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1 Courtney Peloso History 492 Dr.

Hughes November 23, 2006 The Role of Women in the French Revolution Liberty, equality, fraternity. Revolutionaries during the French Revolution preached, fought, and died to make these principles a reality in France. Beginning with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and lasting until Napoleon’s coup against the Directory in 1799, the French Revolution was a period of intense discontent, unrest, and change. The Revolution transformed France from the corporate society of the Old Regime to the authoritarian state led by Napoleon Bonaparte, changing the nation in many ways during the process. French society emerged from the Revolution much more egalitarian, with the exception of Napoleon. The right to vote and thus influence their government was granted to all adult males, though to varying degrees of effectiveness during different Revolutionary phases. This idea of popular sovereignty was an improvement from the absolutist monarchy of the Old Regime, where the centralized government under the king made all major decisions without consultation of the people. However, suffrage was never made entirely equal during the French Revolution; one important group was excluded – women. Although women played a crucial role through their work as salonnières and other Revolutionary activism, by the end, women had gained little ground in reaching equality with men. By the end of the Revolution, women were still, and arguably more than ever, seen as unfit for politics and meant for domestic work only. During this period of intense social and political change centered upon equality, the feminist movement grew dramatically, with women continuously calling for their political rights, but to no avail.

2 The importance of women to the Revolutionary cause can be seen clearest in their positions as salonnières. The salons hosted by French aristocratic women were essentially an Old Regime institution, which adapted to the changing times of the Revolution.1 Salons were hosted by a small group of aristocratic women who both knew and admired one another.2 Contrary to belief of the men who frequented the salons and to what some historians believe, salonnières did not open salons as a way to associate themselves with the powerful and brilliant male figures in France. Rather, these aristocratic women were concerned with their own education. As historian Dena Goodman says, “The initial and primary purpose of Enlightenment salons was to satisfy the self-determined educational needs of the women who started them.” 3 For example, Suzanne Necker, wife of Jacques Necker, was first concerned with her own education and the education of her fellow women above all else, applying her principle of paying attention to the time spent in her salon. Necker believed that “The great secret of conversation is continual attention,”4 and through making sure the men who attended her salon obeyed this principle, she created a place solely focused on the development, exchange, critique, and collaboration of ideas.5 Becoming a salonnière was a career for women that required a long apprenticeship before becoming independent and opening one’s own salon. Salonnière falls under the category of careers because it involved firm commitment and life-long work, but these women did not gain economically. The benefits they assumed through the social gatherings in their salons were purely intellectual. Steven D. Kale, French Salons (John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 3 Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 74 3 Goodman, The Republic of Letters, p. 76 4 Suzanne Necker, Mélanges (Paris, 1798), 3:297 5 Goodman, The Republic of Letters, p. 81
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3 These gatherings were central to le monde, or high society. During the Old Regime, topics of discussion at these salons included literature, art, fashion, and business, which were the important issues concerning the elites of the day. Enlightenment ideas and theories were also popular subjects of discussion. During the Old Regime, these salons were centers of literary and artistic criticism, known for the intelligence, wit, and good manners existing there.6 The good manners that were an essential characteristic of French salons during the Old Regime were emphasized and monitored by the female hostesses of these gatherings. To ensure the smooth functioning of the salon, aristocratic women applied the rules of polite conversation to the discussions. The salonnières served as mediators, managing the debate and discussion between the men attending the salon gatherings.7 The rules imposed by salonnières were intended to maintain the respectability and propriety of these institutions.8 However, according to historians such as Alan Charles Kors, the rules of polite conversation that were so important to the salonnières limited the free speech, truth, and debate that should have been part of salon discussion. Among the rules that the women emphasized were the impoliteness of pessimism, questioning the women’s religious beliefs, and quarreling, especially when done in a sincere and unrelenting manner.9 The ability of women to control and monitor the events at their salon meetings was a source of power and prestige for women of Old Regime society. Amelia Gere Mason, The Women of the French Salons (The Worldwide School, 2000), Chapter XVII 7 Kale, French Salons, p. 3 8 Goodman, The Republic of Letters, p. 59. Some critics claim that the propriety emphasized by the salonnières was hypocritical due to their improper actions, such as acting scandalously by taking lovers. These critics, such as Alan Charles Kors, say that these women applied the rules of polite conversation for their own selfish ends, including the praise and glory resulting from running a proper, respectable salon. 9 Alan Charles Kors, D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton, 1976), p. 92

