While I have been studying the French Revolution over the last few weeks, I have discovered many things that I did not know about the beginnings and the development of the national government and the revolution itself. While I imagined it to be quite bloody and difficult, the study of it has been a bit of an eye opener and sometimes when I close my eyes now at night, I see blood pooling and running across cobblestones in my dreams. And of course, I see Sidney Carton being driven to the guillotine saying those famous words that many literates know... even if they have never read Charles Dickens. This week I tried to focus on the women in France at this time, their role in the revolution and some of their experiences.
The conditions of women did change from what they had been before the revolution. As could be expected, some changes were positive, some were negative, and some things didn't really change much at all for long periods of time. It must also be said that because the French revolution was actually a long time (a decade or more in fact) change was the word of the day... and so some changes would come and go based on the people in charge of the government at the time.
Politically, women received a mixed bag. For instance, women were excluded from politics during the French Revolution- at least in an active or electoral role. That didn't stop women from forming or joining political clubs in the early 1970's. One group formed in May 1973 was called the 'Society of Revolutionary Republican Women' and was led by Claire Lacombe. Women were involved in politics by speaking to the National Assembly (Etta Palm d'Aeldes in 1791), writing satires such as the 'Declaration of the Rights of Women' written by Olympe de Gouges, and in demonstrations where they demanded rights including the right to bear arms- a right only given to males at that time. Women's participation in clubs and demonstrations reached its peak in the spring and summer of 1793. By November 1793, the Montagnard Convention had banned all political activity by women and this closed most of the political clubs attended by women. One excuse that was used to keep women out of politics was the assassination of journalist Jean-Paul Marat at the hands of Charlotte Corday in July 1793- her assassination of this paranoid journalist turned martyr upon his death was used to point out women's emotions, lack of control, etc. (It didn't help that it was discovered that she was a virgin and her behavior could not be blamed on 'whoredoms' or wantonness.) Women who spoke out for more rights were considered to have spoke out against the revolution and were put to death by the guillotine. It must also be stated that women participated in many of the early and continuing demonstrations and violent uprisings- female participation helped to radicalize the revolution in 1789. In a twist, by 1794, women were prominent in protests that showed loyalty to traditional religious beliefs (the Catholic church) throughout the last years of the revolution.
When it came to giving more legal rights to women, it can be said that the revolution had a more positive effect. In an attempt to break up the power of the Catholic church, the French government (or really the National Assembly) took over registration of births, deaths and marriages. Divorce was also authorized and the new laws gave men and women equal rights to initiate a divorce and divorces could also be had on grounds as simple as mutual consent. Women were also granted the ability of equal inheritance in family law which was also an attempt to help make men and women more equal in standing.
Looking at the daily life of French women during this time, things were not really positive. The breakup of the convents abolished one large sphere that religious women had to live largely without male dominance. The removal of the privileges of the aristocrats/nobles virtually eliminated the wealthy female patronesses who had played a prominent role in French culture. And if you look at the huge numbers of convicted traitors, the numbers of women in violent insurrections, and the multitude of mass killings of suspected traitors... it is safe to assume that women died in very large numbers. In at least one large uprising (the September Massacres), it is documented that women were raped and killed. One reason I see it as safe to assume the large numbers of death of women is that France doesn't appear to have a huge problem with 'gender overpopulation' in the next few decades (at least as far as I have been able to research it. After WWII, I think France did have a gender overpopulation problem due too the number of men who died in the war...) Secret police could use almost anything you said or even your attitude against you and as many of them hung out eavesdropping in places such as bread lines, the vast majority of people in those lines would be women.... so they would be the ones accused and executed. Some sources suggest that republican troops killed civilians indiscriminately at times which would include women... and children.
In conclusion, women's lives changed in many ways during the revolution. Many of the changes, such as the Terror, were 'temporary' and didn't live on for long. Some changes, such as the new changes in family law, lived on with both positive and negative effects. In many respects women are able to be involved in new experiences, but they are also more likely to be punished for stepping out of their 'traditional sphere' then men... although many men were certainly punished! The revolution brought women the hope of more equality, more opportunities, but it also brought women as a whole into more danger, less security, and for some women, fewer opportunities than they had been accustomed to before the revolution. I think that some changes were not allowed to occur- such as voting rights- because women were still feared, still considered in some ways inferior and that was too radical a notion for the time.... after all, even many enlightenment thinkers didn't go that far. :)