Women and the French Revolution

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The fundamental statement of equality of the French Revolution, Declaration of the Rights of Man, did not grant full citizenship and equal rights to women. In spite of inspirational ideas and language that was a basis for the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, women still could not vote, sit on a jury, own property, initiate a lawsuit, or make a will.

In the excitement of the early revolution, women joined in the political debate and formed womens clubs such as the Revolutionary Republic Women.

For almost 2 years, 1789 to 1791, the National Assembly drafted the Constitution of 1791, reorganized the nation into 83 departments, eliminated the nobility as a legally defined class, made the Catholic Church an agency of the state, appropriated church property to pay off the deficit, and extended full citizenship to Jews and other religious minorities. But serious consideration was not given to giving the same right to women. There were a few men who took up the cause of women's rights. Marquis de Condorcet wrote in 1790 that women should be granted citizenship. But his was a minority voice and was not persuasive.

When the Jacobins came to power in 1792, the revolution took a more radical turn. Instead of furthering the cause of women's rights, this ironically was harmful to the cause of feminism. The Jacobins' notion of women's role in society was that of wife and mother, and educator of the children. They felt that women had a critical role to play in French society and the revolution, but it was not a public one. Women were exalted, place on a pedestal, and strictly limited in their roles and legal rights. The influence of Enlightenment philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an icon of the French Revolution, is largely responsible for this. He praised the importance of women as the caregivers of children. He said women should raise and educate their own children and not turn them over to others. He stated that women did not need to be educated beyond a basic understanding fitted to their role.

women's Revolutionary Clubs
Women's Revolutionary Clubs

"The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy." Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In 1791 Olympe de Gouges championed the cause of women's rights in her manifesto, Declaration of the Rights of Woman, a document parallel in many ways to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. She argued that women were equal to men in all respects, that women should have all the same legal rights. Under the rule of the Jacobins she was accused of treason, and executed in the Reign of Terror.

Ironically, the French Revolution was such a setback to the rights of women in France that they did not achieve full citizenship and the right to vote until the end of World War II, long after the other western democracies.

On Giving the Right of Citizenship to Women - Condorcet

Declaration of the Rights of Woman - De Gouges

Part of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: The French Revolution Exhibit

The French Revolution

The French Revolution Primary Sources

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