Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

2. The French Revolution



The French revolution had a dual nature. Throughout the revolution two class struggles took place simultaneously. On the one hand there was the bourgeoisie – the rising class of manufacturers and traders, including even small shop-keepers and workshop-owners, men whose property and wealth depended on developing capitalism – who struggled against the nobility, whose property and wealth were still founded on landed estates. On the other hand there was a class struggle against the bourgeoisie by the poor and propertyless, the embryonic working class, the bras nus (literally “those with bare arms” – in other words those who rolled up their sleeves to work). The French revolution was a bourgeois revolution, but it was also the first attempt of the exploited and oppressed to free themselves from all forms of exploitation and oppression.

This was the first modern revolution to involve the broad masses of the people in activity (the English revolution having been overwhelmingly the work of Cromwell’s puritan army). Again and again the people pushed the bourgeoisie forward to fight the aristocracy and the monarchy. Repeatedly the poor stormed the prisons, palaces and assemblies, fought reaction, and saved the revolution. It was they who pushed the bourgeoisie beyond the limits it was willing to move: through a constitutional monarchy in 1790-91, to a hesitant republic in 1792-3 headed by the right-wing Girondists, and finally to one headed by the most radical and determined section of the bourgeoisie – the Jacobins headed by Maximilien Robespierre.

The mass of the poor and propertyless sacrificed their lives outside the Bastille and elsewhere, inspired by the hope that their poverty would be ended, that the age-old yoke of oppression by feudal lords, the clergy and monarchy would be overthrown, but they also fought to remove the yoke imposed on them by the bourgeoisie. The political exponents of these aspirations for bread and justice were the enragés – literally meaning “madmen” – a label given by the bourgeoisie to the most extreme party of the revolution. Marx called them “the principal representatives of the revolutionary movement”. They were the vanguard of the embryo working class, still very weak and lacking homogeneity.

The Jacobins up to a point tolerated the bras nus – even used them to overcome the resistance of the royalists and moderate republicans. But once the Jacobins overthrew the Girondists – on 31 May 1793 – they turned on their allies of yesterday. In February-March 1794 they bloodily suppressed the enragés. This exposed Robespierre and his friends to a devastating attack from the bourgeois right who thought the revolution had gone far enough. So on 27 July 1794 (in the revolution’s own calendar 9 Thermidor) Robespierre and the Jacobins were overthrown. The political power of the bras nus having been completely destroyed, the bourgeoisie felt their rule to be stabilised for good.

What was the role of women in the French revolution?

Simone de Beauvoir answers thus:

The world has always belonged to the males ... One might expect the French Revolution to have changed women’s lot. It did nothing of the kind. That bourgeois revolution was full of respect for bourgeois institutions and bourgeois values; and it was made almost exclusively by men. [1]

This is the opposite of the truth. Women in fact played a crucially important role in the revolution. They may be divided into three separate camps according to their class: women of the nobility, bourgeois feminists, and women of the propertyless classes.



The bourgeois feminists

In general the noblewomen were passive throughout the revolution. Inferior to the nobleman, unable effectively to exercise her husband’s rights and powers, since her distinct function was to rear the heirs of the family name and fortune, the noblewoman nevertheless shared in the privileges of the aristocracy, hence was a great supporter of the Old Regime.

It was different for the women of the bourgeoisie. The revolution, by breaking down traditional hierarchies of power, stirred them. Bourgeois feminism flourished. Louis XIV’s regulations for the election of representatives to the Estates General (or parliament) excluded women from direct participation. But bourgeois women were active in drafting lists of grievances, demands and proposals, the cahiers (petitions) of the revolution. Political rights were a central theme of numerous cahiers. Thus The List of Women’s Grievances and Demands by Madame b ... B ... stated:

We believe it only just to allow women, widows or girls, possessing land or other property, to carry their grievances to the King; that it is equally just to count their votes since they are obliged, like men, to pay royal taxes and fulfil business contracts ... Since representatives must absolutely have the same interests as those they represent, women can only be represented by women. [2]

Another cahier, The Demands of the Ladies on the 1789 National Assembly, was for the complete abolition of male privileges, including legal authority over wives, and the admission of women without restriction to all political functions. The Moniteur of 6 December 1789 carried a review of a cahier entitled Grievances and Complaints of Women in Bad Marriages which criticised the marriage laws then in force as unjust. It demanded the legalisation of divorce, to do away with marital unions in which “one is all and the other is nothing ... one-half commands, the other serves; one oppresses, the other is oppressed and cannot cease being so.” The legal tyranny of husbands was again challenged in 1791 by a group of women in a petition to the National Assembly, protesting against a law which permitted only husbands to appear as plaintiffs in litigation concerning conjugal infidelity and which imposed a two-year sentence on wives found guilty of the offence.

