The French Revolution: Women’s Rights Before and After the Revolution

Women before the French Revolution had limited rights and followed traditional roles in a society governed by men. During the Revolution, progressive thinkers declared the rights of man, inspiring women to stand up for their rights by attempting to declare “Les droits des femmes.” Although these declarations caused women to protest, they were unsuccessful, and their freedom deteriorated significantly after the revolution. Therefore, I decided to investigate the question “To what extent did the French revolution change the lives of women in France?”

Particularly relevant to this investigation are the works “A History of European Women’s Work 1700 to present” and “The Rise of the Professional Women in France” as they provide contrasting viewpoints and grant insight into the lives of women before and after the revolutionary period in France. While the first source focuses on the economic and domestic positions of women, the latter concentrates more on their socio-economic and political contributions to their rights in French society.

“A history of European Women’s Work” was written by Deborah Simonton and published in 1998. The origin of the book is of value as Simonton is an internationally renowned professor of history at the University of Southern Denmark. Nonetheless, a limitation of the origin is that she specializes in British history. Its purpose is to analyse the changing role of women in the workplace in the historical context of Europe. In doing so, it analyses the lives of the average French woman before and after the revolution, which is of value to this investigation. Yet, a limitation of the purpose is that the source focuses on Europe as a whole, instead of specifically France. Lastly, the content of the book is of value as Simonton frequently refers to the works and opinions of other historians to support her arguments. However, a limitation of the content is that the author focuses on women in the workplace and therefore offers little insight into other aspects of their lives.

“The Rise of the Professional Women in France “was written by Susan K. Foley and published in 2000. The origin has the value that Foley is a history professor at universities in both Australia and New Zealand, with a specialization in French and women’s history. Yet, a limitation of the origin is that Foley has only published two other works in her academic career. The purpose of the book is to investigate the development of women’s rights and their position within society in the modern historical period, which is of value to this investigation. Yet, a limitation of the work is that it covers a broad time frame and therefore offers a less detailed analysis of the period relevant to this investigation. The content of the source is of value as it takes into account women from range of socio-economic backgrounds. However, a limitation of the book is that Foleys often debates gender stereotypes and equality, which are not of major significance to this investigation.

Before the revolution

Before the French revolution, women played a significant role in the financial well-being of a family (Landes 22). Landes refers to Hufton, who suggests that low-income families could easily become financially devastated when losing their mother. Landes opposes this view by asserting that only male decisions regarding finances were of importance in a family. Moreover, Simton argues that the type of work a woman was allowed to pursue, depended on her socio-economic background. This is supported by Hufton suggesting that a girl living in urban areas was less likely to leave home than girls living in rural areas, as she would need to contribute to her family financially (Landes 21). Whereas Davis indicates that women living in cities had similar work opportunities to men, Landes states that they would always be disadvantaged in terms of wages and access to the property . While a male day worker would typically earn seven or eight sous, a woman would only earn five or six sous a day (Sée 20).


Most girls had limited access to education (Wollenstone xvi). Rieux claims that out of 51 public schools in France, only ten allowed girls to attend (stateuniverity). Thus, a girl’s education very much depended on her family’s financial means and status within society. Girls coming from low-income families were mainly prepared for the working life by helping with household tasks such as looking after younger siblings (Simonton 16,23), which according to Rieux resulted in an illiteracy rate as high as 73% among women (stateuniverity). In addition, the Ancien Règime made marriage obligatory for all citizens, creating social pressure among girls to find an adequate husband as early as possible (Bessieres and Niedzwiecki 17). Accordingly, Davis asserts that before the revolution, women’s socio-economic rights were declining (Landes 21).


Historians debate to what extent women were involved in politics under the Ancien Règime. Political life took place in salons, where women were able to express their views and publish their work. Whereas Clark asserts that only the more privileged women could take part them, Foley insists that the salons were open for women of all ranks, acknowledged by their intellectual ability rather than social position. According to Broad, female views on topics such as political fraud, arranged marriages, the restriction of women’s rights and religion were expressed through the publication of philosophical “novels, stories, plays, poetry, and memoirs” (Broad 247). Landes opposes his opinion by stating that women were influencing politics more actively (Landes 2). Wollenstone disagrees with all of these views by claiming that women had no contact with politics at all (Wollenstone 66). However, even if women held power within the salons, it would never have been on an equal level with men. A woman’s public position was naturally restricted, as it always had to be supported by her family (Landes 17).

After the revolution

In the direct aftermath of the revolution, women’s responsibilities, drastically increased mainly due to the absence of their husbands. Dupont-Bouchat implies that they not only had to take care of the household and children but also ran businesses and farms, causing extreme financial hardship among the working class (Bessiere and Niedzwiecki 20). Twenty years after the revolution the number of beggars in France had increased by almost 200% and women begging were violently harassed and imprisoned (Foley 46).

Simonton implies that male enforcement of the domestic role for women was seen as a way to regain authority after the many social changes that had occurred during the years of the revolution (15). Women were not permitted in any public job, even when skilled or trained for them (Hunt 119) and instead would be obligated to take care of the household and children (Foley 46). The husband, most likely selected by the girl’s family based on financial considerations, would in return be expected to work. Foley argues that this promotion of the domestic woman manifested a long-term shift in French culture and society (Foley 46).


