Women in the French Revolution

In his History of the French revolution, the historian Jules Michelet wrote  « Men stormed the Bastille, women caught the king », thus emphasizing women as a driving force in prompting revolutionary developments. If the major figures of Olympe de GougesCharlotte CordayMadame Roland and Théroigne de Méricourt have never been forgotten, neither women’s condition nor their social and political expectations at that time are to be reduced to these names alone. Christine Le Bozec’s work Les femmes et la Révolution    (Women and the Revolution -1770-1830)  helps to reconsider some of the commonplace beliefs concerning the position of women and the part they played in the French revolution.

The first cliché is the alleged freedom enjoyed by women in the 18th century which revolutionaries would have attempted to limit: « It is usual, even commonplace, […] to claim that, in the 18th century, women were free, not to say liberated. The French revolution would have deprived them of their rights and of the gains and advantages they could have then claimed […]. » Those independent women had their own salons where they welcomed scientists, artists, intellectuals and philosophers. But they were not representative of the condition of women as a whole, being rather the exception to the rule.

In the same way, although most studies focused on Parisian women’s involvement, it should be stressed that « women were actually active all over the French territory », therefore women’s provincial movements should not be viewed as a mere copy of what was taking place in Paris, but, on the contrary, should be emphasized as original and unique.

  • Le Bozec C., 2019, Les femmes et la Révolution, Paris : Passés Composés.

Contrasted advancement for women

Women gained quite a number of rights in the first years of the Revolution, between 1789 and 1793. The revolutionary legislators granted them a proper civil status: civil rights and a legal identity of their own. To sum up, women were no longer underage individuals under the law. From August 1790 onwards, family courts became the only entitled institution to settle family disputes and conflicts, which was an indication of the evolution. A husband was no longer allowed, of his own will, to lock up his wife, nor even his children.

What’s more, marital law deeply changed men-women relationships. By establishing civil marriage as a legitimate civil contract in the face of religious marriage, the revolutionaries were breaking away from the tradition of marriage as an institution that could not be dissolved. Divorce, even by mutual consent, was therefore made possible.

In addition, the National Assembly proclaimed equality between wives and husbands in marital life as well as in separation. Their goal was then to grant women civil protection and encourage remarriage and birth rate by making divorce easier. Following marital law, succession law considerably improved women’s condition. The Assembly established an egalitarian inheritance system for both boys and girls in April 1791. All these laws gave birth to a household whose possessions were managed by both spouses.

Far from contributing to a setback for women’s status, the Revolution, on the contrary, helped to improve their status during the years 1789-1793: « Although that was far from being a time of full emancipation, it was nevertheless the only time when women gained civil rights, which the following regimes quickly limited. »

But, mirroring this civil advancement, women were not granted any political right. Even worse, the revolutionaries soon demonstrated a willingness to bar women from politics and restrict the political body to men alone. They were indeed refused citizenship, rather full-fledged political citizenship.

Despite the demands expressed by the “sans-culottewomen, they were actually refused the right to carry arms, to join the national guard and were not entitled to vote.  While female activists, like Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne de Méricourt, were demanding citizenship, the legislators « were clinging to their political rights, attesting the pre-eminence of a strictly male political body. » In short, the revolutionary model was autonomous civil existence for women but completely devoid of any political rights, making them « citizens without citizenship ».

From commitment to relegation from public space

However, lack of recognition did not prevent some women from taking up public space. They were indeed central to several major revolutionary events. In October 1789, they marched to Versailles to ask for bread and demand arms and ammunitions from the king and the Assembly.   Following their march, the king was taken back to Paris. That was a decisive step: « Women had just achieved a sensational appearance and a spectacular outbreak on the political scene, actually giving the Revolution a new direction. »

Furthermore, women’s political movements were gradually getting organized: fifty-six women’s clubs emerged in Paris and across the country between 1789 and 1793. Simultaneously, women were increasingly participating in popular political clubs where they were not ashamed to speak up and participate in discussions. Taking the floor for women was difficult as they were often blamed for hysterical behaviour and for « disturbing the smooth functioning of sessions ». Despite everything, their speech became more political and clubs and societies provided them with an opportunity for being heard.

