IV. Married with Children

“The principal object of this union is the procreation of children.”  

—“Marriage,” Encyclopédie, vol. 10 (1765)

“A mother’s first duty is to suckle her children and to nourish and maintain them until they are of an age to earn their living, when the father is not in a position to provide for it…  She should take care of their education in all that is within her competence and notably for girls, to whom she should teach housekeeping.” —“Mother,” Encyclopédie, vol.  20 (1765)

Given that girls, especially those from aristocratic families, could be married as young as twelve years of age, adolescence sometimes coincided with, rather than preceded marriage. (By contrast, men often did not marry until they could marry without parental consent, at age 30, when they could choose a bride for themselves.) Once married, a wife’s primary function was to bear children.

According to the most influential Enlightenment thinking, which resituated women in the domestic sphere in response to their supposedly undue influence on French culture, mothers should nurture their offspring according to new principles laid down by medical doctors and philosophers. For example, they should nurse their own infants, and not resort to wet-nurses. While wives ruled over the domestic domain, they nonetheless traded obeisance to their fathers for obeisance to their husbands, who had absolute authority over their persons and property.

Becoming a widow often put a woman into a more powerful position as she would finally be freed from control of a husband or father. A young widow, though, could expect to be returned to her paternal home, to await remarriage.


Image: Pierre-Jacques Allais. French, 1705–1760. Woman and Child with a Parakeet, 1740. Pastel on blue paper, laid down on canvas.