This is the first of a set of posts concerning the French Revolution. We can learn a great deal about life from history, and the French Revolution can teach us a great deal about managing a business or our own lives. King Louis XVI might be best seen as an ineffective leader, but let’s turn our attention to the class system of pre-revolutionary France. Do the Bourgeoisie really belong in the “third estate”? We can begin an examination of this question with the women of that class.
A group of women drafted and signed a petition for King Louis XVI, in 1789, asking primarily for educational reform. The women signing the petition wanted better lives for the women of France’s “third estate.” Indeed, the petition essentially declares that females outside of the noble and ecclesiastical classes were dirt poor and leading hopeless lives. The petition went as far as to say that all of these women, regardless of their age or beauty, led unfulfilled lives. Why? The reason for the disparaging status of third estate females was obvious to the drafters of the petition – education. If the women of 18th century France could have been given access to education and – perhaps more logically – career training, they would have fared better. Is this really true?
In Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, the editors tell us that the women signing the petition wanted to “protect their traditional professions” from men. This can’t be true, though. They were searching for professions, not protecting them. The women signing this petition had given up all hope for advancement within a system that catered solely to men. The old regime in France eschewed females from the public sphere entirely, and the women signing the petition clearly wanted advancement. Their idea of advancement was not suffrage or political inclusion at the Estates General. No. They wanted female-based education and careers of their own. In essence, they wanted “a piece of the pie.” They wanted… for lack of a better term… what we call the American Dream. They wanted to exist on their own terms, and they saw education and job placement as the answer. They knew that their agency as females was purposefully limited, but they felt that an appeal to the king would help. There was no way for Luis XVI to truly know how doomed he was, but his assistance to the female population at this point in January of 1789 might have changed the tides.
So, was the petition correct? Were women of the third estate as universally poor and unhappy as the authors of the petition suggested? Perhaps not. In A Short History of the French Revolution, Jeremy Popkin reminds us that the third estate was literally 97 percent of the population of pre-revolutionary France. It would seem that the women signing the petition were lamenting the state of poor, uneducated females. The operative word here is poor. Popkin explains that the Bourgeoisie (the wealthier portion of the third estate) amounted to seven percent of pre-revolutionary society. That means that 90 percent of the population – or about 9 out of 10 people – were living in poverty during this time period in France. So, clearly, the women of the petition may not have truly considered their Bourgeoisie counterparts worthy of the moniker, “third estate.”
In The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France, Suzanne Desan suggests that the petition was more about the freedom to choose appropriate marriage partners than educational reform and career training. This seems to make sense. The women signing the petition must have known that a university education was out of the question for most women, and most career paths naturally forbade a woman’s entry. Arranged marriages have been almost universally linked to wealth and political control, though. Doesn’t that suggest that the women who signed the petition were of a bourgeoisie mindset? After all, only the females of that upper 7 percent could even think to afford education were it offered to them. This suggests that, without the bourgeoisie, the third estate would have gone unrepresented both governmentally and historically. Furthermore, we are forced to admit that the third estate was necessarily and almost axiomatically an amalgam between the poorest strains of society and the landed middle-class, or bourgeoisie. This made that class highly unstable, and thus the French Revolution (and its bloody tirades) began.
In posting the petition on the web, the framers of the website at https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/472/ admit that little is known about the grievances these women had confronted prior to the reemergence of the Estates General. The initial convocation of the Estates General was, of course, where this anonymous petition was drafted.
One excellent primary source describing the third estate is Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate? It dates from 1789. Within the text of this old document, which comprises over 12,000 words, the word “woman” is mentioned only once. The word female is not mentioned at all. Clearly, the place of females within society was obscure at best during the revolutionary period in France. I for one am glad that sexism is being continually eradicated from government and the philosopher’s pen.
In the end, we have to wonder whether the male burgesses of France would consider a female to be part of their group. Perhaps it is best to think of all females as occupying a peasant-like status in pre-revolutionary France. This is exactly what the framers of the petition were telling us between the lines, too.