Role of Women in the French Revolution Essay Example

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Title: The role of women in French revolution


The French revolution was a period of fundamental political and social turmoil in European and French history. The revolution that transformed all the facets of life commenced in 1789 up to 1795. During the French revolution, economic, political, religious and social structures were destroyed and redeveloped. It was also in this period that France new chaotic incarnation came up. The revolution created a new society that encouraged women participations in various events. The rapid transformation in France made women of every class, lifestyle and profession to re-examine their roles within a society. Throughout the French revolution, women played a vital role in events than previously imagined. Women participated in politics via clubs and feminist movement (Beckstrand, 2009, p115). However, their participation and views were not similar and depending on their social class and standing, they failed to share a common experience. Even though many studies have been done on French revolution, little facts about the role of women in the revolution have been uncovered. This paper therefore looks at women’s role in French revolution, that is, how they participated in 1789 Paris events and their role in October 1789 Versailles march. The Declaration of women’s rights by Olympe deGouges and key women that actively participated in the revolution are also discussed in this paper.

The role of women in French revolution

All over Europe, women had very few rights up until the enlightenment. In many parts of Europe, women were expected to dress well, to look smart and to be charming. As a wife, women were expected to be pure and produce heirs so as to lengthen the family line. In the domestic environment, wives in middle class families were permitted to assist their husbands in trading, only if it did not interfere with their duties. During the revolution, the role of women as a mother and wife became so vital that barred her from every other area of life. Their participation in artisan trades reduced and their education could only broaden up to the knowledge of traditional women’s job since they were excluded from universities. Job opportunities therefore for women were very few since several desirable professions needed a university education. Women were limited to work in domestic surroundings, as maids, seamstresses and wet nurses. Their wages therefore were very low forcing them to be under men’s control (Spielvogel, 2010, p46).

The spread of enlightenment made women to understand that they also had rights as stated in the principles of democracy and individualism. Women in Europe, particularly in France, started to form salons, a place where enlightenment principles were critically discussed. Several women’s rights were therefore formulated. It is through these rights that the roles of women were laid during the revolution. Women played a very important role in the events of French revolution. Many historians believed that men mostly participated in Paris major events such as Bastille attacks, which was not the case, since women are the ones who played a great role in this event (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2009, p98).

The French revolution resulted into participation of women in both politics and demonstrations. Differently from other parts in Europe, the 1780’s enlightenment in France, Paris in particular, was being directed by a series of highly bright, creative, bold women, who welcomed at their salons men who were intelligent, tolerant, rational and respectable (Abray, 1975, p42). Women were therefore moving away from their role as a mother and wife to an alternate role as intellectuals. In Paris, before the emergence of salons, clubs for men were very common. The emergence of salons however made men’s clubs to be uncommon. The establishment of salons of great women such as Madame Roland, Madame Geoffrin and Madame Necker encouraged women to gather and freely talk about politics and philosophies that influence their way of living. With time, women in Paris were able to put up their own clubs, sat in Salle du Manege’s public gallery, meet friends and converse in cafes (Clark, 1992, p18).

Bastille attacks happened on 14th July 1789. Three hundred angry Parisians stormed fortress as they look for gunpowder and weapons. Many individuals viewed prison as a sign of despotism of monarchy and nobility. Though many viewed the attack as largely dominated by men, there was no doubt that many women also participated on the attack. Contemporary prints displayed, many armed women among the insurgents. The insurgents had a support of the entire population of Faubourg Saint-Antoine and that of Paris (Ruthchild, 2010, p221).

Many historians view Bastille attack as revolution’s inciting event. Tensions were very high throughout the summer of 1789. The cost of living was very high due to poor harvest that occurred in this period. Peasants were not able to make enough money to feed their families. Majority of people, both in Paris and the entire country, were struggling with poverty (Censer & Lynn, 2001, p36). It was in this period that Rumors about aristocratic landowners started mass chaos. The great fear, as the period was referred to, lasted only for a month. Women in particular, participated in great fear on August. This was because their role in domestic environment entailed duties to supply their family with food. Grain was greatly needed by women so as to feed their family (Frey, 2004, p109). They therefore did what was necessary. Women made courageous attempts to feed their families and at the same time strive to understand the tension in politics that holds the entire Paris in its grip. They therefore went past their traditional domain’s boundaries.

Frey (2004, p106) reveals that during the last days of September, women realized a marked increase in the number of soldiers in Versailles and Paris region. In October 1789, there was a serious bread shortage and rumors spread that the King and the Queen had not respected the revolutionary colors, which were red, blue and white. It was also believed that the King and the Queen were planning a counter-revolution at Versailles. In October 5th 1789, a group of women, both working and middle class, gathered in Hotel de Ville section of Paris and shared complaints about bread and grain shortage in the city. The women, while pretending as if they were on tour, moved towards Hotel de Ville itself. At the moment, very few guards were guarding weapon stores in Hotel de Ville. Women then stormed the weapon stores and took weapons and ammunition. The announcement to march to Versailles to meet the King was then made and many more women were gathered.

A march to Versailles started with approximately six thousand women and five hundred men. The group was pulling cannons on wagons and every one in the group armed with spears, pikes and any other weapons that they could find at their disposal. They initially stopped at National assembly to protest for bread shortage but were ignored and chased away (Hesse, 2003, p55). Majority of women proceeded to Versailles. On arrival, majority of the women were allowed to see the King, who promised to give Parisians food and signed a declaration accepting to fulfill his promise. The King’s move, satisfied many women. However majority of the mass that had marched the twelve miles spent the whole night, in barns, sleeping on the floor and any place they could find (Singer, 2011, p2).