The largest number of feminist proposals appearing in the cahiers – thirty-three – concerned improvements in the education of women. [3]

One of the leading bourgeois feminists during the revolution was Olympe de Gouges, a wealthy commoner who pretended to be of noble descent. At the start of the revolution she was a fanatical monarchist. She had no sympathy whatever with the women’s protest procession to the king’s palace in Versailles on 6 October 1789. The whole system of absolutist monarchy which Louis XIV had brought to completion, seemed to her, in 1789, to be almost sacred. “Fourteen years’ work,” she wrote, “have improved its excellent constitution ... It is madness to think of changing it. And yet they do think of doing so. What a time!” In one of her pamphlets de Gouges proposed that women should form themselves into a bodyguard to protect the queen. Only with the king’s flight to Varennes did she become a Girondine, a moderate republican.

To the lowest class of her fellow-women, she showed no pity whatsoever. In order to protect honest women and their daughters from the horror of seeing such vileness in the Paris streets, de Gouges wanted to sweep prostitutes off the public thoroughfares and shut them up in separate quarters, belonging to the state and under police protection. [4]

Olympe de Gouges was the author of the most comprehensive expression of bourgeois feminism during the revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Women, which she addressed to the queen. Written in 1790 after the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Men had gained wide circulation, this pamphlet focussed attention on equal rights for women by matching it almost article for article. The opening remarks were programmatic: “This revolution will not be completed until all women are conscious of their deplorable lot and of the rights they have lost in society ...” She went on to ask: “Man, are you capable of being just? Tell me, what has given you the sovereign power to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your ability?” She pointed to the harmony and co-operation of the sexes in nature and held up to ridicule man’s claim “to command despotically a sex which has all the intellectual faculties.” The preamble stated that “the feminine representatives of the nation demand to be constituted in a national Assembly”; and Article 1 proclaimed:

All women are born free and remain equal to men in rights ... The aim of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of women and men ... The nation is the union of women and men ... Law is the expression of the general will: all female and male citizens have the right to participate personally, or through their representatives, in its formation.

Subsequent articles prescribed a strict equality of sexes before the law and in every other circumstance of public and private life. Primary rights were defined as “liberty, prosperity, security and, above all, resistance to oppression”; the political rights to be safeguarded by law and the economic rights to be safeguarded by ending discrimination in all public and private employment. The final paragraph was an appeal for all women to unite in order to reclaim their “heritage founded on the wise decrees of nature.”

Another prominent bourgeois feminist was the Dutch-born Etta Palm van Aelder, a right-wing Girondine who glamorised her name by adopting an aristocratic title: “Baronne” d’Aelder. She invited the Princesse de Bourbon to be a patron of one of her charitable organisations. On 1 April 1792 she presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly which spelled out the aims of the bourgeois women. Specifically it demanded education for girls, legal majority for women at the age of 21, political freedom and equal rights for both sexes, and the right to divorce.

Another significant spokeswoman for bourgeois feminism was the Girondine Théroigne de Méricourt, whose real name seems to have been Anne Terwagne. She was perhaps the best known of these three, largely because of the attacks her contemporaries made on her.

Last but not least among the principal advocates of bourgeois feminism was a man, the Girondist Marquis de Condorcet, philosopher and mathematician. His memorandum on the education of women of the elite advanced the principle that “education must be the same for women as for men.” Both should pursue learning in common, not separately. It was absurd to exclude women from training for professions which were open to both sexes on a competitive basis. They should have equal opportunities to teach at all levels; and, because of their special aptitudes for certain practical arts, theoretical scientific studies would be of particular value to them. Above all, women should be educated in order to rear children intelligently and to guide them in their studies. Condorcet also argued that women property owners, like men, should be granted the vote.

