Challenging Masculine Aristocracy
The French Revolution ( 1789-95) provoked both a political and a cultural cataclysm in European history. Indeed, as the historian Margaret Darrow has aptly noted, "a Revolution that transformed time with a new calendar, space with new measurements, social identity with a new form of address (citoyen), and even personal identity with a host of new names like Gracchus and Égalité could hardly leave the family unchanged." 1 All existing institutions and practices were called into question, including relations between the sexes and family organization. Feminism was not "born" in 1789, but the onset of the revolution unleashed a spectacular eruption of well-formulated feminist claims; it seemed to some as if Mount Vesuvius itself had once again exploded. The gushing forth of feminist concerns articulated in France at a white heat would spread relentlessly and irresistibly throughout Europe.
Because of this outpouring, the first five years of the French Revolution provide an unparalleled historical laboratory for studying European gender politics. From the convocation of the Estates General in early 1789 (to address the serious financial and economic problems of the realm) to the formation of the estates as a National Assembly later that summer, and throughout the sequential efforts to elaborate constitutions in 1790-91 and 1792-95, feminist claims were repeatedly made and rebutted. Primed by earlier claims, including those of Condorcet, women spoke out on their own behalf, demanding personal emancipation and full citizenship--as women and as half of humanity--in the new regime that was under construction. Revolutionary men made political decisions that would position these women within public life or even exclude them from it. Both revolutionary women and men attempted to manipulate and control a complex outpouring of words, symbols, and images that swirled about "the feminine."