Women’s Roles in the French Revolution

Throughout time women have had a profound impact on most movements. In the French Revolution women’s roles have been very undermined, almost to the point where people don’t know the impact they had. Women in France at the time of the revolution were vital in some of the transpired events such The Women’s March on Versailles and The Bread Riots. Without the part that they played, the revolution’s results would have turned out much differently, which in turn, would impact the rest of French history and what we know as modern France today.

To understand the roles that women played in the Revolution it is important to understand what happened. The French Revolution took place between 1787 and 1799, after troops returned from helping Americans fight the British in the American Revolution. Inspired from the war they had just helped win they began to look at their own system of government. From the ideals they had just helped fight for, the French Revolution was born in1789 with The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. People proposed to change things seeing the system is rigged they get upset which causes the beginnings of revolution. The financial collapse of the monarchy leads the country into debt because of war and royal extravagances. The king calls meeting of the parliament so they can raise the taxes Monarchy just wants money but the common people, and peasants revolt which destroys the regime and turns into revolutions.

The National Assembly of France, third estate, draft a constitution to change rules but get locked out of Parliament. They go to an indoor tennis court and pledge to meet to draft constitution known as the Tennis Court Oath. This obviously displeases the King and he threatens to get rid of parliament all together. However, the people support the third estate which causes uprisings. One of the most famous being Storming of the Bastille. Where the revolutionaries took the fortress, it was viewed as a symbol of triumph.

The assembly adopts The Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the Citizen which reflected the ideas of the enlightenment. King Louis resists at first which leads the most prominent and obvious display of female power in the Revolution. Thousands of women march on Versailles in Paris and the national guards that guard the place join them. When King Louis sees this, he signs the declaration. This creates a limited constitutional monarchy. Shortly after Louis and his family try to flee the country but are caught. Revolutionaries hold new elections and re-elect all new people for assembly. King Louis almost has no choice but to try to work with the new assembly. Radicals in Paris mob and storm the palace, they capture the king and force the national assembly to suspend the monarchy.

They call a convention in Paris; the main agenda is the execution of the King. They decide to execute him on January 31st, 1793 and France now declares themselves as republic. Radicals lead to the Reign of Terror which establishes revolutionary courts that put anyone on trial who are considered enemy of the republic. Queen Marie Antoinette is first person on trial and by the end over 50,000 people are executed.

Women play huge role in this radical movement. They are spectators and whisper their thoughts into the ears of men, they make their own demands, and help radicalize things more, essentially adding fuel to the fire. However, the people are against women getting involved. Which is surprising, considering how active they were in the revolution.

Women were the backbone of the average French family at this time. They were the ones who stood by as witness while their children starved. They watched and whispered their thoughts and opinions in the ears of their husbands, who carried out the thoughts into actual events. They did the things that the women simply could not do in that time.

Even before the revolution women were spreading their ideas of change. The French salons played a key role in the spread of the enlightenment’s ideals. These salons gave women an opportunity to host an environment in which other people could listen to them voicing their own thoughts and opinions. They provided a good spread atmosphere about the enlightenment and although this predates the French Revolution it is still a major contributing factor that should be taken into account. They spread the sparks of revolution and influenced the men to act.

As previously stated this is most evident in the women’s march on Versailles. It was their families and children that were starving. The most common food of the people was bread. In Paris, women would go to the marketplace to get bread so that they could feed their families. However, when they would get to the market place they would find that the small quantity of bread that was obtainable, was also very expensive. So, they realized that they could no longer speak their thoughts and hope for change, it was time to take action. They all joined forces and decided to take matters into their own hands.

On October fifth, 1789 they began to march through Paris until they got to the grounds of the palace to protest the unfair price of bread. As they marched more and more people began to join them. Making it so that it was not just women marching, but men, and guards as well. When they reached the palace, they demanded to see the king. Seeing this massive crowd, he decided to meet a group of women. They came to an agreement where he would provide them food at a cheaper price. He then spoke to the crowd from a balcony and agreed to return to Paris with them. The mob also wanted to see the Queen; Marie Antoinette. Perhaps because the people blamed a lot of their own difficulties on her and her extravagant spending ways. She appeared on the balcony, at first with her children, but then stood there by herself.

Marie Antoinette also plays an interesting role in the revolution as well. The everyday women of Paris had a lack respect for her. Her lavish lifestyle was almost offensive to the women of Paris who could not even feed their families. To make matters worse, illegitimate presses would print leaflets that would show the queen as an oblivious, adulterous, and reckless spender. This only infuriates the people more, making them see their lives as unfair and sparking more reason for rebellion. She was put on trial for treason and theft and was then executed by guillotine on October sixteenth, 1793.

The Revolution had an impact on everyday life for women as well. In a quote from Women in the French Revolution 1786 Women’s tasks multiplied as a direct result of the Revolution, particularly as the absence of their menfolk forced them to play an economic and social role. They took care of the fields and the harvests, trade and business. At the same time, they safeguarded the ecclesiastic heritage that governed births, marriages and burials. (Bessieres, Nidzwiecki)

They essentially had to take over two jobs while the men played their own roles in the revolution, similar to what happened to women in America during World War II. Before the Revolution, women were not active in the community. It was at those times, where women were presumed to have a very insignificant intelligent capacity. However, now women wanted change to their daily life, they wanted revolution in order to provide a better future for themselves and their children. Family life in this time period was stressed and each member was necessary in contributing. So, when men left their posts as the head of the household women needed to fill two positions at the same time.

In general, a family needed the contribution of each member. In the case when the man of the family couldn’t provide the wants of his family, the woman looked for an alternative source of income. In towns, women worked as seamstresses, milliners, corset-makers, embroiderers, ribbon makers, glove- makers; poor women performed the heavy and distasteful tasks such as load carrying. (UKEssays)

Near the end of the revolution women played an active role as well. During the reign of terror women would come sit in and watch the trials of those who were convicted. It was during this time that most women were expecting reward for their efforts in the revolution or at least a change in status. Rates of divorce flew up after the revolution, but women were still not respected or even regarded as similar. Most men were still under the notion that a women’s nature made them unqualified for any role in political life, even after all that they did for the revolution. Therefor women were till not included in most political decision making and could still not vote.

Surprisingly, after the revolution women’s rights did not increase. In fact, they decreased quite largely. Women actually lost their right to get a divorce in 1804. They were still not allowed to have a citizenship, own any property. They didn’t even have a right to education. The French Revolution’s purpose to make sure everyone who want to, could obtain equal rights. However, it fell short when it came to women and their rights, and did very little to successfully change the way that women were treated by men.