Women of the French Revolution
While many women did fight alongside men to overthrow the corrupt French monarchy and bring reforms for commoners, the issues most important to women in the French Revolution were not the same as those kindling the hearts of men. Women wanted the right to marry without parental consent, to be able to seek divorce on their own, legally name the man who impregnated them with an illegitimate child and to receive financial support for the child, to be able to vote, and to own property separate from the men in their lives.
Women’s Leading Role in the Revolution
Many men and women still believed that a woman’s place was in the home and not in the political arena,however, this notion did not keep women from marching in the streets and joining in protests against the French aristocracy. Women’s protests centered on issues of subsistence such as being able to maintain their crafts, equal pay, child care, and care for widows. During the French Revolution, women used petitions and demonstrations to make their arguments as apposed to some of their male counterparts who were more known for wielding weapons. This was most certianly the era where we began to see women taking more public political action. This often put them at odds with their own husbands, who were busy demanding their own equality but not always considering how equal rights applied to both themselves as well as the women in their life.
In May of 1789, the French government collected a listing of grievances from the populace it governed. At this time, women were not represented in the country’s Estates-General which was a legislative body aimed at representing the will of the people, but often at odds with the monarchy. As women of this era had a much lower literacy rate and their schooling was conducted at home and not in an official place of higher learning, they were not allowed official participation in the Estates-General. However, when the assembly began collecting complaints, women organized and made convincing oral arguments that were included in what was being recorded by men. These written records served to further accentuate the differences in reforms asked for by women as compared to men but also highlighted the differences across women’s social classes. Women working in the market place wanted protection of their trade rights, professional status, and ability to sell their wares. They focused their complaints on the poor work conditions, lack of trade organization, health care, and other social injustices they saw in the treatment of children and widows. This differed greatly from women in the upper classes of French society whose focus was on voting rights, equality in marriage, the ability to fully participate in government matters, and being able to divorce without permission from a father or other male member of the family.
During this time of struggle, there were a few women whom distinguished themselves and provided inspiration to the masses of other women demanding reform. Among these women were Olympe de Gouge and Charlotte Corday.
Olympe de Gouges
History remembers her as the most vehement supporter for the notion that men and women should have equal standing. In October 1789, she testified to the National Assembly in support of a radical series of reforms that would bring about full legal equality between men and women, increase job opportunities and education for women, provide women with an alternative to the dowry system, and proposed a national theatre system in which plays written by and for, acted in, and managed by women only could be produced.
Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman in 1791 in response to the inclusion of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as a guildeline for the new French Constitution. The later document divided French society into classes according to wealth, social status, and of course, gender. Women were still considered a lower class than men, which infuriated de Gouges.
In her declaration, de Gouges asserted that women were entitled to the same rights being given to men under the new French Constitution. She requested that a National Assembly of Women with only female representatives be established that would work in conjunction with its male counterpart to reform society and establish laws. Gouges also demanded that women be granted the same natural right to self-governance as did men. Her cause never saw completion. No such assembly was ever established largely in part because the bulk of French population – women included – did not embrace the idea of women being active in politics. Rather, most believed women’s needs could and should be represented through their husbands and the reforms applied to them.
Known as the murderess of Jean-Paul Marat, one of the revolution’s most outspoken supporters and writers, Corday takes her place as a leading character in the French Revolution who was admired by aristocratic women but not copied.
She was born on July 27, 1768 and unlike many other women, she received a formal education. It came at a cost to her as her education was in the Roman Catholic convent in Caen and thus she was isolated from mainstream society. Although trained in the Enlightment ideals of the era, she did not initially embrace the revolution against the French monarchy.
As the revolution progressed, Corday began to favor the arguments of moderates within the government. She did not agree with assertions by Marat and his supporters that the entire French government needed to be removed and replaced. When moderates she supported were removed from discussions in her convent hometown, Corday took it upon herself to uncover the reasons. She went to Paris where she sought out Marat whom she believed to be the cause. By falsely claiming she wanted to discuss the events at Caen with Marat, she gained access to his home and killed him in his bath tub on July 13, 1793. She did not escape but was taken into custody by authorities and her death sentence was carried out by execution just four days later. She was 25 years old when she was killed by the guillotine.
