Even after more than two centuries, the French Revolution leaps out of the history books with all the energy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Those ten turbulent years at the birth of modern Europe are filled with dramatic plot twists, memorable set pieces, and a cast of irrepressible characters. Through the gunsmoke we see Maximilien Robespierre being led to the guillotine, destroyed by the terror he helped unleash. There’s the murdered journalist and demagogue Jean-Paul Marat, slumped in his bathtub. And, of course, there’s hapless King Louis XVI, bungling one crisis after another as his country tears itself apart.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that these popular images of the Revolution, for all their drama and tragedy, provide a complete picture of the events. The story of the French Revolution as we know it is above all the story of French men during the Revolution. As for the other half of the country, their actions and experiences during this momentous era are rarely told and poorly understood. It’s revealing that of the two women commonly associated with the Revolution – Marianne, symbol of the nation and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France – one is a bare-chested male fantasy while the other is a two-dimensional caricature of effeminate ditz.
Unsurprisingly, such portrayals are far from accurate. Whether it was as thinkers, writers, reformers, or activists, women played a number of important roles that shaped the course of the Revolution. It was a woman, after all, who assassinated Marat. The political activist Charlotte Corday was horrified by the journalist’s bloodthirsty support for the guillotine and calls for mass executions, and claimed that she ‘murdered one man to save one hundred thousand.’ And it was a woman, Marie Gouze, who first criticised the sexist and contradictory nature of Robespierre’s beloved Declaration of the Rights of Man.
However, their accounts – their revolution – and those of many other women have all too often been ignored, sidelined, or actively silenced – dismissed as decoration or as incidental anecdotes of history.
When it comes to the French Revolution, we’ve only heard half the story.
The Declaration of Rights of Women
The other half of the French Revolution could be said to begin, appropriately enough, with an angry crowd. On a rainy Monday morning in October 1789, an extraordinary sight could be seen in the French capital. Thousands of women were marching through the boulevards of Paris armed with pikes, hunting knives and even a few cannons. They were heading to Versailles, the seat of royal power.
This remarkable scene began just a few hours earlier, when a few working-class women in the markets of eastern Paris were protesting the scarcity and cost of bread. This in itself was unremarkable: food shortages were a serious and perennial concern for much of France at this time. A single loaf of bread, if one could be found, could cost as much as four-fifths of a woman’s daily earnings.
In the febrile, uneasy streets of Paris (only three months had passed since the storming of the Bastille) the number of protesters soon began to swell. After ransacking the city hall for bread and weapons, they turned their sights on the palace of Versailles, determined to get an audience with Louis XVI. And so, in the pouring rain, they began the thirteen mile trek to the King.
“Women were in the forward ranks of the revolution. We should not be surprised at this; they suffered more”
By the time the group reached the palace six hours later, it numbered close to ten thousand and included not just women, but men and soldiers. What followed quickly became Revolution legend. First the women occupied the National Assembly – the nearest thing France had at the time to a popular government – before voicing their grievances to the King himself. Refusing to leave, a number of them managed to break into the palace, killing several guards and nearly capturing Marie Antoinette. The siege only ended when Louis XVI agreed to move the royal court back to Paris: in effect, to submit himself to the will of the Revolution. It signalled the end of absolute monarchy in France and became one of the Revolution’s first great victories.
Although this was the most significant act of female activism during the Revolution, the women’s march on Versailles was by no means a one-off. Such was the miserable state of food security in France at the time that women would play prominent roles in further food riots, even kidnapping officials in the ugly 1793 riots. “Women were in the forward ranks of the revolution,” writes the historian Jules Michelet. “We should not be surprised at this; they suffered more.”
