What did Napoleon think of women?

Although Napoleon Bonaparte respected his mother and put two of his sisters in charge of small territories, he believed that women were generally inferior to men. In Napoleon’s view, women were destined to play a domestic role, inside the family, rather than a public one. This was reflected in how Napoleon treated women, both on the personal level and in his policies.

Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon's view of women was less charitable than this image suggests. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library

Napoleon and Josephine. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library

What Napoleon said about women

Napoleon held a traditional view of women’s capabilities and the role of women in society. He acknowledged that women could be strong, and he regarded them as powerful insofar as they were capable of seducing men, but he did not believe that women were as intelligent as men. Women were not suited to be soldiers, or to play a role in the public sphere. A woman’s place was in the home, as a wife and as a mother. She was expected to defer to her husband, and to be modest and pleasing in her dress and in her conduct. Her main purpose in life was to produce children. When the writer Germaine de Staël asked Napoleon who was the greatest woman in the world, he replied, “she who has borne the greatest number of children.” (1)

Napoleon told his first wife, Josephine, that “the wife was made for the husband, the husband for his country, his family, and glory.” (2) He instructed his sister Pauline to “make yourself loved; be affable with everybody; try to be even-tempered, and to make [your husband] happy.” (3) To Marie Louise, his second wife, he wrote, “Women are lighter and less serious than we [men] are.” (4) In 1813, when Napoleon – off to command his army in Germany – established a regency under Marie Louise, he insisted that she not be shown police reports, on the grounds that “[o]ne should not defile the mind of a young woman.” (5)

One of Napoleon’s companions in exile on St. Helena recounted an 1816 conversation in which Napoleon engaged in “playful warfare with one of the ladies present” by “affecting to declaim against women.”

‘We men of the west,’ said he, winking sideways to us at the same time, to let us know that he was jesting, ‘… have acted most unwisely in treating women too well; we have imprudently allowed them to rank almost as our equals. In the East they have more sense and judgment; there women are pronounced to be the actual property of man; and so indeed they are, nature has made them our slaves, and it is only by presuming upon our folly that they can aspire to govern us, and by abusing the advantages which they possess, that they succeed in fascinating us and establishing their dominion over us. For one woman that inspires us with proper sentiments, there are a hundred who lead us into errors.’ He then went on to express his approbation of the maxims of the oriental nations, highly commended the practice of polygamy, which he considered to be that pointed out by nature, and displayed considerable ingenuity and fertility of invention in the choice and number of arguments which he adduced in support of his opinion. ‘Woman,’ said he, ‘is given to man to bear children to him; but one woman cannot suffice to one man for that purpose, for a woman cannot fulfil the duties of a wife during the period of her gestation, whilst she suckles her child, or when she is ill: and she ceases altogether to be a wife when she is no longer able to bear children. To man, on the contrary, nature has opposed no such obstacles at any period of his existence; a man should therefore have several wives.

‘After all,’ continued he, smiling significantly, ‘what have you to complain of, ladies? Have we not acknowledged that you possess a soul? … You aim at equality, but that is madness: woman is our property, we are not hers; for it is she that gives us children, and not we to her: she is therefore the property of man in the same manner as the fruit-tree is the property of the gardener. If the husband be unfaithful to his wife, and he confess his fault and repent of it, there is an end of the matter; no trace of it is left, the wife is angry, forgives, or becomes reconciled; and not unfrequently is a gainer on the occasion. But the case is widely different when the wife is unmindful of the marriage vow; it is of no avail for her to repent, the consequences of her guilt are incalculable, the mischief irreparable, she must never, she can never confess it. You will therefore agree with me, Ladies, that it can only be an error of judgment, the want of education, or the preponderance of vulgar notions, that can prompt a wife to believe herself the equal, in every respect, of her husband. There is, however, nothing disparaging in the inequality; each sex has its attributes and its duties; your attributes, Ladies, are beauty, grace, fascination; your duties submission and dependence.’ (6)

Although Napoleon was joking about his support for polygamy, some of these remarks reflected his own sentiments. General Armand de Caulaincourt, an aide to Napoleon, wrote:

The Emperor, though an accurate judge of men, knew nothing of women. He had mixed but little in female society. His feelings in reference to women were wholly material, and he did not admit the fascinating power of intelligence and talent in the female sex. He did not like learned or celebrated women, or those who in any way stepped out of the quiet sphere of domestic life. He assigned to women a very low grade in the social order, and thought they ought not to exercise power or influence over the minds of men. A woman was in his eyes merely a graceful being, and nothing more. (7)

