Women in the French Revolution: fighting for equality

The late 18th century was a time of great upheaval as revolution swept over France, but, writes Elinor Evans for BBC History Revealed, women still had to battle to make themselves heard...

Women carrying flags and scythes or beating drums - one has a child on her shoulders - march on the Palace of Versailles to protest to the king

“I killed one man to save 100,000,” Charlotte Corday allegedly claimed during her trial for the grisly assassination of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Disillusioned with the radical and violent direction that Marat’s radical Montagnard faction was taking, Corday tricked herself into the leader’s household on 13 July 1793. She surprised Marat as he worked in his bathtub and plunged a knife into his chest, killing him instantly.

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Her act of violence – immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Death of Marat – is one of the most infamous of the period; it sent shockwaves through Paris and changed the perception of women’s capabilities. But Corday was by no means the only woman to seize the French Revolution as an opportunity for action.

Salons and societies

Prior to revolution, in the eyes of many Enlightenment thinkers, women’s biological differences marked them as second to men in the natural order. They were expected to submit to their fathers and husbands, and while some minds of the day, including philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thought that women should have the right to some education, this should be focused on caring and educating children as women differed from men in their “natural rights”.

Jacque-Louis David's painting, The Death of Marat, 1793. The revolutionary politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat lies dead in his bathtub, having been stabbed
The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. Charlotte Corday had stabbed the revolutionary politician and journalist while he worked in his bathtub. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Yet as the revolution swept through France, bringing ideals of equality and fraternity, women found ways to participate in every aspect. There were those who saw a chance to progress women’s rights alongside those of French men, like activist and writer Olympe de Gouges. In 1791, she declared: “Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights.”

There were women such as Marie-Jeanne Roland and Germaine de Staël – known as salonnières – who hosted salons where revolutionary ideas were fostered and political power was brokered. And, of course, there were women who took up arms in physical revolt. In October 1789, as flour shortages and hunger in Paris led to discontent that boiled over into anger, women were at the centre of the maelstrom.

Appetite for destruction: the women’s march on Versailles 

Anger at rising food shortages drove thousands to confront the king in person

Women played a pivotal role in an event often known as the October Days, or the October March, that propelled the first stage of the revolution into a new balance of power.

On the morning of 5 October 1789, many Parisian women were demonstrating over the price of bread in Paris – flour had been scarce and there was a growing feeling that food was being purposely withheld from the poor.

There had also been rumours that the previous night, King Louis XVI had entertained officers with a lavish banquet. Soon, the demonstrators were joined by other women from nearby marketplaces, the growing mob capturing the Hôtel de Ville, and ransacking the city armoury.

Numbers swelled further with other agitators seeking political reform, and a group of as many as 7,000 people marched 12 miles south to Versailles to put demands to the king.

Talks took place overnight, though in the early hours of 6 October some rioters gained access to the palace to search out the queen’s apartments.

The insurrection was quelled quickly by the king’s troops, but the situation remained tense, and Louis was persuaded by the Marquis de Lafayette to address the rioters who were still surging around the palace.

The violence ceased upon word from the king that he and the royal family would aband on their opulent palace and move to the city; once there, they were under the control of the people.

The October March demonstrated the power and capability of the common people – the Third Estate – and more importantly, the women of Paris.

There were also those who petitioned government for more particular rights; in March 1792, Pauline Léon addressed the Legislative Assembly on behalf of Parisian women to suggest that a female militia should be formed to defend their homes, amid increasing counter-revolutionary violence. Though it was ultimately turned down, her petition was signed by more than 300 women.

Léon was no stranger to armed struggle; she had marched on the Bastille in July 1789, carrying her own pike. But as with other women, Léon’s participation was not confined to rioting and demonstrating. In 1793 she, together with actress Claire Lacombe, founded the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, a short-lived organisation that pushed for women’s right to contribute to the revolution.

