(The following is a post by Erika Hope Spencer, French Reference Specialist, European Division.)
When the French Revolution began in 1789, French women were largely confined to the private sphere. Domestic duty and family obligation dictated their behavior, and the public life was a man’s domain. However, the ideas of equality and comradery that sparked the French Revolution captivated women from all backgrounds. Women were eager to voice their political opinions and grievances. While the intellectuals of the upper classes debated property rights and universal suffrage, the working classes took to the streets with their own frustrations such as finding affordable bread.
The French Revolution was born out of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire challenged the thinking of French society. New ideas about education, class, and individual rights were being discussed at the evening gatherings of Paris high society known as salons. These gatherings were established before the Revolution, and they were often hosted, not by a distinguished man, but by his fashionable (and hopefully, witty) wife. Known as salonnières, these ladies wielded a significant amount of indirect influence in the world of politics and diplomacy. They were the daughters of French ministers or the wives of aristocrats and had grown up with the privilege of an expansive education. Though they did not enjoy legal rights, in many instances they were regarded as intellectual equals to the men in their lives. Historians still debate the true character of the salon and its role in history, but there is no doubt that they provided a platform for their hosts to exert influence outside of the domestic realm.
In the early and optimistic days of the Revolution, the notion of equality (égalité) was applied in theory to both women and to the enslaved people in French colonial territories. However, as the struggle between the three main classes of nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie dragged on, many of the initial proposals aiming at universal liberation fell short. This understandably angered the disenfranchised groups. In the French territory of Saint-Domingue, today’s Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful independence movement by enslaved and free people of color. Back in France, the Revolutionary movement began to fracture on all fronts. Members of the moderate Girondins argued for a constitutional monarchy, while members of the radical Jacobins fought against aristocratic privileges. Societies that formed during the Revolution were known as clubs, and they directed the course of politics, particularly in Paris. As the Revolution progressed, another radical split from the Jacobins formed the enragés (madmen). The more radicalized leaders eventually turned on one another beginning in late 1793 during what is known as the Terror (la Terreur).
The women of Paris were highly engaged in these events and their convictions spanned the political spectrum, depending on their positions in society. The wealthy women of the aristocratic and bourgeois classes often acted as salonnières, or worked in tandem with their husbands. That is not to say that many did not also take part in street demonstrations, nor is it to suggest that working class women were one unvaried force. There were divisions at all levels, and many Parisian women were concerned with economic conditions and high grain prices, while their neighbor might be demanding institutional reforms such as the right for women to establish their own political clubs.
Because the salonnières had the opportunity and leisure time to write, historians have tended to focus on these “femme célèbres” rather than the less documented radical female “sans-culotterie.” The salonnières also had the funds to commission portraits, which was not an option for the lower classes. Many of the salonnière writings have been digitized for remote use. Radical revolutionary women, on the other hand, are known only through the narratives of others. Fortunately, this is changing as historians delve deeper into the archives of French history.
One of the most influential women of the Revolution was Sophie de Condorcet. She worked with her husband, the Marquis de Condorcet, to argue for full women’s suffrage in a July 1790 document entitled “Sur l’admission des femmes audroit de cite” (On the Admission of Women to Civil Rights), available in full from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Madame de Condorcet was a true feminist of the time. She was also a professional translator and scholar and very likely translated some writing of Thomas Paine while he was in Paris, and wrote Letters on Sympathy as a response to Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
Equally influential in the upper echelons was salonnière Germaine de Staël. As the daughter of the famous and beloved finance minister, Jacques Necker, de Staël enjoyed an especially privileged place in society and she used her position to lobby for the rights of others. She was appreciated by the great thinkers of the day for her charisma and brilliance. She captivated a wide array of foreign dignitaries, and her salon routinely brought together liberals, nobles, wives, and mistresses. The small dinners at her “hôtel” (townhome) on the Rive Gauche (left bank of Paris as separated by the Seine River) included Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and Gouverneur Morris, the American envoy to Paris, as well as other well-known personages of the time. Some of the correspondence is housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division in Gouverneur Morris Papers, and Morris’s book, A Diary of the French Revolution has interesting observations from this time period including his time spent at the salons.
The conversations at these soirées on the fashionable rue de Bac influenced popular sentiment and shifted political opinion. De Staël herself was a centrist politically. However, having grown up listening to such luminaries as Diderot and Voltaire verbally spar in her mother’s salons, she had developed an ability to challenge, and at times confound men of any political persuasion. Traditionalists felt these salons set a dangerous precedent by encouraging women to leave their “natural domain” of the home to engage with the outside world of politics and public debate. Although de Staël had grown up in a conservative home, her intellectual curiosity drew her to question these conventions. By age 22 she had already published a well-received book on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau…” (Letters on the works and character of J. J. Rousseau). Although women were not permitted to vote or hold office, she attended the debates at the National Assembly (France’s first Constitutional Government) on a regular basis and was on friendly terms with many of the deputies. In her later years she even met with the young Napoleon Bonaparte, though they disagreed and he ignored her advice.
