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The Role of Women in the French Revolution


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Michele Beam

Professor John Knight History 110

5 December 2009

The Role of Women in the French Revolution

The French Revolution, which took place from 1789 to 1795, changed every facet of life. The political, economic, social, and religious structures were destroyed and recreated. A new, chaotic incarnation of France emerged. But where did the French women fit into this new society created by the Revolution? The rapid change taking hold in France required women of all

classes, professions, and lifestyles to reevaluate their roles in society. In recent years, new details regarding the participation of women in the French Revolution have been uncovered. Women played a fundamental role in events throughout the Revolution, even more so than previously thought. This was a period in which women would take an active role in politics, through clubs and the feminist movement. However, all women did not share a common experience; depending on their social standing and class, a woman’s involvement and perspectives varied greatly.

Up until the Enlightenment, women in throughout Europe had very limited rights.

Women were expected to be charming, well-dressed, and pleasing to the eye; this represented the social status of their father or husband. A wife was expected to be chaste and produce heirs to prolong the family line. While the domestic sphere was important, occasionally wives of middle class families were allowed to help with the husband’s trade as long as it did not interfere with their duties. During the Reformation period, a woman’s role as a wife and mother in the domestic sphere became so important that excluded her from all other areas of life, and their involvement


in artisan trades diminished. Women were barred from universities, and as a result, their

education could only extend to the knowledge of traditional “women’s work.” Job opportunities for females were very limited, as most desirable professions required an education, which they were denied. The only type of job available to them was work in the domestic sphere, as maids, wet nurses, seamstresses, and other similar jobs. These jobs kept their wages low, forcing them to remain under the control of men. When the ideas of the Enlightenment began to spread, women began to realize that they had rights too, according to the principles of democracy and

individualism. Women all throughout Europe and especially in France began to form salons, where Enlightenment ideals were discussed.1 Historian Jane Abray states that “single or married, women had few rights in the law during the last decades of the Ancien Régime. Their testimony could be accepted in criminal and civil courts, but not for notarized acts like wills…Generally speaking, a single woman remained under her father’s authority until she married; marriage transferred her to her husband’s rule. Once married, she generally had no control over her person or her property.”2 The history of women’s rights in Europe lays a foundation for the reasoning behind the actions of Frenchwomen during the Revolution.

Women played a crucial role in the events of the Revolution, especially in its early years. Previously, historians believed that mostly men participated in the major events, such as the attack on the Bastille and the October Days but actually, women played quite a significant role. The attack on the Bastille took place on the July 14, 1789. An angry mob of about three hundred Parisians stormed the fortress, searching for weapons and gunpowder. Many viewed the prison as a symbol of the despotism of the monarchy and nobility. Shirley Elson Roessler says that the attack was “predominantly a male affair. However, there can be little doubt that there were women present…contemporary prints show several women, armed, among the insurgents, who had the support not only of the entire population of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but of Paris as a


whole.”3 The attack on the Bastille is recognized by most historians as the inciting event of the Revolution. Throughout the summer of 1789, tensions grew. Bread prices were rising, as a result of a poor harvest that spring and a shortage of grain. This especially impacted peasants, who barely made enough money to feed their families. According to Lucie de la Tour du Pin, a young woman of the nobility, “Everywhere, people were poor and often hungry; for many, meals consisted of little but soup, made from bread, water, and vegetables. The peasants, whole families living in a single room, locked into a feudal system, paying much of their harvests in tithes and taxes to absent noble landowners, were also battling a vicious circle.”4 Not only in Paris, but all throughout the country, the majority of people were struggling to get by. In July, the peasants of the French countryside had heard rumors that the aristocratic landowners had sent roaming bands of vagrants out to protect their crops from the peasants. Coupled with the anxiety over bread shortages and the overall frustration with the feudal system in the countryside, this rumor started mass chaos. The peasants responded by arming themselves and attacking the manor houses of their landlords, destroying paperwork that held them to any feudal obligations as they went. They ransacked grain supplies of local merchants, helping themselves to as much as they could take. 5 The Great Fear, as this period was known, only lasted a month. Local

militias began to establish order, and the first and second estates in the National Assembly issued proclamation officially abolishing feudalism and relinquishing their feudal privileges on August 4.6 Women were especially involved in the Great Fear, since their role in the domestic sphere included responsibilities for the family’s food supplies. They desperately needed grain in order to keep their family from starvation, so they did what was necessary. According to Roessler,

“women were also making a valiant effort to feed their families. But they were also struggling to understand the political tension which held all Paris in its grip. In so doing, they reached far beyond the boundaries of their traditional domain…As well, the women could not help but


notice a marked increase in the number of soldiers in the area of Paris and Versailles during the last days of September.”7 Clearly, the problems of the Parisian women were coming to a head.