Napoleon told Caulaincourt, “A husband who suffers himself to be led by his wife always ranks very low in my estimation.” (8) He said to Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara, “Women, when they are bad, are worse than men, and more ready to commit crimes. The soft sex, when degraded, falls lower than the other.” (9)

Although Napoleon tolerated Josephine’s infidelity, he divorced her because she could not bear him children. He regarded himself as free to bed other men’s wives, including Albine de Montholon – one of the women to whom he was presumably speaking in his jest about polygamy. When Fanny Bertrand – the other woman likely present at that conversation – resisted Napoleon’s advances, he described her as “a whore, a fallen woman who slept with all the English officers who passed her house…the most degraded of women,” and told her husband, General Henri Bertrand, that he should put her on the streets as a prostitute. (10)

Napoleon’s opinion of women who defied expectations

Napoleon with Queen Louise of Prussia at Tilsit, July 6, 1807. Napoleon's view of women who defied his expectations was dim. Detail of painting by Nicolas Louis Gosse

Napoleon with Queen Louise of Prussia at Tilsit, July 6, 1807. Detail of painting by Nicolas Louis Gosse

Napoleon was rude and bossy toward women who did not conform to his expectations, something I tried to capture in his treatment of Emily Hopkinson and Jane Biddle in Napoleon in America. According to Napoleon’s secretary, Louis Bourrienne:

Gallantry to women was by no means a trait in Bonaparte’s character. He seldom said anything agreeable to females, and he frequently addressed to them the rudest and most extraordinary remarks. To one he would say, ‘Heavens, how red your elbows are!’ – to another, ‘What an ugly head-dress you have got!’ At another time he would say, ‘Your dress is none of the cleanest – Do you never change your gown? I have seen you in that twenty times!’ He showed no mercy to those who displeased him on these points. (11)

Napoleon was particularly vexed by women who stepped into what he considered to be men’s roles. “I like women,” he observed, “that make men of themselves as little as I like effeminate men. There is a proper part for every one to play in the world.” (12)

To Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, who was the real power behind the throne of her husband, King Ferdinand IV, he wrote: “Cannot your Majesty, who is distinguished among women for your wit, divest yourself of the prejudices of your sex? How can you treat the affairs of your kingdom as love affairs?” (13) When Napoleon sent an army into Naples in 1806, he said it was “in order to punish the treason of the queen, and to hurl from the throne that criminal woman, who in such a shameless manner has violated all that is sacred among men.” (14)

Later that year, Napoleon issued a bulletin in which he spoke disparagingly of Queen Louise of Prussia for “[giving] up the care of her domestic concerns and the serious occupation of the toilette to meddle with state affairs.” (15) When Josephine protested, Napoleon wrote to her, “You seem annoyed at the ill I said about women. It is true that I dislike intriguing women above everything. I am accustomed to good-hearted, gentle, and conciliating women; those are the women I love.” (16)

Napoleon had a host of sexist epithets for Madame de Staël, an articulate and assertive woman who disagreed with him: “intriguer [and] veritable plague,” “regular crow,” “mad woman,” “worthless woman,” “scheming woman.” (17) He banished her from France.

In the handful of instances in which Napoleon admired a woman who stepped out of a traditional gender role, he credited her with exhibiting manly qualities. Happily, he found such gems within his own family. “My excellent mother,” he said, “is a woman of courage and of great talent, more of a masculine than a feminine nature, proud, and high minded.” (18) He considered his sister Caroline to be “possessed of a strong, masculine understanding, and talents superior to the generality of her sex.” (19) Napoleon gave Caroline and her husband the throne of Naples. He spoke in similar terms of his sister Elisa, who he made ruler of Lucca, Piombino and Tuscany.

When Napoleon wanted to insult a man, he would accuse him of having womanly qualities. In 1806, he expressed his anger with his uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, by telling him: “You behave like a woman at Rome… You meddle with things which you do not understand.” (20) In 1813, when Napoleon was dissatisfied with the performance of his generals in Spain, he denounced them for “behaving like cowardly women.” (21)

Napoleon’s thoughts on the education of girls

For a fuller picture of Napoleon’s view of women, consider his instructions on what they should be taught. Écouen was one of several boarding schools established by Napoleon for the daughters of members of the Légion d’Honneur. In 1807, he wrote a long note regarding its curriculum, which he thought should be heavy on religion and domestic skills.

