Source Collection: Women and the Revolution


Women participated in virtually every aspect of the French Revolution, but their participation almost always proved controversial. Women's status in the family, society, and politics had long been a subject of polemics. In the eighteenth century, those who favored improving the status of women insisted primarily on women's right to an education (rather than on the right to vote, for instance, which few men enjoyed).

This source collection includes an informational essay and 58 primary sources.


Women participated in virtually every aspect of the French Revolution, but their participation almost always proved controversial. Women's status in the family, society, and politics had long been a subject of polemics. In the eighteenth century, those who favored improving the status of women insisted primarily on women's right to an education (rather than on the right to vote, for instance, which few men enjoyed). The writers of the Enlightenment most often took a traditional stance on "the women question"; they viewed women as biologically and therefore socially different from men, destined to play domestic roles inside the family rather than public, political ones. Among the many writers of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published the most influential works on the subject of women's role in society. In his book Emile, he described his vision of an ideal education for women. Women should take an active role in the family, Rousseau insisted, by breast-feeding and educating their children, but they should not venture to take active positions outside the home. Rousseau's writings on education electrified his audience, both male and female. He advocated greater independence and autonomy for male children and emphasized the importance of mothers in bringing up children. But many women objected to his insistence that women did not need serious intellectual preparation for life. Some women took their pleas for education into the press.

Before 1789 such ideas fell on deaf ears; the issue of women's rights, unlike the rights of Protestants, Jews, and blacks, did not lead to essay contests, official commissions, or Enlightenment-inspired clubs under the monarchy. In part, this lack of interest followed from the fact that women were not considered a persecuted group like Calvinists, Jews, or slaves.

Although women's property rights and financial independence met with many restrictions under French law and custom, most men and women agreed with Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers that women belonged in the private sphere of the home and therefore had no role to play in public affairs. Most of France's female population worked as peasants, shopkeepers, laundresses, and the like, yet women were defined primarily by their sex (and relationship in marriage) and not by their own occupations.

The question of women's rights thus trailed behind in the agitation for human rights in the eighteenth century. But like all the other questions of rights, it would get an enormous boost during the Revolution. When Louis XVI agreed to convoke a meeting of the Estates-General for May 1789 to discuss the financial problems of the country, he unleashed a torrent of public discussion. The Estates-General had not met since 1614, and its convocation heightened everyone's expectations for reform. The King invited the three estates—the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate (made up of everyone who was not a noble or a cleric)—to elect deputies through an elaborate, multilayered electoral process and to draw up lists of their grievances. At every stage of the electoral process, participants (mainly men but with a few females here and there at the parish level meetings) devoted considerable time and political negotiation to the composition of these lists of grievances. Since the King had not invited women to meet as women to draft their grievances or name delegates, a few took matters into their own hands and sent him petitions outlining their concerns. The modesty of most of these complaints and demands demonstrates the depth of the prejudice against women's separate political activity. Women could ask for better education and protection of their property rights, but even the most politically vociferous among them did not yet demand full civil and political rights.

After the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, politics became the order of the day. The attack on the Bastille showed how popular political intervention could change the course of events. When the people of Paris rose up, armed themselves, and assaulted the royal fortress-prison in the center of Paris, they scuttled any royal or aristocratic plans to stop the Revolution in its tracks by arresting the deputies or closing the new National Assembly. In October 1789 the Revolution seemed to hang in the balance once again. In the midst of a continuing shortage of bread, rumors circulated that the royal guards at Versailles, the palace where the King and his family resided, had trampled on the revolutionary colors (red, white, and blue) and plotted counterrevolution. In response, a crowd of women in Paris gathered to march to Versailles to demand an accounting from the King. They trudged the twelve miles from Paris in the rain, arriving soaked and tired. At the end of the day and during the night, the women were joined by thousands of men who had marched from Paris to join them. The next day the crowd grew more turbulent and eventually broke into the royal apartments, killing two of the King's bodyguards. To prevent further bloodshed, the King agreed to move his family back to Paris.