This isn’t to say, however, that women only acted with their feet and fists. Far from it: for those who didn’t have to worry about food every day, there was enormous interest and active involvement in the politics of the Revolution. If you could get an invite, the salons of Paris were intellectual hotbeds of the late eighteenth century, where guests could debate with ‘feminist’ writers and thinkers like Etta Palm, Sophie de Condorcet and Marie-Jeanne Roland (the term should be used cautiously, since the word feminism wouldn’t be invented for another 48 years). For those who couldn’t, women’s political clubs also offered a chance to challenge, criticise, and shape contemporary politics. The clubs, which acted in a similar way to today’s advocacy groups, were a distinctive feature of Paris in the early years of the revolution.
One particularly challenging criticism came from Marie Gouze, a self-educated writer and social reformer who championed everything from the abolition of slavery to road improvements. In 1791 she published The Declaration of the Rights of Women in response to the revolutionary government’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, written two years earlier. On one level her declaration is an acidic parody of the pretensions and sexism of the Rights of Man. But it’s far more than just a caricature, for the issues she raises – from political inclusion to fair taxation – were not only remarkably forward-thinking for their time, but still stand as urgent issues of gender equality today.
The achievements of women like Gouze are even more impressive when we consider the intellectual environment of the eighteenth century. While the decades leading up to the French Revolution had seen growing interest in the rights of racial and religious minorities in France, women’s rights were not yet on the political agenda. For the average eighteenth century European, the idea of gender equality simply made no sense; after all, if a god had made men and women to be physically, intellectually, and temperamentally different, who were we to argue? It would have made as much sense to argue that animals have the same rights as man. (Perhaps more sense, even: Voltaire, dynamo of the French Enlightenment, was a vegetarian and a pioneering advocate of animal rights, yet seemed unconcerned with the miserable status of women.)
It didn’t help matters that the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the least ‘enlightened’ of Enlightenment thinkers, had been enshrined as the intellectual guiding light of the Revolution. Rousseau was a firm believer in the inferiority of women. His widely-read treatise on education proposed a varied and stimulating education for boys, only to argue that the same schooling would be wasted on girls, who were destined purely for marriage and motherhood – and, if they were lucky, the ‘feminine arts’ of needlework and dressmaking. “The woman should be weak and passive,” declared Rousseau, for she is “specially designed for man’s delight.” And this, we should remind ourselves, was hailed as some of the most progressive thinking of its day.
Despite these and other obstacles, the idea of women’s rights gradually began to make headway in the early years of the Revolution, between 1789 and 1792. The revolutionary governments made divorce legal and granted women equal rights to file for it. They also gave women and girls equal inheritance rights to family property, a stark contrast from the laws of the Ancien Régime. A few male philosophers, politicians and even newspapers began voicing their support for women’s suffrage and their right to hold office.
So why isn’t the French Revolution celebrated today as a women’s revolution? What went wrong?
Harlots and Lambs
The role of women in the French Revolution was silenced for several reasons, first and foremost being the Revolution itself. Despite legalising divorce and equal inheritance, the vast majority of male revolutionaries – and society as a whole – were hostile to the idea of women’s rights and their participation in politics. The various revolutionary governments never considered granting women the right to vote or hold office (and it wouldn’t be until 1944 that French women could do either). For many men this was a matter of principle: swallowing Rousseau’s claim that pre-revolutionary France had failed because it had become ‘soft and effeminate’, they insisted that their new republican government must embrace the ‘masculine virtues’ of ‘strength and courage.’ Women, it was thought, could only hamper such efforts.
“Don’t you have enough already? What more do you want?”
As the Revolution continued, attitudes towards women’s rights grew from hostile to openly oppressive. On the 30th October 1793, after increasing disagreements between the revolutionary government and the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, a prominent political group, all women’s clubs were outlawed in a near-unanimous vote. Only four years had passed since the march on Versailles.
Female activists and political thinkers increasingly became targets of denouncements, their actions derided as ‘female hysteria.’ The politician François Buzot was not alone in describing members of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women as “female monsters with all the cruelty of weakness and all the vices of their sex.” When women protested the closing of political clubs, the president of the Paris Council rebuffed them, saying it was “horrible – unnatural – for a woman to become a man.” He concluded his speech with a question all too familiar to many women today: “Don’t you have enough already? What more do you want?”
