Women in the french revolution introduction to the french revolution

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The Enlightenment was the necessary precursor to the French Revolution. At the various salons hosted by saloniers, major discussions occurred on the need for France to be reformed in almost every area of society: the economy, the church, education, taxation, voting, serfdom, freedom of speech, etc. Historians of the French Revolution have debated for decades, which causes were the most important, but everyone agrees that it was a multi causal event of momentous proportions of war, intrigue, violence, death, starvation, unemployment, and incredible changes for not only the French people but for the people of Europe too. One of the most famous 1789 pamphlets by Abbot Sieyes summarized succinctly the frustrations of the third estate, which consisted of 98% of the population: “What is the third estate? Everything. What has it been in the political order up to the present? Nothing. What does it ask? To become something.” Later in another pamplet women will be referred to as the third estate of the third estate. Financial reasons received the most reports, but bad weather was also a factor. Not only had Louis XIV fought for over forty years in attempts to add more land to France, but these wars were worthless for only the city of Strasbourg was gained. France’s financially support of the American Revolution because they hated the British was another financial burden. With England’s successes against France in the New World and England, France’s Empire was lost. Then a series of bad harvests late in the 1780’s caused widespread distress in French cities and rural areas. Soaring bread prices left no money to buy manufactured items, so unemployment became widespread. For centuries aristocrats had not paid taxes for their privileged position. Louis XVI called the Nobles together, but they refused to cooperate. He had no other recourse, but to call the Estates-General, France’s legislative body, that had not met for over 150 years, to work out solutions. People, including women, drew up their grievances and proposals. Working women saw the erosion of guilds as threatening their economic security. No police protection was available, and too many men were trying to take over their time-honored work. Looking at the economic contributions of women at this time, will be helpful to ascertain the hardships and concerns women endured.



During the eighteenth century, as with previous centuries, working class women in the towns and countryside (peasants or serfs) economic contributions were necessary to the survival of the family. Major employment of women in towns depended on where in France they lived. In the city of Lyons silk production was the mainstay of working women. In the Northern and Central parts of France, lace making employed the largest numbers of young maidens and women both in the towns and countryside. Lace making was one of the lowest paid positions for women, and tragically many of them eventually lost their eyesight. Making thread out of both wool and cotton was also a major employer of women. A substratum of poorer females in the towns did even more horrific jobs. They carried the night soil, wood, food, and water, basically anything that was portable. In the larger cities they sorted rags, were refuse collectors, and were assistants to masons and bricklayers. Besides the usual activities on the farms that women did like milking the cows or goats, taking care of the garden and orchard, they also smuggled salt. Preservation of food was necessary when fresh items were not available, and salt was the necessary ingredient for this storage. French people had to gabelle or salt tax, which was extremely unfairly distributed. In Brittany, for instance, where salt was plentiful, the tax was nil, where in other counties, it was impossible for peasants to gather enough money to pay it. Thus, their recourse was to smuggle it. If the men were caught, they were made galley slaves, but if the women were caught, they could not be placed on the ships, so the punishment was less. There were caves where the females hid when the authorities were pursuing them. Caves were and still are omnipresent in France in certain regions. If no work was available, women took to thieving, drinking, and prostitution. All these labor intensive occupations took an enormous physical toll on the women. When all else failed women they engaged in bread or food riots to keep their families from starving. A famous saying ,“a bread riot without a woman is an inherent contradiction,” entered France and other countries. Husbands deserted their wives and children in great numbers too , before and during the French Revolution, as they were unable to support them. This was true during the Great Depression in Europe and America too in the twentieth century. England had a “poor relief “ plan to aid the destitute in the individual parishes beginning with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but France did not.


Women were involved from the beginning in the various events and activities of the French Revolution, but in smaller numbers than men. Women’s contributions came from all levels of society, whereas men’s involvement came mainly from the top tier of the third estate. The destruction of the Ancient Regime, as French Absolutism was called had several key occurrences. Louis XVI, recognizing that France was in a severe financial crisis, called the Assembly of Notables. Here the three estates met with the third estate demanding a change in the voting structure of the Estates General, the representative body for France. Each estate could cast one vote, but the first two estates voted as one since they were the wealthy churchmen and nobility. The third estate represented 98% of France from merchants and lawyers at the top to the homeless poor at the bottom. French serfs and peasants made up the majority of the Third Estate, but only owned one-third of the land, and were required to pay most all of the taxes. Back in the Middle Ages, the French nobility had voted to allow the French monarchy to have complete political control with the caveat that these top two estates not have to pay any taxes.