4 One of the key characteristics of the salons of French mondanité, or society life, was the avenue of sociability they provided. Salons provided for sociability between the sexes, with women as hostesses and men as attendants. However, sociability was not only encouraged between the sexes, but between different classes of people as well. During the Old Regime, society was structured hierarchically, through a corporate system of Estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy, the Second of the nobility, while the Third constituted the rest of society. Through a strict system of privileges, the First and Second Estates held power in Old Regime society, with little allowance for social mobility. The French salons, although hosted by women of the aristocratic class, were attended by members of the bourgeoisie as well. The bourgeoisie, although wealthier than the other sections, the working class and the peasantry, were still members of the Third Estate. The presence of the bourgeoisie at the aristocratic salons allowed for an intermingling between the classes and the clash of their ideals, as well.10 For the nobility, courage, honor, reputation, and prestige were important qualities. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, valued virtue, honesty, and merit. The bourgeoisie attendants of the aristocratic salons played a significant role in the discussion of Enlightenment ideas, as they were influenced more by its principles than the aristocracy was. When the Revolution broke out in 1789, the makeup of French salons and their function changed. Although it did not alter the salon’s status as an institution for elite socialization, the Revolution did modify the topic of conversation. The Revolution politicized the salons of French society, allowing the salonnières and the participants, or habitués, to combine the critical reflection of the Enlightenment with politics, helping to

Kale, French Salons, p. 10

5 shape public opinion to embrace Revolutionary ideas.11 The conversations in the salon became more opinionated and argumentative, but for the most part the old rules of polite conversation persisted. The adaptive nature of French salons due to its anchorage to cultural norms allowed these public institutions to persist throughout the societal change of the early French Revolution. The basic features of the salon, including location within luxurious aristocratic homes, female control, and select guest lists, remained the same as the Revolution took hold. French salons also had the advantage of being flexible institutions whose size, location, and function could easily be altered, adding to the reason for the persistence of the salons throughout times of change.12 The outbreak of the Revolution changed the topic of conversation from philosophical, Enlightenment discussion to a more political agenda. Although many salonnières tried to keep political discussion to a minimum within their salons, keeping the discussion centered upon literary works and philosophy, most were forced to concede. Society was becoming increasingly politicized and it was these political issues men wished to discuss when gathered at a salon. Some salonnières, such as Madame Necker, who dealt with her daughter, Madame de Stael’s political friends and those of her politically active husband, tried to preserve the philosophical nature of her salon by scheduling certain times where political issues could not be discussed.13 Others, such as Madame Roland, welcomed the politicization of their salons, allowing them to become the rallying points of different political parties.14 Although a salon normally developed a certain clientele holding similar