A painting of the Patriotic Women's Club during the French Revolution, by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, showing a group of women sat in a circle discussing their agenda
The Patriotic Women’s Club, one of the many clubs and societies formed by women during the French Revolution (The Artchives / Alamy Stock Photo)

It was by no means the only such society, as social clubs and revolutionary salons became important outlets, albeit ones with differing aims. For example, though Marie-Jeanne Roland is rightly remembered as an influential woman of the revolution, she was not an advocate for political rights for women, who she felt were still most effective in their domestic roles, and she loathed radical behaviour by the sans-culottes (the mostly working-class people of Paris).

Marie-Jeanne Roland was not an advocate for political rights for women, who she felt were still most effective in their domestic roles

There were also those we might today call ‘male allies’, such as intellectual and aristocrat Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. In July 1790, he published a newspaper article that argued that France’s millions of women should enjoy equal political rights with men.

The article caused a sensation, addressing the widely held feeling that women did not possess the same capacity as men for rationality or a sense of justice. Condorcet challenged critics to “show me a natural difference between men and women on which the exclusion could legitimately be based”. In turn, Condorcet’s article inspired the Cercle Social, one of the most progressive social clubs in revolutionary Paris, which launched a campaign for women’s rights in 1790–91.

Hampered ambitions

But the state of revolution that allowed women this sense of social progress was not to last. Despite their presence at the centre of many factions and salons, the prevalent view was still that women could best serve the cause by acting as ‘republican mothers’, responsible for teaching their sons to honour and love the republic, and supporting the new society that was being carved out.

Time and again, critics insisted that nature determined different but complementary roles for men and women. These divisions and divergent aims – both between individuals and classes of women, and mirrored in the movement at large – hampered any chances of real progress.

Time and again, critics insisted that nature determined different but complementary roles for men and women

In May 1793, women were banished from government proceedings and shortly afterwards, they were forbidden from forming any political assembly. Corday’s assassination of Marat in July became a rallying point for the revolutionary government, and in October 1793, all women’s clubs were outlawed.

The question of whether the French Revolution furthered women’s rights remains a contentious point among historians today. Some social rights were granted to women: new inheritance laws, for example, meant that, irrespective of gender, children could inherit parents’ wealth equally. There was another step forward for the legal status of unmarried mothers and their children, while a new law enabling divorce gave equal terms for men and women.

But as Napoleon rose to power, ideals of republican motherhood persevered. Though the revolution was undoubtedly a time of great debate concerning the status and rights of women from all social classes, the revolution did not change much in terms of their ability to contribute to a French democracy.

And though the revolution had long ripples, it cannot be seen as a direct contributor to women’s suffrage in France – a right that they would not receive until 1945.

Female voices of the Revolution

Three women who ended up paying the ultimate price for their political activities

Olympe de Gouges

The writer and activist was born Marie Gouze, a self-educated butcher’s daughter from the south of France. She was largely responsible for the introduction of women’s rights to the revolutionary cause. Addressing her 1791 pamphlet Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen to Marie Antoinette, Gouze became a rallying voice for women’s citizenship. Her writing, along with her association with the Girondins, was also her death sentence; she was denounced as “unnatural” and guillotined during the Terror, in 1793.

Marie-Jeanne Roland

Madame Roland was a writer and hostess of a key bourgeois Paris salon in which revolutionary ideals first brewed. She gained influence in the government when her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, became minister of the interior under Louis XVI in 1792 – she helped to draft many government speeches, including a letter by her husband that criticised the king, and the Rolands went on to wield power and influence at the centre of the Girondin faction. Marie-Jeanne was arrested in May 1793 in place of her husband – who had fled in fear of his own arrest – and was executed by guillotine in November that year. Her last words: “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

Charlotte Corday

A minor aristocrat, Corday was involved in the revolution from its early days, attending political meetings and becoming inspired by the ideas of the Girondin faction. She felt that the Montagnard faction was too radical and she wanted to save the revolution by eliminating Montagnard leader Jean-Paul Marat. Her assassination of Marat as he bathed is an infamous turning point in how women were viewed during the revolution. Corday was guillotined for the murder in 1793, and remains a symbol of women’s actions during the tumult that swept across France.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide to the French Revolution in the October 2021 issue