October arrived, bringing even more bread shortages, but also rumors that the King and Queen had disrespected the revolutionary colors of red, blue, and white and were plotting a counter-revolution at Versailles.8 On October 5, 1789 a group of working and middle class women began to gather in the Hotel de Ville section of Paris, all of them sharing complaints about the scarcity of bread and grain in the city. They proceeded to the Hotel de Ville itself, acting on a pretense of taking a tour. There were very few guards present to guard the ample weapon stores housed there, and the supervisor was taken aback when the women began to take weapons and ammunition. They gathered many more women, announcing that they planned to march to Versailles to confront the king. They began the march with around 6,000 women and 500 men, pulling cannons on wagons and armed with pikes, spears, and any other weapons they could find. They first made a stop at the National Assembly to protest the lack of bread, but were seen as rabble and turned away. Most of the women continued on to Versailles. When they arrived, a handful of women were admitted to see the king, who promised to provide provisions for Paris and signed a declaration agreeing to do so. This satisfied the women, for the most part. Many of the crowd who had marched the 12 miles to Versailles stayed overnight, sleeping on floors, in barns, and anywhere else they could fit. Early in the morning of October 6, a small group of women and men entered the palace through an unguarded door. They rushed toward the royal apartments, killing guards along the way. The royal family remained unhurt, but was taken aback by this act of violence. Later, the crowd began to call for the Queen to come out and address them. Marie Antoinette stood on a balcony in her nightgown and bowed to the crowd, which pleased them. Although this gesture sated their need for violence, the crowd still called for the royal family to relocate. Eventually, the King and Queen were forced to leave Versailles for


the Tuileries palace in the heart of Paris.9 Roessler says that the women who marched on Versailles “felt that if he were there, closer to his people than he could be at Versailles, their government and therefore their lives would be greatly improved.”10 Historians agree that the October Days were largely the responsibility of women. Without their participation, events may have been vastly different.

Women also participated in the Reign of Terror, although their participation in this period is viewed in a mostly negative light, and with good reason. When Maxmillian Robespierre came to power, the Reign of Terror began. He systematically rounded up and imprisoned anyone who was seen as an enemy of the revolution. This included priests who did not give up Catholicism when it was abolished, royalists, former nobles, feminists, aristocrats, and his enemies in the National Assembly. These victims of the terror were executed by the guillotine, a frightening new invention that beheaded prisoners by the wagonload every day. Moorhead notes that “the guillotine in the Place de la Republique, placed by the side of the statue of Liberty…was working at such speed that the tricoteuses were splattered with blood as they knitted and came away with their feet wet.”11 After the royal family was moved to Paris, they were harassed on a daily basis. One particularly infamous incident is that of the trial and death of Marie Antoinette’s best friend and loyal servant, the Princesse de Lamballe. In September of 1792, she was put on trial and was asked to swear loyalty against the monarchy, which she refused to do. She was thrown to the crowd outside, which was comprised of both men and women. They mutilated her body and cut off her head, parading it around on a pike outside of Marie Antoinette’s window. This is one of many disturbing events in which women participated during the Reign of Terror. According to Censer et al, “concern over the price of food led to riots in February 1792 and again in February 1793. In these disturbances, which often began at the door of shops, women usually played a prominent role, egging on their confederates to demand lower prices and to


insist on confiscating goods and selling them at a "just" price.”12 In general, women participated in the events of the French Revolution more than they had for any other event in the past. It signaled a time where it was socially and politically acceptable for them to take a stand and take actions that they would never have been allowed to in the past.