Sparre refers to Baxmann who proposes that the revolution had an important impact on women in terms of social and legal freedom (Sparre 9). In 1789, the constitution acknowledged women’s right to education by approving it for all girls until the age of eight. The significance of this policy remains a debate among historians. For instance, Bessieres argues that after the reforms, it widely remained the family’s responsibility to choose whether to educate their daughters. However, he also asserts that they were a starting point for changing traditional beliefs on the education of girls. This is supported by Clark who suggests that increasingly more families saw the need to educate both genders equally.

Nevertheless, Foley opposes these opinions by claiming that they had a limited effect in changing the common perception that girls only required limited education to eventually become a good mother. It would not only keep them inferior and but also more satisfactory for their husbands (Foley 29). Hence, many historians agree that these educational reforms were just one of the post-revolutionary bourgeois government “short-lived hobby horses” (Bessieres and Niedzwiecki 23).

A further outcome of the revolution was the achievement of certain legal freedoms for women, such as being able to charge men for rape, abduction, and similar crimes. However, Simonton asserts that these laws had little effect and guilty men were only occasionally persecuted. McMillian refers to Bonald, who proposes the most significant change for women was the legalisation of divorce in September 1792, which resulted in the dissolution of over 30,000 marriages between 1792 to 1803. McMillian further states, that according to Rouen, almost one-third of these divorces were due to infidelity or violence. In contrast, he argues that the possibility of remarrying with the partner of choice after the divorce was a more significant reason for the high divorce rate.

However, when Napoleon Bonaparte established the Code Napoleon in 1803, women were deprived of most of their newly acquired rights (Sparre 401). Although they could continue to file for divorce until 1816, Simonton asserts that the process of it was so complicated, that few did. Between 1816 to 1884, divorce was made illegal, and women accused of affairs could be legally punished with two years prison sentences and in some cases, even death. Men, on the other hand, were not penalized for the same crime (Foley 22,33; Simonton 41).

Overall, women’s social rights changed dramatically with the revolution. Whereas on the one hand, women’s access to education and legal rights increased in the early post-revolutionary years, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte meant that their constitutional freedoms widely deteriorated.


Although there were attempts during the revolution to improve the rights of women, the new social order denied them the freedom of speech and participation in politics, as they were meant to focus on their household and children instead (Wollenstone 228). Hence, Sparre implies that in the post-revolutionary era, women had much less political freedom than under the Ancièn Règime. They lost their position in the Salons, one of the few places where they could be intellectually and politically independent (Sparre 406). Hunts supports Sparre’s opinion by comparing women in post-revolutionary France to slaves and goes as far as saying that the early modern woman had never been more distant from political independence than in these years. To a certain extent, the revolution changed the self-identity of an entire generation of women in France (Stone 3).


In conclusion, women’s lives were greatly impacted by the revolution. Although some initial reforms increased their socio-economic independence and political freedom, by the time Napoleon came to power, the long-term damage the revolution had caused for women became apparent. Under the Code Napoleon their legal freedom deteriorated and opportunities to express their political opinions, such as the salons, disappeared. Thus, Sparre concludes that the only positive outcome of the revolution was that it gave women hope for a better future.

This investigation enabled me to gain an insight into the role of a historian. Similar to their work, I was challenged to identify biased information in different historical sources to reach reliable conclusions. I discovered that primary sources such as Wollenstone’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” could not only provide the first-hand experience but also yield a detailed account of the lives of women at the time of the revolution. However, it was often emotionally laden, lacked neutral facts, and displayed the socio-political issues women faced as more extreme than more recent sources on the topic. In comparison, a more recent source such as Clark’s “The Rise of the Professional Women in France” is able to take into account the lives of women’s lives over a prolonged period of time, reaching a more reliable conclusion. Thus, I chose to include several different historical views to reach a valid account of events.

However, being exposed to such a wide range of perspectives, I found it of importance to investigate the origin and purpose of the sources and also question the academic background of the authors I was examining. This was particularly challenging when comparing the views of Landes and Broad on women’s involvement in politics before the revolution. Whereas Landes is a specialized historian on women’s history, Broad focuses most of her work on 18th century France and the Enlightenment period. I concluded that Broad’s source is of high value as she would be able to examine the Enlightenment period as a whole and determine how much influence women held within society. In contrast, Landes would be able to compare the lives of French women to those living in other countries. Hence, it is crucial to use both of these sources to achieve a well-rounded view.

The investigation also increased my awareness of the different challenges historians face as opposed to mathematicians and scientists. These are defined by numbers and equations which can be re-calculated to support facts, while history is required to consider a range of views. For instance, Sparres work not only expresses her personal views on the topic but also takes into account contrasting opinions of other historians. Thus, knowledge available becomes more reliable. This is similar to some regions of science, where contrasting theories on the same topic are considered to achieve a more complex view of it. For instance, in my IB biology class, I have learned that there are two enzyme models, induced fit and lock key. Yet, both of them are retained and complement each other when studying the behaviour of enzymes