Women and the French Revolution

French Revolution - after a painting by Pierre Antoine De Machy
French Revolution - after a painting by Pierre Antoine De Machy. © 2009 Jupiterimages. Used with permission.
01
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The Many Roles of Women

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People. Delacroix / Getty Images

Women played key roles in the 18th century French Revolution. Images of Lady Liberty symbolized the basic values of the Revolution. From the Queen Consort, Marie Antoinette, who opposed any reforms and may have hastened the revolutionary response, to the 7,000 women of Paris who marched on Versailles to demand justice, to a woman who modeled a call for women’s rights after the general call in the Revolution for rights, to several who fled, to intellectuals who supported the Revolution’s general idea but were horrified at the bloody progress of the conflict, to women who were barely affected by the Revolution – women were there, and in many different roles.

02
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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
Anne Joseph Mericourt, participant in the storming of the Bastille and the Women's March for Bread on Versailles. Apic / Getty Images

Beginning with five to ten thousand, mostly market women unhappy over the price and scarcity of bread, and ending with some sixty thousand two days later, this event 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.

03
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Marie Antoinette: Queen Consort of France, 1774 – 1793

Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution. Artist: William Hamilton
Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution. Artist: William Hamilton. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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 on October 16 of that year.

04
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Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun

Self-portrait, Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Kimball Art Museum
Self-portrait, Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Kimball Art Museum. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

She was known as the official painter of Marie Antoinette.  She painted the queen and her family in less formal portrayals 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.

05
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Madame de Stael

Madame de Stael
Madame de Stael. Leemage / Getty Images

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, in which 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.

She 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.

06
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Charlotte Corday

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

Originally a supporter, with her family, of the monarchy, Charlotte Corday supported the Revolution and the more moderate Republican party, the Girondists, once the revolution was underway.  When the more radical Jacobins turned on the Girondists, Charlotte Corday decided to murder Jean Paul Marat, a Jacobin publisher who’d been calling for the death of 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.

07
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Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges. Kean Collection/Getty Images

In August of 1789, the National Assembly of France issued a “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 feminine version of “Citoyen.” 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, the more moderate Republicans, and fell victim to the Jacobins and the guillotine in November 1793.

08
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Mary Wollstonecraft

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

Though known as a British writer and citizen, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work was influenced by the Revolution. She wrote her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), as well as an earlier book, A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), inspired by discussions among the intelligentsia about the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” She visited France in 1792, and modified her optimism somewhat.  She published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, trying to reconcile her support for the basic ideas of the Revolution with her horror of the bloody turn of the Revolution later.

More About Mary Wollstonecraft

Also on this site: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

09
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Sophie Germain

Sculpture of Sophie Germain
Sculpture of Sophie Germain. Stock Montage / Archive Photos / Getty Images

This ground-breaking mathematician was 13 when the French Revolution began; her father served in the Constituent Assembly and during the Revolution protected her by keeping her at home.  This gave her considerable time to study, and she may have had tutors at home. She became enamored of mathematics, and her study led to her success in the field. She died just before she could be awarded an honorary doctorate degree.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and the French Revolution." ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/women-and-the-french-revolution-3529110. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 1). Women and the French Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-the-french-revolution-3529110 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and the French Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-the-french-revolution-3529110 (accessed November 22, 2017).