Thursday, August 2, 2012

Women and the French Revolution

"It is a time to effect a revolution in female manners-time to restore them to their lost dignity-and make them, as part of the human species, labor by reforming themselves to reform the world!" Vindication of the Rights of Woman

The French Revolution was time of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." For the women of France, however, these ideologies were extremely ambiguous. Among many other limitations, women were allowed education only in the home, they could not sit in on juries, and marriage and divorce laws were extremely unfair. Legally and socially, women were inferior to men. The Revolution gave women the opportunity to evolve from subjects into participating citizens.

From the very beginning of the Revolution, women were present at the new political centers of communication in France (Landes 106). In August and September of 1789, the women began participating in daily processions of thanksgiving to St. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris (Berkin/Lovett 13). The women were neither protesting nor petitioning, however, they began to recruit members of the National Guard to accompany them. They were serious about making their organized physical presence felt. They began marching to the drumbeat of the guardsmen and asserting their right as women to participate in public affairs.

On October 5, 1789, a riot began. The women gathered in large numbers at the Hotel de Ville to complain about the high bread prices and the shortage of food. They publicly said that "men didn't understand anything about the matter and that they wanted to play a role in affairs" (Landes 109). The rioting women turned into an angry mob. With shouts of "To Versailles!" they began to march twelve miles in the rain to force the king to hear their complaints. Although rather loosely organized, the women armed themselves and conquered in their demands for bread. They also conquered a king for Paris. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were seized and forced back to Paris at knife point.

In 1791, women were starting to institute their own political societies. They petitioned, marched and demonstrated, attended meetings, formed deputations, and persuaded or coerced political authorities to give in to their wishes (Berkin/Lovett 28). In February of 1793, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was founded (Landes 93). The radical revolutionary leaders of the time opposed the Society and tried to liquidate it. Women appeared at a meeting of the National Convention with a petition protesting their opposition. They were told: "Be a woman. The tender cares owing to infancy, household details, the sweet anxieties of maternity, these are your labors" (Berkin/Lovett 25). They were reminded of the "impudent" Olympe de Gouge, author of
"The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen" who was beheaded for getting mixed up in the republic. The Society was forced to dissolve. Women did, however, continue to contact authorities and petition for personal demands. The government of Terror, however, normally eroded any confrontation the women might cause right away. During the Terror, wives petitioned on behalf of husbands in jail; teachers petitioned for help in collecting unpaid salaries; and workers petitioned against the oppression of employers (Berkin/Lovett 25).

In July, 1794, the government shifted from the Jacobins to the Thermidorians. It made new laws prohibiting petitions, political affiliations, and correspondence among clubs. Inflation was brought back, along with food shortages and long bread lines. Women once again broke out in revolt in response to these deprivations. They petitioned and were arrested. Women led protest marches from Section headquarters to the Convention, gaining more and more women support along the route. They seized flour wagons and would not allow it to be distributed to the corrupt bakers. In the end, am armed force from the Section had to be called in to stop the riots. Officials feared crowds of women as the most serious threat to public order (Berkin/Lovett 26).

Although women failed to achieve political freedom, they did gain a moral identity and a political constitution. Gender became a socially relevant category in political and civil life after the revolution. Through the Revolution, new representations of women emerged. In the past, women were viewed as lesser and weaker than men. Now, however, women's nature began to be credited as a source of strength and difference. Women had left a cultural inscription in the world.

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