Women In The French Revolution
A French Revolution for Women
The French women of the working class had always somehow been politically active in times of national crisis. During the era of enlightenment, women were virtually submissive and accepting of their traditional role as being socially unequal from men (as a result of their biological differences). However, the Revolution shined a new light on the capabilities of the French women, as they had displayed great courage during the time of needed action. Though the women were believed by men to not be persecuted by society at this time, the women of France had a valid reason to protest and should have received their equality rights while displaying the capabilities and efforts beyond their labelled status. Looking at the key female figures of the time, the action of their protest throughout the Revolution and the erroneous reasons to prevent women from attaining rights, one can easily question the circumstances as to why women were not given their rights, even though the time period was unusually early for this type of progression.
Like many issues involving human rights, exposure of women’s rights was also given a boost during the Revolution. The early petitions were modest, including only requests for better education for women and increased protection of property rights. The storming and destruction of the Bastille was the mark of the Revolution which displayed one’s ability to stop the aristocrats’ attempts to mettle with the Revolution’s progress. By arresting the deputies and shutting down the National assembly, the people realized that the use of force was the only way to receive their demands. The women of France took this into consideration during their frustration with the shortage of bread, the speculation of Versailles’ royal guards trampled on the new red, white and blue revolutionary colors, as well as the belief that grain was being hoarded by the royals. Women from the third estate, many from the fish market, began to march to Versailles. This march showed the driving force of women and their ability to get the desired response from political leaders. Though many of the women during the Revolution worked collectively to maximize their effectiveness, a few key figures were crucial in the moulding of women’s boldness and activeness in French society and politics.
Aside from rioting, women were attending meetings of political clubs where both men and women started to gain interest and favour for women’s rights. One particular man who was important in this period was Marquis de Condorcet who published a very important newspaper article in July 1970 which supported the political equality rights of women. He wrote in defence of women’s voting rights, broadened the divorce argument, and analyzed the pressures of which women were vulnerable to (Williams, Page 160). One important group which was circulated around Condorcet was the Cercle Social which launched a campaign arguing for a liberal divorce law and reforms in inheritance laws. A bold enforcer of these values was Marie Gouges who wrote as an aspiring playwright under the name Olympe de Gouges. Her publishing of the Declaration of the Rights of Women (modeled after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) was highly controversial and made her notorious. She was persecuted and sent to the guillotine in 1793. (Godineau, Page 284). Another female delinquent of the Revolution was Charlotte Corday, who conducted the assassination of Jean Paul Marat on July 13th, 1793. This murder was considered the most dramatic individual act of the resistance to the Revolution. Of course, she was not so much opposed to the Revolution as she was the violence. It was women like these however that gave men power to use these instances against them.
Many men of the era believed that women did not deserve the rights they were fighting so hard to prove they deserved. A famous thinker of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that women’s education should be limited to that of household duties and educating their children. He advocated the independence and autonomy for male children and emphasized the importance of women bringing up their children (Hunt, Lynn).
“The first education is most important, and this education belongs incontestably to the woman; if the author of nature had wanted it to belong to men, he would have given them milk with which to nurse the children.” (Rousseau, pg 37)
Later men of the Revolution believed that the unhappiness of France was introduced by women such as Marie-Antoinette and Charlotte Corday and that the political rise of these leaders would lead to a demolishing society. (Godineau, 168)
The feistiness of the women of the Revolution was a necessity in implementing their point for improved rights, much like the points of the people towards the revolution. The women were a symbolic piece to the era, and yet they were ignored though so many men wished for change in the state. The motions in favour of women began to increase as deputies began to speak of women holding office and voting. Unfortunately, in the fall of 1793, the revolutionary government shut all women’s clubs down after the suspicion of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. Though the women did not gain the rights they wished for, they became very aware of their status in society and proved their capabilities as more than what they were labelled and restricted as. The Revolution was much more for women; it was an era to voice the opinions that needed to be heard, though oppressed by a man-controlled government who believed women were not being persecuted. Their reason behind their restriction of women in office and voting rights, showed their hypocritical nature when dealing with other facets of the Revolution and what change really meant.
Applewhite, Harriet Branson, Levy, Darline Gay, and Johnson, Mary Durham eds. Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980
Godineau, Dominique. The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution. London: University of California Press, Ltd, 1998
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile: Or: On Education. USA: Basic Books, 1979.
Williams, David. Condorcet and Modernity. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004.
Censer, Jack, and Hunt, Lynn. “Women and the Revolution.” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Hunt, Lynn and Censer, Jack. 2001.Florence Gould Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. April 15th, 2008.