Perhaps best known for her response, “let them eat cake,” when presented with the dilemma that there was no bread for the people to eat, Antoinette was much more than a simple quip to the French Revolution. Even before the revolution took hold, she was not particularly favored by the French populace. As an Austrian married into the French aristocracy by her family for political reasons, many French commoners considered her to be disloyal to France harboring concern for her native land only. It was well rumored that she was unfaithful to her husband and engaged in several love affairs with both men and women from across Europe. When her first born child was a girl, pressure mounted on her to produce a male heir to the throne. Her excessive spending habits angered the French peasantry long before the masses were demanding political reform. As the king’s power diminished and he was eventually executed in January 1793, Antoinette refused to leave Paris as advised. She remained at what she believed to be her station in royal court and even stood trial for crimes of sexual impropriety including alleged molestation of her son which she vehemently denied. History now records her trial as more show as the decision of her guilt had already been made. Her trial was in the morning on October 14, 1793, and was executed that afternoon.
While the French Revolution brought many social changes to France, in reality little changed for women. The notion promoted by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that any improvement and education afforded to women should then be expressed by them in society via better care for their husband and children continued to dominate the culture.
George Mason University: Exploring the French Revolution: This academic website provides an educational essay regarding the role women played in the French Revolution.
California State University Fullerton: The French Revolution: This faculty-maintained website provides a brief overview of the role of women in the French Revolution.
California State University Chico: The French Revolution and Women’s Rights: This site provides the complete outline and lecture for the college level lesson on women and the French Revolution as presented in history courses at this college.
Ohio State University: The French Revolution: This site offers a variety of lesson plans regarding the French Revolution.
University of South Dakota: Women and the French Revolution: This site discusses how women sought greater social equality during the French Revolution.
University of California Santa Barbara: British Newspaper Coverage of the French Revolution: This college website provides direct online links to actual newspaper articles published in British newspapers during the time of the French Revolution.
Fordham University: French Revolution: This college website provides direct links to a variety of documents from the French Revolution.
Hanover College History Department: The French Revolution: This site offers a compilation of texts written about the French Revolution as well as the original wording of texts written during the French Revolution including the Declaration of the Rights of Women written in 1791 by Olympe de Gouge.
Carnegie Mellon University: Historical Evidence and Interpretation: The French Revolution: A Resource Guide: This site provides links to a variety of media related to the French Revolution including books, music, videos, pictorial guides, and other documents.
University of Chicago: Pamphlets and Periodicals of the French Revolution of 1848: Maintained by the university’s Center for Research Libraries, the website provides direct access to copies of original documents from the French Revolution era.
Library Think Quest: French Revolution: This website offers a timeline of the French Revolution, multimedia presentations, and biographies of the revolution’s leading characters including women.
The National Archives: The French Revolution: This is a series of classroom lessons and activities regarding the French Revolution provided by the United Kingdom’s Education Department.
The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History: The French Revolution: This website contains a collegiate lecture on the French Revolution.
Quercy: Olympe de Gouges, a Daughter of Quercy: This website is the English version of a French essay written about this woman who was a central figure in the French Revolution.
Women Philosophers: Olympe de Gouges: This website contains her life history and a listing of writing credited to her.
Blackeney Manor: Charlotte Corday: A brief life history of this prominent woman of the French Revolution is listed at this website.
Executed Today: 1793, Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess: This landing page of this website, which features information about historical figures based on the day they were executed, offers a historical look at Charlotte Corday, the killer of French politician Jean-Paul Marat.
Marie Antoinette: Marie Antoinette online: This website solely dedicated to the memory of this former queen of France features a biography, list of books written about her, a gallery of reproduced paintings of her, and the scandalous story behind a 2,800 carat diamond necklace that Antoinette refused to purchase but was coveted by another member of the royal court.
PBS: Marie Antoinette: This site features a timeline of her life, a look at her role in the royal court, and a description of the revolution as included in a film produced for and featured on PBS television stations.
History: Bastille: This website representing the History television channel features a variety of information regarding the former French prison and how it was taken by force by the rebellious French commoners as they demanded reform.
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