Once the Third Estate recognized the hopelessness of their call for change in the voting mechanism, they reassembled in the indoor tennis court, and in June 1789 vowed to not leave until they had a constitutional monarchy. They now called themselves the National Assembly. Within a month a small crowd decided to take matters into their own hands and attacked the Bastille. French historians generally have signaled the beginning of the French Revolution with the Fall of the Bastille. The Bastille was a medieval relic of a castle that housed few prisoners, but the people of Paris felt it was the symbol for absolutism. This event occurred on July 14, 1789, and is now celebrated as France’s Independence Day similar to America’s July 4th. Louis XVI then responded to this attack with some of his soldiers to gain control, but it did not work as rumors spread to the countryside in the rest of France that his army was going to attack the peasants next. This “Great Fear” resulted in the peasants rioting against their lords, burning the manorial court records, and threatening the lives of the nobility. This “Great Fear” led to two important consequences. All medieval feudal dues were abolished and the serfs were now free, but the second consequence had a tremendous impact on the working class Parisian women. With the nobility fleeing France in horror, their buying of luxurious goods came to a standstill, and severe unemployment ensued for the women lace makers, silk, wool, and cotton workers. International trade was suspended and austere fashions resulted. Elegant and bouffant dresses now were replaced by straight and untrimmed garments. The numbers of poor and poorer were growing and the National Assembly did not offer any “poor relief.” Men came to realize the problems were so immense that they could not solve them. Women, meanwhile, became preoccupied with getting enough food for their family. They rioted for bread and price controls, seized food and other goods. Women from the Parisian markets even sent a song to the National Assembly with the following words: “If the clergy, if the nobility, my good friends treat us with such rudeness and disdain, let them all fancy themselves capable of running the state while waiting, we will drink to the third estate. By October 5, 1789 women were angry and agitated. It is estimated that 7000 women marched from Paris to Versailles to demand action for their plight. According to one eye-witness account: “detachments of women [were] coming up from every direction armed with broomsticks, lances, pitchforks, swords, pistols and muskets.” Their angst was directed towards Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and heatedly called “Madame Deficit.” Her husband, Louis XVI, had lavished on her palaces and jewelry every time she had his child. Marie was the daughter of the Austrian Empress, Marie-Theresa, and France hated Austria. Many historians are now signaling that this March on Versailles was the true beginning of the revolution.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly accomplished its goal of writing a constitution, and declaring France a constitutional monarchy. The monarchs were virtually prisoners of the people when this occurred, and Louis acquiesced to the new form of government. With the demise of the nobility and absolutism, Prussia and Austria declared war on France. This confrontation expanded and soon France was fighting with the rest of Europe. This is when women of all classes contributed so much energy and their personal goods to the revolution. Bandages for the wounded soldiers were made by the women’s household linen and clothing. Women’s wedding rings were pawned for hard currency to clothe the soldiers. What was so poignant of all was the psychological and physical gifts of their sons. Banners carried by these women read: “J’ai donne un {deux, trios, quatre, cinq,) citoyen (s) a la Republique,” I have given a citizen (2-3-4-5) to the Republic.” Aristocratic women urged each other to contribute their jewelry to the King as a way out of the financial dilemma. Women were involved politically as well. Pauline Leon established the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women in May 1793. She was the wife of a prominent chocolate manufacturer. Even the French actress Claire Lacombe became involved in this organization as well as several hundred other women including some of the poor working class women. As one of the first organized interest groups of working class women, they favored egalitarian policies and price controls. Later when the Committee of Public Safety revolved into the Reign of Terror led by Robespierre, Leon’s organization became an object of suspicion. When these same women donned the red cap of revolution, and encouraged all other women to do likewise, the Jacobins who controlled the Committee of Public Safety, closed it down by October with the following inane remarks: “Since when have people been allowed to renounce their sex? Since when has it been acceptable to see women abandon the pious duties of their households, their children’s cradles, to appear in public, to take the floor and to make speeches, to come before the Senate? By now all women’s clubs and associations became illegal and again illogical statements were made by the Jacobins: “In general women are ill-suited for elevated thoughts and serious meditations…we believe woman should not leave her family to meddle in affairs of government.” Later in the nineteenth century when there was practically a revolution of the month, political clubs were formed by women. Some women even petitioned the government for them to be allowed to bear arms.


Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous English writer of the Vindication of the Rights of Women, was covered in the Chapter on First Feminist Movement in England, but deserves a few additional remarks here. When she visited France during the French Revolution period, she read the women’s viewpoints on the inequality of the genders. This obviously struck a chord in her, making her one of the most famous women during this time frame.

A few women made celebrated defenses of women’s right to “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, the famous slogan of the Revolution. Made Roland (nee Marie-Jeanne Philipon 1754-1793) was one of the true heroines of the French Revolution. She welcomed and fought for it. Marie, as the daughter of a Paris watchmaker), married an older man, Jean-Marie Roland, who worked as a factory inspector. Both Marie and her husband Jean were active Girondist leaders (the moderate group opposing the radical Jacobins). Marie helped her husband win a seat in the National Assembly by writing his speeches. As she herself stated: “I loved my country, [and] I was enthusiastic for liberty.” More promotions for her husband did not make for more protection, and ultimately the terror came to them. Marie languished in jail for over a year before she was sent to the guillotine, singing the French National Anthem Marseillaise and uttering words that immortalized both her and her pronouncements: “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in they name.” When her husband heard news of his wife’s death he committed suicide.

Olympe de Gouges, 1748-1793, a butcher’s daughter, became a playwright and writer. Early on she supported the French Revolution, but she soon recognized that “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” espoused by male revolutionaries was meant for men only. One year into the Revolution, she published Declaration of the Rights of Women”, which was modeled on the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, where all men were free and equal, freedom of speech, etc., principles outlined in the British Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution and Bill or Rights. In Olympe’s work she called on women “as mothers, daughters, and sisters, representatives of the nation to constitute themselves a National Assembly.” She then elaborated on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the general will and stated “the general will is to include female citizens too.” Rousseau did not have a high opinion of women. While her writings went largely unread and unheard of for the next one hundred and fifty years, they became the basis for the Seneca Falls Convention on Women’s Rights, and closely paralleled Wollstonecraft’s work too. Because of her political activity, she too was guillotined in 1793, but when on the platform, she yelled out to the women in the watching crowd: “What are the advantages you have derived from the Revolution?”

Germaine de Stael, 1766-1817, was a French-Swiss woman of letters. She was the daughter of Jacques and Suzanne Necker, mentioned earlier in “Women in the Enlightenment Age”. She clearly connected with her mother’s salon, absorbing its intellectual and political atmosphere. In 1786 she married Baron Stael-Holstein, a Swedish diplomat. Though moderately sympathizing with the French Revolution, she left France in 1792, but coming back during the Directory. Setting up a salon that soon attracted powerful political and intellectual people, when Napoleon came to power, she spiritedly opposed him. At one point he said to Madame de Stael: “Women should stick to knitting.” This caused her exile, and she went to her estate at Coppet on Lake Geneva, where she attracted another brilliant circle of important persons. Writing novels with great success, soon led to Napoleon’s ordering the destruction of the entire first edition (1811) of her comparison between German and French culture and mores in her book on Germany. She was already a successful published author, but this book on Germany greatly influenced European thought and letters of German romanticism. There are English translations of most of her works.