The forward march of the revolution did not treat the bourgeois feminists kindly. The lower classes, particularly its female members, showed no mercy to Olympe de Gouges: when she was put to death by guillotine together with many other Girondist leaders the working women applauded. Théroigne de Méricourt was beaten savagely by a group of working women in the spring of 1793, and this seems to have made her permanently insane. Etta Palm van Aelder had the good sense to leave France before the revolutionary government could arrest her. Condorcet was also guillotined.

The bourgeois feminists did manage to get some reforms as a result of the revolution. Inheritance laws were changed to guarantee male and female children equal rights. New laws gave women a legal majority at the age of twenty-one. Women could contract debts and be witnesses in civil acts. Other legislation changed the laws concerning women’s property, giving them some voice in its administration, and acknowledged the mother’s part in decisions affecting her children. Revolutionary divorce legislation treated both sexes equally.

Yet some inequalities remained. Women could not serve on juries, and in practice they were excluded from sitting on the Tribunaux de Famille, which attempted to settle family quarrels from 1790 to 1796. Moreover the gains were short-lived. The Napoleonic codes swept away almost every advance the women had made. [5]



Working women

What was the attitude of the politically active working-class women to the demands of the bourgeois feminists? One historian answered thus: they

did not oppose divorce laws, educational opportunities or legal and political equality for their sex, but ... recognised that for women of the propertyless class, the winning of feminine rights was contingent upon the acquisition of workers’ rights generally ... To women of the working class, the problems of inflation, unemployment and hunger were of much greater urgency than the questions of divorce, education and legal status. [6]

The main impetus behind bras nus activity was their need to get food at fair prices and in sufficient quantity. According to the historian Labrousse, over the period 1726-91 the average wage-earner spent 50 per cent of his or her wages on bread alone; in the acute years of economic crises, 1788-9, this rose to an average of 58 per cent; in the months of famine and top-level prices of 1789 it soared to an appalling 88 per cent. Hence the constant popular concern over the price and supply of bread. [7] Hence, also, the way the popular masses based their judgement of political organisations on how they related to the need to eat.

Demands for wage rises to compensate for the high price of food were not then an option, even for those who were wage-earners. Large-scale capitalist industry did not exist, nor a trade union movement to take on the struggle. The typical 18th-century unit of production was a small workshop which employed only a few journeymen and apprentices. The journeyman still often ate at his master’s table, and slept under his roof. Only among the workers in the new textile manufactories of northern Paris, who may have amounted to a quarter or a fifth of the total working population, were the distinctive characteristics of a modern industrial working class to be found. [8] Not that strikes did not take place, but they were marginal to the popular political movement. [9]

The demand for bread was central to practically all the journées, the popular insurrections and demonstrations, which broke out intermittently between 1789 and 1795. Women were the main participants in these demonstrations. As one historian put it:

The bread riots of the French Revolution ... whether the march to Versailles on 5-6 October 1789 or, to a less extent, the journées of Germinal and Prairial of Year III were par excellence women’s days. Where bread was concerned this was their province: a bread riot without women is an inherent contradiction. [10]

Another historian, George Rudé, described the march of the women on Versailles on 5 October 1789 thus:

On the morning of 5 October the revolt started simultaneously in the central markets and the Faubourg Saint-Antoine; in both cases women were the leading spirits; and, from numerous and varying accounts, it appears that in the activities that followed women of every social class took part – both fishwives and stall-holders of the markets, working women of the faubourg, smartly dressed bourgeoises, and “des femmes a chapeau”. In the markets ... the movement was started by a small girl who set out from the District of Saint-Eustache beating a drum and declaiming against the scarcity of bread; this drew together a large crowd of women, whose numbers rapidly increased ...

Their first object was bread, the second probably arms and ammunition for their men ... The [Town Hall] guards were disarmed and their arms handed to the men who followed behind the women and urged them on ...

Their numbers grew to six or seven thousand.

Arriving at Versailles in the early evening, the marchers made straight for the meeting of the Assembly, crowded into the benches alongside the startled deputies and, with swords and hunting-knives slung from their skirts, waited for ... their petition to be presented. [11]

The traditional account of the women’s march to Versailles has it that, as they marched, the women chanted, “Let’s find the baker, his wife and apprentice” [meaning Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and the Dauphin, the heir to the throne]. It was supposed that the king would, by his very presence among his subjects, ensure a plentiful supply of bread. These hopes were not immediately realised: the bread crisis continued for another month. The day after the royal family’s return [to Paris], crowds of women invaded the corn-market and dumped 150 barrels of rotten flour into the river after samples had been shown to the king. On 21 October, during a bread riot in the Hotel de Yule area, the baker François was hanged from the notorious lamppost on the Place de Grève ... The next day in the rue Thibault-au-dé, off the central markets, women caused a riot by insisting on searching a house for hidden grain and flour. [12]

Although economic demands provided the force behind the women’s demonstration of October, it merged with the political insurrection launched by the bourgeois, parties and supported by the contingents of the Paris National Guard (a body close to the poor and propertyless).

