“It is not enough to tell the people that its happiness is imminent; it is necessary that the people should feel its effects” – Claire Lacombe at the bar of the National Convention of Revolutionary France, 1793


Women played a significant and influential role over the course of the French Revolution (1789-798) as well as in the opposition to the revolution. They wrote and published revolutionary texts, organized meeting and demonstrations, observed the debates of the French National Assembly, donated material and goods for the French revolutionary army, since 1792, when the war with the Old Regime powers Austria and Prussia started, and organized their own revolutionary groups. One example for the latter is the Société des républicaines révolutionnaires (Society of Revolutionary Republican Women/Club of Revolutionary Women) in Paris, which was active in 1793 until it was dissolved as “dangerous” by the revolutionary National Assembly.

Before and throughout the French Revolution, many educated and wealthy men and women gathered in salons, hosted in private houses, to discuss political issues. Upper-class women served as hostesses of these salons, which offered them an opportunity to participate in its discussions, but stay in the private sphere and behave according to the expected gender role. Nevertheless, according to historian Lisa Beckstrand, their hosting of salons was subversive in and of itself:

It was considered ‘unnatural’ for women to step out of the private sphere. Nonconformist acts of self-assertion by women were often seen as signs of deviance or revolt, a rejection or a denial or their assigned role. Society responded to such behavior by accusing the allegedly guilty woman of ‘desensitization’ and a lack of femininity.

Women also got to set the list of topics for discussion in many salons in their role as hostesses. They could finally give input to issues in society, especially ones with which they were intimately familiar, such as issues of the home during wartime and lack of political agency as a woman. Most of the women who participated in salons came from the bourgeois—they could afford to take the time, unlike their working-class counterparts. Despite this reality, salons helped to facilitate cross-class conversation between the bourgeois and nobility class.

Women form the lower classes developed other, much more public forms of participation in the French Revolution. They participated in meetings, observed the debates of the National Assembly, organized demonstrations. They were motivated by the challenges they experienced in their daily struggle for survival. As historians Harriet Applewhite and Darline Gay Levy have observed:

In revolutionary Paris, women asserted themselves politically precisely in the context of such extraordinary circumstances: economic problems threatening their security dovetailed with power struggles and radical changes in authority; and the general Enlightenment quest for progress developed into the real opportunity for constitutional and legal reform.

Radical activism was vital to the progression of women’s rights. Claire Lacombe (1765-?), an actress, and Pauline Leon (1768-1838), a chocolate maker, founded The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women in May 1793. At its beginning, the purpose of the Society was “to deliberate upon the means of frustrating the projects of the enemies of the Republic” (Beckstrand 2013, 17). They held meetings at the Jacobin library with almost 200 women. A reported account of a session of the Society (written by a man in disguise) states that 67 members were present, and some of them wore red caps. The Society was perhaps the most radical female revolutionary organization on the French Revolution. Initially, the Society acted as Jacobin “sans culottes,” but soon allied with the more radical Enragés, which split from the Jacobins. The Society’s leaders Lacombe and Léon and many others saw the Jacobins as hypocrites. One of the demands of this organization was that women should have the right to be armed, to be able to become equal citizens and defend the revolutionary republic in the wars that had started one year before.

Both Girondists and Jacobines perceived the activities of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women and other associations of women as so dangerous for the revolutionary cause that they outlawed any political activity of women with a decision of the National Assembly on 7 November 1793. When a delegation of women came to the General Council of the Paris Commune to protest the closing of their associations, the Prosecutor of the Commune Anaxagoras Chaumette told them:

So! Since when have people been allowed to renounce their sex? Since when has it been acceptable to see women abandon the pious duties of their households, their children’s cradles, to appear in public, to take the floor and to make speeches, to come before the Senate? … Nature has said to woman, be a woman; the tender cares due to infancy, the details of the household, the sweet inquietudes of maternity, here are your tasks … Oh, impudent women who wish to become men what more do you want? … Is it right for women to make motions? Is it for women to place themselves at the head of our armies?

Divided by many in most political matter, Girondists and Jacobines shared the same ideas about the gender order and believed in the construct of the “nature-based separate spheres” for men and women in the economy, society and politics. Many revolutionary women, like Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe, faced brutal punishment, imprisonment or even death for their early feminist activism during the French Revolution

The history of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women shows the presence of radical female activism during the French Revolution. Women questioned the status quo and challenged the exiting social and gender order. They could insert their thoughts and opinions into issues over which they previously had no policy influence. In this was they to French Revolution and its long-lasting aftermath.


Jessamine Gaul, Media and Journalism/Political Science, Class of 2018 


Sources

Literature and Websites

  • Applewhite, Harriet and Darline Gay Levy, eds.Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795 : Selected Documents Translated with Notes and Commentary. Urbana Champaign: University of Illinois Pres., 1980.
  • Beckstrand, Lisa. Deviant Women of the French Revolution and the Rise of Feminism. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013.
  • Levy, Darline Gay and Harriet B. Applewhite, “A Political Revolution for Women? The Case of Paris,” in Becoming VisibleWomen in European History, ed. Bridenthal, Renate., Susan Mosher. Stuard, and Merry E. Wiesner, 265-292. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
  • “Salon (France).” Wikipedia,
at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_(France) (Access 18 April 2018)
  • “Women in the French Revolution.” Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_French_Revolution (Access 18 April 2018)
  • Zundel, Hannah, Sophie duPont, Emily Olsen, and Marisa Rondinelli. “Women’s Involvement in the French Salons (Early 18th Century).” University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011. https://sites.google.com/a/wisc.edu/ils202fall11/home/student-wikis/group4. (Access 18 April 2018)

Images

The Society of Republican Revolutionary women in a gathered meeting, c. 1792.
Portrait of an unidentified woman, possibly Claire Lacombe, in Bowes Museum.
Pauline Léon, co-founder of the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women, c. 1792.