The role of gender in the French Revolution
Gender and Community Development
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This paper discusses the role of gender in the French Revolution of 1789-1799. In light, it draws attention to the role of women in the French society prior to the Revolution. The unfavorable conditions subjected to women propelled them to struggle for a better living. Thus they knew their participation in the Revolution would pressurize the government to pass the laws that would improve their lives. The study used secondary sources of information such as historical books, articles as well as journals to compile exclusively the role of gender. The French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in 1799 with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens restructured and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.
Like the American Revolution before it, the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly in this study, the plight of women in the French society. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.
The role of gender: How gender roles influenced the French Revolution
The French Revolution marked the beginning of the organized participation of women in politics (R. B. Rose, 1994). Their participation in a number of uprisings prior to 1789 and even after the revolution had taken place is considered a significant aspect of the popular participation in the French Revolution. Their demands were to enjoy the same rights as that of the men, the right to vote in political elections and to hold political office. They started many clubs, reforms and their own newspapers. The Society of Revolutionary and Republican women became very famous.
Before analyzing the role of gender in the uprising, it would be important to understand the role of women in the French society prior to 1789. Women had no political rights in pre-Revolutionary France; they could not vote or hold any political office. As far as the dignity of women is concerned, it was trampled upon much more than that of a common man. They were considered to be ‘passive’ citizens who should remain at home and rely on men to decide what was best for them. It was believed that only men were capable of governing and that this was a quality that women could not imbibe. In fact women’s education often consisted of how to be a good wife and mother; as a result women were not supposed to be in the political sphere. In addition to this degrading attitude towards women, there were economic and social problems as well that essentially affected the common man as well. For instance, women belonging to the sans-culottes or peasantry suffered from problems of rising prices, low wages, unemployment, food shortage and other such conditions that resulted in extremely miserable conditions. It was these women who revolted during the revolutionary period when the economic crisis had become intertwined with the political crisis with the hope that change in the regime would lead to having a better life style. While women belonging to the more elitist or well-to-do sections of the society were concerned about their democratic aspirations, and securing political rights and some degree of equality to that of the man, the women belonging to the san-culottes were more concerned with battling their economic grievances which normally got priority over political rights.
Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions can be based only on the common utility. Moreover, equal does not mean similar. Equality here means fundamental rights, freedoms and opportunities irrespective of gender (Olympe De Gouges, Article one, 1791).Women rights were never mentioned in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen of 1789. But they did not go down without a fight and had a considerable role to play in the events of the Revolution especially through organizing the political struggle. They were generally the tenants of clubs and “salons”, where politicians and masterminds of the revolution debated and elaborated the concept of the soon to be the first Republic. For instance Robespierre was a regular of Manon Roland’s salon /club before the entire conflict between the Montagnards and the Girondines. She (Robespierre) was a very respected and influential figure. So influential in fact that through her grip of the Girondines activities, she managed to push Jean-Marie Roland de La Platiere on the fore front of the Revolution as a leader. They took up arms and constituted even half of the participants in the street riots that occurred in the 1780s, notably in the riots of the Sarthe of April and even in the Day of the Tiles 7th of June 1788 the start of the Revolution.
Women are very much credited through multiple sources of local authorities and even deputies of starting the marches, the riots and the protests so much so that a law was instituted to limit the public reunion of women to a maximum of 5 women. On the 5th of October 1789, a group of revolutionaries constituting nearly only women march towards Versailles to bring the King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Antoinette to Paris by force so they could be judged. It was a very known and symbolic event. Most of the actions occurred in Paris as most of the centres of power and authorities were established in the capital. Despite their importance of struggle of the Revolution, they were quickly evicted from all assemblies but that didn’t stop them from:
Massively attending public assemblies of any other major public event, screaming and scanting against public injustices towards them and the poorest san-culottes. They were nicknamed ‘the tricoteuses’ meaning the knitting woman because men jokingly implied that they came and stayed for too long to have an entertaining spot to proceed to knit. It is true that the poorest of the female attendees did in fact knit and this particular phenomenon probably led to those particular women popularizing the very symbolic “bonnet phrygien”.