The French Revolution brought about women’s involvement in not only demonstrations, but also politics. Moorhead says that in the late 1780’s “the Enlightenment, as it unfolded, touched most of educated Europe, but in France and particularly Paris, its direction was

determined early by a succession of highly intelligent, imaginative, bold women who invited to their salons men of letters, scholars, and socialites, who were, like themselves, tolerant,

reasonable, full of restraint and self-respect, hostile to the idea of a powerful and controlling Church and monarchy.”13 Again, women were stepping out of their traditional role as a wife and mother, and stepping in to an alternate role as an intellectual. In Paris especially, clubs for men had always been popular. With the emergence of the salons of great women like Madame Necker, Madame Roland, and Madame Geoffrin, women began to feel more comfortable

gathering to talk about politics and philosophies that affected their lives. Moorhead notes that “in 1789, France’s for the most part illiterate female population had listened to the discourse of rights and wondered what it might achieve for them. It was women who had, after all, led the March on Versailles. Freed at last to re-imagine a world made on their own terms, they began to suggest that they should have a say in their choice of husband and even over how they wished to live…In Paris, groups of women now opened their own clubs, went to meet friends and talk in cafes, and sat in the public gallery of the Salle du Manege, where they heckled the delegates.”14 Some Parisian clubs, like the Cercle Social, allowed women to attend their meetings and participate. The vast majority of clubs were still for men only, but the number of clubs that had both genders participating grew throughout France. According to Roessler, “Paris was naturally


the center of this ‘mixed’ and female club activity, but important clubs were also organized in Lyon and in many other provincial towns. Historians have identified more than thirty women’s political clubs in cities such as Lyon, Dijon, and Bordeaux and scattered throughout France.”15 In 1791, Etta Palm d’Aelders established the first club exclusively for women called Les Amies de

la Verite for the promotion of the feminist ideals of the Marquise de Condorcet, Olympe de

Gouges, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The organization charged expensive dues, which most working-class women were not able to afford; most of the club’s population consisted of upper-class women.16 The most notable of the women’s clubs was the Club des Citoyennes

Republicaines Revolutionnaires, which was founded in the spring of 1793 by Pauline Leon and

Claire Lacombe. The women that were part of this club were sans-culottes who emphasized economic claims, cheap food, and basic improvements for women rather than demands of feminists like Olympe de Gouges and Etta Palm d’Aelders.17 Jenifer Clark notes that the

Republicaines Revolutionnaires were mainly focused on enforcing the terror and taking political

manners in to their own hands. In the fall of 1793, women from the Republicaines

Revolutionnaires beat a group of market women for refusing to wear the tricolor cockade, a

symbol of national pride. 18 This caused the National Assembly to seriously reconsider the existence of women’s clubs. The Committee of General Security agreed that women “did not have the strength of character needed to govern; political meetings took them away from ‘the more important concerns to which nature calls them.’”19 The bad example of one club struck the club movement a fatal blow. By abolishing political clubs for women “the Committee of General Security and the Convention made it clear that political questions were a pretext. What they wanted to do was exclude women, as a group, from public life.”20 From 1789 to 1793, women’s political involvement in social clubs flourished, but was halted by the extremist ideology of the


Women’s political involvement was stimulated by clubs, but there was also a more focused vein who sought greater rights for women. The feminist movement began as early as 1789 when Olympe de Gouges, a failed working-class actress, petitioned the National Assembly for reforms. She demanded “full legal equality of the sexes, wide job opportunities for women, a state alternative to the primary dowry system, and schooling for girls.”21 In 1791, de Gouges published her “Declaration of the Rights of Women” which was modeled on “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” and called for equal rights between women and men, a

National Assembly for women, a single standard of justice, and freedom of speech for women. 22 During the same time, the Marquise de Condorcet, the single biggest male proponent of

feminism, “reasoned that women, since they were not allowed to vote, were being taxed without representation and would be justified in refusing to pay their taxes. Moreover, said Condorcet, domestic authority should be shared and all professions opened to both sexes…Condorcet

insisted that women who met the property qualification…should be allowed to vote.”23 Etta Palm d’Aelders, an upper-class woman, was another instrumental feminist who propagated her ideas beginning in 1790. She gave a speech which “deplored the type of woman who gave herself totally to the duties of household and family…She felt that women were ‘victims of an education that took away their courage and suffocated their spirits. Furthermore, she advocated that since the French had descended from the Romans, the women should now imitate the Roman women in courage and determination.”24 In April of 1792, Palm d’Aelders “presented a petition in which she asked the deputies to take under consideration the state of degradation to which women were reduced in the matter of political rights…She requested that the Assembly give to females the right to a moral education and that they declare them adults at age twenty-one. As well, she asked that political liberty and equality of rights be granted to both sexes and that a divorce law be passed…Indeed, the Assembly later in the year did grant women legal majority at age


twenty-one, including the right to appear as witnesses in civil lawsuits, and produced a law making divorce possible by mutual consent or marital incompatibility.”25

