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Women, just like the Sans-culottes or the peasantry or the bourgeoisie played a significant role in bringing about the French Revolution. Their participation in a number of uprisings prior to 1789 and even after the revolution had taken place are considered significant aspects of the popular participation of the French Revolution. However, it was the ‘March to Versailles’ to get the king to sign the ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Man’ that is considered to be the most significant event that marked the culmination of the revolution. At the same time, women were participating in the revolution indirectly by promoting and propagating modern ideas through societies, journals, pamphlets etc. Hence, it can be seen that women did in fact have a significant role to play during the French Revolution.

Before we go on to analyse the role that they played in this uprising it would be important to understand the role of the women in the French society prior to 1789. Women had no political rights in pre-Revolutionary France; they couldn’t vote or hold any political office just like many other people. However, according to some scholars, as far as the dignity of the women was concerned it was trampled upon much more than that of a common man.  They were considered to be “passive” citizens, who should remain at home and rely on men to decide what was best for them. It was believed that men alone were capable of governing and that this was a quality that women could not imbibe. In fact, a woman’s education often consisted of learning to be a good wife and mother; as a result women were not supposed to be involved in the political sphere, as the limit of their influence was the raising of future citizens. In addition to this degrading attitude towards women, which extended to cover the so-called elitist women as well, there were economic and social problems as well that essentially affected the common man. Thus, all women may not have had the same grievances or demands  during the time of the revolution. For instance, women belonging to the sans-culottes or peasantry suffered from problems of rising prices, low wages, unemployment, food shortage and other such conditions that often resulted in an extremely miserable existence. It was these women, who revolted during the revolutionary period when the economic crisis had become intertwined with the political crisis with the hope that a change in the regime would lead to them having a better existence. Hence, while women belonging to the more elitist or well-to-do sections of society were more concerned about their democratic aspirations and securing political rights and some degree of equality vis-à-vis men, the women belonging to the sans-culottes were more concerned about battling their day-to-day problems, which naturally got precedence over political rights.
This had become evident when the list of grievances was being prepared for the Estates-General. Women belonging to the sans-culottes had demanded greater control over prices; working women wanted equal pay for equal work; and in particular checking the phenomenon of black marketing and hoarding, which always led to a rise in prices. Thus, it can be seen that their demands were economic in nature. It was the upper class women, who had political grievances.

However, a change was coming about in the role of the women towards the fag end of the 18th century. In those days the rural artisans and peasants were paid very little, with most of the surplus being appropriated by the middleman or the capitalist. It is for this reason that these people began to migrate to towns and cities and started factories in the periphery. A large number of girls and older women were sent to these factories to earn a living. Even married women were taking up jobs in the garment factories as glove makers, lace workers, seamstress etc for the objective of supplementing their family income. The bourgeoisie women, on the other hand, were also engaged in professions like teaching, writing, social activism besides being employed in their family business. The fact that women had started taking up jobs had helped in fostering a spirit of independence and confidence among them. Olwen Hofton has claimed that such women had an equal role in the household setup on account of their contribution to the family income. It was these women, who had economic grievances, who played a more direct role in the revolution.
The participation of such women can be seen in the general and more ‘popular’ movements that took place during this period. Their role and behavior in this regard was similar to that of the men as were their grievances and demands. This included participation in the fall of Bastile, march to Versailles, which resulted in the Declaration of Rights being signed; the Municipal revolution, the twillers incident and the various soap and bread riots that had taken place to protest against the high prices. Hofton has argued that “it was working class women who raised their voices against the rising prices of bread as they were finding it extremely difficult to maintain their families”.
This was the period when the ideas of the enlightenment seem to have been gaining in popularity during this period. It had created an environment, wherein ideas of liberty and equality seem to have found great support among the women as they could see in these ideas a means of escaping their dependent and downtrodden condition. However, one must not over emphasise the role of such ideas as already seen above such ideas may not have had an equal impact on all sections of women. The impact of such ideas was mostly confined to the elitist women and had not found currency among the women of the lower classes. It was this aristocratic and upper Bourgeoisie women, who were members of clubs or salons run from their homes. Prominent among such women were Madame Geoffin, Madame d’Epinay, Madame Lespinasse, Madame Roland etc. These women were deeply influenced by the works of the Philosphes and wrote a number of journals, pamphlets etc , which helped in spreading such ideas among other people. Hoften believes that these upper class women were greatly influenced by the intellectual milieu created by the Enlightenment and themselves contributed to the revolution intellectually through their articles, pamphlets etc

