What does “women’s liberation” make you think about? For historians like Suzanne Desan, the French Revolution should come to mind. Really? The French Revolution didn’t have the kind of impact that we might otherwise assume it did. Those achievements were only made during the 20th century, so I sometimes laugh at historians who force the topic on every subject under the sun. Sure, women tried to use the revolution to their advantage, but little of real importance came of it. Divorce you say? Irrelevant, I say. A law doesn’t help women defend themselves against irate husbands.
America is currently going through a post-feminine liberation era, and so we tend to look on 18th and 19th century sexual relationship theories with scorn and contempt. Yet, the way people viewed the relationship between males and females was quite different during the 18th century on mainland Europe. We cannot deny this.
During the French Revolution, French men generally saw their female counterparts as weaker, family-oriented home servents. Even the great Philosophes of the day wrote of frail female bodies and the subservient role of females within the household. Jean-Jacques Rousseau unabashedly affirmed this in his work Emile. Rousseau wrote that “the strongest seems to be the master,” but that the master is also “dependent on woman’s good will” (This excerpt from Emile can be found here: https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/470/). This general relationship and its permutations has been described more fully in Barabara Welter’s Cult of Domesticity theory. Suffice to say, women of the 18th and 19th centuries did not enjoy the same public status that men have enjoyed since the dawn of time.
This is what makes the French Revolution so interesting, though. It was undoubetdly women that took the first public action when a group of them stormed the Palace at Versailles during the October of 1789.
The March on Versailles is pictured above. During that march, women stormed the palace and demanded that the royal family do something about rampant starvation. This happened in early October of 1789. Accounts are conflicting. Some say the women wanted to kill the royal family, while other first hand accounts state that the women were just intent on routing the “baker” (the king) into action.
La Révolution française (1989) – Scene: Women’s March on Versailles
The French Revolution was no real friend to the female liberation movements of its time. Olympe de Gouges, arguably one of the most revolutionary female figures during the French Reovlutionary period, was eventually put to the guillotine herself. When the National Convention drew up a constitution based on frameworks such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, it was ultimately insulting to women. The Constitution of 1793 (source: https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/430/) granted no citizenship to women at all, but instead granted citizenship to any man who married a “French woman.” That must have been quite insulting to the women (mostly fish market workers) who had stormed the king’s palace back in the October of 1789.
In other words, a man from any foreign nation could become a French citizen through marriage – but not the woman (his wife) who was 100 percent French and hailing from ancient and very French ancestors. This would seem to be the opposite of progress. Putting divorce on the table for women was a nice way to distract them from a complete lock out of women from governmental affairs.
Dating from the days of the National Assembly, women had tried to play a more central role in the French Revolution. They typically shouted down from window tops down at audiences of busy male revolutionaries. Women were never able to solidify their presence within French government, though. They were never able to move into the chambers of government, and that is why no real liberation ever came for the women of 18th century France.
Women became publicly active at one of the most heinous sites made popular during the Reign of the Terror – the Place de la Révolution. Women sat in the front rows knitting and doing chores while blood gushed through the streets. By many accounts, they cheered on the rolling of the heads loudly – perhaps more loudly than any other group.
Feminine political clubs were investigated throughout the Reign of Terror period. One decree reasoned with the reader: “Women are hardly capable of lofty conceptions and serious cogitations” (source: https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/294/). While this kind of thinking seems atrocious for our 21st century minds, it made complete sense to 18th century minds.
Historian Suzanne Desan sees the French Revolution as a period of dramatic change for French Women. In The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France, Desan reasons that French females acquired many important basic rights, such as divorce, through the revolutionary process (pg. 95). It may be going a bit far to say that these basic rights dramatically transformed anyone’s life, though. Regardless of whether the French state officially sanctioned divorce or not, disgruntled wives would still have to physically separate themselves from their (likely) angry, drunken, and violent husbands.
The plight of women has been one fought over thousands of years. The advances that women made during the 20th century really had no equal. Historians like Desan have been trying to formulate some sort of grand progression for the societal inclusion of women where there really is often no discernible progression at all.
The French Revolution was very similar to the Civil War in terms of social reorganization. Groups like women and African Americans won great strides during these periods (blacks even served in the House of Representatives and the Senate just after the Civil War), but both groups lost these rights in the decades that followed these sweeping changes. Many examples of female suffrage exist throughout history. Heck, Queen Elizabeth I reigned during a time when the male consolidation of power seemed virtually absolute throughout Europe. These periods of great change should be seen as anomalies rather than as parts of a progression that resulted in the 20th century’s more finalized changes.
Ultimately, history professors are going to have to reevaluate the importance of these women’s movements in relation to the overall master narrative. As far as the French Revolution goes, historians have a tendency to greatly exaggerate the freedom that women enjoyed as a result. The facts are sobering and we know them to be true – at most universities, history majors are more likely to know detailed information about the plight of the average 18th century female than they are to know about the great battles of Napoleon. Therefore, historians must find a way to determine when and where to stress the issue of sexual difference. I would argue that no liberation took place at all until the mid-20th century. Women tried to change the world, but men fought back each time.