Things were to get worse. Four days after the ban on political clubs, Marie Gouze was branded a counterrevolutionary and guillotined. Less than a week later she was followed by Marie-Jeanne Roland. Other female activists were arrested, publicly flogged, and even locked away in insane asylums. By 1795, following another violent food riot involving both women and men, all women were banned from attending ‘any kind of political assembly’ or even gathering in groups larger than five.
Of course, women were by no means the only victims of the Revolution. Of the 17,000 or so people murdered during the hysterical ten months known as the Reign of Terror, well over 16,000 were men. However, even in the swirling paranoia of the Revolution, the blanket statements and actions of the government against women clearly imply a deliberate and targeted attack on the female sex – the idea of their political rights apparently too radical even for the most drastic revolutionaries.
The disparaging and vicious treatment of female revolutionaries would continue long after the events themselves had ended, kept alive in the work of subsequent historians. In the decades that followed the collapse of the First French Republic, the nascent idea of women’s rights died a premature death in the social conservatism of the nineteenth century. It became increasingly difficult for French women to obtain divorce, for instance, until the right was abolished altogether in 1816. Ultimately, the ideals first espoused in 1789 wouldn’t be resuscitated until the upheavals of the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871, when France would again erupt with demands for liberal reforms – and again face a conservative retaliation by the state.
“When we realise that the French Revolution was also a period of radical feminism, we begin to see how relevant they still are to the twenty-first century”
As a result of this social conservatism, most nineteenth century accounts of the French Revolution either left women in the dark or portrayed them in a very unflattering light. In a world that was happy to talk of women as either harlots or lambs, the humanity of the Revolution’s women was quickly lost. Gone were the poor mothers desperate to feed their children, or the fantastic intellects furious at the state of the world; in their place were wilting damsels and villainous crones. Writing nearly a century after the events, the French historian Hippolyte Taine seemed half-terrified of the phantoms he was conjuring up with his pen, feverishly vilifying the ‘coarse women’ of the march on Versailles (itself ‘a triumph of brutality over intelligence’) as ‘prostitutes’, ‘beggars’ and ‘foul scum … the dregs of the populace.’ It probably didn’t matter to his readers that his account was inaccurate, and that contemporary eyewitnesses described ‘well-dressed gentlewomen’ in the march; Taine was writing for a male audience that saw little reason to question their own stereotypes.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the campaigns of women in the French Revolution is how contemporary it all feels. Those popular images – the bathtubs, guillotines and kings – only tell part of the story. When we realise that the French Revolution was also a period of radical feminism, women’s marches and activism against systematic sexism, not only do we gain a greater understanding of events, but we begin to see how relevant they still are to the twenty-first century.
Still, we rarely talk about Gouze, Roland and their contemporaries when we think of feminist pioneers. They were hardly mentioned during the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches. The fact that these women were working a hundred years before the ‘first’ wave of feminism is commonly thought to have begun reveals the depth of our collective amnesia. Needless to say, this is our loss: as France and the wider world grapples with renewed struggles for women’s rights and gender equality, the women of the Revolution can still serve as an inspiration. For one thing, their experiences destroy the myth that ‘progressive’ governments are necessarily supportive of women’s rights. For another, their actions tell us to be wary of those who say women’s marches ‘won’t change anything’ – if they can help topple an absolutist regime, they can change things.
Perhaps most importantly, however, their struggles remind us of the courage and audacity required to challenge power and privilege. Textbooks tell us that the French Revolution officially ended on the 9th October 1799, as Napoleon seized power from the crumbling republican government. Yet for those of us who still aspire to a world of gender equality, the Revolution continues.
This article was originally published on Are We Europe