French revolution


French Revolution

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Women’s participation in the revolutionary events in France between 1789 and 1795 has only recently  been given nuanced treatment. Early twentieth- century historians of the French Revolution are  typified by Jaures, who, though sympathetic to the women’s movement of his own time, never even mentions its antecedents in revolutionary France. Even today most general histories treat only cursorily a few individual women, like Marie Antoinette. The recent studies by Landes, Badinter, Godineau, and Roudinesco, however, should signal a much-needed reassessment of women’s participation.

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Godineau and Roudinesco point to three significant phases in that participation. The first, up to mid-1792, involved those women who wrote political tracts. Typical of their orientation to theoretical issues—in Godineau’s view, without practical effect—is Marie Gouze’s Declaration of the  Rights of Women. The emergence of vocal middle- class women’s political clubs marks the second phase.  Formed in 1791 as adjuncts of middle-class male political clubs, and originally philanthropic in function, by late 1792 independent clubs of women began to advocate military participation for women. In the final phase, the famine of 1795 occasioned a mass women’s movement: women seized food supplies, held officials hostage, and argued for the implementation of democratic politics. This phase ended in May of 1795 with the military suppression of this multiclass movement. In all three phases women’s participation in politics contrasted markedly with their participation before 1789. Before that date some noblewomen participated indirectly in elections, but such participation by more than a narrow range of the population—women or men—came only with the Revolution.

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What makes the recent studies particularly compelling, however, is not so much their organization of chronology as their unflinching willingness to confront the reasons for the collapse of the women’s movement. For Landes and Badinter, the necessity of women’s having to speak in the established vocabularies of certain intellectual and political traditions diminished the ability of the women’s movement to resist suppression. Many women, and many men, they argue, located their vision within the confining tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who linked male and female roles with public and private spheres respectively. But, when women went on to make political alliances with radical Jacobin men, Badinter asserts, they adopted a vocabulary and a violently extremist viewpoint that unfortunately was even more damaging to their political interests.

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Each of these scholars has a different political agenda and takes a different approach—Godineau, for example, works with police archives while Roudinesco uses explanatory schema from modern psychology. Yet, admirably, each gives center stage to a group that previously has been marginalized, or  at best undifferentiated, by historians. And in the case of Landes and Badinter, the reader is left with a sobering awareness of the cost to the women of the Revolution of speaking in borrowed voices.