As they were participating in political clubs, in popular societies and taking an active part in the major revolutionary events, female activists got quickly close to the most radical revolutionaries to demand extensive societal reforms. Activists like Pauline Léon or Claire Lacombe remain well-known for their engagement. In 1793 they founded the Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women (Société des républicaines révolutionnaires), with only female membership which put forward a great number of economic and political demands (right to vote, to carry arms).

1793 was a turning point: it was both the time when women’s movements, after achieving their organization and enjoying complete assertion, was at their peak and the time when they were being gradually  excluded from public space. It was partly the outcome of a male chauvinistic view of society, but women’s exclusion was actually a very complex issue: it was part of the National Convention’s struggle against the  “sans-culottes” and the most radical  republicans seen as would-be dangerous competitors.

Women’s movements being closely related to the most radical revolutionaries, female activists were seen as the weakest element of the radical movement, due to the widely shared sexist prejudices, shared as well by their male allies. They were therefore the first to be targeted before their male counterparts were attacked a few months later. In the fall of 1793, the Convention thereby decided to dissolve all clubs and women’s societies.

The process of relegating women from the public sphere was launched. Activists did try to resist but political repression gradually defeated them. Proof, among others, to this exclusion was the progressive elimination of « citizen » by successive governments to favour the use of « Madam » or « Miss »: the latter referred to women’s marital status while the former was too political. The process was accompanied by a significant setback of women’s rights, particularly during Restoration. However, the 1830s witnessed the emergence of women’s renewed demands, particularly for political rights and fully-fledged citizenship.

The diversity of women’s expression and needs

Nevertheless, the female activists who put forward central actions and demands did not represent the complexity of women’s general condition. They were actually a minority. The majority of women, especially from popular background, did not focus so much on political issues, their prime demands concerned their livelihood.

As a matter of fact, during the whole revolutionary decade, poor food supplies on markets, especially in Paris, was a major issue for authorities and a cause of constant concern for women. Women, being in charge of feeding their family, were often expressing their discontent, sometimes violently. Historical sources highlight the endless queues at the bakers’ or butchers’. That’s why, « driven by their concern for frumentary shortages, [they] often took part in violent hunger protests. »

Last of all, not all the women getting involved in politics were revolutionary. One should not undermine women’s important role in the Counter-revolutionary movement, and more generally, in all the movements which opposed the Revolution. Women were there in  Vendée, among the Chouans, or in all the areas where revolutionary dynamics were being fought. They were difficult to identify and were mostly evidenced, but imperfectly so, through the judiciary sources describing the way they were repressed.

Finally, women’s condition was even more complex in troubled times when political standards changed and when the traditional social structures of the  Ancien Régime collapsed. The Revolution opened up political space to social groups which used to be excluded from the political sphere. Far from being passive, women seized the opportunity and played a significant part as demonstrated by female activists, such as Olympe de Gouges. Although they were a minority, they had a decisive influence on later feminist movements.

  • Fayolle C., 2017, La femme nouvelle. Genre, éducation, Révolution (1789-1830), Paris : Éditions du CTHS.
  • Martin J.-C., 2008, La révolte brisée. Femmes dans la Révolution française et l’Empire, Paris : Armand Colin.
  • Godineau D., 1988, Citoyennes tricoteuses : les femmes du peuple à Paris pendant la Révolution française, Aix-en-Provence : Éditions Alinéa.

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet. To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Crédits images en CC: Wikimedia Commons MScharwies, Pixabay mohamed_hassan, 


Citer ce billet
Guillaume Debat (2020, 2 novembre). Women in the French Revolution. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 25 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9hh

Guillaume Debat

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès - FRAMESPA (guillaume.debat@univ-tlse2.fr)

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