French Revolution: Women in the French Revolution

The status of women did undergo significant fluctuation in the years between 1789 and 1804, and at one point (late 1792-early 1793) they had obtained the legal right to marry without parental consent, initiate divorce, name the father of an illegitimate child and secure monetary compensation for the seduction, and own property. Primogeniture was abolished along with the nobility, and equality of succession laws insured that female heirs would be allowed to inherit.

What the Women Did

The women of Paris had traditionally been much involved in street politics, especially if the issue centered around subsistence. They expressed their opinions and channeled their energies through petitions and demonstrations. The Revolution heightened the political activity of women. They threw themselves into the spirit of the times, taking as their own the issues with which their husbands were grappling. For this reason, a woman's social class usually determined which issues she chose to embrace and fight for.

Most of these issues were defined in the "cahiers des doleances" collected by the government when the Estates-General were summoned in May 1789. The grievances of the entire country were listed. Although women were denied representation in the Estates-General and had a much lower literacy rate than men, they made certain that their concerns were included in the "cahiers". It is in these notebooks that the wide difference between reforms desired by the women and those desired by noble women becomes evident. 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 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.

Not content with their passive role in constructing the cahiers, the women sprang immediately into the spotlight at the onset of the Revolution during the October Days. On 5 and 6 October 1789, a crowd of six thousand women, accompanied by the National Guard, marched to Versailles to demand bread from King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in person. Unlike later feminist clubs and movements, this expedition was made up of mixed social classes. They stormed the monarch's headquarters, and after the death of two of Louis' Swiss Guards, a small delegation of market women gained an audience with the king and the National Assembly. Their complaints mirrored many of those in the cahiers: the rich were hoarding grain, there was not enough bread, and what bread there was was exorbitantly priced. King Louis promised to produce bread for the masses, and allowed the women to escort himself, his family, and his court back to Paris. This put the sovereign monarch within reach of the irate populace where, the women assured him, he would find faithful advisors who could tell him how things really stood with his subjects, enabling him to act accordingly.


Marie Antoinette

Louis XVI


Olympe de Gouges

The most outstanding individual of the women's movement of the French Revolution was Olympe de Gouges, a playwright who wrote "The Declaration of the Rights of Woman" in 1791. This document was a response to the new French constitution of September of that same year, "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," which divided the population into "active" and "passive" citizenry according to wealth, social class, and sex. Olympe de Gouges had made a name for herself as early as October 1789, when she appeared in front of the National Assembly to propose a radical reform program. She stated the necessity of full legal equality of the sexes, wide job opportunities for women, a state alternative to the private dowry system, schooling for girls, and the creation of a national theater where only plays by women could be performed.

Many of these reforms were reflected in de Gouges' "Declaration," which mirrored the Constitution, ascribing the same rights to women which had already been given to men. De Gouges advocated the establishment of a National Assembly of Women, which would represent the concerns of the weaker sex and work with the Assembly of Men to promote happiness for all. The reasoning behind Olympe de Gouges' beliefs was that "if the grounds for universal human rights are to be meaningful...they must apply to all sentient beings without exception." Women, endowed by nature with the same mental capabilities as men, had a natural right to education and self-government, as did men. Unfortunately for the cause, no one ever questioned the view that women also had a natural duty to remain in the domestic sphere and raise children. This conflict between two views of the natural position of women ultimately led to the failure of the women's movement of the French Revolution.

 


Charlotte Corday

One of the other famous women of the French Revolution was Charlotte CordayCharlotte Corday was born at Saint-Saturnin, France on July 27, 1768, and was educated in the Roman Catholic convent in Caen. She considered herself devoted to the "enlightened" ideals of her time, but was a supporter of the monarchy when the French Revolution began in 1789.

As the revolution progressed, factions arose within the national convention. Corday favored the more moderate Girondins rather then men such as Marat and Robespierre who wanted to destroy the monarchy. The Girondins were expelled from the convention in May and June of 1793, after which they gathered at Caen hoping to organize against their opponents. Corday, devoted to their cause, went to Paris. She was convinced that their primary enemy was Jean Paul Marat, and devised a plan to gain access to him under the pretext of wanting to tell him of the events at Caen. On July 13, 1793 she stabbed him through the heart while he was in his bath.

Corday was immediately apprehended, and was sentenced to death. She was executed on July 17, 1793.

Simon Schama's "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution" contains a fairly detailed account of Marat's murder, and the subsequent arrest, trial, and execution of Charlotte Corday. While awaiting execution, Charlotte wrote a letter to her father , asking forgiveness for "having disposed of my existence without your permission." In another letter written on the eve of her execution, Corday complains that "there are so few patriots who know how to die for their country; everything is egoism; what a sorry people to found a Republic."

Corday refused the ministrations of a priest in the moments before death; her last request was that a National Guard officer named Hauer paint her portrait. As a token of thanks for his work, Corday presented Hauer with a lock of her hair, "a souvenir of a poor dying woman." Pierre Notelet, a witness to the execution, wrote of the condemned, "Her beautiful face was so calm, that one would have said she was a statue. Behind her, young girls held each other's hands as they danced. For eight days I was in love with Charlotte Corday." The "exceptionally beautiful" Corday, who died convinced that in her act of assasination she had "avenged many innocent victims and...prevented many other disasters," was twenty-five when guillotined.

During her trial, Corday took great pains to point out that she had concieved and carried out the assasination plot alone, proving "the value of the people of the Calvados," where "even the women of the country are capable of firmness." Court transcripts show that Corday testified that "It's only in Paris that people have eyes for Marat. In the other departments, he is regarded as a monster."

Corday became an inspiration to many French people who shared her belief that the Revolution has been corrupted by the uncontrolled Reign of Terror.


Ideas and Ideals about Women

There were a variety of ideas about women circulating at the time of the French Revolution. Among the most prominent were those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet. The two philosophers agreed on the fact that the proper vocation for a lady was that of a housekeeper, but held conflicting beliefs when it came down to the method by which a woman might be best trained for her role. Women were thought of to be naturally modest and were morally superior to men. The supreme duty of a woman was to create a haven of serenity for her husband to relax in when he chose to withdraw from the world outside, and to properly raise the children. Rousseau felt that the only education a young girl needed should be provided at home by her mother rather than in a school. She should be allowed to run around outdoors to improve her health, and taught that women should be forced to marry, keep house, raise children, and improve the lives of their men. Religion should be left out of the education, as the girl's husband could teach her what she needed to know about God once she reached adulthood. Unlike Rousseau, Condorcet believed that women shared identical political rights with men.

Conclusion

Women were obviously important contributors to the popular movement during the French Revolution. They staged demonstrations and food riots, presented petitions to the National Assembly, and brought the royal family back to the governmental capital. They agitated ceaselessly for the political and civil rights they felt they deserved, and backed up their demands with well-thought-out logical arguments. They were supported in their pleas for equality by such influential Enlightenment thinkers as the Marquis de Condorcet. Everyone, whether or not they supported women's aspirations to equality, believed that women belonged in the home, caring for their families. Anything they gained through education or legal equality was simply to enrich them in their roles as wives and mothers. And, unfortunately, once the Revolution had worked its way through the four stages, very little changed in the life of a French woman. 

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