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The Role of Women in the French Revolution

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The Role of Women in the French Revolution

Sarah A.Butt
Western Civilization
3rd March 2010

The French revolution, which began in 1789, was a period of hatred and blood. It was a period of political upheaval of the country, and of world importance in France. Issues of rights and equality has always been a heated debate in the world, however, during the French Revolution, equality was the main exhilarating and impassioned concept that was put into matter and effect. The French Revolution, was the period of revolutionaries revolting for liberty and equality, failed to provide equals rights as French men for the French women. Even though, women played a significant role during the French Revolution, they however did not get the respect in their society, neither were they treated equally as men. In spite of their vibrant contribution throughout the Revolution, their involvements always proved contentious.
The eighteen century was a period of revolutionaries, and feministic activities. One of the main causes of the further turmoil in France was the Austrian wife of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette. In the beginning, Marie Antoinette was loved by the commoners, as she would always help them when they would get accidentally shot by Louis XVI during his hunting. However, after when Antoinette’s frivolous spending habits started to arose, people were extremely infuriated. She would squander their taxes and hard work on gambling, and wearing the most fashionable clothes, subsequently she was called “Madame Deficit” (Schama 225). While, the third estates, especially the commoners prayed for bread, Antoinette would live comfortably in her palace. However, during the French Revolution, she became the symbol of hatred, and was ultimately sentenced to be put under the guillotine.
Furthermore, it was the women who were behind the capture of Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette from their palace in Versailles. During the Revolution, as the political turmoil intensified, economic crises also began to deepen, with the bread price rising significantly. This angered the commoners, as they were well-aware of the luxurious life the King and the Queen were spending inside their palace. Therefore, in October 5, 1789, the women of Paris marched to the royal palace in Versailles, and forced the King and his family to move to Paris, where the people would have a better chance on keeping an eye on their activities.
Women gathered to march to Versailles to demand an accounting from the King. “They trudged the twelve miles from Paris in the rain, arriving soaked and tired. At the end of the day and during the night, the women were joined by thousands of men who had marched from Paris to join them” (Introduction to the French Revolution). Following this event, the King was forced to accept constitutional monarchy. Instantaneously, women as revolutionaries became a prevailing symbol of the power of the Revolution, but not in the eyes of men.
Following the assassination of Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday furthered an extra fervor to the Revolution; conversely, she also ended up in the guillotine. She is responsible for the murder of Jean-Paul-Marat, who was a journalist, and the leader of radical Montagnard faction during the French Revolution. This was the most dramatic individual act of resistance to the Revolution. “Marat published a newspaper, The Friend of the People, that violently denounced anyone who opposed the direction of the Revolution; he called for the heads of aristocrats, hoarders, unsuccessful generals, and even moderate republicans, such as Condorcet, who supported the Revolution but resisted its tendency toward violence and intimidation” (Introduction to the French Revolution). It is know that Corday was greatly disturbed by the gory events in her country, and wanted to do something to resolve it. During the same time, Marat had been regularly publishing names of the people to be put under the guillotine. When he marched into the hall of the National Convention, he demanded another execution of the twenty-two Girond elected representatives. Finally, Corday decided that the Revolution has gone so far, and on July 13 1793, Corday arrived to Paris. She pretended to go meet him in order to provide him with a list of names of some Gironds who could be dangerous. Marat who suffered from a disease was in a bath of medicinal herbs. Just then she stabbed him on his chest. However, she was caught by his attendants before she could escape. Marat became a symbol of the Revolution, and Corday was sentenced to guillotine, where on her trial she asserted, “I told my plans to no one. I was not killing a man, but a wild beast that was devouring the French people” (Loomis 149). However, the vainness of Corday’s act did not weaken the role of women in the French Revolution.
Although, men refused to have the same political rights as women, however, many women activists and unidentified women shaped the route of the revolution. One of the first works which helped in combating the callous attitude towards women was by Olympe de Gouges. She published the Declaration of the Rights of Women, which served as a wake-up call for the French Women. In her work, de Gouges declared that, “woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights,” (Declaration of the Rights of Women 341-343). Her document stated that women should have the same political rights as the men. Her real name was Marie Gouze, and she used this pen name to avoid persecution. Unfortunately, yet again, the women were not provided the rights. She was identified through the political activism, and in 1793 she suffered persecution at the guillotine (Finch 152). The consequence was the elimination of women from citizenship, and also the privilege to be elected to the Parliament.