Women's participation was not confined to rioting and demonstrating. Women began to attend meetings of political clubs, and both men and women soon agitated for the guarantee of women's rights. In July 1790 a leading intellectual and aristocrat, Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, published a newspaper article in support of full political rights for women. It caused a sensation. In it he argued that France's millions of women should enjoy equal political rights with men. A small band of proponents of women's rights soon took shape in the circles around Condorcet. They met in a group called the Cercle Social (social circle), which launched a campaign for women's rights in 1790–91. One of their most active members in the area of women's rights was the Dutch woman Etta Palm d'Aelders who denounced the prejudices against women that denied them equal rights in marriage and in education. In their newspapers and pamphlets, the Cercle Social, whose members later became ardent republicans, argued for a liberal divorce law and reforms in inheritance laws as well. Their associated political club set up a female section in March 1791 to work specifically on women's issues, including civil equality in the areas of divorce and property.

The boldest statement for women's political rights came from the pen of Marie Gouze (1748–93), who wrote under the pen name Olympe de Gouges. An aspiring playwright, Gouges bitterly attacked slavery and in September 1791 published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Following the structure and language of the latter declaration, she showed how women had been excluded from its promises. Although her declaration did not garner widespread support, it did make her notorious. Like many of the other leading female activists, she eventually suffered persecution at the hands of the government; while Etta Palm d'Aelders and most of the others only had to endure arrest, however, Gouges went to the guillotine in 1793. Public political activism came at a high price.

Women never gained full political rights during the French Revolution; none of the national assemblies ever considered legislation granting political rights to women (they could neither vote nor hold office). Most deputies thought the very idea outlandish. This did not stop women from continuing to participate in unfolding events. Their participation took various forms: some demonstrated or even rioted over the price of food; some joined clubs organized by women; others took part in movements against the Revolution, ranging from individual acts of assassination to joining in the massive rebellion in the west of France against the revolutionary government. The most dramatic individual act of resistance to the Revolution was the assassination of the deputy Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday on 13 July 1793. Marat published a newspaper, The Friend of the People, that violently denounced anyone who opposed the direction of the Revolution; he called for the heads of aristocrats, hoarders, unsuccessful generals, and even moderate republicans, such as Condorcet, who supported the Revolution but resisted its tendency toward violence and intimidation. Corday gained entrance to Marat's dwelling and stabbed him in his bath. He often took baths for a skin condition.

Most women acted in more collective, less individually striking fashion. First and foremost, they endeavored to guarantee food for their families. Concern over the price of food led to riots in February 1792 and again in February 1793. In these disturbances, which often began at the door of shops, women usually played a prominent role, egging on their confederates to demand lower prices and to insist on confiscating goods and selling them at a "just" price.

A small but vocal minority of women activists set up their own political clubs. The best known of these was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women established in Paris in May 1793. The members hoped to gain political education for themselves and a platform for expressing their views to the political authorities. The society did not endorse full political rights for women; it devoted its energies to advocating more stringent measures against hoarders and counterrevolutionaries and to proposing ways for women to participate in the war effort. Accounts of the meetings demonstrate the keen interest of women in political affairs, even when those accounts come from frankly hostile critics of the women's activities.

Male revolutionaries promptly rejected every call for equal rights for women. But their reactions in print and in speech show that these demands troubled their conception of the proper role for women. Now they had to explain themselves; rejection of women's rights was no longer automatic, in part because the revolutionary governments established divorce, with equal rights for women in suing for divorce, and granted girls equal rights to the inheritance of family property. In February 1791 one of the leading newspapers responded explicitly to Condorcet's article demanding equal political rights for women. The editor, Louis-Marie Prudhomme, restated the view, commonly attributed to Rousseau, that nature determined different but complementary roles for men and women. During the discussion of a new constitution in April 1793, the issue of women's rights came up once again. The spokesman for the constitutional committee restated the arguments against equal rights for women, but he admitted that deputies had begun to speak out in favor of women's rights. He cited in particular the pamphlet by Deputy Pierre Guyomar insisting that women should have the right to vote and hold office.

As the political situation grew more turbulent and dangerous in the fall of 1793, the revolutionary government became suspicious of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. The society had aligned itself with critics of the government who complained about the shortage of food. It also tried to intervene in individual cases of arrest and imprisonment. But the club did not readily give in to its opponents. One of its leaders, Claire Lacombe, published a pamphlet defending the club. Her pamphlet opens a window onto club activities.