What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe. The weakness of women’s brains, the instability of their ideas, the place they will fill in society, their need for perpetual resignation, and for an easy and generous type of charity – all this can only be met by religion and by religion of a gentle and charitable kind. I did not lay special stress on religious observances at Fontainebleau; and in the lycées [schools for boys] I only prescribed the necessary minimum. At Écouen matters must be entirely different. Nearly all the exact knowledge taught there must be that of the Gospel. I want the place to produce, not women of charm, but women of virtue: they must be attractive because they have high principles and warm hearts, not because they are witty or amusing. We must therefore have, as headmaster at Écouen, a man of ability, good character, and a sufficient age; and every day the pupils must have regular prayers, hear mass, and learn the catechism. This is the part of their education with which most care must be taken.

In addition the girls must be taught writing, arithmetic, and elementary French, so that they may know how to spell; and they ought to learn a little history and geography; but care must be taken not to let them see any Latin or other foreign languages. The elder girls can be taught a little botany, and be taken through an easy course of physics or natural history. But that too has certain embarrassments. The teaching of physics must be limited to what is necessary to prevent gross ignorance and silly superstition, and must confine itself to the facts, and not indulge in reasoning which directly or indirectly touches on first causes. …

But the main thing is to keep them all occupied, for three-quarters of the year, working with their hands. They must learn to make stockings, shirts, and embroidery, and to do all kinds of women’s work. …

I don’t know whether it is possible to give them some idea of medicine and pharmacology, at any rate that kind of medical knowledge commonly required for nursing invalids. It would be a good thing, too, if they knew something about the work done in the Housekeeper’s room. I should like every girl who leaves Écouen, and finds herself at the head of a small household, to know how to make her own frocks, mend her husband’s things, make clothes for her babies, provide her little family with such occasional delicacies as can be afforded by a provincial housekeeper, nurse her husband and children when they are ill, and know what invalids have learnt by experience. All this is so simple and obvious that it does not require much consideration. …

I want to make these young persons into useful women, and I am sure that in that way I shall make them attractive wives. …

[I]n my opinion the best education of all is that which a mother gives her daughters; and my principal object is to do something for those girls who have lost their mothers, and whose people are too poor to bring them up properly. …

[N]othing is worse, or more open to censure, than the idea of letting young girls appear on the stage, or stimulating rivalry among them by allowing them to take places in form. It is good for men, who may have to make speeches, and who, having to master so many subjects, need the support and stimulus of competition. But in the case of young girls, competition should be banned: we don’t want to rouse their passions, or to give play to the vanity which is one of the liveliest instincts of their sex. (22)

Napoleon’s view of women compared to the prevailing view at the time

Napoleon’s view of women could perhaps be defended on the basis that it was consistent with the general view of women held by men of his time. However, there were many men who did not hold such a low opinion of women. The French Revolution had resulted in steps toward the liberty and equality of women, as well as men. Although women were unable to vote or to stand for public office, they were given the right to inherit property, to marry without parental consent at a younger age, to enter into marriage as a civil contract, to divorce their husbands, and to be given custody of young children. These measures would not have happened without the support and action of men.

By the time Napoleon came to power, women’s gains were already being eroded, but Napoleon put the nail in the coffin with his new French civil code (1804), otherwise known as the Napoleonic Code. This placed legal control over women’s lives and property firmly in the hands of fathers or husbands. Wives had to obey their husbands and live where they were told; they could not enter into contracts without the consent of their husband; husbands could have their wives imprisoned for adultery, but not vice versa; divorce became harder for women to obtain; fathers determined what happened to children.

When it came to views of women, Napoleon represented the conservative end of the spectrum. A number of Frenchmen held more enlightened ideas, and treated the females in their lives accordingly.