Kale, French Salons, p. 46 Kale, French Salons, p. 3 13 Kale, French Salons, p. 48 14 Mason, The Women of the French Salons, Chapter XVII
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6 political views, they were not as strictly divided as political clubs. To diversify the habitués, a salonnière could simply expand or alter her guest list.15 Unlike other salonnières, Madame Marie-Jeanne Roland allowed her salon, which she hosted at the Hôtel britannique on the rue Guénégaud, to become extremely politicized. Roland’s salon developed into more of a political conference than a traditional salon.16 According to Laure Abrantès, Roland’s salon was a “center” that aided in the “centraliz[ation]” of the Girondin faction of republican ideology. 17 The “inner circle” of the Girondin, including Brissot, Barbaroux, and Buzot, made up the group of regulars that frequented Madame Roland’s salon. Her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, who served as minister of the interior in 1792 when the notoriety of the Roland salon was at its peak, was another important member of the Girondin party. Although Madame Roland’s salon was mostly made up of the regular attendants, the central figures of the Girondin party, other well-known guests could occasionally be seen at that venue, including Maximillien Robespierre and Marquis de Condorcet. Females were excluded from the guest list of the Roland salon, save for Madame Roland herself.18 Many of the political ideas the Girondin presented at the National Assembly originated and were worked out in the home of Madame Roland.19 Madame Roland also differed from the salonnières of the past, as well as some of her contemporaries, such as Madame de Stael, in that she did not, for the most part, take a direct part in the conversations held in her salon. She sat quietly on the outskirts of the Kale, French Salons, p. 49-50 Kale, French Salons, p. 55 17 Laure Junot Abrantès, Salons rèvolutionnaires (Paris: France Empire, 1989), p. 87 18 Kale, French Salons, p. 55 19 Mason, The Women of the French Salons, Chapter XVII
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7 conversation, all the while paying close attention to what was discussed. Of herself, Roland said, “[t]his disposition suited me perfectly; it kept me abreast of things in which I took an active interest, but I never went beyond the limits imposed upon my sex.”20 Madame Roland prided herself on keeping with the principles of aristocratic propriety expected of women of her social stature. This difference between women such as de Stael and Roland derives more so from differences in background rather than a difference in personality. Madame de Stael was of aristocratic origin, while Madame Roland was born to a bourgeoisie family. This accounted for a difference in the way these women saw themselves; de Stael saw herself as a very public person, and therefore became an “instrument of political activism” in her salon, while Roland believed women should not outspokenly “contribute to political work.”21 During her trial on November 8, 1793, when repeatedly asked to admit she was the “director” of a secret society whose purpose it was to further the Federalist cause, she insisted that she had only “engaged in casual, public conversation” and worked as her husband’s secretary while his political friends were guests in her home and salon. Her insistence of this was to no avail, however, because she was indicted for counterrevolutionary conspiracy because of her letters and the “private conversations” she denied having.22 Although she claims to have not actively participated in much of the political discussion held in her home, Madame Roland was the “soul of the Gironde.” 23 Historians of the period such as Abrantès and Dominique Godineau are not convinced of Roland’s Kale, French Salons, p. 56 Kale, French Salons, p.57 22 Carla Alison Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 7-9 23 Madame Roland & Edward Gilpin Johnson, The Private Memoirs of Madame Roland (A.C. McClurg & Co. Publishers), p. 14
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8 silence. Godineau insists that Madame Roland “not merely received company but directed the discussions and exerted a real influence on the guests.”24 Similarly, Abrantès argues that even in silence, Roland forced “her hidden direction” upon the men that attended her salon gatherings, thus making her an integral part of the ideas that constituted laws later becoming part of the civil code in France.25 Also along these lines, Madame Roland was seen to have a great influence on her husband, and therefore an impact on his political work of minister of the interior. In September of 1792, Georges Jacques Danton ridiculed Monseigneur Roland when it was proposed to the National Convention that he continue to hold the position of minister of the interior by saying, “I suggest that if you invite him to be Minister, you should also extend the invitation to Madame Roland, for everyone knows that he was not alone in his department!” Jean-Paul Marat, a journalist associated with the radical Jacobin faction, used Madame Roland as a way of assaulting the Girondin. He claimed that it was she, rather than her husband, who actually ran the Ministry of the Interior. He related her to the then hated Queen Marie Antoinette, saying that she “was a siren who distributed her favors to her most submissive adorers.”26 Besides working as salonnières, women played other significant roles in revolutionary activism during the French Revolution. Before the Estates General met in May of 1789, King Louis XVI called for people of all classes of society to draw up cahiers de doléances, which were essentially letters of complaint and grievance, telling the government what they would like changed. Most women did not participate in the Dominique Godineau, The Women of the French Revolution (University of California Press, 1988) 25 Abrantès, Salons rèvolutionnaires, p. 68 26 Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 119

9 development of the cahiers de doléances, with the few known ones of female authorship originating in the religious communities and trade societies. However, women did participate in creating unofficial grievances in the form of political pamphlets and other publications. These pamphlets reveal a lot about the state of feminist ideology in France at the time. Some pamphlets call for a return to the “old system of moral justice,” while others show an increasing desire to call out for the rights of women. The working class women of France desired more freedom within the market and release from the constraints of the laws of the Old Regime. In addition to the right to freely practice their respective trades, these Third Estate women also appeal to their King for the right to an education, both in the moral and practical sense. For example, they discuss the tragedies that befall an uneducated girl in society, who “easily becomes the prey of a seducer, only to fall into licentious ways.”27 One of the most important roles women played during the French Revolution was their participation in the events of October 1789. This was an essential time in the Revolution, where its fate truly hung in the balance.28 During the previous summer, women began to engage in “dress rehearsals for the march to Versailles” through processions monitored by the National Guard. These female marchers were showing the rest of French society that they had the right to participate in public affairs of their concern. These “rehearsals” led up to the events of October 5, 1789. October of 1789 was a time of increasing food shortage, with many people living at or under the subsistence level. The shortage of bread was a cause for great concern for the women of France, as it was their responsibility to ensure their families were fed and cared
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Landes, Women and the Public Sphere, p. 107-109, Women and the Revolution, p.1