Despite attempts to respond to the charges of its critics, the club ultimately fell victim to the disapproval and suspicion of the revolutionary government, which outlawed all women's clubs on 30 October 1793. The immediate excuse was a series of altercations between women's club members and market women over the proper revolutionary costume, but behind the decision lay much discomfort with the idea of women's active political involvement. On 3 November 1793, Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, was put to death as a counterrevolutionary, condemned for having published a pamphlet suggesting that a popular referendum should decide the future government of the country, not the National Convention. Two weeks later, a city official, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, denounced all political activity by women, warning them of the fate of Marie-Jeanne Roland and Gouges, two of several prominent women who went to the guillotine at this time. The Queen was executed on 16 October 1793, after a short but dramatic trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Roland, one of the leading political figures of 1792–93—she was the wife of a minister and hostess of one of Paris's most influential salons—went to her death on 8 November 1793, even though she was a convinced republican. Her crime was support for the "Girondins," the faction of constitutionalist deputies that included Condorcet.

After the suppression of women's clubs, ordinary women still had to make their way in a difficult political and economic climate. The Terror did not spare them, even though it was supposed to be directed against the enemies of the Revolution. A letter from a mother to her son illustrates the problems of provisioning and the haunting fear of arrest; the son of this woman was, as she feared, arrested as a "counterrevolutionary" (an increasingly vague term) and guillotined not long afterward. Many ordinary women went to prison as suspects for complaining about food shortages while waiting in line at shops, for making disrespectful remarks about the authorities, or for challenging local officials.

After the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, the National Convention eliminated price controls, and inflation and speculation soon resulted in long bread lines once again. The police gathered information every day about the state of discontent, and they worried in particular about the increasing shortages of February and March 1795. Women egged men on to attack the local and national authorities. These disturbances came to a head in the last major popular insurrections of the Revolution when bread rations dropped from one and a half pounds per person in March to one-eighth of a pound in April–May and rioting broke out. The first uprising took place 1–2 April 1795 (12–13 Germinal, Year III). A more extensive one broke out 20–23 May (1–4 Prairial). In both, women precipitated the action by urging men to join demonstrations to demand bread and changes in the national government. On 20 May a large crowd of women and men, armed with guns, pikes, and swords, rushed into the meeting place of the National Convention and chased the deputies from their benches. They killed one and cut off his head. As soon as the government gained control of the situation, it arrested many rioters, prohibited women from entering the galleries of its meeting place and from attending any kind of political assembly or even gathering in groups of more than five in the street.

Even as the fortunes of women's political activism were rising and falling, women began playing another kind of role, as symbols of revolutionary values. Most of the major revolutionary values—liberty, equality, fraternity, reason, the Republic, regeneration—were represented by female figures, usually in Roman dress (togas). The use of female figures from antiquity followed from standard iconographic practice: artists had long used symbols or icons derived from Classical Roman or Greek sources as a kind of textbook of artistic representation. French, like Latin, divided nouns by gender. Most qualities such as liberty, equality, and reason were taken to be feminine (La Liberté, L'Egalité, La Raison), so they seemed to require a feminine representation to make them concrete. This led to one of the great paradoxes of the French Revolution: though the male revolutionaries refused to grant women equal political rights, they put pictures of women on everything, from coins and bills and letterheads to even swords and playing cards. Women might appear in real-life stories of heroism, but they were much more likely to appear as symbols of something else.

Although women had not gained the right to vote or hold office (and indeed would not do so in France until 1944!), they had certainly made their presence known during the Revolution. At the end of the decade of revolution, a well-known writer, Constance Pipelet, offered her views on its impact on women. Although she stopped short of repeating Condorcet's or Olympe de Gouges's demands for absolutely equal rights for women, she did insist that the Revolution had forced women to become more aware of their status in society. She also argued that the Republic should justify itself by offering women more education and more opportunities. Her writing shows that women's demands had been heard and that even if they had gone underground, they had not been forgotten.

Women participated in the French Revolution in many ways: they demonstrated at crucial political moments, stood in interminable bread lines, made bandages for the war effort, visited their relatives in jail, supported their government-approved clergyman (or hid one of those who refused to take the loyalty oath), and wrote all manner of letters and petitions about government policies. As symbols, however, they did not appear in their normal guise in ordinary life at the end of the eighteenth century. To take but one example, an early allegorical painting by the artist Colinart of a woman dressed like a Roman goddess is a far cry from the actual mother of 1790 wearing ordinary clothes and depicted with her children in another painting.

