Women in the French Revolution: how they fought for equality

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“I killed a man to save 100,000,” said Charlotte Corday during her trial for the macabre assassination of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Disillusioned by the radical and violent leadership taken by the radical mountain faction of Marat, Corday made a mistake in the chief’s house on July 13, 1793. She surprised Marat while he was working in his bathtub and stuck a knife in him. chest, killing him instantly.

His act of violence – immortalized in the painting by Jacques-Louis David, The death of Marat – is one of the most infamous of the time; it sent shockwaves through Paris and changed the perception of women’s abilities. But Corday was by no means the only woman to seize the French Revolution as an opportunity for action.

Trade fairs and companies

Before the revolution, in the eyes of many Enlightenment thinkers, the biological differences of women marked them second to men in the natural order. They were expected to submit to their fathers and husbands, and while some minds of the time, including the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that women should have the right to a certain education, it should focus on the care and education of children because women differ from men in their “natural rights”.

The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. Charlotte Corday had stabbed the revolutionary politician and journalist while he was working in his bathtub. (Photo by Imagno / Getty Images)

Yet as the revolution swept through France, bringing ideals of equality and brotherhood, women found ways to participate in all aspects. There were those who saw a chance to advance women’s rights alongside those of French men, such as activist and writer Olympe de Gouges. In 1791, she declared: “Women are born free and live equal to men in their rights.

There were women like Marie-Jeanne Roland and Germaine de Staël – say salt cellars – which hosted salons where revolutionary ideas were encouraged and political power was negotiated. And, of course, there were women who took up arms in physical revolt. In October 1789, when the shortage of flour and hunger in Paris led to discontent that turned to anger, women were at the center of the maelstrom.

Appetite for destruction: the march of women on Versailles

Anger over growing food shortages has prompted thousands to confront the King in person

Women played a central role in an event often known as the October or March Days of October, which propelled the first stage of the revolution into a new balance of power.

On the morning of October 5, 1789, many Parisian women demonstrated against the price of bread in Paris – flour was scarce and there was a growing feeling that food was being willfully denied to the poor.

There had also been rumors that the night before, King Louis XVI had entertained the officers with a lavish banquet. Soon the protesters were joined by other women from nearby markets, with the growing crowd seizing City Hall and sacking the city’s arsenal.

The numbers rose further with other agitators seeking political reform, and a group of up to 7,000 people marched 12 miles south of Versailles to present demands to the king.

Talks took place overnight, but in the early hours of October 6, rioters were able to gain access to the palace to search for the Queen’s apartments.

The insurrection was quickly put down by the king’s troops, but the situation remained tense and Louis was persuaded by the Marquis de Lafayette to address the rioters who still flocked around the palace.

The violence ceased on the king’s word that he and the royal family would abandon their lavish palaces and move to the city; once there they were under the control of the people.

The October march demonstrated the power and capabilities of the common people – the Third Estate – and, more importantly, of the women of Paris.

There were also those who demanded more specific rights from the government; in March 1792, Pauline Léon addressed the Legislative Assembly on behalf of Parisian women to suggest that a female militia be formed to defend their homes, amid increasing counterrevolutionary violence. Although she was ultimately rejected, her petition was signed by more than 300 women.

Leon was no stranger to armed struggle; she had marched on the Bastille in July 1789, carrying her own pike. But like other women, Leon’s involvement was not limited to riots and demonstrations. In 1793, with actress Claire Lacombe, she founded the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, an ephemeral organization that defended the right of women to contribute to the revolution.

A painting of the Patriotic Women's Club during the French Revolution, by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, showing a group of women seated in a circle discussing their agenda

The Patriotic Women’s Club, one of the many clubs and societies formed by women during the French Revolution (Les Artchives / Alamy Stock Photo)

It was by no means the only such company, as social clubs and revolutionary salons became important outlets, albeit with different goals. For example, although Marie-Jeanne Roland is rightly remembered as an influential woman of the revolution, she was not an advocate for the political rights of women, who she said were still the most effective in their domestic roles, and she hated radical behavior on the part of sans culottes (most of the working class people of Paris).

