Women’s Rights and the French Revolution
“For this exclusion to not be tyranny one would have to prove that the natural rights of women are not absolutely the same as those of men or show that they are not capable of exercising them” (120).
In France around 1790 there was a massive movement for the recognition of freedom for all people. The French Revolution was an incredibly important time for not only France, but also for Europe and European colonies. Incredibly important actions were being implemented in the drive towards the rights of citizens. Not only were the rights of the common man being discussed, but also the rights of the colonial slaves, religious minorities, and even women.
The discussions of women’s rights was, perhaps for the first time, being brought to the discussion table with a view that women deserve the same rights and opportunities that would be given to men. Up until this time women were treated as second-class citizens and often viewed as the property or a commodity of a husband, father, or society in general. Women had a very difficult time arguing their points but there are still sources today that help establish how these women were treated and how they were doing their best to end the tyrannical oppression forced upon them by men in their society. “The prejudices with which our sex has been surrounded – supported by unjust laws which only accord us a secondary existence in society and which often force us into humiliating necessity of winning over the cantankerous and ferocious character of a man, who, by the greed of those close to us has become our master – those prejudices have changed what was for us the sweetest and most saintly of duties, those of wife and mother, into a painful and terrible slavery” (123).
Lynn Hunt, the author of The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, stated that, “women were not considered a persecuted group in the same way as slaves, Calvinists, or Jews” (11). Women did however, face many prejudices before and during the French Revolution. One such prejudice was that women were defined by their sex and marriage and not by their occupations. So, because they were defined by their sex, women were seen as physically weaker than men. More importantly men believed that do to the woman’s nature she was unsuited for a political life and that women did not have the intellectual capacity to comprehend political issues Enlightenment thinkers also strongly believed that a woman’s role was located in the “private sphere of the home” and because of this the women did not have time for the political sphere (11). Men also believed that if women involved themselves with the political sphere, they would neglect their own sphere in the home and their ultimate role as women.
Women were attempting to make a point as to what they deemed should be explicitly any citizens right and what they should have access to which included: the right to become educated, equal rights in marriage, the right to hold public office and to be treated with the same respects as their male counterparts. Not only did women want access to these rights, but women were also willing to take the responsibilities that would come along with the rights. “Either no individual in mankind has true rights, or all have the same ones; and whoever votes against the right of another, whatever his religion, his color, or his sex, has from that moment abjured his own rights” (120).
Despite the fact that women did not overall benefit from the French Revolution, certain individuals rose up to assist in the battle for women’s rights. One of the individuals was a man named Condorcet, a newspaper journalist. Condorcet strongly believed that men and women were equal and that women deserved to have the same rights. Even though Condorcet does see the difference between men and women, he still argues that the biological and educational differences do not make women more weak or less than men. Another key player was a woman named Etta Palm D’Aelders. Etta Palm D’Aelders was a member of the Cercle Social and the Confederation of the Friends of Truth. D’Aelders fought for the rights of women through the means of public speaking and believed that women can only be happy about the constitution if it also includes them, not just favoring the men at the expense of women(123). D’Aelders main focus was concentrated on injustices that many women faced by having to dedicate their lives to men that did not treat them as equals but as prey and slaves. “Our life, our liberty, our fortune are no longer ours; leaving childhood, turned over to a despot whom often the heart finds repulsive, the most beautiful days of our life slip away in moans and tears, while our fortune becomes prey to fraud and debauchery… From now on we should be your voluntary companions and not your slaves” (123).
Olympe De Gouges was one of the most important key players for women’s rights. De Gouges was a woman writer who supported women’s right through the use of pamphlets. Her most famous pamphlet was the The Declaration of the Rights of Woman which was addressed to Marie Antoinette. De Gouges uses this pamphlet to recreate the Declaration of the Natural Rights and changes it to include women as equals to men. Articles one through seventeen is an entire list of rights that she believes women should have (125). Ultimately in the end De Gouges ended up being sent to the guillotine for her beliefs and was condemned for being an “Unnatural” woman and a counter revolutionist (124). The last key player is a man by the name of Prudhomme. Prudhomme was a bookseller and published numerous underground pamphlets throughout the course of the Revolution. He supported women’s rights through the publication of his newspapers. Prudhomme writes that, “Long ago, in the time of the Gauls, our good ancestors, women had a deliberative vote in the Estates of the nation; they voted just like men and things did not go so badly” (130) this statement attempts to distinguish the fact that historically women did have the same rights as their male counterparts and were able to participate freely in their society.
The Revolution was about exploitation and wanting to change the makeup of society since the First and Second Estates had all the power. The women did not get anything out of the Revolution, their voices held little sway in what was happening in their beloved country, the Revolution called for a change for the better which women did not receive. Most importantly, why were the lives of the women not changed whatsoever during the French Revolution? Was it because women lacked certain physical abilities compared to men or because men did not view women as intellectually smart enough to have certain rights? For whatever the reason, de Gouges stated it best: “Oh women! Women, when will you cease to be blind? What advantages have you gathered in the revolution?” (127) Women may have not been given the rights that they well deserved after the French Revolution, but the thinkers who strongly believed in rights for women can be credited for planting the idea in people’s minds, in turn making the rights of women something to be questioned.
Hunt, Lynn. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston:
Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1996. 119-131. Print.
“French Revolution Digital Archive.” : A Faut Esperer Qu’eu Se Jeu La Finira Bentot [estampe].
Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://frda.stanford.edu/en/catalog/mn177rn0985>.