Although no one has completed a statistical study of female figures in revolutionary art, even a cursory review shows many more depictions of women as allegorical figures than of women in their actual roles of the time. The most popular figure was Liberty, who became, in effect, the preferred symbol of the French Revolution. Called Marianne by her detractors to signal that she was nothing but a common woman (perhaps even a prostitute), Liberty nonetheless became indelibly associated with the French Revolution, so much so that she still appears prominently on French money and in patriotic paintings and statuary. Liberty usually appeared in Roman dress, often in a toga, holding a pike, the people's instrument for taking back their liberty, with a red liberty cap perched on its tip (the liberty cap too came from Roman times—it was supposedly worn by recently freed slaves).

Liberty was often joined by another revolutionary virtue such as truth, as in the painting Allegory of Truth by Nicolas de Courteille. After the Republic was proclaimed in September 1792, depictions of the Republic as a female allegorical figure sometimes took over from Liberty. Liberty, Reason, Regeneration—as in this engraving of the Festival of Reunion of 10 August 1793 —Wisdom, and of course Equality and Fraternity, were all represented as women. These allegorical figures sprouted on every surface. Festivals featured them prominently, but so did the new republican calendar and the new revolutionary playing cards, which used Roman figures, both male and female, to replace the kings, queens, and jacks of old.

Why did women appear so frequently in these allegories and symbolic depictions? Why, for instance, does a giant female statue overshadow the scene in a painting by Lethière (Gillaume Guillon) showing a typical scene of registering for the draft. Although the picture is filled with ordinary people of the time, including many women, it emphasizes symbolically "the country in danger" through a gigantic female figure with her breasts exposed. The figure stands for "the country," which in French is a female noun (la patrie). As noted, it was iconographic tradition to depict virtues as female, but not as contemporary women. An artist signaled their symbolic status by dressing them in Roman or Greek garb or even by showing them half naked. No French woman would have dressed in this fashion, so no one would think that these women were real women. In Watch Yourself or You'll Be a Product for Sale, the depiction of contemporary women, albeit women dressing to please men, women are dressed in contemporary fashion; they are not shown as Roman or Greek goddesses.

Any educated person would therefore immediately recognize when a woman was an abstract quality or idea and when she was simply a woman of her times or a particular noted woman. Women made good symbols because they could not hold office or participate officially in politics. That is to say, it was impossible to confuse a depiction of "liberty" with any particular political leader or official, who was by definition male. The French were extremely worried that one man might take power and establish a dictatorship. They preferred symbols that could not be identified with any specific male political leader. Instead, Liberty became the dominant political figure. As a result, no individual ever enjoyed the symbolic status accorded George Washington, say, in the new United States.

Primary Sources

Vanguard of Women Going to Versailles

Publicity about political machinations, coupled with the continued high price of bread, mobilized market women and encouraged many men to support them. They hoped to fetch the King and his family to end attempts against the Revolution and stabilize prices. This action was so threatening to the middle class elite that Lafayette, head of the Parisian National Guard, tried first to dissuade the marchers and then belatedly followed them to try to control the situation.

Jean–Jacques Rousseau, Emile (1762)

Rousseau was the most controversial and paradoxical of the writers of the Enlightenment. Born in Switzerland, he published important works on politics, music, and in Emile, education. He also wrote one of the most widely read novels of the century, Julie or the New Heloise. Although an advocate of new educational practices that emphasized the natural development of children’s abilities, Rousseau put all his own children in a foundling home because he could not support them. In Emile, he gave most of his attention to the education of boys. His section on the education of girls, centered on the character of Sophie, proved to be one of his most controversial writings; it underlined the importance of mothers in educating their children, but encouraged teaching girls to be entirely subordinate and dependent on their husbands. Rousseau’s book provoked responses from women and men well into the 1800s.