Another player in Revolutionary politics was the outsider, Madame Roland, who relocated from Lyon with her husband. She was a woman of moderate political views but she was surprisingly effective with her steady and subtle provocations of the conventional men around her. She was admittedly alarmed by the radical sans-culottes (without breeches), the commoners who did not wear the fancy breeches of the upper class. As with many from the French provinces, she felt out of step with Parisian politics. However, she was an astute woman who truly believed that the revolutionaries were correct in many of their views, if not always in their conduct. Roland helped write parliamentary bills and speeches but did not feel comfortable in public debate. She was a habitual writer, however, and volumes of her letters are preserved in her “Correspondance politique: 1790-1793” and “Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps” at the Library of Congress. Her personal memoirs are available in translation. As a salonnière, she hosted the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre many times, but her measured ways eventually led to her arrest and execution as an enemy of the Revolution.
While not every woman active in the Revolution would have viewed herself as a feminist, there were a number of bold feminist manifestos written around this time by both men and women. When the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” became the preamble of the French Constitution in 1789, playwright Olympe de Gouges wrote her own version that same year. It was virtually identical other than its inclusion of women as citoyennes (citizens). A year later, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” Other contributors to the movement included the Italian poet and revolutionary leader, Marquise Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, and the German author and poet, Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel who wrote the visionary work, “On Improving the Status of Women” (“Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber”). Even as these ideas circulated, popular opinion overall became less sympathetic to women’s rights. Indeed, by 1793, sentiment in the National Assembly had largely turned against women’s involvement in the Revolution. The objections were varied in their wording but reflected a fear and hostility not only against the salonnières, but increasingly toward republican revolutionaries. These women had very little in common with the wealthy hostesses, but their vocal demands provoked many, including the men in the National Assembly, who viewed their behavior as “unseemly” in a woman.
As the Revolution became more radical and the views more extreme, the influence of the salonnières waned and the early enthusiasts of the Revolution became fearful that they themselves would come under the guillotine. Many of them did. Olympe de Gouges was sent to the guillotine by Robespierre. To highlight the confusing politics of the French Revolution, de Gouges was hated on all sides. She was perceived as too radical by the moderates, and as a Royalist by the extreme left, probably because she dedicated the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman” to Queen Marie Antoinette. In reality she was an idealist who fought fiercely not only for women’s rights but against the institution of slavery in the French colonies. In 1788 she wrote a forceful abolitionist essay entitled, “Réflexions sur les hommes négres” (Reflections on Black Men). In this piece she joined many other revolutionary thinkers in condemning slavery in French territories. Translations of many of these works can be found in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief History with Documents. As the tensions grew, the voices of the popular masses became more strident.
Perhaps the most intriguing female revolutionary organizer was Théroigne de Méricourt. Her name may look aristocratic, but de Méricourt simply refers to the small town of Marcourt where she was born. A prosperous peasant who was inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, she found herself in Paris right before the fall of the Bastille. Having had numerous lovers and suffered the death of a child, she felt compelled to fight for the downtrodden. Often wearing a blood-red or white riding outfit and carrying a sabre, she deliberately dressed in a masculine manner. Nevertheless she was remembered by journalist Camille Desmoulins as having a “pretty, thought-filled head.” She was as comfortable at the tribune (speakers’ podium) in the National Assembly as she was bantering with the poissardes (market women, also slang for a vulgar woman) of Les Halles food market. She drew applause from her speech at the famous Cordeliers’ Club and charmed many of the liberal deputies she rubbed shoulders with, but her unorthodox approach to life did not fit comfortably in the context of Parisian politics. She was ruthlessly disparaged as a “patriot’s whore” by the Royalist press. Théroigne, like de Gouges, was slandered, abused and misrepresented, most likely because she had no family to defend her reputation. She suffered severely while imprisoned in Austria under false charges, and ultimately survived the Revolution only to live the rest of her life institutionalized and misunderstood.
The most ferocious fille sans-culotte was Pauline Léon, the founder of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (Société des Républicaines-Révolutionnaires). Married to the enragés leader, Théophile Leclerc, she was known for her desire to form a female militia and played a sizable role in turning opinion against Robespierre in the later years of the Revolution. Her Société was short lived and controversial. Ultimately, it rankled not only men but also the less politically minded women who resented pressure to wear the tri-color cockade or the bonnet rouge (red bonnet, or the Phrygian cap symbolizing freedom) which had such shocking masculine associations. Societies for women were forbidden by decree on October 30, 1793 by the National Convention. Perhaps out of exhaustion, or perhaps out of devotion to her husband, Pauline Léon spent the rest of her life with Leclerc in quiet domestic seclusion.
Women have never operated as one monolithic group, and the French Revolution proved no exception. If the movement had ever been unified, that unity dissolved quickly. There is some fluidity between these groups, but in general the upper class had very little to do with the street worker. And even among the working class women, there were stark ideological differences between the more radical républicaines révolutionnaires such as Pauline Léon, and the ordinary market women who did not relate to their political fervor. Needless to say, these women did not always agree on what was important, and the men in power exploited their (sometimes violent) disagreements in order to shut down the more radical protests. These divisions among women were mirrored in the movement at large, and the debate in France over true liberté continued to play out in cycles of revolution and counter-revolution.
Spencer, Erika. “Women in the French Revolution: A Resource Guide” (Research Guide).