Between November 1789 and September 1791, in sharp contrast, prices were stable or even fell. The standard of living of the workers and peasants improved substantially and there was no public agitation about bread. But this did not mean that the working women of Paris lost interest in the revolution. Indeed, it is clear that many went on acquiring a political education as the movement to abolish the monarchy grew in strength. Women attended the popular clubs and societies, read revolutionary newspapers, and took part in the constant public debate that is part of any revolution.

Look at the remarkable testimony of Constance Evrard, a 23-year-old cook arrested at the big republican demonstration on the Champ de Mars in July 1791. She admitted having been to the Cordeliers Club and mentioned four newspapes that she regularly read. She had gone to the Champ de Mars to sign the republican petition; she described the aim of the petition as “For a different organisation of the executive power”. [13]

The combination of economic grievances and the advanced political education available in the revolutionary situation was explosive.

From the autumn of 1791 prices rose again, and paper money began depreciating, a movement that was gradual at first, but became more precipitous as the shadow of war lengthened. In 1792 the working woman

emerges in anger at the interruption of supplies, particularly milk, which the country failed to deliver to the town, and increasingly her voice is heard as the protagonist of price fixation. From mid-1792 local attempts were made to stabilise prices and in Lyons and the large cities of the east, Besançon, Chalons, Vesoul, the impetus came from the local Club des Femmes whose recruitment expanded in the course of that year. [14]

On 25 February 1793 the working people took to direct action. To the indignation of the bourgeoisie, who called it looting, they entered shops and forced the shopkeepers to sell their goods at prices they fixed themselves. There were a large number of women among them, especially washerwomen, who were complaining about the high price of soap. That evening at the Jacobin Club, Robespierre voiced his anger: “When the people rise up, can it not be for a cause worthy of them? Do they have to concern themselves with wretched groceries all the time?”

The following day, 26 February, a delegation of women went to the city hall to ask for price controls on all basic commodities. Jean Pache, just elected mayor of Paris, replied ironically: “If a fixed price was put on your husbands’ work, what would you say? Would you be happy about it?” At the Convention the same day, the Jacobin deputy Barère attacked the demonstrators of the previous day. Another Jacobin deputy, Cambon, declared on the 28th that property was “under constant threat”, and called for a severe law to deal with anyone wanting to interfere with it.

At the beginning of March the Jacobins, offended at being called hoarders and speculators, sent out to affiliated clubs a circular drawn up by Robespierre himself. They denied all responsibility for the women’s movement, which they claimed to have opposed with all their power and which they said only their enemies could have proyoked. “The people of Paris can strike down tyrants, but they have nothing to do with grocers. They have better things to do than crush petty hoarders.”

But the bras nus were not to be dictated to by the Jacobins. They continued to put pressure on. On 1 May the political temperature rose higher. The spokesman of a deputation from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the most advanced working-class area of Paris, who was tapestry worker called Francois Musine, said at the bar of the Assembly:

For a long time you have been promising a general maximum on all basic essentials ... Always promising, never doing anything about it ... Make sacrifices; forget that most of you are men of property ... So far, the whole cost of the revolution has fallen on the poor; it’s time the rich and the egoists became republicans as well and looked to their courage instead of their property. [15]

As a result of the activities of working women, on 4 May 1793 the Convention succumbed to pressure and took the first step to instituting a system of price controls by enacting the first Law of the Maximum. This fixed a ceiling on the price of essential commodities.

