Women, Equality, and the French Revolution by Candice E. Proctor

March 7, 2022

Women, Equality, and the French Revolution is historian Candice E. Proctor's study of the ideas and attitudes toward women in France before and during the French Revolution.  Proctor discusses the reasons why the revolutionaries, in spite of their belief in liberty and equality, never gave any political rights to women.  The authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were clearly writing about man the male, not man in terms of humankind.  Proctor indicates that the lack of interest in women's rights by the leading French revolutionaries was rooted in long-held attitudes that considered women inferior to men.  Even many women of the time, except for a few, shared these beliefs.

The book begins with a discussion of 18th century French attitudes toward women, especially what the leading Enlightenment philosophers said about them.  The attitudes were highly influenced by Rousseau, who thought that women should be good wives and mothers, and stay at home to nurse their babies.  Men were considered the superior gender.  Their sphere was in the public, while women's sphere was in the home.  Of course, I am simplifying quite a bit, but that is the essence of the argument.  Proctor points out that this attitude did not originate with Rousseau, and in fact it goes back to the Bible and Aristotle, but Rousseau helped to popularize it.  Even women became devoted followers of Rousseau, in part because he glorified women as wives and mothers, and the women who read him had been taught very early on that that was their role in life.

Not many authors of the time wrote against this belief.  One of the few who did was the philosopher Condorcet, who thought women should be equal to men, and that they should even be allowed to vote and hold political office.  Proctor does not mention this, but I have read elsewhere that Condorcet's wife, Sophie, was a strong and highly intelligent woman, and I am sure that she influenced him.  He expressed his opinions on women's equality even before his marriage, but probably his marriage reinforced his beliefs.  Unfortunately, Condorcet's opinions on women were not highly regarded, and, in fact, his opponents ridiculed him.

Another common belief before the French Revolution was that women were a corrupting influence on the court and nobility.  Their frivolity and extravagance were bankrupting the country, according to the misogynistic thinkers who held this attitude.  Of course, their leading example was Marie-Antoinette, who was hated by the people.  All the ills of the country were blamed on her, and all women were held to be guilty by association.  The leading revolutionaries believed in austerity and moderation, which they considered to be male virtues, along with courage.  Women were supposed to be chaste and modest--which, of course, they thought Marie-Antoinette was not.

During the Revolution, a woman's highest goal was to be a good wife and a good mother to her children, and what little education she received was for that purpose.  Women were supposed to teach their children, especially their sons, to be good little revolutionaries, but women were supposed to stay out of politics themselves.  Very interestingly, Proctor argues that the political situation for women became worse during the Revolution.  Under the monarchy, widowed queens could rule as regents for their sons, but, obviously, after the abolition of the monarchy, that could no longer be the case.  Proctor mentions the fact that, when the previous Estates General was called in 1614, certain women did have an opportunity to vote.  Religious orders of nuns could vote for representatives of the First Estate, the clergy, and women who owned their own estates, which was admittedly very rare, because no women could inherit unless there were no male heirs, could vote for representatives of the Second Estate, the nobility.  By the time of the Estates General of 1789, this was no longer the case.  Orders of nuns and women who owned estates had male representatives to vote for them.  Then, of course, the Revolution abolished religious orders and titles of nobility, so these women lost all the rights they had, and many of them, if they were lucky enough to escape with their lives, fled the country.

Proctor goes on to discuss a few leading female revolutionaries who broke the mold of the passive woman, and who advocated for women's rights.  Olympe de Gouges was an actress, which was not considered a respectable profession for a woman at the time, who raised her young son without the support of her husband.  It is not known for certain whether she was widowed, or whether she left her husband.  De Gouges was not a great public speaker, even though she was an actress, but she wrote many pamphlets in favor of rights for women, the most famous of which is the Declaration of the Rights of Women, where she used the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and turned it around to make her point, that women were entitled to the same rights as men.  De Gouges was ridiculed by her many enemies.  Although she thought France should be a republic, she felt sorry for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during their imprisonment and said that their lives should be spared.  This belief would eventually lead to her death on the guillotine.

Théroigne de Méricourt was another notable female revolutionary.  Like de Gouges, she was an actress before the Revolution (or a singer--sources differ on this).  Théroigne might or might not have been present at the storming of the Bastille.  Again, sources differ on this.  But she was definitely at the siege of the Tuileries which led to the captivity of the royal family and the fall of the monarchy.  She founded a political club that included both men and women.  At first, she wanted her club to be associated with the Jacobins, the radical revolutionaries led by Robespierre and his allies.  When the Jacobins rejected her, she threw in her lot with their opponents, the Girondins, who were the more moderate revolutionaries.  After the Girondins lost their struggle with the Jacobins, Théroigne was considered an enemy of the Revolution.  She fled to Belgium, where she was accused of being a spy, and was sent to an Austrian prison.

Etta Palm d'Aelders was a Dutch woman living in France.  Not much is known of her background and her life before the Revolution, but she was a leading intellectual and a great public speaker, who often spoke up in favor of granting political rights to women.  Like de Gouges, she was ridiculed by her enemies, and, like Théroigne, she was accused of being a spy.  She also allied herself to the Girondins and ended up going back to the Netherlands.

