Women and the French Revolution

Women faced many challenges during the French Revolution (1789-1799), with their status enduring various transformations. In the face of the fixed perception of the female gender, women secured, albeit for a moment (1792-1793), the right to marry without parental consent, to initiate divorce and to own property. The French Revolution offered many views about the role of women. Among the most famous were those advocated by philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794).

The two men agreed that the right occupation for a lady was that of a housekeeper. They had conflicting views regarding the method of training for the woman's proper role. At that time, women were considered as naturally modest beings and were appreciated as morally superior to men. Hence, the utmost duty of a woman was to create a safe and calm place for her husband. Rousseau defended the view that the only education a girl needed could be provided by her mother, at home, not in a school. Religion, Rousseau said, should not be a part of a girl's education, as when a woman marries, her husband can teach her about God. In contrast, Condorcet believed that women had the same political rights as men and that men and women should be educated in the same manner.

Most of the problems that women faced during that period were stated in Cahiers des Doleances (Notebooks for Grievances), collected by the government in May 1789. From the list of women's grievances it can be judged how big was the social, economic and mentality gap between the nobility and the masses. For example, the women from the marketplace sought protection of their professional rights and complained about poor working conditions and social injustice. In contrast, the requests of the aristocratic women were focused on civil issues, like obtaining the right to vote, equality in marriage and initiating divorce.

The market women were angry about the way their complaints in the Notebooks were addressed and staged a march to Versailles, in order to demand bread from King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) in person. This march, in which 6,000 women of different social classes took part, took place on 5 and 6 October 1789, hence its name, the October Days. The crowd stormed the palace and managed to secure an audience with the King and the National Assembly. A delegation of market women reiterated the problems from the Notebooks - that the wealthy were hoarding the grain, while the others were starving, arguing that food on sale was unreasonably priced. King Louis pledged to find bread for the masses and allowed the women to escort himself and his family back to Paris.

Perhaps the most prominent figure of the women's movement during the French Revolution was Olympe de Gouges (1748 -1793). She first made herself known in October 1789, when she appeared in front of the National Assembly to lobby for sweeping reforms. Her most influential contribution is The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791), which she wrote in response to the The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the French constitution enacted the same year. The playwright argued against the division that the constitution made between men and women, rich and poor, active and passive. In her text, De Gouges granted the women the same rights as the constitution granted to men. She called for the creation of a National Assembly of Women, to deal with the problems together with the Assembly of Men. De Gouges's main argument for giving women the same rights as men was that by nature the two sexes were equal.

Another important figure in the history of French Revolution was Charlotte Corday (1768-1793). Corday was devoted to the "enlightened" ideals of her time but supported the monarchy when the Revolution started in 1789. Gradually, factions appeared within the national convention, where the more moderate Girondins faced Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793) and Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Corday favored the Girondins and opposed Marat and Robespierre, who wanted to abolish the monarchy. When the Girondins were expelled from the convention in June 1793, Corday, loyal to their cause, went to Paris. She was determined that their main enemy was Marat and sought to meet him. On July 13, 1793 she stabbed him through the heart. Just four days later she was guillotined.

Women and the French Revolution: Selected full-text books and articles

Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine Oxford University Press, 1992
Women, Equality, and the French Revolution By Candice E. Proctor Greenwood Press, 1990
Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women By Christine Fauré Routledge, 2003
Librarian's tip: "Women's Political Action during the French Revolution" begins on p. 71
Women, War, and Revolution By Carol R. Berkin; Clara M. Lovett Holmes & Meier, 1980
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Women of the Popular Classes in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795" and Chap. 5 "Old Wine in New Bottles: The Institutional Changes for Women of the People during the French Revolution"
The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Mme. de Stael: Comparative Politics as Revolutionary Practice," Chap. 7 "Revolution in the Boudoir: Mme. Roland's Subversion of Rousseau's Feminine Ideals," and Chap. 8 "French Women Writers and the Revolution: Preliminary Thoughts"
The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France By Suzanne Desan University of California Press, 2004
"Let Them Eat Cake": The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution By Barker, Nancy N The Historian, Vol. 55, No. 4, Summer 1993
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Women & Politics: Madame Roland By Winegarten, Renee New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 2, October 1999
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