But the law had many loopholes. High prices and severe shortages continued. Women reacted to this by turning again to direct action. On 26, 27 and 28 June they forced tradesmen to sell their goods, particularly soap, at lower prices. Some citizens from the Poissonière section arrived at the General Council of the Commune-the revolutionary city council – on the 28th and suggested that twenty cases of soap that had just been commandeered should be distributed at 20 sous a pound. The Council unanimously rejected the proposal. Jacques Hébert, Deputy Prosecutor of the Commune, took the protestors to task in his paper, Le Père Duchesne. “Damn it! You spend your time catching flies when there are lions to be fought. Great heavens, are we to make war on sugar and soap?” [16]

By the end of August bread queues and bread riots had become daily occurrences in Paris. This was the immediate background to the demonstrations of 4 and 5 September 1793, which led to the Convention under Robespierre finally decreeing the Maximum Generale, and setting on foot the revolutionary militia whose task was to ensure the provision of adequate supplies of grain and meat to Paris from the surrounding countryside.

Working women were active not only in the bread riots. They were also very involved in pursuing the revolutionary war against foreign opponents of the revolution who would have restored the French monarchy. They contributed tons of household linen as bandages for the wounded. This linen, the woman’s dowry intended to last for life, was often the main asset of a working-class family.

Women of Pontarlier, a frontier town, contributed their wedding rings – the most pawnable piece of property any woman had – to clothe volunteers; in Besançon street-walkers and women who had roiled all day turned up when they had put their children to bed to knit stockings for the soldiers at the front. In the summer of 1792 when war fever ran high, innumerable addresses were drawn up and sent to the Assembly wherein women stressed their patriotism and swore to feed their Children the right sort of milk; the milk of ... “good principles, love of the constitution, hatred of tyrants” ... Moreover and much more significantly, they undertook personally to conduct the internal war while their husbands and sons went to the front the war against traitors at home and not only actual traitors but potential ones, the children of traitors. On the outbreak of war against Austria the women of Lons le Saulnier, Maçon and the Côte armed themselves with pitchforks and pans and declared they would defend their homes and children in the absence of their men, and if their men were defeated ... then they would make a last stand. The women of the district of Tarbes in the summer of 1792 armed themselves with kitchen knives and their children with ladles and set out to meet the Spanish, The women of Port en Bessin erected coastal defences lest the English should take them unawares. As early anticipated victory turned into early defeat, antipathy turned more and more against those suspected of internal conspiracy. There Is little the equal in hatred and vindictiveness of the venom poured out by women on fleeing priests and the relations of emigrés ... In every outward manifestation in 1293 women were more frenzied, more intense ... than their men. [17]



The decline of the revolution

The demonstrations of 4-5 September 1793 had brought the revolution to its peak. Once the bras nus had saved the situation for the Jacobins, the Jacobins turned on them. The revolution started its rightward slide.

Even before Robespierre finally crushed the Girondists on 31 May 1793, he and his friends displayed unequivocal antipathy towards the leadership of the republican women’s movement. For example, on 22 February 1793, when a deputation of women had requested the use of the jacobins hall to discuss the hoarding of food and rising prices, Robespierre’s young brother argued that such a meeting would cause trouble. Another Jacobin went onto declare: “If we let the women citizens meet here, 30,000 women might assemble and arouse a movement in Paris that would be fatal to liberty.” [18]

The power base of the bras nus lay in the sociétés populaires, including numbers of women’s societies. Of the women’s organisa(ions, by far the most important was the Société des Républicaines Révolutionnaires, formally founded on 13 May 1793. Its main leaders were Claire Lacombe, an actress, and Pauline Léon, a chocolate worker. Its membership was entirely from the poor and propertyless classes.

The militancy of the Société was best shown by its part in the political strife of the summer and autumn of 1793, in which women played a significant role, participating in the mass demonstrations at the end of May which demanded the arrest of the Girondist leaders, who surrendered on 2 June. Women from the Paris section Droits de l’homme [Rights of Man] afterwards rewarded the Société for its conspicuous part in the victory with a pennant upon which was inscribed the Rights of Man.

You have broken one of the links in the chain of prejudice: that one which confined women to the narrow sphere of their households, making one half of the people into passive and isolated beings, no longer exists for you. You want to take your place in the social order; apathy offends and humiliates you. [19]

The Société des Républicaines Révolutionnaires grew closer and closer to the most extreme left-wing group in the revolutionary movement, the enragés. The newspaper L’Ami de peuple [Friend of the People], published by Leclerc, an enragé leader, encouraged the women of the Société to lead the fight for popular demands. Addressing itself to women, the paper said on 4 August 1793: “Go forward with your example and your speeches to awaken republican energy and rekindle patriotism in hearts that have grown cool ... You have earned the right to lead. Glory awaits you!”

