Essays & Theses

The Role of Women in the French Revolution

This is a little something I wrote for an honors history class at Eastern Michigan University. Hope you enjoy :)
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  Beam 1Michele BeamProfessor John KnightHistory 1105 December 2009The Role of Women in the French RevolutionThe French Revolution, which took place from 1789 to 1795, changed every facet of life.The political, economic, social, and religious structures were destroyed and recreated. A new,chaotic incarnation of France emerged. But where did the French women fit into this new societycreated by the Revolution? The rapid change taking hold in France required women of allclasses, professions, and lifestyles to reevaluate their roles in society. In recent years, new detailsregarding the participation of women in the French Revolution have been uncovered. Women played a fundamental role in events throughout the Revolution, even more so than previouslythought. This was a period in which women would take an active role in politics, through clubsand the feminist movement. However, all women did not share a common experience; dependingon their social standing and class, a woman’s involvement and perspectives varied greatly.Up until the Enlightenment, women in throughout Europe had very limited rights.Women were expected to be charming, well-dressed, and pleasing to the eye; this represented thesocial status of their father or husband. A wife was expected to be chaste and produce heirs to prolong the family line. While the domestic sphere was important, occasionally wives of middleclass families were allowed to help with the husband’s trade as long as it did not interfere withtheir duties. During the Reformation period, a woman’s role as a wife and mother in the domesticsphere became so important that excluded her from all other areas of life, and their involvement  Beam 2in artisan trades diminished. Women were barred from universities, and as a result, their education could only extend to the knowledge of traditional “women’s work.” Job opportunitiesfor females were very limited, as most desirable professions required an education, which theywere denied. The only type of job available to them was work in the domestic sphere, as maids,wet nurses, seamstresses, and other similar jobs. These jobs kept their wages low, forcing them toremain under the control of men. When the ideas of the Enlightenment began to spread, women began to realize that they had rights too, according to the principles of democracy andindividualism. Women all throughout Europe and especially in France began to form salons,where Enlightenment ideals were discussed. 1 Historian Jane Abray states that “single or married,women had few rights in the law during the last decades of the Ancien Régime. Their testimonycould be accepted in criminal and civil courts, but not for notarized acts like wills…Generallyspeaking, a single woman remained under her father’s authority until she married; marriagetransferred her to her husband’s rule. Once married, she generally had no control over her personor her property.” 2 The history of women’s rights in Europe lays a foundation for the reasoning behind the actions of Frenchwomen during the Revolution.Women played a crucial role in the events of the Revolution, especially in its early years.Previously, historians believed that mostly men participated in the major events, such as theattack on the Bastille and the October Days but actually, women played quite a significant role.The attack on the Bastille took place on the July 14, 1789. An angry mob of about three hundredParisians stormed the fortress, searching for weapons and gunpowder. Many viewed the prisonas a symbol of the despotism of the monarchy and nobility. Shirley Elson Roessler says that theattack was “predominantly a male affair. However, there can be little doubt that there werewomen present…contemporary prints show several women, armed, among the insurgents, whohad the support not only of the entire population of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but of Paris as a  Beam 3whole.” 3 The attack on the Bastille is recognized by most historians as the inciting event of theRevolution. Throughout the summer of 1789, tensions grew. Bread prices were rising, as a resultof a poor harvest that spring and a shortage of grain. This especially impacted peasants, who barely made enough money to feed their families. According to Lucie de la Tour du Pin, a youngwoman of the nobility, “Everywhere, people were poor and often hungry; for many, mealsconsisted of little but soup, made from bread, water, and vegetables. The peasants, wholefamilies living in a single room, locked into a feudal system, paying much of their harvests intithes and taxes to absent noble landowners, were also battling a vicious circle.” 4 Not only inParis, but all throughout the country, the majority of people were struggling to get by. In July,the peasants of the French countryside had heard rumors that the aristocratic landowners had sentroaming bands of vagrants out to protect their crops from the peasants. Coupled with the anxietyover bread shortages and the overall frustration with the feudal system in the countryside, thisrumor started mass chaos. The peasants responded by arming themselves and attacking themanor houses of their landlords, destroying paperwork that held them to any feudal obligationsas they went. They ransacked grain supplies of local merchants, helping themselves to as muchas they could take. 5 The Great Fear, as this period was known, only lasted a month. Localmilitias began to establish order, and the first and second estates in the National Assembly issued proclamation officially abolishing feudalism and relinquishing their feudal privileges on August4. 6 Women were especially involved in the Great Fear, since their role in the domestic sphereincluded responsibilities for the family’s food supplies. They desperately needed grain in order tokeep their family from starvation, so they did what was necessary. According to Roessler,“women were also making a valiant effort to feed their families. But they were also struggling tounderstand the political tension which held all Paris in its grip. In so doing, they reached far  beyond the boundaries of their traditional domain…As well, the women could not help but  Beam 4notice a marked increase in the number of soldiers in the area of Paris and Versailles during thelast days of September.” 7 Clearly, the problems of the Parisian women were coming to a head.October arrived, bringing even more bread shortages, but also rumors that the King andQueen had disrespected the revolutionary colors of red, blue, and white and were plotting acounter-revolution at Versailles. 8 On October 5, 1789 a group of working and middle classwomen began to gather in the Hotel de Ville section of Paris, all of them sharing complaintsabout the scarcity of bread and grain in the city. They proceeded to the Hotel de Ville itself,acting on a pretense of taking a tour. There were very few guards present to guard the ampleweapon stores housed there, and the supervisor was taken aback when the women began to takeweapons and ammunition. They gathered many more women, announcing that they planned tomarch to Versailles to confront the king. They began the march with around 6,000 women and500 men, pulling cannons on wagons and armed with pikes, spears, and any other weapons theycould find. They first made a stop at the National Assembly to protest the lack of bread, but wereseen as rabble and turned away. Most of the women continued on to Versailles. When theyarrived, a handful of women were admitted to see the king, who promised to provide provisionsfor Paris and signed a declaration agreeing to do so. This satisfied the women, for the most part.Many of the crowd who had marched the 12 miles to Versailles stayed overnight, sleeping onfloors, in barns, and anywhere else they could fit. Early in the morning of October 6, a smallgroup of women and men entered the palace through an unguarded door. They rushed toward theroyal apartments, killing guards along the way. The royal family remained unhurt, but was takenaback by this act of violence. Later, the crowd began to call for the Queen to come out andaddress them. Marie Antoinette stood on a balcony in her nightgown and bowed to the crowd,which pleased them. Although this gesture sated their need for violence, the crowd still called for the royal family to relocate. Eventually, the King and Queen were forced to leave Versailles for 
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