Women in the French Revolution
Women played numerous important roles in the French Revolution. Historians since the late 20th century have debated how women shared in the French Revolution and what long-term impact it had on French women. Women had no political rights in pre-Revolutionary France; they were considered "passive" citizens; forced to rely on men to determine what was best for them. That changed dramatically in theory as there seemingly were great advances in feminism. Feminism emerged in Paris as part of a broad demand for social and political reform. The women demanded equality for men and then moved on to a demand for the end of male domination. Their chief vehicle for agitation were pamphlets and women's clubs, especially the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. However the Jacobin (radical) element in power abolished all the women's clubs in October 1793 and arrested their leaders. The movement was crushed. Devance explains the decision in terms of the emphasis on masculinity in wartime, Marie Antoinette's bad reputation for feminine interference in state affairs, and traditional male supremacy. A decade later the Napoleonic Code confirmed and perpetuated women's second-class status.
Women had no political rights in pre-Revolutionary France; they could not vote or hold any political office. They were considered "passive" citizens; forced to rely on men to determine what was best for them in the government. It was the men who defined these categories, and women were forced to accept male domination in the political sphere.
Women were taught to be committed to their husbands and "all his interests… [to show] attention and care… [and] sincere and discreet zeal for his salvation." A woman’s education often consisted of learning to be a good wife and mother; as a result women were not supposed to be involved in the political sphere, as the limit of their influence was the raising of future citizens. The subservient role of women prior to the revolution was perhaps best exemplified by the Frederician Code, published in 1750 and attacked by Enlightenment philosophers and publications.
The highly influential Encyclopédie in the 1750s set the tone of the Enlightenment, and its ideas exerted influence on the subsequent Revolution in France. Writing a number of articles on women in society, Louis de Jaucourt criticized traditional roles for women, arguing that "it would be difficult to demonstrate that the husband's rule comes from nature, inasmuch as this principle is contrary to natural human equality... a man does not invariably have more strength of body, of wisdom, of mind or of conduct than a woman... The example of England and Russia shows clearly that women can succeed equally in both moderate and despotic government..." One of greatest influences foreshadowing the revolutionary and republican transformations in women's roles was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's educational treatise Emile (1762). Some liberal men advocated equal rights for women including women's suffrage. Nicolas de Condorcet was especially noted for his advocacy, in his articles published in the Journal de la Société de 1789, and by publishing De l'admission des femmes au droit de cité ("For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women") in 1790.
When the Revolution opened, some women struck forcefully, using the volatile political climate to assert their active natures. In the time of the Revolution, women could not be kept out of the political sphere. They swore oaths of loyalty, "solemn declarations of patriotic allegiance, [and] affirmations of the political responsibilities of citizenship." De Corday d'Armont is a prime example of such a woman; engaged in the revolutionary political faction of the Girondists, she assassinated the Jacobin leader, Marat. Throughout the Revolution, other women such as Pauline Léon and her Society of Revolutionary Republican Women supported the radical Jacobins, staged demonstrations in the National Assembly and participated in the riots, often using armed force.
The March to Versailles is but one example of feminist militant activism during the French Revolution. While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens, as the question was left indeterminate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt agitated for full citizenship for women. Women were, nonetheless, "denied political rights of ‘active citizenship’ (1791) and democratic citizenship (1793)."
Pauline Léon, on 6 March 1792, submitted a petition signed by 319 women to the National Assembly requesting permission to form a garde national in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion. Léon requested permission be granted to women to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, as well as the privilege of drilling under the French Guards. Her request was denied. Later in 1792, Théroigne de Méricourt made a call for the creation of "legions of amazons" in order to protect the revolution. As part of her call, she claimed that the right to bear arm would transform women into citizens.
On 20 June 1792 a number of armed women took part in a procession that "passed through the halls of the Legislative Assembly, into the Tuilleries Gardens, and then through the King’s residence." Militant women also assumed a special role in the funeral of Marat, following his murder on 13 July 1793. As part of the funeral procession, they carried the bathtub in which Marat had been murdered as well as a shirt stained with Marat’s blood.
The most radical militant feminist activism was practiced by the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, which was founded by Léon and her colleague, Claire Lacombe on 10 May 1793. The goal of the club was "to deliberate on the means of frustrating the projects of the enemies of the Republic." Up to 180 women attended the meetings of the Society. Of special interest to the Society was "combating hoarding [of grain and other staples] and inflation." On 20 May 1793, women were at the fore of a crowd that demanded "bread and the Constitution of 1793." When their cries went unnoticed, the women went on a rampage, "sacking shops, seizing grain and kidnapping officials."
The Society demanded a law in 1793 that would compel all women to wear the tricolore cockade insignia to demonstrate their loyalty to the Republic. They also repeated their demands for vigorous price controls to keep bread – the major food of the poor people – from becoming too expensive. After the Convention passed the cockade law in September 1793, the Revolutionary Republican Women demanded vigorous enforcement, but were counted by market women, former servants, and religious women who adamantly opposed price controls (which would drive them out of business) and resented attacks on the aristocracy and on religion. The said that "Only whores and female Jacobins wear cockades." Fist fights broke out in the streets between the two factions of women.
Meanwhile, the men who controlled the Jacobins rejected the Revolutionary Republican Women as dangerous rabble-rousers. At this point the Jacobins controlled the government; they dissolved the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, and decreed that all women's clubs and associations were illegal. They sternly reminded women to stay home and tend to their families by leaving public affairs to the men. Organized women were permanently shut out of the French Revolution after October 30, 1793.
