Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview

5

Women and Militant Citizenship
in Revolutionary Paris

DARLINE GAY LEVY

HARRIET B. APPLEWHITE

In revolutionary Paris, the political identity of women as citoyennes was made problematic not only by constitutional definitions but more generally by an exclusive, gendered political language. Notwithstanding legal, linguistic, and ideological limits and exclusions, women of the popular classes and smaller numbers of middle-class women claimed citizenship. Their practice of citizenship was shaped and limited by prevailing cultural values; but it also is true that their citoyenneté challenged and episodically recast or subverted these values.

The problem of women and citizenship—not only in revolutionary France but throughout the western world in an age of democratic revolutions—is the subject of a large and growing literature. 1 In the conclusion of her Citoyennes Tricoteuses, Dominique Godineau formulates that problem as a paradox: "When one studies the women's revolutionary movement, isn't one asking ... : How is it possible to be a citoyenne? How is it possible to participate in political life without possessing citizenship in its entirety? How is it possible to be part of the Sovereign without enjoying any of the attributes [of sovereignty]?" 2

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen held out the promise of a political coming of age for all humanity. However, the Declaration left indeterminate the question of whether universal rights of man were rights of woman and whether, or in what sense, woman was a citoyenne. The constitutions of 1791 and 1793 and the debates surrounding their acceptance presumably resolved the issue. Women were denied political rights of "active citizenship" (1791) and democratic citizenship (1793).

This constitutional exclusion can be related to neo-classical and Rousseauian formulations and representations of citizenship and civic virtue that pervaded revolutionary political culture—for example, the langage mâle de la vertu recently analyzed by Dorinda Outram. In this language of virtue, the citizen was defined as a public man imbued with "un vertu mâle et répub-

This paper forms part of our collaborative research toward a book on gender and citizenship in Revolutionary Paris. An earlier version from which it is adapted was authored by Darline Gay Levy and presented as a Florence Gould Distinguished Lecture at New York University in March 1989.

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