In France, a country with a long and proud human rights tradition, women had to fight a long uphill battle to gain the equality proclaimed in the Human Rights Declaration of 1789. For them equality and the right to work did not yet entail any validity.
After the Revolution it was of more significance that property and ownership had become a constitutionally guaranteed human right. As such it became part of the Code Napoleon 1804 (civil code), where it also resulted in changes to matrimonial law and the law of succession. However, with respect to women, the traditional legal view prevailed. A wife remained under the husband's protection, subject to his authority; without his consent she could not dispose of her own assets. 1 The early women's movement in the first half of the nineteenth century realized very quickly that the Human Rights Declaration of 1789, the "Declaration des droits de l'homme," in fact meant only the rights of man (literal translation of "droits de l'homme"). They believed that women's rights must be an integral part of human rights. Thus they pressed for changes in the position of the married woman in the civil code and claimed their rights as workers.
History has shown that until very recently a woman's fortune remained subject to traditional morality and principles, and to males. However, in the battle for improved social rights for men and women, women had some partial successes. These included the introduction of two-month paid maternity leave in 1910, the right of women to dispose of their revenues from a gainful occupation (Act of 13th July 1907), the right to exercise a profession (except if the husband opposed), and, in 1920, the right to join a union without requiring the husband's consent. 2
In French constitutional history, the preamble of the 1946 Constitution of the Fourth Republic first expressly set out the fundamental principle of equality between men and women. This preamble, as well as the Human Rights Declaration of 1789, is part of the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
It was not, however, until the 1960s that the law-making machinery began to move to this end. We can observe a continuous and gradual process of granting women equality with men in all domains as prescribed in the Constitution and the establishment of governmental machinery to safeguard women's rights. The first body to be set up in France in 1965 was the Study and Liaison Committee for Women's Employment. The apparatus for safeguarding women's rights has since expanded. It became increasingly broad in its aims