Society of Revolutionary Republican Women
The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires, Société des républicaines révolutionnaires) was a political club during the French Revolution formed July 9, 1793, lasting less than five months. In this short span, however, the Society managed to create quite a stir in the national political scene, and brought to light some controversial points about women and political and sexual equality.
By the summer of 1789, the French Revolution had begun. The Tennis Court Oath had been made and the Third Estate of the Estates-General had created a new "National Assembly". Large crowds gathered in public places to discuss the state of the revolution and to discuss what could and should be done in order to remedy the problems that besieged the state. Women too participated in these discussions. Many of them had strong feelings and opinions about the revolution and what should be happening in the government. One point that was especially poignant for the women in this era was economic stability. Market prices were out of control and women had to feed their families. On October 5, 1789, women had their first major role in the Revolution. On this day, women marched to Versailles to demand bread from King Louis XVI. While need for bread was not the only reason that women began to take an interest in the Revolution, it was a very prominent one, especially in the early stages.
In these early years, Etta Palm d'Aelders produced a pamphlet which proposed that a group of women's clubs be organized throughout the country in order to begin a sort of welfare program. In that pamphlet she writes:
"Would it not be useful to form, in each Section of the capital, a patriotic society of citoyennes ... [who] would meet in each Section as frequently as they believed useful for the public good and following their own particular rules; each circle would have its own directorate…Thus, it would be in a position to supervise efficiently the enemies harbored in the midst of the capital and to differentiate the genuinely poor person in need of his brothers’ aid from brigands called out by enemies."
All through France, women began to recognize that they could be most effective at voicing their demands as a group, so they began to form into their own political clubs. There were many political clubs already scattered throughout the nation, but a majority of them restricted their membership to men. Women's clubs began to be much more common. Today, we know of about thirty women's clubs that sprung up at this time:
These clubs organized themselves well. Each had a presiding body and each laid out rules for their specific clubs. These clubs had a membership range of two hundred to six hundred, with an active attendance of about sixty.
Over time, these women's clubs began to widen their political scope and include other issues in their meetings. Soon, the issue of citizenship began to emerge. Citoyenne - not only did they want the title of citizen, a designation as an inhabitant of the country, they wanted the rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen. One woman went before the National Convention to say this:
"Citizen legislators, you have given men a Constitution; now they enjoy all the rights of free beings, but women are very far from sharing these glories. Women count for nothing in the political system. We ask for primary assemblies and, as the Constitution is based on the Rights of Man, we now demand the full exercise of these rights for ourselves."
In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published one of the most prominent women's rights documents of that time period: The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. This document introduced the issue of women's rights directly into the French Revolution. It argued that sexual equality had a place in the revolution for equal rights.
In 1793, political chaos reigned. The Jacobins, the leading political force of the era, now allied with the sans-culottes and the Cordeliers, a radical political club in Paris. The coalition took the extreme left position, supporting price controls and ruthless punishments against those who disputed their views. Rivaling them was the Girondins, who maintained support for a free market. In February 1793, a group of women from the Section des Quatre Nations requested the use of the meeting hall of the Jacobins for a meeting of their own. The Jacobins refused. Some say that they feared a "massive women's protest". The group of women, who now called themselves the Assembly of Republican Women, persisted and received permission from the Fraternal Society of Patriots of Both Sexes to use their meeting hall. This Assembly's main aim was toward economic stability. However, for some this was not enough. They wanted more political activity. On May 10, 1793, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women officially registered at the Paris Commune:
"Several citoyennes presented themselves to the secretariat of the municipality and…declared their intention of assembling and forming a society which admits only women. The Society has for its objective deliberation on the means of frustrating the projects of the republic's enemies. It will bear the name of Revolutionary Republic Society and will meet in the library of the Jacobins, rue Saint-Honoré"
Rules and regulations were soon established (see Club Organization and Regulations), and in no time the Society dove right into the political fury. Several accounts report that the women of the Society would wear the red caps of liberty to signify their alliance with the revolution. They began to have regular meetings, and attended the National Convention assemblies as much as possible. At the Convention, members of the galleries would cheer at speeches that they agreed with, and boo and make a general ruckus at things they took issue with. The Girondins, for their part, got tired of the hackling and designated specific galleries for Girondin supporters. The Society was outraged. At their next meeting, a motion was passed to do all they could to stop this outrage. From then on, women from the Society would stand guard at the doors to these specific galleries, refusing entrance to them. The Society also worked jointly with the Cordeliers club on several occasions. On May 19, they presented to the Convention a joint delegation to demand more harsh laws for counterrevolutionaries and those suspected of being counterrevolutionaries.
Very soon after came the uprising of May 31 to June 2. Around thirty Girondins were expelled from the Convention. The Montagnards were now in charge. The Society did as much as they could to help this insurrection, supporting the radical Jacobins all the way. When the new Montagnard Constitution was adopted in late June, the Society praised it and the Convention, joining in on the celebratory festivities. They continued to support the new policies and delegations presented by the Jacobins.
On July 13, 1793, Jean-Paul Marat, an extreme leftist whom the Society admired, was stabbed to his death by Charlotte Corday. Corday supported the Girondins, and hated Marat's radical leftist paper, "Ami du Peuple". Marat's death hit the Society hard. During the funeral, the Society women carried the bathtub where he was murdered and threw flowers on his body. On July 24, the Society swore to raise an obelisk in memory of his legacy. This obelisk took until August 18 to erect. The Society was so caught up in this, that they remained politically inactive from the time of Marat's death to the day the obelisk was completed. That night, they vowed to focus on the issue of national security.