10 for. This food shortage was leading to increasing discontent among the Third Estate. As the people were reaching their breaking point, rumor arose that the King’s revolutionary guards were planning to begin counterrevolutionary activity. Already enraged due to the food shortage, this was the final push for the women of Paris. The Parisian women took up a march to the palace of Versailles, where the king and his family were located, with the intent of demanded bread. During the difficult twelve mile march from the city to the palace, the crowd following the women grew and grew, amounting to several thousand people.29 When they finally arrived in Paris, the crowd had grown increasingly chaotic, with the participants eventually breaking into the National Assembly as well as the royal apartments. When appealing to the King for bread, they referred to him as the “baker” and Marie Antoinette as the “baker’s wife.” They succeeded in achieving a promise of food from the King, as well as his promise to move his royal family back to Paris so as to prevent further bloodshed.30 On the night of October 5, the women entered the National Assembly, taking over the discussions, exerting again, there power to be involved in public matters of their concern. They continuously called upon the deputies of the Assembly to discuss the issue that caused the most discontent at the time – the food shortage. By doing so, the women were showing their “right to legislate directly, backing up the law with armed force if need be.”31 This first riot and demand for food preceded other bread riots that would occur later in the Revolution, including those of February 1792 and February 1793.32, Women and the Revolution, p.1 Landes, Women and the Public Sphere, p. 110 31 Landes, Women and the Public Sphere, p. 110 32, p. 2
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11 The fight for political rights for women in French society grew through the increasing amount of material of female authorship published during the Revolution. Women produced various kinds of written material during this time; they “wrote in every genre and from all sides of the political spectrum.”33 During the Revolution, women found a “new public voice” in the production of written material.34 The written word provided a way in which these women could make there ideas public and spread them to others in society. This new voice through the written word was one of the primary ways women during the French Revolution tried to make their quest for equality and political rights a reality. One of the most important publications dealing with women’s rights during produced in Revolutionary France was the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, written by Marie Gouze, better known as Olympe de Gouges. De Gouges wrote this declaration in September of 1791 in response to the earlier Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In her declaration, de Gouges discusses the “natural, inalienable rights of women.” She insists that women should be included in the promises that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to the men. De Gouges calls for equality of justice and the right to participate in the political sphere of French society. In this document, she also calls for the creation and protection of the rights of women and children, including those born out of wedlock.35 She did not gain a lot of support for this document, but she did however create a name for herself through it publication. She remained one of the forerunners of feminist political activism until her execution in 1793.36 Hesse, The Other Enlightenment, p. 54-55 Hesse, The Other Enlightenment, p. 33 35 Landes, Women and the Public Sphere, p. 124-127 36, p. 2
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12 Some feminists of the French Revolution were bold enough to set up their own political clubs, such as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, which was established in the spring of 1793. Like the salonnières, the women who participated in these political clubs desired to gain a political education. Surprisingly, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women did not fully endorse complete political rights for women. Instead, they focused on at least granting women the right to express a political opinion at all, striving to demolish the stereotype that women were unfit for political discussion. This society wanted to ensure that women could speak to the political authorities and have their needs met by their representatives.37 In October of 1793, the government of the Terror banned continuation of and the establishment of new political clubs for women. The government was unsettled by the idea of women having an active voice in political discussion. Many of the outspoken participants of clubs such as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women and attendants of the salons were executed during the Terror. They were accused of engaging in counterrevolutionary activities.38 The ideas of liberty and equality, which were central to the Revolutionary cause in France, led to an increased interest in women’s rights. Although there was no feminist revolution that took place during the French Revolution, feminist ideas were spread and women were more inclined to support and be advocates of these ideas. However, ultimately, by the end of the Revolution, French women had not succeeded in gaining political rights within the nation, such as suffrage. Not once during the Revolution had women been enfranchised. The right to vote, and politics on the whole, were still seen as a
37 38, p.2, p. 3

13 masculine area. Under Napoleon’s post Revolutionary government, women were, more than ever, seen as fit only to work in the home. Napoleon himself believed in the importance of women to domestic life, and her lack of importance in political life.39 Even though women did not succeed in legally gaining the right to participate in politics, they did succeed in furthering the feminist cause. Feminist ideas were everywhere during the Revolution, published by authors such as de Gouge and discussed by women within political parties, such as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. The outpouring of feminist ideology during the French Revolution helped to shape and advance the overall feminist movement within Europe. The ideas published by French women, as well as the points made by those who engaged in all types of Revolutionary activism, proved the power of women. Although not recognized by the male dominated government of their time, the power of women shown through their involvement in the French Revolution increased the feminist movement within France.40

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Hesse, The Other Enlightenment, p. 55 Hesse, The Other Enlightenment, p. 55