Probably the most famous woman during the French Revolution era was Josephine (1763-1814), who became the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and later the Empress of the French in 1804 when he crowned both himself and her. Her first husband was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. When she married Napoleon he was a little-known artillery officer, but she became an important component in his rise to fame and fortune. Her political and social connections gave Napoleon the opportunity to put his career on the fast track to success. Josephine was born in Martinique, in the French West Indies. She went to France in 1779 after marrying a rich young army officer, Viscount Alexander de Beauharnais. When he was executed by the guillotine, she was left to raise their two children. As a widow reportedly she was mistress to several leading political figures, but when Napoleon met her (she was six years older than he was), her grace and charm attracted Bonaparte , and her political connections were an added bonus. One of the early letters to her remarked: “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures have left no rest to my senses.” In 1796 they married. Many of Napoleon’s letters to her are still extant today, while few of hers have been found. We know that Josephine was less in love than Napoleon, so maybe they do not exist. After her marriage, she apparently had an affair, and this cooled Napoleon’s ardor. Unfortunately the marriage was childless and Napoleon wanted a son. In 1810 he arranged for the nullification of his marriage to Josephine on the grounds that a parish priest had not been present at the ceremony. Other sources say that it was a mutual separation . Soon thereafter Napoleon married Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. The French Senate awarded Josephine a large annuity, and she retired to the chateau at Malmaison, near Paris. Napoleon was a frequent visitor there. Josephine loved roses, and she set out to grow every variety in existence. Within a short time there were over 250 varieties at Malmaison, where only twenty years earlier Linnaeus could only identify twenty rose varieties. Later her daughter, Hortense, married Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, and she became the mother of Napoleon III, who would later rule France. Her son Eugene was an able and loyal general under Napoleon. Josephine died at Malmaison in 1814, and Napoleon was greatly saddened. Through Josephine’s own children, she is a direct ancestor of the present heads of the royal houses of Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden. Consequently her connections carried on for centuries.


Women during the revolutionary era became leaders in scorning the Catholic Church’s wealth and disinterest in their plight. Their local parish priest was acceptable, but then they were not included in the First Estates, made up of high clergy who had immeasurable wealth. However, once the Church lost power at the end of the Revolution, (church land was confiscated), then women were instrumental in bringing back the Church to France. Historians speak of renewed vigor of the church that trickled up from below. Women forces Churches to reopen even in cities that were extremely anti-clerical like Paris. Catholicism of 1795 and beyond became visceral. Women queued to have their tongues scraped free of contamination of masses of Constitutional Priests. Wives of fishmongers scrubbed out the parish church that had been purchased by their husbands cheaply for use as a fish market. The Catholic Church became for the women the symbol of traditional values and customs where babies were baptized, and weddings and funerals took place.


Once lauded for establishing civil equality among all men, feminist critics at the time of its inauguration and now have objected to many of its provisions. What was so detrimental to women? Napoleon directed that the writers of the Code look back in history to the Republic days of Ancient Roman History, not the Empire Days when women were gaining more rights. In the Republic days of ancient Rome, the patriarchal structure was in place. Napoleon thought the world would be a better place if the men ruled over everyone. His philosophy of women was that they should be “confined to bed, family, and church.” In the Roman Empire time frame, women possessed excessive dowries and inheritances to control men, including using their sexuality to further ensnarl men. France thus needed to form the law of family around a strong patriarchal man. Napoleon also thought that the Western beliefs of how a woman was treated were all wrong. Easterners treated their women the correct way.

Women now acquired the nationality of their husbands upon marriage. Residence after the wedding was determined by the husband. Women could no longer participate in law suits, serve as witnesses in court, or as witnesses to civil acts such as births, deaths, and marriages. Men were no longer susceptible to paternity suits as unwed mothers were prohibited from bringing lawsuits to establish paternity of their children. Without these lawsuits, child support was automatically denied. Adultery was now only a crime if committed by the wife, not the husband. The female adulterer was punished by imprisonment and fines, unless her husband relented and took back his wife. No such sanctions were suffered by the husband, unless they brought their new sexual partner into the home. Women had no control over any property, even if they married under contract that ensured a separate account for the dowries. Husbands had administrative control of the funds. Wages that wives made went directly to their husbands. If working class women wanted to engage in business, they could not do so without permission from their husbands. Once a woman gained permission, she did acquire legal status and could be sued, but her profits went to her husband. When the business woman died, her property passed to her husband’s descendants not hers.

The one positive part of the code for women was that equal inheritance was not granted to sisters and brothers. The Napoleonic Code influenced many legal systems in Europe and the New World. As Napoleon conquered other countries of Europe, and placed his relatives on the respective thrones, the Napoleonic Code went there too. Even the Louisiana Territory in the United States used the Napoleon Code of Laws, and the state of Louisiana still uses it today. Comments from women ensued: “From the way the Code treats women you can tell it was written by men.” Publications by women protested the sudden repression of the Napoleon Code. Women publicly burned the Code when its Centennial was celebrated in 1904. Slowly women over the century regained back some of the restrictions of the Code, but it was not until the twentieth century. France was one of the last European nations to grant women the right to vote – in 1945.

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