Account of a Session of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women
Unfortunately the only first-hand account of the meetings of the women’s club comes from notes taken by Pierre–Joseph–Alexis Roussel, published in a volume of memoirs in 1802. His account makes fun of the women’s club for discussing the virtues of women as warriors and administrators. Some of the details, however, are accurate and give credibility to the overall account. The club did decide to demand a decree requiring all women to wear the national cockade (a tricolor ribbon decoration), just as he describes.
The session of this female society was held in a vaulted room, formerly used as an ossuary. The president and the secretaries were placed opposite the entrance. Two rows of benches on each side were for the members of the Society; I counted sixty-seven of them. No galleries; the curious placed themselves at the far end of the room and were separated from the club members only by a simple breast-high bar. When we came in, the session had just begun. Before describing it I will say that some of these women covered their heads with red caps, in particular the president and the secretaries. This grotesque spectacle almost choked us, because we felt constrained not to let ourselves burst out laughing. This session seemed so comical to us that we each made a separate record of it when we left, while our memories were still filled with these details. All I am doing is copying our notes.
Session of the Society of Women, Meeting in the Ossuary of the Church of Saint-Eustache, Presidency of Citoyenne Lacombe
After the reading of the minutes and of the correspondence, the president recalled that the order of the day concerned the utility of women in a republican government, and she invited the sisters who had worked on this subject to share their research with the Society. Sister Monic was given the floor and read what follows:
From the famous Deborah, who succeeded Moses and Joshua, to the two Frei sisters, who fought so valiantly in our republican armies, not a single century has passed which has not produced a woman warrior. See how Thomyris, queen of the Scythians, battles and conquers the great Cyrus; the Marullus girl chases the Turks from [Stylimene]. Catherine Lisse saves the city of Amiens; the wife of Dubarry defends Leucate against Henry III; Joan of Arc, who forced the English to flee before her, shamed them into raising the siege of Orléans, and the name of that city is added to hers.
Without my having to cite for you the individual names of these courageous female warriors, which would only serve to throw into greater relief the timidity of our sex by these rare examples of the courage of a few of them, I will remind you of the virile and warriorlike vigor of that colony of Amazons whose existence has been cast into doubt because of people's jealousy of women; I will tell you danger didn't frighten these new Roman women, who cast themselves in the midst of the cutting edge of arms, justly avenging their late husbands; I will cite for you the women of Aquileia, who strung their defenders' bows and garbed their horses for battle; finally, I call your attention to the citoyennes of Lille, who, at this moment, are braving the rage of assailants and, while laughing, are defusing the bombs being cast into the city. What do all these examples prove, if not that women can form battalions, command armies, battle, and conquer as well as men? If any doubt remained, I would cite Panthee, Ingonde, Clotilde, Isabelle, Marguerite, etc., etc.
But I will not stop here, and I will say to these men who think they are our masters: Who delivered Judea and Syria from the tyranny of Holofernes? Judith. To whom did Rome owe her liberty and the Republic? To two women. Who were those who gave the final lesson in courage to the Spartans? Mothers and wives, who, in handing them their shields, said only these words: Return home borne upon your shield or bearing it.
I do not know why I am burying myself in the dust of history to search for traces of the courage and sacrifice of women, since we have them in our revolution and right before our eyes. In 1788, during the siege of the Palace, women exposed themselves to the brutality of soldiers hired by the court, in order to hail stones down upon them. At the storming of the Bastille, women familiar only with fireworks exposed themselves to cannon and musket fire on the ramparts to bring ammunition to the assailants. It was a battalion of women, commanded by the brave Reine Audu, who went to seek the despot at Versailles and led him triumphantly back to Paris, after having battled the arms of the gardes-de-corps and made them put them down. In spite of the modesty of our president, I will say that on 10 August she marched valiantly against the chateau, at the head of a corps of Fédérés; she still bears the marks of that day.
If women are suited for combat, they are no less suited for government. How many of them have governed with glory! My only problem is how to select examples. Theodelinda, queen of Lombardy, brought down Agilulf and extinguished the wars of religion which were blazing in her territories. Everyone knows that Semiramis was a dove in the cabinet and an eagle in the field. Isabelle of Spain governed with glory. Here again is a woman who supported the discovery of the New World. In our times Catherine of Russia achieved what Peter only outlined. But I will go further still and maintain that when the reins of government are held by men, women alone move and direct them. Exceptions are rarer than examples. Augustus proposed nothing to the Roman Senate without consulting Livia. Without searching the histories of other people, let us keep to ours. La Belle Ferronniere directed Francis I, Henry II. Charles IX and Henry III ruled only by the counsels of Catherine of Medici; the fair Gabrielle was behind Henry IV's mistakes; Madame de Pompadour governed the governor of France; finally, the courtesan Dubarry, who was herself a doll, made a marionette out of Louis XV. Thus one can prove that women have always directed governments. Thus one can conclude that they deserve to govern. I would almost say, better than men. Under the despotism of kings these reflections are not permitted, but in a republican regime it is a different story. I will not draw any further conclusions; I ask that the Society in its wisdom consider what rank women should have in a republic, and whether they should still be excluded from all positions and from administration.