The leaders of the feminist movement had several major goals. They called for equal rights between men and women, greater job opportunities, better education, political equality, divorce laws, the abolishment of primogeniture, and greater freedom to govern their own lives. In general, the feminists used three major arguments to help achieve their goals. First, women were human beings who shared natural rights with men; their struggles were parallel to the struggles of the Third Estate. Second, they were mothers and produced citizens, so they should have equal rights because their reproduction guaranteed the survival of the bloodlines of France. Third, the women felt they were fulfilling their patriotic duties as citizens just as well as men, and because of this could not logically be denied the rights of a citizen.26 The feminists achieved their goals by forming clubs to discuss these ideals and petitioning the National Assembly. On many occasions, women addressed the National Assembly, the most popular issues being divorce, education, and freedom to govern their own lives. In 1792, the feminist’s hopes were realized, as the National Assembly gave in to some of their demands. New inheritance laws abolished primogeniture, giving female children equal rights. Women were granted majority at age twenty-one and after that could contract debts and witness in civil courts. Divorce legislation was passed which treated women equally and gave them more freedom over their personal lives.27 It seemed that the dreams of de Gouges, Condorcet, and Palm d’Aelders were coming to fruition.

1793 proved to be a fatal year for feminism and women’s clubs. The scandalous actions of the Club des Citoyennes Republicaines Revolutionnaires and their radical ideals reflected a bad light on not only political clubs, but on French women in general. Abray suggests that “the suppression of the women’s clubs effectively destroyed the feminist’s political aspirations. It was


not, however, the clearest statement on women’s rights the government made…the convention voted to exclude women from its meetings; in the future they would be allowed to watch only if they were accompanied by a man carrying a citizen’s card. Three days later, the Convention placed all Parisian women under a kind of house arrest…The progress of the Revolution had rendered the brave hopes of the feminists of 1789-1791 chimerical.”28 The fate of Olympe de Gouges and Madame Roland reflected the fate of the feminist movement; both women were guillotined in 1793. While women had earned greater rights than they had in the past, these advances were all swept away by the Napoleonic Codes in 1804.

The feminist movement failed not only because the National Assembly stifled the political actions of women, it failed because it didn’t have a broad enough base of support. The majority of French women didn’t want to change their social status. Most accepted the 18th century ideals of domesticity and femininity that they were held to.29 Abray says women of the Third Estate asked for Enlightenment and jobs, “not to usurp men’s authority, but to rise in their esteem and to have the means of living safe from misfortune.”30 Put simply, the feminist

movement was focused on a specific group of people, and that group of people made up only a small portion of the population.

Differences between women of the working-class and upper-class are apparent. Clark notes that “the market women demanded protection of their professional rights through the reestablishment of medieval trade guilds and complained about their work conditions, filthy hospitals, and the social injustice of having daily to work hard eking out an existence while others earned money through taxes and lived lazy, extravagant lives. In contrast to the practical concerns and frustrations of the working women, the requests of aristocratic women focused on civil rights issues such as obtaining the vote, representation, equality in marriage, and initiating divorce.”31 Clearly, there is a gap between the needs of two classes. The feminist movement was


centered on the aristocratic women, as previously mentioned. They had an advantage; they could afford to pay the dues for popular clubs like Les Amies de la Verite. Working-class women also had a greater passion for revolutionary ideals and causes. When they marched to Versailles during the October Days of 1789, “there were many testimonies given which recalled violent and vulgar threats against the queen. It becomes clear that many of the women held the queen

