Les Citoyennes: The Dichotomy of Women in The French Revolution

by Emily Drouillard

The French Revolution began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Three months later, women of Paris marched on the palace of Versailles and began a revolution of their own. It marked the beginning of modern feminism, which would last long after Napoléon’s coup ended the revolution in 1799. The significance of the contributions and advancements of women in the French Revolution, most notably the March on Versailles, is juxtaposed by their struggle to rid their status as secondary citizens in the face of evolving legislation. Their involvements mark both a birth of modern feminism and a reaffirmation of the need for said feminism.

On October 5th, 1789, over 20,000 members of the French populace marched to Versailles, an event often referred to as the Women’s March on Versailles. The crowd consisted of nearly 7,000 women and some men as well as a later wave of 15,000 National Guardsmen with a few thousand more civilians[1]. Although females were ultimately not the vast majority of the total crowd, the women of Paris were instrumental in the birth of the revolutionary act. There were other acts of militant political activity by women during the revolution but the October March was the most significant and is the most relevant in this context.

After the storming of the Bastille, the French – especially the Parisians –experienced price inflation, resource shortages, and often violence in the marketplaces. The French National Constituent Assembly wrote the August Decrees in 1789 as groundwork for a constitution. Consisting of 19 articles, the Decrees asked various implementations, the most significant of which were the abolishment of feudalism as well as noble and clerical entitlements[2]. There is no direct mention of women in these articles; they are most noticeably excluded in article eleven:

“All [male] citizens, without distinction of birth, are eligible to any office or dignity, whether ecclesiastical, civil, or military; and no profession shall imply any derogation.”[3]

Later that month, the National Constituent Assembly passed legislation to further the goals of the August Decrees. Titled the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, its seventeen articles call for popular sovereignty and social equality[4]. As with the August Decrees, the ideals of universal equality and innate rights only applied to men. The women of 18th century France were not considered members of society, let alone citizens, on the same level as men and therefore were not given the same rights, even when those rights aimed to equalize.

These legislative works faced resistance from monarchists and conservatives; by September veto power was been secured for King Louis XVI, who approved only a portion of the decrees. The night before the march began, the king expressed that he was unsure about the Declaration as well[5]. Worry about the king’s reluctance was now legitimized and intensified in the wake of the Flanders Regiment banquet. The people of France saw the lavish event at Versailles on October 1st, one customary for welcoming a new unit of troops, as an affront to the struggling masses. As word spread and tales of remarkable gluttony were told, the public became even angrier.

There had been previous demands for demonstrations at Versailles and they were fulfilled on the morning of October 5th that marked a culmination of the frustration and outrage of the people. A group of women had convened in the market to air their grievances about the rising price and falling supply of bread when a drum was struck. The women began to march through marketplaces and grew significantly in numbers. Eventually 7,000 women were convened and joined by revolutionist men, demanding both bread and arms at the Hôtel de Ville. Stanislas-Marie Maillard, known for his participation in the storming of the Bastille, guided the group with a cry of “À Versailles!”[6] The march gave positions of power to women not only as a group, but also as individuals who were chosen as deputies to guide the march to Versailles.

Upon arriving at the palace, women began threatening the royal guards and demanding to see the king. A small delegation was allowed to address him and was promised increased shares of wheat for Paris, after which the women waiting outside demanded the promise be set in writing to hold the king accountable. Women wielded swords, sat on cannons, and invaded the National Assembly through a small gate on the evening of October 5th. Nearly 3,000 women joined the deliberations and made their voices heard, voting along with legislators, and one even sat in the chair of the president. The success of their insurrection was more than one of just subsistence; it was a seizure of power and popular sovereignty by women that symbolized the overriding of the king’s absolute authority[7]. This female-driven political and militant uprising marks a beginning of “…feminism as popular movements actively engaged in the political arena to win women’s rights and change patriarchal society.”[8]

Despite this advance in the fight for equality, actual equality was not to be found for the women of the French Revolution. The political movement they had joined and greatly aided in the October Days was generally unappreciative and unwilling to fight for their rights. In November of 1789, the Women’s Petition to the National Assembly was presented with the purpose of granting women political equality[9]. It highlighted the hypocrisy of The Declaration of Rights and asked for the abolishment of male privilege and slavery. Ultimately, it was not discussed. Despite their words being ignored, their bodies were not.

The female form as a symbol of the goddess Liberty replaced the face of the king as the symbol of the body politic, adding another layer to the complex role of women in the revolution. The female as a symbol of revolution, new government and popular sovereignty is immortalized in Delacroix’s famed Liberty Leading the People. Although depicting July Revolution of 1830, the figure wears a Phrygian cap in reference to the revolution of 1789 and shows that Liberty remained as the primary symbol of uprising[10]. The painting shows Liberty holding a bayonet in one hand and a French flag in the other. She stands on a pile of bodies as she looks back at the militant group of men behind her. She is shoeless and clothed in a long dress, although her breasts are still fully exposed and brightly lit, an eye-grabbing area of light in an otherwise mostly dark painting. Her curvaceous body and exposed breasts add a level of sexualisation and objectification to the work. The figure of a woman is used as an image of a movement that focused on improving the lives and rights of men while benefiting from yet still ignoring the essential lack of rights for women. As Lynn Hunt is quoted as saying in Rebel Daughters, “the proliferation of the female allegory was made possible, in fact, by the exclusion of women from public affairs. Women could be representative of abstract qualities and collective dreams because women were not about to vote or govern.”[11] Women were not a legitimate symbol of the revolution in the same way that, despite their political activism in the October Days, they didn’t directly benefit from the revolution.

Women in the French Revolution were trapped in a strange dichotomy. They were able to stage an activist movement that worked toward enhancing their rights and became one of the most significant events of the revolution. They spurred the start of modern feminism and the female embodiment of liberty replaced the symbol of a Louis XVI’s sun king. Yet the women of the revolution they were fighting for were also oppressed by the revolution. They were unable to have their rights acknowledged despite fighting for a platform of equality. They were a false symbol that was not used in solidarity, rather as so far removed from the reality of the situation that the ideals being fought for could be projected upon them. The French Revolution did not support the women, yet in order to be able to combat the ways in which it oppressed them, the women needed the changes it brought about. The Revolution marks both the beginning of mainstream political activism by and in the interest of women as well as a time of their continued oppression.

Works Cited

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.

Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich, and N. F. Dryhurst. The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Pub., 2007. Print.

Melzer, Sara E., and Leslie W. Rabine. Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Robinson, James Harvey. “The French Declaration of the Rights of Man, of 1789.” Political Science Quarterly 14.4 (1899): 653-62. Web.

Robinson, James Harvey. Readings in European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen with the Purpose of Illustrating the Progress of Culture in Western Europe since the German Invasions. Boston: Ginn, 1906. Print.

[1] Rebel Women

[2] Robinson 1906

[3] Robinson 1906, p. 437

[4] Kropotken

[5] Kropotken

[6] Doyle

[7] Rebel Daughters

[8] Rebel Daughters, 10

[9] Rebel Daughters

[10] Doyle

[11] Rebel Daughters, 29