Women in the Revolution(s)

As readers of my blog and my books know, most of my novels are set during the American Pre and Revolutionary period. However, with my current manuscript, I’m jumping ahead 15 years or so and into the fray with the French.

It’s hard to study the French Revolution without comparing it to the American Revolution. They are inexorably intertwined, after all. The French came to the aid of the Americans, and in turn, the Americans inspired the French. (And left the country so deep in debt that revolution was, perhaps, inevitable.)

There are a lot of contrasts, however. As a traditional feminist (Vive la différence, if you know what I mean) one of the most fascinating contrasts for me is the role women played in each of the revolutions.

American Revolution
I’ve written a bit about the role American women played in my post Daughters of Liberty. While their role shouldn’t be downplayed, it was largely one of self-sacrifice and keeping the home fires burning – or at least the spinning wheels spinning.

French Revolution
Conversely, French women seemed to prefer to take a more active role, storming the castle so to speak. Or at least the National Assembly.

Here are some of the actions taken by French women during the French Revolution:

  • They submitted a demand to the National Assembly to be allowed to arm themselves and take part in the Revolution. After their request was denied, they stormed the National Assembly. When I say storm, I’m not talking about today’s protests where people stand outside, carrying signs and chanting slogans that all seem to start with “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho.” Nope. They barged right on in.
L'Assassinat de Marat
Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry
  • One of the most militant voices of the Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, was assassinated by a woman – Charlotte Corday. Note that she was a revolutionary herself, just not as radical as Marat. By 1793, the Revolutionaries have begun to turn on each other. (BTW, this is the year in which my new novel is set.)
  • There were a number of female political writers during the French Revolution. The Americans had female writers too, most notably, my soul sister, Mercy Otis Warren. However, there seemed to be so many more of them during the French Revolution.
  • Since public discourse on the Revolution in cafes and taverns was somewhat off-limits to women, they created their own venues in the form of French salons. Women would invite leading thinkers, many of whom were men, into their homes for elegant evenings of discussion on the events and political theories of the day.

One of the most interesting aspects, to me, is the role women played in the evolution of Catholicism during the French Revolution. Long story short, Revolutionaries sought to control the Catholic Church, the one institution in French life that might have even been more powerful than the king.

But now they were messing with religion and, historically, France was a very religious country. And as in most Western countries, women were the most observant. By the early 90s, French priests were required to take oaths to the nation if they wanted to remain priests. Some women demanded they take the oath, even going so far as to stand by the side of their local parish priest and take the oath with them.

From Wikimedia CommonsCaricature of bishop of Paris, Jean-Baptiste Gobel (1727-1794), followed by a procession of members of the clergy with long noses and a devil holding a casket of civil oaths bringing up rear. Represents priests who were against the civil constitution and were massacred on September 3, 1792, after refusing to swear the oath of loyalty.

From me: "Freedom of Religion" died an early deathin the French Revolution.
Unfortunately, French women didn’t fair so well in the end. Not that the men faired much better, but as for the women, they gained some significant civil rights such as the ability to divorce their husbands and to inherent from their fathers. These are no small concessions, obviously. However, they did not get the vote, and in later stages of the Revolution, their clubs were disbanded, the leaders arrested by the male revolutionary leaders. Many were executed for their involvement. 

That’s gratitude for ya, eh?

No comments:

Post a Comment