This discourse, often interrupted, was crowned, when it was over, by violent applause. Nothing seemed more comical to us than to hear passages of history declaimed by a woman who murdered the language with an assurance difficult to describe. The applause was followed by a long period of murmuring through which one could make out a few words and proposals, each one more ridiculous than the last. One called for the raising of an army of 30,000 women to go into battle against enemies, with all prostitutes being forced to march. Another proposed that women be admitted into all branches of administration. Finally, after a half-hour of debate, all proposals were condensed into a petition to present to the Convention, calling for a decree obliging women to wear the national cockade. We were going to leave when we heard one of the club members ask for the floor, to make a new proposal. Let us remain, Lord Bedford said to me, I am too much amused to leave . . . [in text]. Olympe de Gouges spoke as follows: "While admiring what sister Monic has just said, I believe she has left out essential proposals that I am merely going to point out to you. Not only are empires governed through women's ascendancy, but one can maintain, without being refuted, that they are the force behind everything. Who fuels or extinguishes the warrior's courage? Regard Omphale, Delilah, Armida. If the Supreme Being created the soul of man, he left to woman the task of animating it. Watch the young girl dictating to her lover whatever laws please her. At her will, she makes of him a hero or a coward, a criminal or a virtuous man. Isolated, man is our slave; it is only when reunited in a mass that they overwhelm us in their pride. The greatest fault of our sex has been to submit to this unsuitable custom which puts man in the ascendancy; but let us profit from the difference in dress to arrive at some distinction. Here is what I have thought up: If there are no longer any processions, there will have to be public festivals; confide the direction and regulation of them to us. A lovely woman at the head of a crowd of citizens, charged, for example, with inciting young men to fly to the defense of the Fatherland, would say to one of them: Depart, and upon your return, the hand of your mistress will be the reward for your exploits. Whoever hesitates to fight the enemy will hear her voice speaking these words to him: Stay, you cowardly soul; but never count on being united with your lover; she has sworn to reject the desires of a man who is useless to his country. The art we possess to move the souls of men would produce the salutary effect of enflaming all spirits. Nothing can resist our seductive organ. The warrior would be happy to receive laurels from the hand of beauty; young husbands would believe their chains more fitting if they were forged by the hand of a woman. Let us request the direction of festivals and marriages, and that we be the only ones charged with the education of youth. This is all the more easily done, as the priests, whose privilege this used to be (for reasons I cannot fathom), are no longer here. It is up to us to replace them, and to found the religion of the true sans-culottes."
This last proposition occasioned bursts of laughter. Discussion of these interesting matters was postponed until another session, and we left with the crowd.
The Englishman said to me: "Confess that these extravagances are very amusing." I confess, but when I think about it, the delirium of these women frightens me. If their brains are overheated, you know the obstinacy of this sex; they are capable of committing certain excesses.
—Your nation possesses the remedy: the weapon of ridicule and banter, which it knows so well how to wield, will destroy these comical pretensions. Among the follies we have just heard, one can find nothing based in reason. It is, of course, certain that our customs give women much influence over the State. It cannot be denied that they are the most active force in society, the common center to which all the passions of men are attracted, and that they hold together honor, interest, love, taste, and opinion. It is thus a manifest contradiction not to count them for anything in our code of laws. I grant this contradiction; but you will also admit that it is fully justified by this universal and consequently dangerous ascendancy that you recognize in the sex.
—That is true. However it seems to me that instead of forgetting women in their households, one could use them. For example, if they were made the reward for great actions, I do not think there would be any effort men would not make to merit their esteem and their favors.
—I think as you do. But we are old stick-in-the-muds, and we forget them in our new laws, only because the first lawgivers of nations have not mentioned them, and because habit, stronger than reason, makes innovations too difficult in this delicate area. Besides, who is the man bold enough to innovate in this matter?
—Of course, your revolution changes the object of political speculations.
—It is precisely this upheaval which will prevent the true philosopher from casting out a new subject of discord, by presenting some project to give women credit in government. They are strong enough with their ascendancy over us. Let us leave them with the empire of grace and beauty.
From Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795, edited and translated by Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press, 166 - 171.