Prominent among such feminists were Eha Palm and Olympe de Gouges. Palm had supported the idea of political equality of women along with men. This not only included the right to vote or stand for public office but also the equal right to inheritance, education and suppression of dowry. Olympe had written a number of fiery articles in which she demanded total equality for women in the social and political sphere and for this she believed that women should be included within the Republic of France. Her article “Rights of Woman and Child” (1791) demanded universal suffrage for both men and women.  She claims that women symbolized virtue, beauty and tenderness and it is these characteristics that should be taken into account while admitting the women into the public sphere as equals. Joan Scott, has, however, argued that de Gouges talks of universality but focuses only on issues and problems that confronted her class of women.

It was post-1791 that there was a rise in militant feminist activism. The most radical militant feminist activism was practiced by the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, which was founded by Léon and her colleague, Claire Lacombe on May 10, 1793. The goal of the club was “to deliberate on the means of frustrating the projects of the enemies of the Republic.” Up to 180 women attended the meetings of the Society. Of special interest to the Society was “combating hoarding [of grain and other staples] and inflation.” Similarly, in 1793, women were at the fore of a crowd that demanded bread and a new constitution. When their cries went unnoticed, the women went on a rampage, “sacking shops, seizing grain and kidnapping officials.”

Despite the role played by the women in not only promoting a revolutionary spirit but also actively participating in assisting the Bourgeoisie to consolidate their political gains, it would be wrong to think that the women were able to gain significantly from their participation in this event.  While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens, as the question was left indeterminate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt agitated for full citizenship for women. Women were, nonetheless, denied political rights of active citizenship and democratic citizenship. Joan Scott argued that the term “Universal” in the declaration of rights was a misnomer as it recognized the rights of only certain groups in society, mostly the upper class white men. In fact, she had blamed de Gouges and certain other intellectual women for perpetuating the myth that women were not capable of participation in the political affairs of the country. The fact that these intellectuals argued that women alone possessed features such as parental and family love, courage during child birth and superior beauty tended to undermine the attempt to take part in “universal” citizenship. 

Moreover, other equal rights were also denied to the women. For instance, Pauline Léon, in 1792, submitted a petition signed by 319 women to the National Assembly requesting permission to form a garde national in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion. Léon requested permission be granted to women to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, as well as the privilege of drilling under the French Guards. Her request was denied. Later in 1792, Théroigne de Méricourt made a call for the creation of “legions of amazons” in order to protect the revolution. As part of her call, she claimed that the right to bear arm would transform women into citizens. However, this right was once again denied to them.

Although, women decided to take matters into their own hands by resorting to militant means, it had provoked serious repressive measures from the government. Most of these outwardly activist women were punished for their actions. The kind of punishment received during the Revolution included public denouncement, arrest, execution, or exile. Théroigne de Méricourt was arrested, publicly flogged and then spent the rest of her life sentenced to an insane asylum. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were arrested, later released, and continued to receive ridicule and abuse for their activism. Many of the women of the Revolution were even publicly executed for “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic”. In fact, from 1793 onwards, women were banned from forming their political clubs. In fact, the Jacobin regime has been seen as being highly regressive and backwards and an obstacle in the promotion of feminism in France. Their regime is said to have prevented the women from leaping across the existing social and political barriers of inequality between the sexes. In May 1795, the National Convention banned the women from “attending political assemblies” urging them to withdraw to their homes and ordering the arrest of those who would gather together in groups of more than five. The lines between public men participating in civic life and domesticated women caring for family and children alone was drawn more firmly by the Jacobins than it had ever been drawn before.

Joan Landes has blamed the viewpoints of Rousseau for this. He believes that the Jacobin thought came to be dominated by his theories regarding the gender distinction in France. Rousseau had believed that the feminization of the Old Regime nobility threatened to undermine any semblance of order and mortality. The solution according to him would be to divide gender roles much more rigidly than had ever been drawn before. Thus, according to her, the new public space that had been created was even more regressive than it had ever been before as the Old Regime had shown far greater tolerance for public women as compared to its Republican counterparts. Thus, the exclusion of the women from the Declaration of Rights was a conscious effort that sought to create a masculine public space.

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