However, once the Girondists had been defeated, Robespierre had no need of the working women’s support. On 16 September 1793 the Jacobins devoted their evening meeting to a denunciation of the Société’s leader, Claire Lacombe, and demanded “violent measures” against these revolutionary women. Lacombe was arrested. Her release the next day suggests that her accusers had wished merely to frighten her. If so, they did not succeed. Four days later, on the 21st, a delegation from her society proposed, among other demands, that the sections should name a central committee made up of delegates from all the sections. In the past such central committees had presided over the overthrow of the king and the purge of the Girondists.

The Jacobin government had reason for concern. Towards the end of September (as at its beginning) little food was being offered for sale in the public market and little bread at the bakeries, and frequent quarrels were exploding. On 29 September a men’s patriotic society identified the Société des Republicaines Révolutionnaires with “the Medicis, an Elizabeth of England, an Antoinette, a Charlotte Corday,” and asked for its dissolution. To these gross charges Claire Lacombe was permitted to reply. “Our sex,” she told the Convention the next day, “has produced only one monster, while for four years we have been betrayed, assassinated, by monsters without number of the masculine sex. Our rights are those of the people, and if we are oppressed, we will know how to provide resistance to oppression.”

The Jacobin leaders thereupon proceeded to mobilise the market women, who of course opposed the bread riots and the imposition of price controls, against the Républicaines. On 28 October some 6,000 market women invaded the Société’s headquarters at Saint-Eustach. On 29 October a deputy of the Convention spoke on the market women’s behalf, denounced the members of the Société, and accused the women of going after bread “like pigs at a trough”. These were not good mothers and daughters but – a significant characterisation – a lot “of emancipated girls, of female troopers”.

A little later one of the women spectators came forward to demand the abolition of all women’s clubs. On the following day the revolutionary women were accused by a representative of the Committee of Public Safety of stirring up counter-revolution on behalf of the Girondist leaders who at that moment were on trial for their lives. [20] A few days later deputy Fabre d’Eglantine insinuated that the revolutionary women were composed of prostitutes. Another deputy claimed that women did not have the strength of character needed to govern; political meetings took them away from “the more important concerns to which nature calls them.” Nature’s imperious commands were not to be violated; women could have no political rights.

Forthwith the Convention voted to outlaw all women’s clubs. When, on 17 November, a delegation of women came to the General Council of the Paris Commune to protest at the dissolution of the women’s clubs, Anaxagoras Chaumette, the Prosecutor of the Commune, told them:

“So! Since when have people been allowed to renounce their sex? Since when has it been acceptable to see women abandon the pious duties of their households, their children’s cradles, to appear in public, to take the floor and to make speeches, to come before the Senate? ... Nature has said to woman, be a woman; the tender cares due to infancy, the details of the household, the sweet inquietudes of maternity, here are your tasks ... Oh, impudent women who wish to become men what more do you want? ... Is it right for women to make motions? Is it for women to place themselves at the head of our armies?” (And here Chaumette began to babble, suddenly recalling Joan of Arc.) [21]

The Commune then banned women from attending its sessions. The Moniteur published the ban and an article from the Committee of Public Safety entitled Advice to Republican Women. It reminded women of the fate of Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges, and Mme Roland, all of whom were guillotined. The purpose of this reminder was strikingly clear, saying of de Gouges: “She wished to be a politician and it seems that the law has punished this conspirator for forgetting the virtues appropriate to her sex” – that is, not for the character of her opinions but for having opinions at all.

The Jacobin leaders attacked Claire Lacombe and her associates not only because they were enragés, but also because they were women. The Jacobins represented that section of the capitalist class which benefited enormously from the acquisition of national land during the revolution, from equipping and supplying the army, from manufacturing arms. As bourgeoisie par excellence and passionate defenders of private property, they were intensely anti-feminist. For them the bourgeois family was sacred. As the Communist Manifesto states: “On what foundations is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain.” For these nouveaux riches, women appeared as a significant part of property.