You might also enjoy:

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

How Pauline Bonaparte Lived for Pleasure

Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Bonaparte

Giuseppina Grassini, Mistress of Napoleon & Wellington

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

The Josephine Delusion: A Woman Who Thought She Was Napoleon’s Wife

The Bedroom Adventures of a Napoleonic Soldier

Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century

Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century

Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century

Alternate History Books by Women

  1. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II (London, 1822), p. 67.
  2. John S.C. Abbott, Confidential Correspondence of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine (New York, 1856), p. 130.
  3. Lady Mary Loyd, New Letters of Napoleon I (New York, 1897), p. 90.
  4. Charles de la Roncière, The Letters of Napoleon to Marie Louise (London, 1935), p. 85.
  5. Ibid., p. 138.
  6. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. II (London, 1825), pp. 108-111.
  7. Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Recollections of Caulincourt, Duke of Vicenza, Vol. I (London, 1838), p. 135.
  8. Ibid., pp. 136-137.
  9. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II (London, 1822), p. 50.
  10. Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography (London, 1997), p. 659.
  11. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, During the Periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 277.
  12. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, During the Periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. III (London, 1830), p. 155.
  13. D.A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1884), p. 114.
  14. Ibid., p. 192.
  15. Ibid., p. 265.
  16. Ibid., p. 269.
  17. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II, pp. 302, 307. Loyd, New Letters of Napoleon I, pp. 82, 211, 227.
  18. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II (London, 1822), p. 100.
  19. Ibid., p. 181.
  20. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II, p. 208.
  21. Loyd, New Letters of Napoleon I, p. 301.
  22. M. Thompson, Letters of Napoleon (Oxford, 1954), pp. 194-198.

14 commments on “What did Napoleon think of women?”

  • HAMISH ALASDAIR ROMONOV McDONALD says:

    he and his first wife is my wife’s grandfather & mine through my grandmother from my mums side of her family

  • Tom Williams says:

    Josephine was far from “modest and pleasing in her dress and conduct”. Many of these comments sound to me like a man telling all his men friends how he is cock of the roost when everyone knew that he was utterly under his wife’s thumb. Yes, he divorced her when he needed an heir, but this was the reality of life for rulers in the past. Henry VIII was the most famous example but hardly the only one.

    I’m not saying that Napoleon was a feminist, but I think many of the misogynistic things you quote sound to me like a man protesting far too much. I bet the others sniggered as soon as he had left the room.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      There may well have been some male boasting and sniggering going on, Tom. Though Josephine did moderate her conduct, especially after she became Empress.

  • John F. MacMichael says:

    An interesting post. It demonstrates how someone can be a genius in one field and a complete fool in another.

  • Addison B Jump says:

    N had it all figured out about women, marriage, and passion. Marriage was all about family, property, and status. Men were fools to be led by passion. Then he met Josephine. She was the exact opposite of the one human on earth that N feared: his mother. N was totally blitzed by Josephine; he couldn’t keep his hands off her even in the presence of his officers. Yet all the time she was cheating on him with a young man; and everybody but N knew about it. There’s your hero, your great warrior.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Napoleon’s experience with Josephine probably affected his views on the danger to men posed by seductive women.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    I agree with you, Napoleon had a very conservative view of women but he was a child of his time (even if you noted that women’s right increased during the Revolution). And what to expect of a man who was cut off from women at the young age of 9 and raised in a man’s man’s world where virility was the first quality?
    The Code Civil placed women at the same level than children but don’t forget that this situation continued until after WWII!!! (for example, in the 60s, my mother had to ask permission to my father to open a bank account!). So, it shows it was not only Napoleon’s view of women but the view of most of the French society until late 1960s…

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for these excellent points, Marie-Noëlle. Napoleon’s successors, the Bourbons, were certainly no improvement on him when it came to women’s rights, and it sounds like this continued until well into the 20th century.

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I would like to add on to Marie-Noëlle’s comment: not only in France but also in lots of other European countries,women were legally severely restricted way into the 1970’s and beyond! And even in the US, women had problems with being allowed liberties such as their own bank accounts, way beyond WWII, to my knowledge.
    As for Napoleon’s ideas about women, I have often wondered if some of his misogynist ideas were not due to a certain fear of having his softer inclinations take hold of him, which was then considered to be “unmanly”. And particularly in the cultural milieu (Corsica) in which he grew up. A warding-off reaction. He also seems to have been very sensitive and touchy about rejection coming from members of the female sex-which may point to some more deep-seated problem lingering in his psychological make-up.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comments, Irene. I think you’re probably right that Napoleon had some deeper psychological issues going on that affected his ideas about, and treatment of, women.

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I would like to point out that the memoirs of Caulaincourt cited in this article are apocryphal.The memoirs published in the 1830’s were written by a ghost writer and Caulaincourt later denied them. His real memoirs,based on his notes, were only published in the 1930’s and are totally different!
    Including the comments on Napoleon and women!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Irene. I will look these up.

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The wife was made for the husband, the husband for his country, his family, and glory.

Napoleon Bonaparte