In the early morning of October sixth, a small group of women and men forced themselves into the palace via a door that was not guarded. The group moved quickly toward royal apartments and killed several guards that came on their way. The act of violence did not however harm the royal family. After causing a lot of violence, the crowd then started shouting for the Queen to come out and speak to them (Miller, 2008, p79). The Queen, in her night gown, finally came out and bowed to the crowd on a balcony. The crowd did not get satisfied and called for relocation of the royal family. Many testimonies were given that cause violent and naughty threats against the Queen. The King and the Queen were later forced to vacate Versailles. It then came clear that many women accused the queen for political crisis that the nation was experiencing. Women who marched on Versailles had a strong feeling that they action will improve their lives and their government. Women therefore greatly participated on the October march. Minus there participation, events may have appeared quite different (Miller, 2008, p80).

Though clubs greatly promoted women’s political participation in French revolution, there were several women who greatly fought for women’s right. The feminist movement started in 1789 when Olympe de Gouges petitioned for reforms in the National assembly. Olympe de Gouges, a failed working-class actress, asked for full lawful equality for sexes, women’s broad job opportunities, a state option to primary dowry system and education for girl children. Olympe de Gouges managed to publish her women’s rights declaration that was named declaration of rights of man and citizens (Hanson, 2004, p207). The declaration asked for equivalent rights among men and women, women’s national assembly, a unique standard of justice and women’s freedom of speech. Olympe de Gouges declaration made Condorcet to suggest that women were being taxed minus representation since they were not considered in the voting process. Condorcet also persisted that domestic power need to be shared and every profession disclosed to all sexes. Women who attained property qualification were supposed to be permitted to vote (Rude, 2008, p135).

According to Roessler (1996, p178) the national assembly declaration and de Gouges declaration gave the same message and applied to every woman. Among the barriers in de Gouges’ declaration was the claim that women, as nationals, had a free speech right. This therefore implied that women had a right to disclose their father’s and children’s identity. Olympe de Gourges also called for equal rights among children born outside legitimate marriage and those born within the marriage. Her declaration therefore assumed that men were free to meet sexual desire outside marriage and the men’s freedom could be done minus fear for corresponding responsibility. Olympe de Gourges assumed that women were reproduction’s agents (Kropotkin & Dryhurst, 2009, p46).

Kropotkin & Dryhurst (2009, p50), argue that; other women who got involved in the French revolution include; Etta Palm d’ Aelders, Sans-culottes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Etta Palm d’ Aelders, an upper-class woman, was very effective in feminist movement. She started spreading her ideas in 1790. She gave out a speech that criticizes any woman that dedicates entirely on household and family duties. Etta Palm d’ Aelders believed that women were denied education and as a result, their courage were take away and spirits suffocated. She also believed that since French came from Romans, French women need to adopt the courage and determination of Roman women. A petition was presented by Etta Palm d’ Aelders in April 1792. In her petition, she requested the deputies to take into account the state of humiliation that women have gone through. Women’s political rights were undermined. Etta Palm d’ Aelders asked the national assembly to provide women with a right for moral education and be considered adults at twenty-one years of age. She also requested for political freedom and equality of rights for both sexes and the pass for divorce law.

The women who actively participated in French revolution were grouped into working-class and upper-class women. The differences between the two groups were very clear. The market women asked for their professional rights protection via reestablishment of medieval trade and complain concerning working conditions, dirty hospitals and social injustices (Johnston, 2009, p113). The requests for aristocratic women concentrated on civil rights matters such as marriage equality, divorce initiation, participation in voting process and representation of women in national assembly. The movement of feminist focused on aristocratic women. The aristocratic women were able to pay the taxes of a popular club such as Les Amies de la Verite. The working-class women had a huge passion for ideals and causes of revolutionaries. This group of women was behind horrible actions that were committed by Club des Citoyennes Republicaines Revolutionnaires and in the reign of terror (Sherman, 2006, 68).

Aristocratic women moved to the neighboring nations to avoid being looked at as guillotined and counter-revolutionary. Those who remained in France were very loyal to the revolution and were expected to be very keen so as to avoid being jailed or executed as royalists. Upper-class women were not worrying on how to obtain bread as the working class did. They did not have the concerns of sustaining daily life standards that the peasants had. Upper-class women were therefore very different in their daily operations and their involvement in revolution (Berger, 2006, p125).


From the discussion, it is clear that women greatly participated in French revolution. Women in Paris established salons, a place where enlightenment principles were seriously discussed. The Bastille attacks that occurred on 14th July 1789 were dominated by both women and men. Contemporary prints displayed, many armed women among the insurgents during Bastille attacks. During the French revolution, women participated in both politics and demonstrations. They moved from their roles as wives and mothers to an alternate role as intellectuals. Women hosted intelligent, tolerant, rational and respectable men in their salons, thus involving in constructive discussion about equality principles. Versailles October march was highly dominated by women. In this march, women were able to force themselves into the palace and forced the King and the Queen to vacate Versailles. Many women fought for women’s right. Olympe de Gouges, Etta Palm d’ Aelders, Sans-culottes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are among the great women who actively participated in French revolution. Olympe de Gouges requested for equivalent rights among men and women, women’s national assembly, a unique standard of justice and women’s freedom of speech.


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