Women's Equality During the French Revolution

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The Fight for Women's Rights
During the French Revolution

The French Revolution brought with it many sweeping changes in the realm of human rights both to France and eventually the rest of the world. Through Enlightenment ideas, groups previously viewed as second-class citizens, and even those viewed as hardly human, gained greatly enhanced rights and even citizenship with all that this entailed. Amazingly with all the rights and privileges that were being recognized as inherent to various social groups, half the population was left with little or no improvement in their station. This, of course, refers to women. While there were those who fought for women's rights, such as Condorcet, Etta Palm D'Aelders, and Olympe De Gouges; these individuals were not homogenous in their attitudes about those freedoms that women ought to have. They also ran up against harsh opposition to the institution of any change in the role of women from that of pre-revolutionary France. Men such as Fabre d'Eglantine, Jean Baptiste Amar, and Gaspard Chaumette, though revolutionaries themselves, would be such opponents.

A true man of the Enlightenment Condorcet used a system of reason and deduction to reach the conclusion that women, by virtue of their humanity, deserved the ability to participate in the political and social systems developing in France. His article, On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship, flows naturally from the premises outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He charges that France has "violated the principles of equality of rights by quietly depriving half of mankind of the right to participate in the formation of the laws." (pp 119) He sees this as the result of bad habits, and not the use of reason, on which enlightenment philosophers prided themselves. These habits, he would say, would have been acquired due to the rules of the old regime and not as a result of the biological differences between the sexes Undoubtedly habit played no small part in the outcry of many, especially those citizens not associated with the Enlightenment and the use of reason. For the less highly educated it is understandable, if not justifiable, that they feared their wives and mothers in a new position of power and importance, and leaving the home to pursue these goals. As it were there would have been little for them to fear in the ideas of Condorcet, who also saw it as "natural for a woman to nurse her children, to care for them in their infancy; attached to home by these cares." (pp 121) He rectifies this view with that of political inclusion by comparing the duty of the domestic women with the work of men. (pp 120) Members of both sexes performed jobs that often would not allow them to reach the economic qualifications outlined by the national convention as being necessary to hold office. Requiring that a person own a significant amount of land was a safety feature to ensure that a representative had enough leisure time to govern appropriately, rather than concerning themselves with the toils of the laborer. So even though it would be difficult or not impossible for women to hold office, due to economics and cares of the home, "this cannot be the grounds for [women's] legal exclusion." (pp 121) The attempts of Condorcet would, however, fail to inspire change during the era of the revolution, due to the opposition of men like Gaspard Chaumette. Though, of course, it could be argued that it was the will of the people that prevented this and not the skill or strength of any individual opponent of women's rights. Chaumette goes so far as to decry that a woman who wishes to have citizenship or even political rights must then seek "to make herself a man," (pp 138) in a speech at the General council of the city Government. He cites the cases of Marie Jeanne Roland and Olympe de Gouges, who, in their struggles to gain equality ended up dying. (pp 138) This can be viewed skeptically as providing proof...
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