Forming women exclusive clubs to debate the new laws and reforms and especially read them and even teach to how to read them to the poorest of the women who were members, lead activism towards full equality for divorce, the armament of women and so on.
Debating and protesting every law that excluded them from the newly born citizenship. For example wearing the famous tricolor cocarde that was a symbol of citizenship publicly, this was harshly reprimanded.
All of this also paved way for incredibly influential female writers, thinkers and political theorists that still have a major role in today’s political feminism such:
Olympe De Gauges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizens in 1791 oppositely to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 that, excluded women. Today considered as a precursor of feminism. For this she was arrested for treason, tried and later executed in 1793.
Mary Wollstoncraft, although not French was hugely inspired and influenced by the events of the revolution and even the writings of De Gauges and like her, she taught herself to read and write in several languages including French. She is mostly known for he answers to Edmund Burke, a major critic of the Revolution and notably its impact of women through her pamphlet. A Vindication of the Rights of Men, In a letter to the Right Honorable Edmund Bruke; Occasioned by His Reflection on the Revolution in France.
Jean Valret, a leader of the Enrages, played a leading role in the fall of the monarchy. When Louis XIV attempted to flee Paris, Jean Valret circulated petitions in the National Assembly and spoke against the king. On August 10, 1792, the Legislative Assembly suspended the king and called for an election of a National Convention. Even as a member of the representative government, Valret mistrusted representation and was in favour of the direct universal suffrage which could bind representatives and recall elected legislators. She sought to prevent the wealthy from expanding their profit at the expenses of the poor and called for the nationalization of all profits obtained through monopoly and hoarding.
Claire Lacombe. In 1793, Claire found the society of Revolutionary Republicans. This group was outraged by high cost of living, lack of necessities and awful living conditions. Lacombe was known for violent rhetoric actions. On May 26, 1793 she was nearly beaten to death.
Perhaps the most famous woman in the French Revolution was Marie Antoinette whose role was to be lied about in order to stir up hatred of the Monarchy and stir up a revolution (some of the lies are still presented as history today). Her children would be taken away from her for example her young son was horribly abused by the revolutionaries till he died. Earlier a friend of Antoinette with whom she was falsely accused of having a lesbian relationship with was sexually abused by a group of men and her head cut off and stuck on a stick. The head of the stick was used to taunt Antoinette.
Despite the role played by women not only in promoting a revolutionary spirit but also actively participating in assisting Bourgeoisie to consolidate their political gains, it would be wrong to think that the women were able to gain significantly from their participation in the event. While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens the question was left intermediate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Activists such as Pauline Leone agitated for full citizenship as well as democratic citizenship. Women were nonetheless denied these rights.
Sexual difference is not to be taken for granted (Joan W. Scott, 2014). She argues that the term “Universal” in the declarations of rights was a misnomer as it recognized the rights of only a certain groups in the society, mostly upper class white men. In fact she had blamed De Gauges and certain other intellectual women for perpetuating the myth that women were not able to participate in the political affairs of the country. The fact that these intellectuals argued that women possessed features such as parental and family love, courage during child birth and superior beauty tended to undermine the attempt to take part in “Universal’ citizenship.
In conclusion, the view of the above research found that women movements were critical in fueling the French Revolution. Most of the women activists were subjected to severe punishments. Olympe De Gouge’s devotion to the cause of women rights for instance led to her being charged with treason under the rule of National Convention. She was arrested, tried and later in November of 1793 executed by the guillotine.
Jean –Francos Varlet on the other hand, understood the enormous influence women possessed, particularly within the French Revolution. Varlet formed the enrages by provoking and motivating working poor women and organizing them into a semi-cohesive, mobile unit which appointed women as speakers to represent the movement in the convention. The proto-feminist in the French Revolution is credited with inspiring feminism movement in the nineteenth century and in the contemporary world.