Proctor devotes a whole chapter to the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women and its two leaders, Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon.  (Incidentally, Lacombe and Léon are the heroines of Marge Piercy's novel City of Darkness, City of Light, which I highly recommend.)  Lacombe, like Olympe de Gouges, was an actress, but that is about the only thing they had in common, except for their early support of the Revolution and their belief in women's rights.  They were diametrically opposed politically.  Léon was a chocolate seller, which, of course, in those times meant hot chocolate.  She supported her widowed mother and younger siblings.  Both were single women, although Léon later married the radical journalist Théophile Leclerc, with whom Lacombe was also said to be in love.  At first, Lacombe and Léon and their society were allies of the Jacobins and, in fact, shared their meeting space, but not by the Jacobins' choice.  The Republican Revolutionary Women simply settled there and refused to leave.  Their main goal, as Proctor points out, was to further the Revolution.  Women's rights, as such, were only secondary to them.  So they were revolutionaries first, and feminists second.  Robespierre, who was very misogynistic, did not give them any support, and eventually they split with the Jacobins and allied themselves with a faction called the enragés, who were politically to the left of the Jacobins.  They were considered the predecessors of 19th century socialists.  Robespierre had many of the enragés sent to the guillotine.  In October 1793, the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women was dissolved.

Besides discussing some of the leading female revolutionaries, Proctor writes about changes the Revolution brought in women's social conditions, including changes in the marriage laws.  Before the Revolution, divorce was not allowed, and it was much easier for a man to obtain a legal separation than it was for a woman.  Adultery by the wife was grounds for a separation, but adultery by the husband was not.  The basic idea was that the wife's adultery caused harm to the marriage because the husband could not be certain if any children were actually his.  A husband's adultery was considered a sin by the Catholic Church, but was tolerated because, supposedly, it caused no real harm to the marriage.  Emotional harm to the wife, of course, was never taken into consideration.  A wife could obtain a separation for abuse, but only if the court determined that her life was in danger, which was very hard to prove.  Under the Revolution, divorce became permitted and, in fact, more women than men initiated divorces. 

Women were allowed to own property, which was rarely true before the Revolution, when unmarried women and widows could sometimes own property (and not in all parts of France), but married women could not.  In spite of the efforts by some of the women mentioned above, though, women were not allowed to vote or hold public office.  The main argument used against giving women voting rights was that married women had husbands to vote for them, and unmarried women and widows usually had male relatives, and the man, of course, was the head of the family. Nothing was said of the possibility that women could have different political opinions from their husbands or male relatives, or that some women did not have any male relatives.

In one chapter, which another reviewer has called rambling, but which I found very interesting, Proctor talks about women's work, and the various options that were open to women of all social classes.  Noblewomen and upper-class women did not have much choice except to marry or join a convent.  Both required dowries, which became the property of the husband, or the convent.  In some cases, a married woman could sign a contract limiting what her husband could do with her dowry, but she did not always have this option.  Proctor makes an interesting point, that impoverished upper-class women did not have the option of becoming a governess in France, as they did in England.  In France, governesses were really nursemaids, and they came from the lower classes.  Most teachers were male, and female teachers were almost always nuns.  Most nurses in France were nuns as well.  Women could not become doctors, though, because that required a higher education that was denied to women.  Proctor says that middle- and lower-class women actually had more options open to them in terms of work.  Since most of France was rural at the time, agriculture was a leading occupation.  Much of the work on dairy farms, especially, including milking the cows and making cheese and butter, was done by women.  Proctor also mentions various kinds of needlework as an important occupation for women, but the women who served the aristocracy often lost their jobs during the Revolution, if they were not fortunate enough to be able to leave the country with their employers.  Widows of tradesmen could sometimes carry on their husbands' trade, and this was especially true of printing.  But the guilds placed limitations on what widows could do, and a widow usually lost any rights to her husband's shop if she remarried.  Then Proctor writes about prostitution, and how it was the last resort of desperate women who couldn't find any other work.  Often, though, prostitutes did have another occupation, but couldn't make enough money to support themselves.

Proctor concludes by writing about opposition to women's rights during the Revolution, and how male authors wrote pamphlets, often erotic ones, mocking the writings of Olympe de Gouges and others.  There were many satires written about women's rights, usually exaggerating the demands of female revolutionaries.  Interestingly, they often depicted women, especially the members of the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women, wearing pants, something they never did in real life.  Then Proctor writes of how, after the fall of Robespierre, women lost what little they had gained during the Revolution.  In 1795, the marriage and divorce laws were severely limited, as were the laws on women's property ownership.  The Napoleonic Code went even further than this, and so women's legal situation came to be as bad as it was under the old regime.  Proctor suggests that women might have gained more if the leading revolutionaries had supported them, but they did not, and this was largely because of their basic attitude, that women were inferior to men.  It was not until much later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, that women in France began to gain more lasting rights.

Proctor's book was published in 1990, but I think it holds up very well.  Her research is based mostly on primary sources, listed in the bibliography.  Many are pamphlets of the time, including some printed by widows.  The book is meant for a scholarly audience, but it reads well and does not contain academic jargon.  Proctor does assume a basic knowledge of the French Revolution on the reader's part.  This is probably not the best introduction to the women of the French Revolution.  I would go to Blood Sisters by Marilyn Yalom for that.  It is, though, an excellent study of the attitudes of the time, and the political and social conditions of women.  By the way, Candice Proctor is also the mystery author C.S. Harris, whose Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, set in Napoleonic times, I highly recommend.

Women, Equality, and the French Revolution is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library as well as online via HathiTrust.