Daniel Guérin’s comment is apt: “The Revolutionary Women were eliminated because they wanted to sow too soon the seeds of a revolution that would liberate women.” [22]



The routing of the bras nus

The dissolution of the women’s clubs was closely linked to the Jacobins’ campaign against the sociétés populaires in general. These societies, which were not official and did not have high membership fees like the famous Jacobins and Cordeliers, were open to both men and women. The Jacobins feared and hated them because they could not control and manipulate them like they could the official section meetings, and because they provided an audience for those whose views were more sympathetic to the working people’s demands. In May 1794 the societies were closed down. The Jacobins were determined to exclude women from public debate and action, whether they were organised separately or participating with men in the popular clubs.

This was accompanied by other defeats of the bras nus. The Law of the Maximum, which controlled prices, was relaxed, and soon had no practical significance. On 9 December 1794 the Convention decreed its abolition. The cost of living rose catastrophically.

The Commune of Paris, which had been the power base for the direct democracy of the people, and the revolutionary militia, which had enforced the price controls, were subordinated to control of the central government.

When the revolution had been advancing, religious indoctrination had been rolled back:

The decision to abolish worship did not come from above but from below ... One after another, the Paris sections closed churches or used them for other purposes ... Freed of the weight that had oppressed them for so long, it was as if they had wings. They danced on the overturned tabernacles. The scenes that unfolded throughout France were unlike anything that had ever happened before.

But towards the end of 1793 Robespierre restored the Catholic religion and the Church, and he “weakened, disorganised and dislocated a mass movement that had impetuously involved itself in the struggle against the priests and the church.” [23]

Throughout the period in which Robespierre had absolute power the material conditions of working people deteriorated drastically. In the same period, especially after March 1794, the Convention imposed wage restraint. This provoked demonstrations of protest at the City Hall on 9 Thermidor itself, the day Robespierre was overthrown by the Right. Robespierre’s attack on the Left left him isolated from those who had brought him to power, and had so faithfully supported him just a year earlier.

As we have seen, once the Right had got rid of Robespierre and his supporters, they quickly dismantled the price controls on foodstuffs. The impact on the common people of Paris was devastating. Inflation ran riot. The rising cost of living, the persecution of the Jacobins, the extravagance of rich speculators and war profiteers, the arrogance of the middle class youth, all aroused bitter hostility, and played their part in bringing about the last two bread riots of the revolution in April and May 1795. But above all it was the extreme shortage of bread – at times reduced to a daily ration of 3 or 4 ounces – that caused these riots.

On 25 March women had demonstrated for more bread both inside and outside the Convention and there had been bread riots in the Gravilliers and Temple Sections, involving wage-earners and housewives. On 1 April a crowd invaded the Convention with cries of “Bread! Bread!” The demonstration was, however, leaderless, and without any clear direction. The demonstrators were warned, and when members of the National Guard appeared, they withdrew without offering any resistance. [24]

On 20 May the demonstrators coming to the Convention were armed and far more bitter than on the previous demonstration. On their hats or pinned to their jackets they wore the seditious slogan: “Bread and the Constitution of ’93!” Another slogan carried was “Bread or death!” The majority of the demonstrators were women. This demonstration was beaten badly. For the first time since 1789 the government put down a demonstration by force of arms, and thus decisively defeated the people of Paris. They were not to rise again as a social force for thirty-five years – until 1830.

The Convention now voted to exclude women from its meetings; in future they would be allowed to watch only if they were accompanied by a man carrying a citizen’s card. Three days later the Convention placed all Parisian women under a kind of house arrest. “All women are to return to their domiciles unless otherwise ordered. Those found on the streets in groups of more than five one hour after the posting of this order will be dispersed by force and then held under arrest until public tranquillity is restored in Paris.”

The defeat of the revolution meant the defeat of working women.



Women turn to reaction

Now one of the most tragic chapters of the period unfolds. The bourgeois revolution which betrayed working women was now turned upon those same women to transform them into weapons of reaction.

In 1795 the famine, the failure of the bread riots, and the provocation of the rich, who flaunted their wealth, brought working women to complete despair. Famine has always been sexually selective. It is

perhaps unnecessary to recall the classical manifestations of famine: the death of the weakest, the young and the aged, the increases in the number of miscarriages and the number of still births – but one should bear in mind that the latter are the fate of women, that the whole female body is a grim metering device registering degrees of deprivation. A premature termination of pregnancy or infertility through malnutrition are the best things under these circumstances to be hoped for: better than knowing that one is carrying a dead child, motionless within one or that if one gives birth one will not have the milk to feed it. The mothers of Caen in 1795 were allaying the cries of their new-born children with rags dipped in water – that way they did not take long to die. Then there was watching one’s children grow too feeble to cry.

