prostitutes married. Wives committed adultery. Single women lived with lovers. While deviation from the ideal was well noted among the elite and especially among court nobles, women committed adultery and engaged pre-marital sexuality at all social levels.  The wide embrace of Rousseauian values in the second half of the eighteenth century, with their emphasis on domesticity and marital fidelity, hardened the ideal. However, they seemed to have made little difference in the actual behavior of most until some time into the nineteenth century. Why the ideal was so important — and indeed grew increasingly important at the turn of the century — is well understood. The question of why husbands, families, and communities ignored, allowed for, and sometimes supported regular female deviation from this ideal is less so. Using judicial records and printed sources, this paper will look at cases of adultery across the social spectrum in eighteenth-century France to understand under what circumstances female adultery actually mattered and to whom. In doing so, I will sketch out the boundaries of female sexual agency and argue that tolerance of sexual permissiveness was a function both of sexual culture and often of the balance between honor and economic need.