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Women in the French Revolution: From the Salons to the Streets

(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.

French Girl in Phrygian cap. This modern-era French war bonds poster  depicts a young French girl wearing the red Phrygian cap or “bonnet rouge” of the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette in the earlier years as queen. Her extravagant tastes and Austrian origin fueled the distrust and resentment of the French people.

In this image of Marie Antoinette, she is intentionally depicted as unadorned and somber; a prisoner facing her execution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Charlotte Corday, acted independently, but she was personally sympathetic to the moderate Girondin faction and felt compelled to assassinate the radical Jacobin leader, Marat, as he took his daily bath. Somewhat ironically, Corday believed she was saving the Revolution from becoming too radicalized, but many women felt Corday’s act reflected poorly on other women revolutionaries.

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.

Salonnière and author Germaine de Staël gathered a wide variety of great thinkers to meet and converse in her lively soirées on the rue de Bac in Paris.

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.

Républicaine Manon Roland “My spirit and my heart find everywhere the obstacles of opinion and the shackles of prejudice and all my force is spent in vainly rattling my chains.” “Private Memoires of Madame Roland.”

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.

A cartoon making fun of  Edmund Burke, conservative critic of the French Revolution. The print suggests a humorous frontispiece to Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution” with Burke worshiping Queen Marie Antoinette.

 

13 Comments

  1. Regina Frackowiak
    July 14, 2020 at 9:45 am

    Beautifully done, so informative, congratulations, Erika!

  2. David B. Morris
    July 14, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Excellent post which parses out the importance of the salons, the often overlooked role of women in the Revolution and how both affected and were affected by the shifting factions in the overall movement. Well done!

  3. Luke S
    July 14, 2020 at 11:12 am

    interesting blog

  4. Tim
    July 14, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    Fascinating!This is relevant to the complexity of political and social changes that our world is undergoing and many of the same issues of liberty fraternity, equality that historical precedents are vital to a robust dialogue. The status quo and radicalization, information and perception too. The illustrations vs the real time media saturation is an interesting contrast too.

  5. Felix
    July 14, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    What a thoughtful and informative piece. Amazing that so many “moderate” women, whose ideas fell between the nobility’s and the sans-culottes’ , were executed or sent to asylums. Doesn’t pay to be deemed moderate — even today. I hope the author of this piece writes more and has her work widely distributed.

  6. Anne Pérotin-Dumon
    July 15, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    A welcome introduction to a rich topic. The author manages to be informative without boring us, and to make us aware of the diversity of women’s conditions and opinions, then as now, while focusing on a few notable women who left us writings. I should also say that there is a lot compressed in this synthetic & lively text that is never simplistic.

  7. Maggie
    July 16, 2020 at 9:50 am

    Wonderfully-written piece, highlighting such an important universal phenomena that extends beyond France and Europe–women are at the forefront (often invisibly) of so many revolutions and movements. The author marvelously weaves through historical events and highlights the influential soft power of women throughout the French Revolution. This piece is an important reminder that women are often doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes of so many social and political movements, across cultures and time. Lovely curation of period-illustrations as well.

  8. Maggie
    July 16, 2020 at 11:20 am

    Wonderfully-written piece, highlighting such an important universal phenomena, beyond France and Europe–women at the forefront (often invisibly) of revolutions and movements. I appreciate that the author recounts historical events with nuance, careful to distinguish the plurality and diversity of female viewpoints during the revolution. We could use more historical analysis and research from the female perspective, thank you!

  9. Cathie
    July 16, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    This very flowing short history of women in general and key women in particular before and during the French revolution has whet my appetite to learn more about this aspect of French and women’s history. The fact that it wasn’t until after WW 11 in the 1940’s that women in France could vote is a sad comment on how long it can take to move forward.
    I liked the comment from Felix about moderates being disliked by both sides. These days again, having any view involving compromise or moderation risks alienating everyone. Happily we dont have the guillotine.

  10. Marie F.
    July 18, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Many lively minds are introduced to us here. Their varied views definitely do tempt the reader to dip further into the histories of these women up and down the social ladder at the center of a seismic shift whose outcome continues to influence us today. There is still so much to learn from the French Revolution, not the least being the complexity of human beings at even the most doctrinaire moments. That’s a nice point to leave the reader with.

  11. William Brent
    July 18, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    It’s a pleasure to take in a piece with both focus and context on a topic as sprawling and complex as the French Revolution. Thank you for this tour of the layers and varieties of activism by women—I learned so much, and the links to writings of salonnières offer fascinating outlets to explore…

  12. Steve France
    July 18, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    A fine collection of notable women from the culture that in some ways has been the most woman-friendly ever — though I expect there are American feminists who would challenge that assertion.
    Interestingly, the French Enlightenment (grandmother of all other enlightenments), which birthed the compassionate sensibility that sparked the Revolution (with many women leading the charge) had a distinctly feminine cast to it. The revolution of feeling, of domesticity, naturalness, justice and relative subordination of male martial virtues was captured most piquantly in the so-called “Smile Revolution” of 18th century France chronicled y Prof. Colin Jones in his book by the same name. And smiling was “in” as the Revolution commenced. But it fell “out” in the later years, exactly at the same time that women began to be put “back in their proper (subordinate) place.”
    Ms. Spencer has populated our imaginations with these vivid thumbnail sketches of some of the women stars of the Revolution — making it feel closer and more exciting. Thanks!

  13. Bruce
    July 18, 2020 at 10:35 pm

    As one who is interested more in the “behind the scenes” aspects of history, and in the social and cultural aspects of history, I enjoyed reading about the influence of the aristocratic women and the commoners alike. The balancing act from radical to moderate to royalist that was in play was very interesting, and one can see comparisons to the modern day with the desire to pigeonhole and label each and every one of these figures, no matter how open minded they might have been. A well written article that does a great job of giving us just the right amount of info to whet our appetites, and not overstuffing us!

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