Lecture 1: The French Revolution and Women's Rights
Broad Outlines of European History, 1750-1890
A. For our purposes we will take 1750 as a starting point:
--1750 symbolizes the commencement in some areas of Europe
the types of ideological, economic, and social reconstruction that ultimately
changed the lives of women and men of the western world as much if not
more than the French Revolution.
B. What we are talking about here are events that go under the heading
of the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, DEMOGRAPHIC, AGRICULTURAL, AND TRANSPORTATION
REVOLUTION AS WELL AS THE IDEOLOGIES THAT CAME OUT OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.
II. Industrial Revolution
A. Came out of England and spread westward across the North
Atlantic and eastward across Europe.
--economic changes but most importantly innovations in the
organization of production and the distribution of goods.
B. "Dual Revolution" of French Revolution and Industrial Revolution depended
on the interaction of several socioeconomic and political factors:
1. Population explosion or "demographic revolution" i.e. mortality
declined more rapidly than fertility ending in slow and steady growth patterns.
C. Agricultural Revolution made possible industrial growth--more people
forced off the land freeing up labor for urban industrialization
2. Demographic rev was a cause and a result of Ag. Rev (changes in agricultural
--consolidation of small landholding into larger more effective
--extension of lands under cultivation (crop rotation rather than 3-field
--new chemical fertilizers
--later the utilization of new machinery
1. People had to seek work in urban areas, and especially after
the development of the factory system landless people were able to work
D. All this was facilitated by another revolution: The Transportation revolution
--rural areas provided labor for urbanizing industrial areas
--in turn, growing need for food in urban areas acted as incentive for
1. Unprecedented movement of goods and people
E. Finally the Ideological Revolution
2.Canals were dug, roads paved, and increased numbers of locomotives
and steamships were constructed opening up new jobs in steel and iron industries
and spurring the development of heavy industry.
1. Decline of religious world view and loss of confidence in
the church dates back to Renaissance and Reformation--this produced a feeling
among educated members of the population that society had progressed beyond
"dark ages" to an Age of Enlightenment:
--belief that through rational thought and the scientific method
human intelligence could discover the laws of nature and by applying them
to social structures, could reform society for the greater good.
--Stressed importance of education: in knowledge not faith lay the path
--Voltaire (1694-1778)= total freedom of thought and speech
--and Diderot (1713-1784) Encyclopedia useful scientific knowledge.
III. Women and the "Rights of Man"
A. Before, during and after the French Revolution, women's
primary role was support for their families. All the leaders of all the
political parties insisted that politics was the province of men.
Revolutionary leaders indeed intended to reconstruct society and create
a "new man"--prior to revolution political rights were tied to property
rights with property ownership working against women. However with the
dawning of "enlightened" thought and its concept of "natural rights" the
germ of equality for women existed.
--Politics cannot be separated from the culture and the social
arrangements in which it is grounded and which it in turn shapes and reshapes.
Indeed JOHN LOCKE, to strengthen his argument against patriarchal government
and its extension of absolute monarchy, granted mothers "equal Title" to
their children (women had as much right to their children as the fathers
AGE OF REASON: flowing of new secular thought embodied in the American
Declaration of independence and French Declaration of the Rights of Man
--The philosophes that articulated enlightened thought (Bacon,
Descartes, Newton, Locke) put full confidence in the power of reason and
defined "natural law" as principles that govern human and animal life,
including laws of "justice and equity".
These ideas influenced the French revolution and the recasting of the new
--The philosophes were opposed to church, monarchy, and all arbitrary
forms of hierarchy and rule, they sought to bring the laws of the state
and the structure of social institutions into agreement with nature:
Diderot: "The only true sovereign is the nation"
Rousseau: sovereignty resided in the general will and idea of a social
It is impossible in a brief summary to do justice to the constructive
aspects of the revolutionary experience, these include:
For women however a separate battle had to be fought. As we know, the rights
for men did not encompass the female half of "mankind"
--creation of a constitutional government and balance of legislative
and executive powers
--establishing civil equality among men (including jews)
--enactment of family laws allowing for civil divorce and inheritance
rights by women
--end of absolute monarchy based on divine right and beginning of republic
based on consent of governed
A. In fundamental task of defining natural law, the philosophes were
divided in their assessment of the nature of women
ROUSSEAU defended restrictive roles.