Madame de Beaumer, Editorial, Journal des Dames (March 1762)

Madame de Beaumer (d. 1766) was the first of three women editors of the Journal des Dames, a newspaper founded in Paris in 1759 to encourage women to write seriously. Little is known about her, perhaps because she was a Calvinist and Calvinists in France had to marry and baptize their children clandestinely. In this editorial and in many others, Beaumer defended her sex against its detractors.

Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King (1 January 1789)

Little is known about women’s grievances or feelings in the months leading up to the meeting of the Estates–General in November 1789. They did not have the right to meet as a group, draft grievances, or vote (except in isolated individual instances) in the preparatory elections. Nevertheless, some women did put their thoughts to paper, and though little evidence exists about the circumstances or the identities of those involved, the few documents offering their views bear witness to their concerns in this time of ferment. In this document working women addressed the King in respectful terms and carefully insisted that they did not wish to overturn men’s authority; they simply wanted the education and enlightenment that would make them better workers, better wives, and better mothers. The petitioners expressed their deep apprehensions about prostitution and the fear that they would be confused with them; like prostitutes, working women did not stay at home but necessarily entered the public sphere to make their livings. Most of all, however, the women wanted to be heard; they saw the opening created by the convocation of the Estates–General and hoped to make their own claims for inclusion in the promised reforms.

A Woman’s Cahier

This grievance was signed by a certain Madame B*** B*** whose identity is unknown. The provenance appears to be Normandy. Another version of this text, located and republished in the late nineteenth century, is signed by Marie, veuve de Vuigneras, also from Normandy. According to contextual evidence, this document followed the convocation of the Estates–General and the call for the collection and presentation of grievances, and its opening in early May 1789. In the royal edict of late January 1789, stipulating the conditions for elections, women of the First and Second Estates (clergy and nobility) were allowed to vote for representatives by proxy; but property–holding women of the Third Estate, widows or adult unmarried daughters, were not. Here Madame B***B*** addresses men, at once praising their potential for vision and justice, but at the same time blaming them for their historical subordination and misuse of women. Her appeal for representation of women by women in the Estates–General is followed by a sharply worded protest against the double standard of sexual morality. For this writer, the personal is highly political.

Stanislas Maillard describes the Women’s March to Versailles (5 October 1789)

Stanislas Maillard was a national guardsman known for having taken a leading role in the attack on the Bastille. In 1790 he testified before a commission established by the court in Paris to investigate the events of October 1789. He exaggerates his role in the events but gives a vivid account of the women’s march, especially their insistence on petitioning the deputies in the National Assembly.

Women Testify Concerning Their Participation in the October Days (1789)

The commission investigating the events of October 1789 also interrogated many women who had participated. Most of them denied any role in the violence, but they did explain their mixture of political and economic motives, citing the high price of bread and their desire to explain their situation to the National Assembly.

Article from the Encyclopedia: "Woman"

The article "Woman" was written by four contributors who considered the question from four angles: medicine and the history of opinions about women’s nature; writings about women’s place in the state and marriage; the social differences between men and women; and women’s legal status in different societies. Although the Encyclopedia, the fundamental compendium of the Enlightenment, repeated many traditional arguments for the subjugation of women, some of its authors argued that the subordination of women had its basis only in social convention and not in any natural differences between men and women.

To Versailles, To Versailles!

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The women who arrived, though lightly armed, were no shrinking violets. They insisted that the royal family return to Paris where, in fact, they would find themselves under virtual house arrest.

Memorable Day at Versailles, 5 October 1789

This engraving marks success and reconciliation among revolutionaries, as men and women, as well as soldiers and civilians, relax together.

Women's Petition to the National Assembly

This petition was addressed to the National Assembly sometime after the October 1789 march of women on Versailles. The authors were clearly well acquainted with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, as well as with the many prior publications about the historical accomplishments of celebrated women. They were also conversant with the concept of "genre" (gender), understood as society’s construction of sexual difference.

Condorcet, "On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship," July 1790

Condorcet took the question of political rights to its logical conclusions. He argued that if rights were indeed universal, as the doctrine of natural rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen both seemed to imply, then they must apply to all adults. Condorcet consequently argued in favor of granting political rights to Protestants and Jews and advocated the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself. He went further than any other leading revolutionary spokesman, however, when he insisted that women, too, should gain political rights. His newspaper article to that effect caused a sensation and stimulated those of like mind to publish articles of their own. But the campaign was relatively short–lived and ultimately unsuccessful; the prejudice against granting political rights to women would prove the most difficult to uproot.

