Currently reading : MEN TOOK THE BASTILLE, WOMEN TOOK THE KING: WOMEN DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Julie Bréthous
At the dawn of French Revolution, the absolute monarchy that found its roots during the Middle Age and fully matured in the sixteenth century under Louis XIV’s reign, was shattered by a lack of political, economic and social stability. Louis XVI, to deal with France’s massive debt following numerous large wars, reinforced upon his citizen an inefficient and unequal tax system that stirred a discontentment already rising due to years of bad harvest. In May 1789, following the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Estates-General gathered the Aristocracy, Clergy and Third Estate to discuss the possibilities of a monarchy that would give equal rights to all citizen deemed capable of reason. This (to put it very briefly – information about the French Revolution as a whole are easily found) led to July’s assault of the Bastille, one of the symbol of the absolute monarchy, and the writing and adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in August of the same year. France was then given a new constitution and 1789 would mark the beginning of more than ten years of profound political changes that would try, and sometimes fail, to give man’s rights a new meaning. But while all men were foreseeing a future of new possibilities, one major portion of the population was left outside: women.
In France, as in most Western countries, the view of women within society is simple: they are not considered as citizens. Not only are they denied this right, but the very belief that women are not even able by nature to think by themselves, make plausible judgements, and therefore belong to the public sphere of politics is deeply rooted within common perception. They do not exist as individual beings but are only seen through the familial sphere and therefore either belong to their father or husband, and their rights are very few but to take care of the wellbeing of their family. Regardless of her social condition, a woman in 1789 would have been unable to pass on her name, to benefit from birthright, and their dowry could in no way belong to them, but to their husband.
“About women’s circumstances, I do not want anything to do with it. I simply think they must be left outside of any judicial authorities, leadership roles, public assemblies and councils, so they would be able to dedicate their attention to their feminine and domestic tasks.”
– Jean Bodin, jurist, 1586
Against all odds, the French Revolution is going to appear for women as a space for changes. As mentioned above, the rise of the taxes and the fear of an upcoming food shortage were, amongst other considerations, the reasons of the uprising of the population. Families, deeply affected by this, were living in great fear of the future – and these fear would crystallise around women’s concerns and lives. Within specific sites of exchange dominated by them – the market, small shops, fountains, wash houses – they would regularly discuss and critic the situation, often stirring their minds and rising their anger. If these concerns were often restrained to these circles or at least influencing their husband, a first real outburst regarding legal affairs happened prior to the revolution, on June 7th 1788 in Grenoble, where both men and women took upon the city out of discontentment. It is nevertheless five months after the gathering of the Estates-General that Parisian women would show their true potential as active participants in the Revolution. In the morning of October 5th, on the market of rue du Faubourg St Antoine in Paris, a small group of women, infuriated by the chronic shortage and high price of bread would struck a machine drum to gather the crowd. Quickly, more than six of seven thousand women – and men – were standing by the Hotel de Ville, demanding arms to go take the King out of Versailles to Paris.
‘What is more instinctive, more inspired, within the people, are women. Men took the Bastille, Women took the King’
– Jules Michelet
This event known as Women’s March on Versailles, would be a turning point in the revolution, the moment where the King would lose its independence, and the Nation would favour its common people. After this moment, women would try their best to become active participants of the Revolution. By joining groups and clubs of support, they would mainly help by working for the army or hospitals. If these tasks were relatively close to those of traditional societies, i.e. based on charity work, many women in Paris would also take seats in political forums. Although excluded from the decision making process, they would not hesitate in speaking their mind and expressing their feelings towards specific decisions. These women called “tricoteuses” (knitters) would always make sure to stir men’s opinions, therefore having an indirect holding on these debates.
Between 1789 and 1793, around 56 clubs opened to, or exclusively dedicated to, women would opened, acting as vehicles for cultural diffusion and therefore reinforcing their patriotism and politic sensibility. However, due to the lack of education of women at the time, many would not be sensitive to the political issues confining them to a status lower than men, and to the possibilities of a different path for them.
During the Estates-General of 1789, the registers of grievances included some considerations towards women’s rights: a basic free education, classes for women to learn how to give birth, building of specific hospitals for new mothers… but these were strictly limited to an upgrading of their everyday life, and in no way to their political status which would have been a nonsense in men’s mind of the time. A group of intellectual women aware of the Enlightenment ideals would try to affirm to this patriarchal society the necessity for their peers to be given the right to sovereignty. The Société Patriotique et de Bienfaisance des Amies de la Vérité or the Société des Citoyennes Républicaines et Révolutionnaires were, amongst others, fighting radically for women’s rights. Pauline Léon, founder of the last, was notably demanding the right for women to arm and defend themselves as well as their country and to participate to the war against Austria. Other would fight for women to be able to wear the three-coloured cockade, a strong symbol of the revolution. Women such as Manon Roland, Claire Lacombe or Anne-Josèphe Théroigne de Méricourt inspired both men and women by their bravery, intelligence, and boldness. Disappointed by their marriages, a lot of them would see in the prospect of equality the opportunity to escape the monotony of their life and the possibility to become active and respected citizens. Despite most of them having their life ending tragically, they represented a new hope for women’s right, the first French feminists who would not be afraid to give their life for their cause. The presence of women within political assemblies was for them the prerequisite to pave the way for the new, egalitarian and well-functioning society.
‘Being proven that a nobleman could not possibly represent a commoner, women must therefore be represented by women’
– Mrs BB of the Pays de Caux