French Revolution and Women

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Do you see a change in the status and role of the women during the French Revolution? In what ways did it find and an expression in popular culture, art and the new political changes associated with the French Revolution?

BY: RITESH AGARWAL
B.A. HISTORY HONS IIIRD YEAR
MODERN WORLD HISTORY
The great French feminist, Simone de Beauviour remarked, “The world has always belonged to males … One might expect the French Revolution to have changed women’s lot. It did nothing of the kind. That bourgeois institution and bourgeois values; and it were almost made exclusively by men.” However, since the time of Simone de Beauvoir, recent scholarship, starting from the 1970’s has brought to light the enormous role women played in the French Revolution of 1789, both as active participants and as symbolic figures. It has become clear that the Revolution was also made by women. Yet, Beauvoir’s belief that “the women’s lot” did not really change after the French Revolution remains largely undisputed. Women, despite their extensive participation in both the relatively orderly political and legislative processes of the initial years of the Revolution, as well as in the violence of the Terror, were legally no better off in 1804 when the Napoleonic Code was instituted than they had been in the 1780’s- in fact some historians such as Joan Landes argues that their situation might have been even worse. The status of women did go through significant changes in the years between 1789 and 1804. At one point (late 1792 and early 1793) they even obtained illegitimate child and secure monetary compensation from him, and own property. Primogeniture was abolished and equality of succession laws ensured that female heirs would be allowed to inherit. In this essay, I shall attempt to examine the kinds of roles that women played in Revolutionary France that enabled them to enjoy this brief period of great equality with men and also how and why this period of greater equality came to an end. Women’s demand for bread can be seen as the starting point of the Revolution. On the October 5th, 1789, 7000 women marched from Paris to Versailles. According to a contemporary newspaper account, the trouble started when a young market woman began beating a drum in the streets and crying out about the scarcity of bread. Women gathered together and rounded up others from streets and houses, an eye witness of the account describes hoe the women invaded Hotel de Ville and proclaimed that men didn’t have enough strength to avenge themselves and they would demonstrate they were better than men. They found and seized arms, and set off for Versailles with intent of asking the King and the National Assembly for bread and demanding the closure of the constitution. These women included mostly shopkeepers, peddlers and market women, but some house wives as well as actresses also participated in the march. Visual depiction of the march shows women astride cannons, with swords and branches, threatening royal bodyguards- a complete turnabout of the ordered world. According to tradition, as they marched, they chanted- “Courage my friends, we won’t lack bread any longer, we are bringing you the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy”. Darline Levy, Harriet Applewhite & Mary Johnson who were amongst the first to highlight the participation of women in the Revolution in their, “Women in Revolutionary Paris” published in 1979, argue such slogans demonstrate the demotion of the monarch’s authority. The French Revolution brought about women’s involvement in not only demonstrations, but also politics. Moorhead says that in the late 1780’s “the Enlightenment, as it unfolded, touched most of educated Europe, but in France and particularly Paris, its direction was determined early by a succession of highly intelligent, imaginative, bold women who invited toothier salons men of letters, scholars, and socialites, who were, like themselves, tolerant, reasonable, full of restraint and...
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