Suicides multiplied. Every day women and children were fished out of the Seine. [25]

During the Jacobin period Parisian women had stayed away from church, and many had been active in the iconoclasm and desecration of places of worship. Now, in 1796, women turned fanatically to Catholicism.

The Catholicism of 1795 onwards was of the visceral kind: it owed its strength to the rigours of the times, the imminence of death from disease or undernourishment, disillusionment, shame, failure, the sense of contrition which sought ... the sort of expiatory religion which defies rooting out ... The women of Coutances fought with each other over whose babies should be baptised first and the priest in question resolved the problem by a personal estimate of which ones were likely to be dead before he reached the end of the queue; he misjudged in two cases but he sprinkled water notwithstanding on their little corpses. Such a movement had its vicious aspects. It was an essential accompaniment of the White Terror, as in the diocese of Le Puy, where women sought out local Jacobin leaders, clawed them to death or perhaps ripped them limb from limb while the churches of that most clerical of cities were triumphantly reopened. [26]



In conclusion

The French revolution, by raising class conflicts to their highest pitch, split women into three antagonistic groups: women of the nobility, women of the bourgeoisie, and women of the poor and propertyless classes, the bras nus. The specific demands of the women of the bras nus were radically different from and antagonistic to the demands of the bourgeois feminists. Their concerns encouraged working-class women to fight bitterly against the bourgeoisie, including its female half. They were spurred on to join forces with the enragés in attacking the Jacobins from the left, while bourgeois women were joining the Girondists and making compromises even with the royalists.

The activity and the fate of the working-class women could not be isolated from that of the class to which they belonged. This was demonstrated both in the rise of the revolution and in its decline. Working women rose as their class rose and fell even further than their brothers when their class was routed.

Throughout the revolution the working women of Paris were active participants. However, they had to act in circumstances not of their making. These were the material conditions of the time, the class nature of the revolution, which made it impossible to go beyond bourgeois limits, and the lack of leadership from a more progressive class – the industrial working class, which was only in its embryo at the time. Hence the working women could be active in the demonstrations which from 14 July 1789 to 5 September 1793 pushed the revolution further to the left – from constitutional monarchy to republicanism, then to democracy. But once the Jacobins, representing the most extreme democratic section of the capitalist class, took power, the working women were to be on the receiving end of their blows. They were forced into the embrace of reaction.


1. Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe, Vol.1, pp.107 and 182-3.

2. E. Racz, The Women’s Rights Movement in the French Revolution, in Science and Society, Spring 1952.

3. Racz.

4. W. Stephens, Women in the French Revolution (London 1922), pp.165-7, 177 and 247-8.

5. J. Abray, Feminism in the French Revolution, in American History Review, February 1975.

6. Racz.

7. G. Rudé, Prices, wages and popular movements in Paris in the French Revolution, in Economic History Review, No.3, 1954.

8. G. Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (London 1959), pp.19-20.

9. For records of these strikes, see G. Rudé, The Motives of popular insurrection in Paris during the French Revolution, in Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 1953, pp.71-3.

10. O. Hufton, Women in Revolution 1789-96, in Past and Present, No.53, 1971. Germinal and Prairial were months in the new calendar introduced by the revolution, which measured dates from the Fall of the Bastille in 1789. So Year III was 1792.

11. Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution, pp.73-5. The faubourgs were districts of Paris, of which the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was strongly working-class.

12. Rudé, p.78.

13. Rudé, pp.86-7.

14. Hufton.

15. D. Guerin, Class struggle in the First French Revolution: Bourgeois and Bras Nus 1793-95 (London 1977).

16. Quoted in Guerin, p.59.

17. Hufton.

18. M. Cerati, Le Club des Citoyennes Republicaines Revolutionnaires (Paris 1966), pp.23-4.

19. Abray.

20. S.H. Lytle, The Second Sex (September 1793), in The Journal of Modern History, March 1955.

21. Lytle.

22. Guerin, p.131.

23. Guerin, pp.142-3, 145 and 174.

24. G. Lefebvre, The Thermidoreans (London 1965), p.104.

25. Hufton.

26. Hufton.


Last updated on 31.7.2002