The Many Roles of Women in the French Revolution

French Revolution - after a painting by Pierre Antoine De Machy
© 2009 Jupiterimages. Used with permission.

The French Revolution saw women in many roles, including political leaders, activists, and intellectuals. This turning point in history led some women to lose power and others to hone the skills needed to win social influence. Women like Marie Antoinette and Mary Wollstonecraft will long be remembered for the actions they took during this period.

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Women’s March on Versailles

Anne Joseph Mericourt, participant in the storming of the Bastille and the Women's March for Bread on Versailles
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The French Revolution began with thousands of women unhappy over the price and scarcity of bread. These women grew into some 60,000 marchers two days later. The march turned the tide against royal rule in France, forcing the king to submit to the will of the people and proving that the royals were not invulnerable.

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Marie Antoinette: Queen Consort of France, 1774–1793

Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution. Artist: William Hamilton
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Daughter of the powerful Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette's marriage to the French dauphin, later Louis XVI of France, was a political alliance. A slow start on having children and a reputation for extravagance didn’t help her reputation in France.

Historians believe that her continued unpopularity and her support for resisting reforms was a cause of the toppling of the monarchy in 1792. Louis XVI was executed in January 1793, and Marie Antoinette was executed on Oct. 16 of that year.

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Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun

Self-portrait, Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Kimball Art Museum
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Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun was known as the official painter of Marie Antoinette. She painted the queen and her family in less formal portraits as unrest increased, hoping to enhance the queen’s image as a devoted mother with a middle-class lifestyle.

On October 6, 1789, when mobs stormed the Versailles Palace, Vigee LeBrun fled Paris with her young daughter and a governess, living and working outside France until 1801. She continued to identify with the royalist cause.

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Madame de Stael

Madame de Stael
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Germaine de Staël, also known as Germaine Necker, was a rising intellectual figure in France, known for her writing and her salons when the French Revolution began. An heiress and educated woman, she married a Swedish legate. She was a supporter of the French Revolution but fled to Switzerland during the September 1792 killings known as the September Massacres. Radicals, including Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat, called for the killing of those in prison, many of whom were priests and members of the nobility and former political elite. In Switzerland, she continued her salons, drawing many French emigrants.

Madame de Stael returned to Paris and France when the fervor there had diminished, and after about 1804, she and Napoleon came into conflict, leading her to another exile from Paris.

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Charlotte Corday

Painting: Assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday, unknown artist
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Charlotte Corday supported the Revolution and the more moderate Republican party, the Girondists, once the conflict was underway. When the more radical Jacobins turned on the Girondists, Corday decided to murder Jean-Paul Marat, the journalist who called for the death of the Girondists. She stabbed him in his bathtub on July 13, 1793, and was guillotined for the crime four days later after a quick trial and conviction.

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Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges
Kean Collection/Getty Images

In August of 1789, the National Assembly of France issued “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which stated the values of the French Revolution and was to serve as the basis of the Constitution. (Thomas Jefferson may have worked on some drafts of the document; he was, at the time, the representative in Paris of the newly independent United States.)

The declaration asserted the rights and sovereignty of the citizens, based on natural (and secular) law. But it only included men.

Olympe de Gouges, a playwright in France before the Revolution, sought to remedy the exclusion of women. In 1791, she wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” (in French, “Citoyenne”). The document was modeled after the Assembly’s document, asserting that women, while different from men, also had the capacity of reason and moral decision-making. She asserted that women had the right to free speech.

De Gouges was associated with the Girondists and fell victim to the Jacobins and the guillotine in November 1793.

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft - detail from a painting by John Odie, about 1797
Dea Picture Library / Getty Images

Mary Wollstonecraft may have been a British writer and citizen, but the French Revolution influenced her work. She wrote the books "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792) and an "A Vindication of the Rights of Man" (1790) after listening to discussions in intellectual circles about the French Revolution. She visited France in 1792 and published "A Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution." In this text, she tried to reconcile her support for the basic ideas of the Revolution with her horror at the bloody turn it took later.