Marie-Jeanne Roland was not an activist for women’s political rights, who she said were still the most effective in their domestic roles

There were also those who today we might call “male allies”, such as the intellectual and aristocrat Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. In July 1790 he published a newspaper article claiming that millions of French women should enjoy the same political rights as men.

The article caused a stir, addressing the widely held feeling that women do not have the same capacity as men for rationality or a sense of justice. Condorcet challenged critics to “show me a natural difference between men and women on which exclusion could legitimately be based”. In turn, Condorcet’s article inspired the Cercle Social, one of the most progressive social clubs in revolutionary Paris, which launched a campaign for women’s rights in 1790-1791.

Impeded ambitions

But the state of revolution which allowed women this feeling of social progress was not to last. Despite their presence at the center of many factions and salons, the prevailing opinion was still that women could better serve the cause by acting as “republican mothers,” charged with teaching their sons to honor and love the republic, and to support the new society that was being carved out.

Time and time again, critics have insisted that nature determines different but complementary roles for men and women. These divergent goals and divisions – both between individuals and classes of women, and reflected in the movement in general – have hampered any chance for real progress.

Time and time again, critics have insisted that nature determines different but complementary roles for men and women.

In May 1793, women were banned from government bodies and soon after, they were prohibited from forming a political assembly. Corday’s assassination of Marat in July became a rallying point for the revolutionary government, and in October 1793 all women’s clubs were banned.

Whether the French Revolution promoted women’s rights remains a point of contention among historians today. Some social rights were granted to women: new inheritance laws, for example, meant that, regardless of gender, children could inherit wealth from parents equally. There was another step forward for the legal status of single mothers and their children, as a new law allowing divorce gave equal conditions to men and women.

But as Napoleon rose to power, the ideals of Republican motherhood persisted. Although the revolution was undoubtedly a time of great debate regarding the status and rights of women of all social classes, the revolution did not change much in terms of their ability to contribute to a French democracy.

And although the revolution had long ripples, it cannot be seen as a direct contributor to women’s suffrage in France – a right they would not get until 1945.

The female voices of the Revolution

Three women who ended up paying the ultimate price for their political activities

Olympe de Gouges

The writer and activist was born Marie Gouze, daughter of a self-taught butcher from the south of France. She was largely responsible for bringing women’s rights to the revolutionary cause. Addressing his 1791 pamphlet Declaration of the rights of women and citizens to Marie-Antoinette, Gouze becomes a rallying voice for women’s citizenship. His writing, as well as his association with the Girondins, was also his death sentence; she was denounced as “against nature” and guillotined during the Terror, in 1793.

Marie-Jeanne Roland

Madame Roland was a writer and hostess of a key bourgeois salon in Paris where revolutionary ideals first germinated. She gained influence in government when her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, became Minister of the Interior under Louis XVI in 1792 – she helped draft many government speeches, including a letter from her husband which criticized the king, and the Roland continued to exercise power and influence at the center of the Gironde faction. Marie-Jeanne was arrested in May 1793 in place of her husband – who had fled for fear of his own arrest – and was executed by guillotine in November of the same year. His last words: “Oh Freedom, what crimes are being committed in your name!

Charlotte corday

A small aristocrat, Corday was involved in the revolution from his beginnings, attended political meetings and was inspired by the ideas of the Gironde faction. She felt that the mountain faction was too radical and she wanted to save the revolution by eliminating the mountain leader Jean-Paul Marat. Her assassination of Marat while bathing is an infamous turning point in the way women were viewed during the revolution. Corday was guillotined for the murder of 1793 and remains a symbol of the action of women during the tumult that swept through France.

This article first appeared in BBC story revealedThe essential guide to the French Revolution in the October 2021 issue


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