responsible for the political problems which the country faced and that any loyalty they might have felt for the king did not extend to her.”32 Working-class women were also behind the monstrous actions committed by the Club des Citoyennes Republicaines Revolutionnaires and in general during the Reign of Terror. Aristocratic women, for the most part, emigrated to

surrounding countries to avoid being suspected as a counter-revolutionary and guillotined. The ones who stayed behind were extremely loyal to the Revolution, and had to tread very carefully in order not to be jailed and executed as royalists. Upper-class women did not have to worry as much as the working-class to obtain bread and sustenance, even in the times of inflation and near-famine. They simply did not have the concerns of maintaining a standard of daily life that the peasants did. Obviously, there was a large gap in experiences between women of the working-class and of the upper-class.

During the French Revolution, women, especially in Paris, stepped out of their traditional domestic role as a mother and wife, and extended into the turbulent world of revolutionary politics. They were directly involved with major events, such as the attack on the Bastille, the October Days of 1789, the Reign of Terror, and bread riots throughout the revolution. Women also experienced the new and short-lived phenomenon of mixed and women’s-only clubs such as the Les Amies de la Verite and the Club des Citoyennes Republicaines Revolutionnaires. The feminist movement, guided by Olympe de Gouges, the Marquise de Condorcet, and Etta Palm d’Aelders, had success in the sense that it achieved the most important of its far-reaching goals,


but failed in the sense that it did not garner support throughout all social classes. There was a significant difference in the experiences shared by the working-class and aristocrats. Women in participated in the Revolution more than anyone from that time would have imagined possible and more than historians had previously thought. Their role was instrumental in the fate of the revolution and will always be remembered as a time that changed the status of women

throughout all of Europe.


1 Radek, Kimberly. “Women from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.” ivcc.edu. Illinois Valley Community College Gender Studies Dept, 2008.

2 Abray, Jane. “Feminism in the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review February 1975: 42-62.

3 Roessler, Shirley Elson. Out of the Shadows, Women and Politics in the French

Revolution, 1789-1795. New York: Peter Lang, 1996 p. 8.

4 Moorehead, Caroline. Dancing to the Precipice, the Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin,

Eyewitness to an Era. New York: Harper Collins, 2009 p. 90.

5 Censer, Jack and Lynn Hunt. “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, Exploring the French Revolution.” Center for History and New Media of George Mason University, 2001.

6 “Women and the French Revolution, 1789-1795.” pinn.net. Sunshine for Women, 2003. 7 Roessler, p. 11.

8 Censer et al. 9 Roessler, p. 12-35.


10 Roessler, p.46. 11 Moorhead, p. 172. 12 Censer et al. 13 Moorhead, p. 19. 14 Moorhead, p.138. 15 Roessler, p. 50.

16 Clark, Jenifer. “Women in the French Revolution: The Failure of the Parisian Women’s Movement in Relation to the Theories of Feminism of Rousseau and Condorcet.” The Concord

Review 1992: 115-127 p.120. 17 Abray, p.52. 18 Clark, p. 121. 19 Abray, p. 56. 20 Abray, p. 57. 21 Clark, p. 119. 22 Censer et al. 23 Abray, p. 45 24 Roessler, p. 58. 25 Roessler, p. 61-62. 26 Abray, p. 52. 27 Abray, p. 58. 28 Abray, p. 58. 29 Abray, p. 59. 30 Abray, p. 46. 31 Clark, p. 117. 32 Roessler, p. 39.


Works Cited

Abray, Jane. “Feminism in the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review February 1975: 42-62. Print.

Censer, Jack and Lynn Hunt. “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, Exploring the French Revolution.” Center for History and New Media of George Mason University, 2001. Web. 22 November 2009.

Clark, Jenifer. “Women in the French Revolution: The Failure of the Parisian Women’s Movement in Relation to the Theories of Feminism of Rousseau and Condorcet.” The

Concord Review 1992: 115-127. Print


to an Era. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Radek, Kimberly. “Women from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.” ivcc.edu. Illinois Valley Community College Gender Studies Dept, 2008. Web. 24 November 2009. Roessler, Shirley Elson. Out of the Shadows, Women and Politics in the French Revolution,

1789-1795. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Print.

“Women and the French Revolution, 1789-1795.” pinn.net. Sunshine for Women, 2003. Web. 22 November 2009.


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