MARQUIS DE CONDORCET (1743-1794) most famous for his support of enhanced
women's rights. Mathematician and philosopher, was leading member of the
liberal nobility who supported goals of American Revolution. He envisioned
a basis for reconstruction that included admission "of women to rights
of citizenship" He felt the revolution was not complete. In his words the
"violated the principle of equality of rights, in depriving
half of the human race of that of assisting in the making of laws; excluding
women from the right of citizenship...Either no individual of the human
race has genuine rights, or else all have the same; and he who votes against
the right of another, whatever the religion color or sex of that other,
has henceforth adjured his own"
Needless to say he had few allies. Rousseau on the other hand won wide
support especially since he tapped several main currents: traditional misogyny;
distrust of the power of royal mistresses and artifices of aristocratic
ladies; and romanticism that envisioned natural woman as the companion
of natural man.
Rousseau defined the female role narrowly for purposes of reproduction,
childbearing and child rearing. But Rousseau added new language to the
discourse on women's subordination, because for him the differences entailed
disabilities that precluded their participation in the "general will":
According to Rousseau, participation in the general will required getting
beyond personal interest, and women were dependant of personal relations
(legally and traditionally) they could not exercise the highest duties
Two exceptional women responded to this and to its articulation in the
Declaration of the Rights of Man
--Olympe de Gouges-- ASK SOME QUESTIONS HERE
B. Many others before Condorcet, de Goges and Wollenstonecraft enjoined
the leaders of society to include women in the new rights of citizenship.
She challenged the French leaders to examine the causes and
consequences of women's situation. As she said in the preface,
Her wit and pen won her a place among Enlightenment-inspired English radicals
in Britain. Her book is a stinging condemnation of Rousseau's ideals. She
argued for extending his blueprint for male education to women in the common
interest. For, she wrote, "Till women are more rationally educated, the
progress of human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual
checks...Let women share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of
"If women are to be excluded, without having a voice from participation
of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of
injustice and inconsistency, that they lack reason--else this flaw in your
NEW CONSTITUTION will ever shew that man must in some shape, act like a
tyrant and a tyrant, in whatever part of society it rears its brazen front,
will ever undermine morality."
VINDICATION came to be considered the beginning of the women's movement,
even though Wollenstonecraft was vilified for her unconventional life.
Known to the leaders of the 19th century feminist movement, she too
was largely absent from the historical record to be discovered by feminist
historians in the 1960s and 1970s.
--Abigail Adams is one who is known for rebuking John Adams
and the "Founding Fathers" for ignoring women's rights in the US Constitution.
C. The challenge of revolutionary reconstruction not only inspired renewed
debates about women's rights and abilities, some women participated directly
in the political events in France.
--Theodore von Hippel of Germany revise his popular treatise on marriage
to reproach the French revolutionaries who, in their new constitution,
"forgot half of the nation...All human beings have equal rights--all French
Men and Women should be citizens and free." He attacked Rousseau's principles,
"Men, do you really believe that half the world exists merely for you pleasure,
for your own desires, to satisfy your selfishness? Animals function, human
beings act--Why should a woman not be allowed to pronounce the word I?"
--women joined men in drawing up a list of grievances to present
to the king
D. Most decisive however was women's collective action--bread riots. Faced
with conditions that threaten the substance of their families, women have
always utilized every means at their disposal to find food. It is no surprise
then that in the midst of famine in France, thousands of market women,
housewives, and working women marched to Versailles in search of bread
in 1789 ("Let them eat cake" was MAs reply) was more typical of women engaged
in political action than those who joined associations or signed petitions.
--Working women petitioned for protection of their means of livelihood
from encroachment by men
--others called for free schools that would teach women the humanities
--asked for paid midwives in the country
--sent delegations to the National Assembly--none of the feminist proposals
submitted to the Assembly received serious consideration.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century all over Europe as national markets
prevailed over local needs, angry women, sometimes armed with knives and
sticks, would lead mobs to attack mills, millers, machinery, and other
appropriate targets. This reaches a head as we will see in Russia where
again a radical revolution fails to bring about fundamental changes for
When we incorporate the experiences of women, we can no longer hail
as progressive a political process whereby traditional or informal power
and privilege were replaced by formal rights of citizenship granted only
to men. The negative reaction to political participation by women demonstrates
the limited impact of the French Revolution.