Etta Palm D’Aelders, "Discourse on the Injustice of the Laws in Favor of Men, at the Expense of Women" (30 December 1790)

Like many female activists, the Dutch woman Etta Palm D’Aelders did not explicitly articulate a program for equal political rights for women, though that would no doubt have been her ultimate aim. Instead she worked to bring about a change in morals and customs that would in turn foster a more egalitarian atmosphere for women. She gave this address at a meeting of the Confederation of the Friends of Truth, the first political club to admit women as full members.

Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (September 1791)

Marie Gouze (1748–93) was a self–educated butcher’s daughter from the south of France who, under the name Olympe de Gouges, wrote pamphlets and plays on a variety of issues, including slavery, which she attacked as being founded on greed and blind prejudice. In this pamphlet she provides a declaration of the rights of women to parallel the one for men, thus criticizing the deputies for having forgotten women. She addressed the pamphlet to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, though she also warned the Queen that she must work for the Revolution or risk destroying the monarchy altogether. In her postscript she denounced the customary treatment of women as objects easily abandoned. She appended to the declaration a sample form for a marriage contract that called for communal sharing of property. De Gouges went to the guillotine in 1793, condemned as a counterrevolutionary and denounced as an "unnatural" woman.

The Death of Marat

The Death of Marat painting
This famous depiction of Marat’s assassination (1793) is by the unofficial (and sometimes official) artist of the French Revolution, Jacques–Louis David, a leading exponent of the neoclassical style. Scholars have seen this vision as a revolutionary pietà because of the repose of the corpse, so different from that of a normal body in a stage of rigor mortis. David also planned Marat’s funeral on behalf of the government.

Assassination of J. P. Marat

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An arrested Corday is hustled out of the door, while the inquest begins. The expired Marat, ghastly pale, looks much more realistic than in the David rendition of his death. Also, the bath in the shape of a boot, which differs from most images, is apparently accurate.

Women’s Participation in Riots over the Price of Sugar, February 1792

This fragment from a memoir by Charles Alexandre shows the anger of women when confronted by a sugar shortage. They readily attributed the shortage to hoarding by greedy merchants. This document also shows the new importance of colonial products such as sugar and coffee.

A Deputation of Women Citizens Demands Action on Food Prices (24 February 1793)

In the rioting over prices of February 1793, women appealed first to the authorities, showing that they intended to communicate directly with their representatives in the municipal government of Paris. By explicitly referring to themselves as "citizens," these women publicly claimed their right to be heard.

Police Reports on Disturbances over Food Supplies (February 1793)

The reports of the Paris police provide firsthand information about conditions in the city and about the leading role of women in food disturbances.

Regulations of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (9 July 1793)

The regulations demonstrate that women wanted to be taken seriously as political participants; they wanted their club to be like the clubs set up by men.

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.

Prudhomme, "On the Influence of the Revolution on Women" (12 February 1791)

Louis–Marie Prudhomme founded the Révolutions of Paris, one of the best–known radical newspapers of the French Revolution. In this editorial, he responds to women’s criticisms of the Revolution and outlines a theory of women’s "natural" domesticity. He stopped publication of his paper in 1794 in response to the growing violence of the Terror.

Discussion of Citizenship under the Proposed New Constitution (29 April 1793)

In the discussion of a new constitution in April 1793, Jean–Denis Lanjuinais spoke for the constitutional committee. He admitted that the question of women’s rights had aroused controversy.

Guyomar, "The Partisan of Political Equality between Individuals" (April 1793)

Pierre Guyomar wrote the pamphlet excerpted here during the war–torn and hungry spring of 1793, at the height of popular political mobilization that restated arguments made by Condorcet three years earlier. A political moderate, Guyomar supported equal political rights for women and compares the question of women’s rights to that of the rights of black slaves.

Citoyenne Lacombe’s "Report to the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women Concerning What Took Place 16 September at the Jacobin Club"

Claire Lacombe, an actress and one of the leaders of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, published a pamphlet to counter charges made against her and the club. By September 1793 the revolutionary government had begun to harass the leaders of the club.

