Feminism in the French Revolution

April 30, 2012 | | Comments Off on Feminism in the French Revolution

The Women’s March to Versailles is one example of protofeminist militant activism during the French Revolution. Though the march was overwhelmingly made up women by all accounts, they did not make explicitly feminist demands. While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens, as the question was left indeterminate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,[1] activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt agitated for full citizenship for women.[2] Women were, nonetheless, “denied political rights of ‘active citizenship’ (1791) and democratic citizenship (1793).”[3]

Pauline Léon, on March 6, 1792, submitted a petition signed by 319 women to the National Assembly requesting permission to form a garde national in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion.[4] Léon requested permission be granted to women to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, as well as the privilege of drilling under the French Guards. Her request was denied.[5] Later in 1792, Théroigne de Méricourt made a call for the creation of “legions of amazons” in order to protect the revolution. As part of her call, she claimed that the right to bear arms would transform women into citizens.[6]

On June 20 of 1792, a number of armed women took part in a procession that “passed through the halls of the Legislative Assembly, into the Tuileries Gardens, and then through the King’s residence.”[7] Militant women also assumed a special role in the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat, following his murder on July 13, 1793. As part of the funeral procession, they carried the bathtub in which Marat had been murdered as well as a shirt stained with Marat’s blood.[8]

The most radical militant feminist activism was practiced by the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, which was founded by Léon and her colleague, Claire Lacombe on May 10, 1793.[9] The goal of the club was “to deliberate on the means of frustrating the projects of the enemies of the Republic.” Up to 180 women attended the meetings of the Society.[10] Of special interest to the Society was “combating hoarding [of grain and other staples] and inflation.”[11]

Later, on May 20, 1795, women were at the fore of a crowd that demanded “bread and the Constitution of 1793.”[12] When their cries went unnoticed, the women went on a rampage, “sacking shops, seizing grain and kidnapping officials.”[13]

Most of these outwardly activist women were punished for their actions. The kind of punishment received during the Revolution included public denouncement, arrest, execution, or exile. Théroigne de Méricourt was arrested, publicly flogged and then spent the rest of her life sentenced to an insane asylum. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were arrested, later released, and continued to receive ridicule and abuse for their activism. Many of the women of the Revolution were even publicly executed for “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic”.[14]

These are but a few examples of the militant protofeminism that was prevalent during the French Revolution. While little progress was made toward gender equality during the Revolution, the activism of French women and protofeminists was bold and particularly significant in Paris. The effects on women’s rights of the French Revolution is debated amongst historians. For some, the French Revolution eroded women’s right by decreasing the role of women in public life due to the repressive measures that were brought into place by the Jacobins. However, for others, the change in psyche that allowed women to establish a gender-based consciousness and the reforms to marriage, divorce and property rendered a significant and ground breaking change to feminist identities and the future of the feminist movement.


– Gabriel Hunter-Chang


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