Women during the French Revolution
Women’s clubs during the French Revolution
Discussion of Women’s Political Clubs and Their Suppression, 29–30 October 1793
On 29 October 1793, a group of women appeared in the National Convention to complain that female militants had tried to force them to wear the red cap of liberty as a sign of their adherence to the Revolution, but they also presented a petition demanding the suppression of the women’s club behind these actions. Their appearance provided the occasion for a discussion of women’s political activity more generally. Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine (1755–94) gave a speech denouncing both the agitation about dress and the women’s clubs. Fabre, a well–known poet and playwright, took an active role in the dechristianization movement that was getting under way in the fall of 1793. He went to the guillotine in April 1794, supposedly for financial fraud but really for opposing Robespierre’s policies. (Robespierre distrusted the dechristianization movement) The National Convention immediately passed a decree reaffirming liberty of dress but put off to the next day consideration of the clubs. On 30 October 1793, Jean–Baptiste Amar (1755–1816) spoke for the Committee of Public Security and proposed a decree suppressing all women’s political clubs, which passed with virtually no discussion. He outlined the government’s official policy on women: women’s proper place was in the home, not in politics. Broad agreement about the role of women did not prevent internal dissension among the men. Amar himself denounced Fabre a few months later and then joined the opposition to Robespierre in July 1794, which ended in Robespierre’s own execution. The club at issue in the October debate was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, founded in May 1793 to agitate for firmer measures against the country’s enemies. The club supported the establishment of companies of amazons, armed to fight internal enemies, but it did not advance specifically feminist demands such as the demand for the right to vote. Nonetheless, the deputies found any organized women’s political activity threatening and forbade it henceforth.
Fabre d’Eglantine, 29 October 1793
There have already been troubles about the cockade [the tricolor ribbon decoration used to signify support of the Revolution]; you have decreed that women should wear it. Now they ask for the red cap [of liberty]. They will not rest there; they will soon demand a belt with pistols. These demands will coincide perfectly with the maneuvers behind the mobs clamoring for bread, and you will see lines of women going to get bread as if they were marching to the trenches. It is very adroit on the part of our enemies to attack the most powerful passion of women, that of their adornment, and on this pretext, arms will be put into their hands that they do not know how to use, but which bad subjects would be able to use all too well. This is not even the only source of division that is associated with this sex. Coalitions of women are forming under the name of revolutionary, fraternal, etc. institutions. I have already clearly observed that these societies are not at all composed of mothers, daughters, and sisters of families occupied with their younger brothers or sisters, but rather of adventuresses, female knights-errant, emancipated girls, and amazons. (Applause) I ask for two very urgent things because women in red caps are in the street. I ask that you decree that no individual, under whatever pretext, and on pain of being prosecuted as a disturber of the public peace, can force any citizen to dress other than in the manner that he wishes. I ask next that the Committee of General Security make a report on women’s clubs. (Applause)
No person of either sex may constrain any citizen or citizeness to dress in a particular manner. Everyone is free to wear whatever clothing or adornment of his sex seems right to him, on pain of being considered and treated as a suspect and prosecuted as a disturber of public peace.
Amar, 30 October 1793
In the morning at the market and charnel-house [mortuary] of the Innocents, several women, so-called women Jacobins, from a club that is supposedly revolutionary, walked about wearing trousers and red caps; they sought to force the other citizenesses to adopt the same dress. Several have testified that they were insulted by these women. A mob of some 6,000 women formed. . . .
Your committee believed it must go further in its inquiry. It has posed the following questions: (1) Is it permitted to citizens or to a particular club to force other citizens to do what the law does not command? (2) Should the gatherings of women convened in popular clubs in Paris be allowed? Do not the troubles that these clubs have already occasioned prohibit us from tolerating any longer their existence? These questions are naturally complicated, and their solution must be preceded by two more general questions: . . .
1. Should women exercise political rights and get mixed up in the affairs of government? Governing is ruling public affairs by laws whose making demands extended knowledge, an application and devotion without limit, a severe impassiveness and abnegation of self; governing is ceaselessly directing and rectifying the action of constituted authorities. Are women capable of these required attentions and qualities? We can respond in general no. . . .
2. Secondly, should women gather together in political associations? . . . No, because they will be obliged to sacrifice to them more important cares to which nature calls them. The private functions to which women are destined by nature itself follow from the general order of society. This social order results from the difference between man and woman. Each sex is called to a type of occupation that is appropriate to it. Its action is circumscribed in this circle that it cannot cross over, for nature, which has posed these limits on man, commands imperiously and accepts no other law.
Man is strong, robust, born with a great energy, audacity, and courage; thanks to his constitution, he braves perils and the inclemency of the seasons; he resists all the elements, and he is suited for the arts and difficult labors. And as he is almost exclusively destined to agriculture, commerce, navigation, voyages, war, to everything that requires force, intelligence, and ability, in the same way he alone appears suited for the profound and serious cogitations that require a great exertion of mind and long studies and that women are not given to following. . . .
In general, women are hardly capable of lofty conceptions and serious cogitations. And if, among ancient peoples, their natural timidity and modesty did not permit them to appear outside of their family, do you want in the French Republic to see them coming up to the bar, to the speaker’s box, to political assemblies like men, abandoning both the discretion that is the source of all the virtues of this sex and the care of their family?
The clubs and popular societies of women, under whatever denomination, are prohibited.
Chaumette, Speech at City Hall Denouncing Women’s Political Activism (17 November 1793)
When a group of women appeared at City Hall wearing red liberty caps, Pierre–Gaspard Chaumette denounced them and all political activism by women. He held out the examples of Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges as warnings.
I demand a special mention in the proceedings for the murmuring that has just broken out; it is a homage to good morals. It is shocking, it is contrary to all the laws of nature for a woman to want to make herself a man. The Council should remember that some time ago these denatured women, these viragos [noisy, domineering women; amazons], wandered the markets with the red cap in order to soil this sign of liberty and wanted to force all the women to give up the modest coiffure that is suited to them. . . . Since when is it permitted to renounce one’s sex? Since when is it decent to see women abandon the pious cares of their household, the cradle of their children, to come into public places, to the galleries to hear speeches, to the bar of the senate? . . .
Remember that haughty wife of a foolish and treacherous spouse, the Roland woman [Marie Jeanne Roland, wife of a minister in 1792], who thought herself suited to govern the republic and who raced to her death. Remember the shameless Olympe de Gouges, who was the first to set up women’s clubs, who abandoned the cares of her household to involve herself in the republic, and whose head fell under the avenging blade of the laws. Is it for women to make motions? Is it for women to put themselves at the head of our armies?
Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 135–138.