Discussion of Women’s Political Clubs and Their Suppression, 29–30 October 1793

On 29 October 1793, a group of women appeared in the National Convention to complain that female militants had tried to force them to wear the red cap of liberty as a sign of their adherence to the Revolution, but they also presented a petition demanding the suppression of the women’s club behind these actions. Their appearance provided the occasion for a discussion of women’s political activity more generally. Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine (1755–94) gave a speech denouncing both the agitation about dress and the women’s clubs. Fabre, a well–known poet and playwright, took an active role in the dechristianization movement that was getting under way in the fall of 1793. He went to the guillotine in April 1794, supposedly for financial fraud but really for opposing Robespierre’s policies. (Robespierre distrusted the dechristianization movement) The National Convention immediately passed a decree reaffirming liberty of dress but put off to the next day consideration of the clubs. On 30 October 1793, Jean–Baptiste Amar (1755–1816) spoke for the Committee of Public Security and proposed a decree suppressing all women’s political clubs, which passed with virtually no discussion. He outlined the government’s official policy on women: women’s proper place was in the home, not in politics. Broad agreement about the role of women did not prevent internal dissension among the men. Amar himself denounced Fabre a few months later and then joined the opposition to Robespierre in July 1794, which ended in Robespierre’s own execution. The club at issue in the October debate was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, founded in May 1793 to agitate for firmer measures against the country’s enemies. The club supported the establishment of companies of amazons, armed to fight internal enemies, but it did not advance specifically feminist demands such as the demand for the right to vote. Nonetheless, the deputies found any organized women’s political activity threatening and forbade it henceforth.

Discussion of Women’s Political Clubs—Amar

In a follow–up to Fabre d’Eglantine’s speech on 29 October, Jean–Baptiste Amar proposed an official decree on 3 October forbidding women to join together in political associations. A deputy tried to argue that this notion ran contrary to the right of freedom of association, but he was shouted down by the other deputies.

The Trial of Olympe de Gouges

The case against Olympe de Gouges is worth reading in detail because it is typical of the attacks on those who criticized the authority of the central government that gathered force in the fall of 1793 and continued up to July 1794, when Robespierre fell from power. Gouges, an advocate of increased popular consultation, criticized the National Convention, calling its members ambitious men. This criticism was a far greater factor in the decision to sentence her to death than was her public support of women’s rights.

Chaumette, Speech at City Hall Denouncing Women’s Political Activism (17 November 1793)

When a group of women appeared at City Hall wearing red liberty caps, Pierre–Gaspard Chaumette denounced them and all political activism by women. He held out the examples of Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges as warnings.

Image of the Queen’s Defense

The trial of the Queen is here depicted in a tinted engraving by Jean Duplessi–Bertaux as part of his series of Historical Scenes of the French Revolution. Although it refers to her as "Marie Antoinette, the Austrian," the etching portrays her somewhat sympathetically, showing her in a graceful pose with a concerned look on her face amid a hostile prosecutor, judge, and soldiers.

How a Mother Survives

Madame Ducroquet wrote to her son in the spring of 1794 about the continuing shortage of food. She expressed her worries upon reading that someone with the same name had been arrested; in fact, it was her son, who went to the guillotine only a few weeks later.

An Ordinary Woman Faces Prison for her Comments

This petition from the wife of a wigmaker in Paris demonstrates both the volatility of the political situation (she went to jail for badmouthing a local official while standing in line at a food market) and the conditions in prison.

Police Reports on Women’s Discontent (Spring 1795)

Agitation over the shortage of bread reached a breaking point in the spring of 1795. Women played critical roles in these disturbances, as they had before the Revolution.

Denunciation of a Woman Participant in the Uprising of May 1795

Once the uprising of May 1795 had been suppressed, the government set up a military tribunal, which gathered denunciations of presumed rioters. This one gives a good sense of the charges made and the kind of language used ("infernal sect of Jacobin terrorists, blood–drinkers, etc.").

Day 1 of Prairial of the Year III

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Men and women threaten the deputies on 20 May 1795. They demand "Bread and the Constitution of 1793." This day marked one of the last interventions of ordinary women into national politics.

Interrogation of a Suspected Rioter (June 1795)

The police interrogated those accused of participating in the May 1795 riots. This interrogation gives a good idea of the police’s concerns.