After this occurrence, the Society began to drift away from the Jacobins and more toward the Enragés, a political group led by Jacques Roux, Jean Varlet and Théopile Leclerc which supported strict economic control and harsh national security. The Society began to feel that the Montagnards were not including enough of the radical propositions from the leftist Enragés demands.
In September, the Society became even more deeply involved. Campaigning for numerous petitions, they helped enact much legislation throughout the month. Pierre Roussel reported hearing at a meeting of the Society a proposal "to present to the Convention...[a call for] a decree obliging women to wear the national cockade." This petition was to become quite influential in the history of the Society. On September 21, as per the Society's demands, the National Convention declared that all women must wear the tricolor cockade of the revolution. Many women hated this decree and refused to wear the cockade. Market women had already begun to turn on the Society. They opposed the Society's views on price controls, among other issues.
The final chapter
September 16 marked the beginning of the end for the Society. On this day in 1793, Claire Lacombe, then president of the Society, was publicly denounced by the Jacobins to the Committee of General Security. The Jacobins accused her of "making counterrevolutionary statements" and having associated and aided a "notorious counterrevolutionary, the énrage Leclerc". Lacombe did her best to defend herself, but it was too late. She was briefly detained and then set free. The seed of distrust had been planted. The Society tried in vain to continue to petition the Convention. Most of the issues that they now dealt with were more trivial and less radical than their previous campaigns.
Around this time, women, especially women merchants, began to be very suspicious of women wearing the cockade and red liberty bonnets. There began to be violence in the streets between those women who supported the cockades, notably the Society for Revolutionary Republican Women, and those who did not. The market women went to the Convention with their problem and petitioned that the Society be abolished. On October 30, 1793, the National Convention decreed that "clubs and popular societies of women, under whatever denomination, are forbidden". The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was officially dissolved, despite numerous protests by leading figures in the club.
"The sans culotte, Chaumette said when he dissolved women's clubs in October I793, [that he] had a right to expect from his wife [to attend to] the running of his home while he attended political meetings: hers was the care of the family: this was the full extent of her civic duties."
Club organization and regulation
The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women had a very organized governing system. The presiding officers consisted of:
- Club President - Elected for one month at a time
- Club Vice-President - Elected for one month at a time
- Four Secretaries - Elected for one month at a time
- Club Treasurer - Elected for three months at a time
- Two Assistant Treasurers - Elected for three months at a time
- One Archivist - Elected for three months at a time
- One Assistant Archivist - Elected for three months at a time
- Two Monitors - Elected for one month at a time
There were three committees in the Society: the Administration Committee, the Relief Committee and the Correspondence Committee. These committees each had twelve elected members each. All of the voting within the Society was done by roll-call voting.
The Society itself had around one hundred seventy members, of which around one hundred were regularly attending meetings. To become a member, one had to be "presented by a member and seconded by two more members", and she had to take an oath "to live for the Republic or die for it". There was also a minimum age of eighteen, but women were allowed to bring their children with them.
- Brown, Gregory S. French Revolution Chronology. University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Web. November 23, 2009.
- Women and the French Revolution. Sunshine for Women, 2003. Web. 24 Nov. 2009.
- d'Aelders, Etta Palm, Lettre d’une amie de la vérité, Etta Palm, née d’Aelders, Hollandoise, sur les demarches des ennemis extérieurs et intérieurs de la France; suivie d’une adresse a toutes les citoyennes patriots, et d’une motion a leur proposer pour l’Assembleé nationale, lue a l’Assemblée fedérative des amis de la vérité, le 23 mars 1791 (n.p.,n.d.), in Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 12, 807, vol. 1, no. 15, pp. 16-31. Found in: Levy, Darline Gay, Harriet Branson Applewhite and Mary Durham Johnson. Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795. United States of America: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Print.
- Godineau, Dominique: Translated by Katherine Streip. The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution. United States of America: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
- Scott, Joan Wallach. "French Feminists and the Rights of 'Man': Olympe de Gouges's Declarations." History Workshop 28 (1989): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov 2009.
- Heuer, Jennifer Ngaire. "Gender and Women's Rights." French Revolution, Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Oxford Reference, 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2009.
- Levy, Darline Gay, Harriet Branson Applewhite and Mary Durham Johnson. Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795. United States of America: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Print.
- Semmer, Beth. Worker's World. Worker's World, 18 July 2002. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
- Roussel, Pierre Joseph Alexis, Le Chateau des Tuileries,2 vols. (Paris: Legouge, 1802), vol.2, pp. 34-46. Found in: Levy, Darline Gay, Harriet Branson Applewhite and Mary Durham Johnson. Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795. United States of America: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Print.
- Hufton, Olwen. "Women in Revolution 1789-1796". Past & Present 53 (1971): 90-108. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
- Stark, Nicholas. Political Parties of the French Revolution. Wordpress.com. Web. 20 Nov. 2009.
- Réglement de la Société des citoyennes républicaines révolutionnaires de Paris (n.p, n.d.), in Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 958939. Found in: Levy, Darline Gay, Harriet Branson Applewhite and Mary Durham Johnson. Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795. United States of America: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Print.