Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

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

10

Exotic Femininity and the Rights of Man:
Paul et Virginie and Atala,
or the Revolution in Stasis

MARIE-CLAIRE VALLOIS


Historical Preliminaries: Revolution and the
Celebration of Mother Nature

On the fifth of October, two months after the public recognition of every man's equality in the eyes of the law by The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the people of Paris marched on Versailles to fetch the king and to bring him back to Paris. It is at this time that, according to most historical accounts but especially Michelet's History of the Revolution, women's participation in the events of the revolution became evident.' Michelet's claim that "les femmes sont à l'avant-garde de notre Révolution" [women were the avant- garde of our revolution] seems to answer Mirabeau's own dictum: "Tant que les femmes ne s'en mêlent pas il n'y a pas de véritable révolution." [There can be no true revolution until women are engaged in its midst]. 2

In June 1793, the new Jacobin Constitution extended the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of their wealth, women excepted. 3 It is precisely at that moment, in preparation for the festive ceremony of August 10, 1793, that Jacques Louis David had erected, amidst the ruins of the Bastille, a colossal statue of a woman representing Nature. 4 Her arms were crossed and from her breasts flowed streams of pure, regenerating water. Between these two cultural representations of revolutionary women, the image of women as participating in the revolutionary process and "Woman as Mother Nature" as an allegory of the new Republic, a double transformation occurs. 5 First, the lively, feminine crowd is turned into an allegorical statue. This transformation, as it is translated in literary accounts, could be described as a passage from the animate to the inanimate. 6 Second, this transformation marks the passage from the plural to the singular because the crowd, which is a collective of separate persons,

Translated by John Galvin and Joan Gass.

-178-

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