Sword Hilt with Revolutionary Icons—Liberty

This sword, an actual artifact of the revolutionary wars, shows how strongly French officers and soldiers believed themselves to be fighting for the defense of liberty, which is represented by the woman holding the balance and by the Phrygian bonnet on a pike, both visible in the hilt. This example illustrates that even "masculine" objects such as swords depicted liberty as female.

An Example of Heroic Courage

An Example of Heroic Courage
In this rendition of an incident from the Vendée rebellion, an ordinary woman is shown standing up to the rebels. It comes from a series of heroic images of the Revolution and shows that women could be heroines for the Republic.

Constance Pipelet, Review of a Book by Théremin, On the Condition of Women in a Republic

In this review of a book by an author favorable to women’s education, Pipelet argues that republics should demonstrate a different attitude toward women than monarchies. She restates the arguments for more education and more opportunities for women and rejects those positions that keep women in intellectual dependency and passivity.

Woman with a Basket in Front of a Door to the Prison

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Despite the demure expression created by her huge eyes, this woman also shows adherence to the Revolution through her scarf, similar in shape and color to the Phrygian cap.

The Triumph of Liberty

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In this extraordinary painting stands a formidable and powerful figure of liberty with her pike and cap. As the title of this work suggests, Liberty appears here as a warrior surveying the field of battle from a commanding height. Furthermore, the cock crowing at the dawn suggests the arrival of an entirely new day.


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In this spectacularly vivid rendition of Liberty, she holds the Phrygian cap of freed slaves on a pike. That, combined with her colorful pants, suggests aggressive liberty. Yet the scrolls in her right hand also underscore the role of legislation in defining her purview. Further, simply the use of a female figure balanced some of the aggressive pose.

Allegory of Truth

Female revolutionary figures stood for all kinds of qualities and virtues, in this case, "Truth." Women figures appeared so prominently in paintings and engravings because French nouns for the qualities and virtues were usually feminine (Truth = La Vérité). In other words, paintings such as this one did not represent real women; they used allegorical figures to make a more abstract point.

The Republic

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Under the monarchy, the king was the country’s symbolic center. Removing him and establishing a republic made necessary not only a new constitution but also a new set of symbols. Here the revolutionaries transformed "Liberty" into "the Republic." Without her pike and cap, she seems more matriarchal, framed by flourishing plants. Sometimes depicted in more aggressive posture, the Republic was always shown as a female figure, in part to avoid identification with any particular male politician or political group. The female Republic never appeared in contemporary dress; she was a symbol above politics, not a French woman involved in revolutionary action.

The Fountain of Regeneration

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In this engraving of the Festival of Reunion or Unity of 10 August 1793, a female statue of Nature in the form of the Egyptian goddess Isis represents the regeneration of the French people. It sits on the site of the Bastille prison, whose fall signaled the beginning of the Revolution. The engraving depicts the statue as made of stone, but in fact it was hastily constructed of papier mache. This engraving was printed in 1797 as part of a series of commemorative prints of events of the revolution.

Game of the Great Men, Minot the Elder

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Revolutionaries redesigned playing cards in order to eliminate references to royalty (kings, queens, jacks) and replace them with great men and abstract virtues.

The Fatherland in Danger

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This painting of the period by Gillaume Guillon Lethière shows the emotion caused by the prospect of loved ones departing for the army. Women had to part with their families in order to support the nation in its time of need. Notice the female statue overlooking the scene. This female figure represents "the Fatherland" because in French the word for fatherland is gendered feminine (La Patrie).

Watch Yourself or You'll be a Product for Sale

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The women in this image appear to be tempted to a life of prostitution. The female figure in the left foreground gestures toward the door but remains modestly attired. Once inside, the women are there for the pleasure of men and wear revealing or little clothing. The contrast in this moralistic image also reveals how differently contemporaries could depict "real" women from allegorical ones. The engraving reflected a vision of life during the Thermidorian reaction and the Directory (1795–99).


From LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, https://revolution.chnm.org/exhibits/show/liberty--equality--fraternity/women-and-the-revolution

How to Cite This Source

"Source Collection: Women and the Revolution," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/source-collection-women-and-revolution [accessed June 2, 2023]