Most of these outwardly activist women were punished for their militancy. The kind of punishment received during the Revolution included public denouncement, arrest, execution, or exile. Théroigne de Méricourt was arrested, publicly flogged and then spent the rest of her life sentenced to an insane asylum. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were arrested, later released, and continued to receive ridicule and abuse for their activism. Many of the women of the Revolution were even publicly executed for "conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic".
While some women chose a militant, and often violent, path, others chose to influence events through writing, publications, and meetings. Olympe de Gouges wrote a number of plays, short stories, and novels. Her publications emphasized that women and men are different, but this shouldn’t stop them from equality under the law. In her "Declaration on the Rights of Woman" she insisted that women deserved rights, especially in areas concerning them directly, such as divorce and recognition of illegitimate children.
De Gouges also expressed non-gender political views; even before the start of the terror, Olympe de Gouges addressed Robespierre using the pseudonym "Polyme" calling him the Revolution’s "infamy and shame." She warned of the Revolution’s building extremism saying that leaders were "preparing new shackles if [the French people’s liberty were to] waver." Stating that she was willing to sacrifice herself by jumping into the Seine if Robespierre were to join her, de Gouges desperately attempted to grab the attention of the French citizenry and alert them to the dangers that Robespierre embodied. In addition to these bold writings, her defense of the king was one of the factors leading to her execution. An influential figure, one of her suggestions early in the Revolution, to have a voluntary, patriotic tax, was adopted by the National Convention in 1789.
Madame Roland (aka Manon or Marie Roland) was another important female activist. Her political focus was not specifically on women or their liberation. She focused on other aspects of the government, but was a feminist by virtue of the fact that she was a woman working to influence the world. Her personal letters to leaders of the Revolution influenced policy; in addition, she often hosted political gatherings of the Brissotins, a political group which allowed women to join.
While limited by her gender, Madame Roland took it upon herself to spread Revolutionary ideology and spread word of events, as well as to assist in formulating the policies of her political allies. Unable to directly write policies or carry them through to the government, Roland influenced her political allies and thus promote her political agenda. Roland attributed women’s lack of education to the public view that women were too weak or vain to be involved in the serious business of politics. She believed that it was this inferior education that turned them into foolish people, but women "could easily be concentrated and solidified upon objects of great significance" if given the chance.
As she was led to the scaffold, Madame Roland shouted "O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!" Witnesses of her life and death, editors, and readers helped to finish her writings and several editions were published posthumously. While she did not focus on gender politics in her writings, by taking an active role in the tumultuous time of the Revolution, Roland took a stand for women of the time and proved they could take an intelligent active role in politics.
Though women did not gain the right to vote as a result of the Revolution, they still greatly expanded their political participation and involvement in governing. They set precedents for generations of feminists to come.
A major aspect of the French Revolution was the dechristianisation movement, a movement that many common people did not agree with. Especially for women living in rural areas of France, the demise of the Catholic Church meant a loss of normalcy. For instance, the ringing of Church bells resonating through the town called people to confession and was a symbol of unity for the community. With the onset of the dechristianisation campaign the Republic silenced these bells and sought simultaneously to silence the religious fervor of the majority Catholic population.
When these revolutionary changes to the Church were implemented, it spawned a counter-revolutionary movement, particularly amongst women. Although some of these women embraced the political and social amendments of the Revolution, they opposed the dissolution of the Catholic Church and the formation of revolutionary cults like the Cult of the Supreme Being advocated by Robespierre. As Olwen Hufton argues, these women began to see themselves as the “defenders of faith”. They took it upon themselves to protect the Church from what they saw as a heretical change to their faith, enforced by revolutionaries.
Counter-revolutionary women resisted what they saw as the intrusion of the state into their lives. Economically, many peasant women refused to sell their goods for assignats because this form of currency was unstable and was backed by the sale of confiscated Church property. By far the most important issue to counter-revolutionary women was the passage and the enforcement of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. In response to this measure, women in many areas began circulating anti-oath pamphlets and refused to attend masses held by priests who had sworn oaths of loyalty to the Republic. This diminished the social and political influence of the juring priests because they presided over smaller congregations and counter-revolutionary women did not seek them for baptisms, marriages or confession. Instead, they secretly hid nonjuring priests and attended clandestine traditional masses. These women continued to adhere to traditional practices such as Christian burials and naming their children after saints in spite of revolutionary decrees to the contrary.
It was this determined resistance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the dechristianisation campaigns that played a major role in the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as a prominent social institution. Olwen Hufton notes about the Counter-Revolutionary women: “for it is her commitment to her religion which determines in the post-Thermidorean period the re-emergence of the Catholic Church…”. Although they struggled, these women were eventually vindicated in their bid to reestablish the Church and thereby also to reestablish traditional family life and social stability. This was seen in the Concordat of 1801, which formally reinstated the Catholic Church in France. This act came after years of attempts at dechristianisation or state-controlled religion, which were thwarted in part due to the resistance of religiously devout counter-revolutionary women.
- Charlotte Corday, who murdered Marat
- Congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament#French Revolution period
- Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul#French Revolution
- French Revolution#Role of women
- Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun#French Revolution, painter
- Madelonnettes Convent#French Revolution
- Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze
- Marquis de Condorcet#French Revolution, feminist
- Militant Feminism in the French Revolution
- Society of Revolutionary Republican Women
- Soleilmont Abbey#French Revolution
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