Even after failing in achieving their rights, women started to form clubs to assemble ways to attain their rights, and liberty. It was not only citizenships rights that the women were fighting for; they also wanted the same rights to education, and employment. Women's participation during the French Revolution was not just limited to rioting and demonstrating. Women contributed to the meetings of political clubs and played a very active role which led both men and women soon agitated for the guarantee of women's rights. During the Revolution, most women acted in more collective manner to endeavor to guarantee food for their families. They also contributed a lot over the concern of rising price of food which led to riots in February 1792 and again in February 1793. These riots often began at the door of shops in which women usually played a prominent role, demanding lower prices. Women associated themselves into their own political clubs to form riots and to fight for women rights. “The best known of these was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women established in Paris in May 1793” (Primary Sources for the French Revolution).
In July 1790 a leading intellectual, Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, published a newspaper article in full support for women rights in politics. It caused another agitation. In the article, he asserted that “France's women should enjoy equal political rights with men” (Primary Sources for the French Revolution.). They launched a campaign for women's rights and met in a group called the Cercle Social (social circle). The group specifically focused on women issues in civil equality in the areas of divorce and property. One of the leading and most active woman in the area of women's rights was the Dutch woman Etta Palm d'Aelders who denounced the discrimination against women that refused to give women equal rights in marriage and in education. The members of the group the Cercle Social later also demanded and argued for a liberal divorce law and reforms in inheritance laws as well. As the women revolutionaries became stronger, they were seen as threats to some of the officials. Therefore, in 1793, one of the main women committee, called the Society of Revolutionary Women was shut down. This deeply angered the women, for they never achieved the same respect and privileges that the French male citizens did.
Women never gained full political rights during the French Revolution as none of the assemblies ever granted political rights to women. Women were not even allowed to vote or hold office. But this did not stop women from continuing to participate in various other important forms. Women actively rioted over the price of food and joined clubs organized by women. They also took parts in different movements against the Revolution and in the rebellion in the west of France against the revolutionary government.
Even though, women played a significant role during the French Revolution, they however did not get the respect in their society, neither were they treated equally as men. The French Revolution, was the period of revolutionaries revolting for liberty and equality, failed to provide equals rights as French men for the French women. Male revolutionaries rejected every call for equal rights for women. But their reactions in print and in speech show that these demands troubled their conception of the proper role for women. However, after a long wait, the revolutionary governments established divorce, with equal rights for women in suing for divorce, and granted girls equal rights to the inheritance of family property.
The French Revolution which was a period of bloodshed, and politic unrest, did little to change the way men viewed the women. From the rights to citizenship, to education, and employment, and to marriages, women were not given equal rights as men. Even after failing in achieving their rights, women started to form clubs to assemble ways to attain their rights, and liberty. It was not only citizenships rights that the women were fighting for; they also wanted the same rights to education, and employment. Although, the French Revolution was a notable period of continuous women contributions, it failed to provide the respect the women revolutionaries fought for.

Works Cited

De Gouges, Olympe. “Declaration of the Rights of Women.” “Western Civilization: A Brief History” Marvin Perry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.341-343.

Finch, Allison. Women’s Writing in Nineteenth-Century France. Madrid, Spain: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

"Introduction to the French Revolution." Tucson Unified School District Educational Technology. Web. 01 Mar.2010. < nch_revolution.htm>

Loomis, Stanley. Paris in the Terror: June 1793 - July 1794. New York, NY, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964.

"Modern History Sourcebook: Olympe De Gouge: Rights of Women." FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 27 Feb. 2010. <>.

"Primary Sources for the French Revolution." The CAVE. Web. 17 Feb. 2010. <>

Schama, Simon. Citizens. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. NY, 1989.

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