Hal Draper with Anne Lipow

Women and Class

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Part 1: Class Roots of the Feminist Movement

Chapter 1
Women in the
French Revolution

When and where do we find the first movement for women’s rights?

Feminist ideas, the expression of a sentiment, can be traced all the way back. Quite possibly it began with history itself. But if we stress the word ‘movement’ in the above question, the case becomes much less vague. To be sure, the ancient Greek drama shows women in organized movement (and so Lysistrata is justly famous). But if we look for the starting point of an organized movement for demands based on women’s equality, a movement existing in reality, then the answer is quite clear. The first time this happened was in the Great French Revolution, particularly in the revolution’s upswing from 1789 to 1793, and above all on its left wing.

This great revolutionary cauldron, justly called by historians the “mother of us all,” was the starting point of modern democratic movements, modern socialist movements, modern nationalist movements and also of internationalism; and it was likewise the incubator of the modern women’s rights movement. Feminism has to be seen as one wing of this modern complex, arising side by side with all the rest.

The birth of the feminist movement from revolution later became a shameful fact in its eyes. One way to draw a curtain over this parentage was to drop the history of the French revolutionary women down the Memory Hole. Especially if we limit ourselves to books in English, it is very difficult to find a work on feminist history that does justice to (say) one of the greatest woman leaders in revolutionary history, or indeed one of the leaders of either sex: Claire Lacombe. (See the Note on Sources appended to the introduction.)

Another historical problem to keep in mind is that this sector of history, like all other sectors, tends to be seen in historical works through the eyes of the upper classes. And especially in time of revolution, these eyes tend to become red-eyed, inflamed, “seeing red” for more than one reason. There is no better example of this generalization than the period before us. There is more than one book which, finding it necessary to mention the existence of a women’s movement in revolutionary Paris, devotes a sentence or two to Olympe de Gouges (who in fact had nothing to do with any women’s movement but who published a pamphlet) and does not even hint of the militant movement of women that actually existed.

We see an example of this factor at work when we ask our first question, in the next section.

1. Why No Feminist Movement Before 1789?

Ideas about and sentiments for equal rights, held by women, did not suddenly come into existence in 1789. During the eighteenth century there had been a lively burgeoning of feminist ideas in the vanguard countries prefiguring the development of Western society, France and England. Léon Abensour, one of the most industrious historians of the women’s movement, has given us a detailed account, for France, in his La Femme et le Féminisme Avant la Revolution: it was in this country that the “movement of ideas” was sharpest. New social forces were stirring; ideas of emancipation applied on a species-wide level were rife. It is true that the philosophes of the Enlightenment (male), led by Voltaire and Rousseau, were themselves hostile to women’s advanced aspirations; they weren’t that enlightened. But the old sexual prejudices could not remain untouched by the undermining of all social idols and icons and the discreditment of old shibboleths. As has happened so many times, the work of ideological demolition affected more territory than was intended.

The number of women who raised unanswerable questions, in books or articles or correspondence, mounted to unprecedented proportions. But no movement resulted; not a sign or a token of any move for organization. Abensour has the merit of raising the question Why? at the close of his work.

The fact itself had not escaped the attention of the women writers who led the “movement of ideas.” One of these was a novelist, Mme. de Robert. In one of her books she has her hero remark as follows:

I am always surprised that women have not yet organized themselves, that they haven’t thought of forming a separate body so that they could take revenge for the injustices men did them. How I would like to live long enough to see them make such happy use of their courage! But up to now they have been too coquettish and too given to dissipation to concern themselves seriously with the interests of their sex!

Who are these women? Mme. de Robert speaks of coquettishness and dissipation as if these vices were characteristic of “women,” when of course only the females of her own upper-class circle had the wealth and time to be either coquettish or dissipated. Nine out of ten women had all they could do just to keep the family fed. Didn’t Mme. de Robert know that? Of course she did. But these nine did not exist for Mme. de Robert’s “woman” problem; only the tenth did. It is as clear as day that Mme. de Robert is speaking the mind of a class. It is the feminism of a class.

What about Abensour himself? He discusses Mme. de Robert’s statement in his own way:

In the 18th century, while there were feminist aspirations which were felt and expressed by men as well as women, and while there was a feminist current of opinion in the proper sense of the term, yet, as Mme. de Robert rightly stated, women never got together to carry on the struggle for their rights, with the help of writers favorable to their cause.

I interrupt to point out that Mme. de Robert’s protagonist had not talked of women organizing to “struggle for their rights” – a formulation smacking of modern democratic ideas – but rather of “revenge.” This was a notion more familiar to the upper-class literati, and with longer roots in pre-bourgeois society; on the other hand a “struggle for rights” was a socially explosive way of thinking of the problem.

To continue with Abensour, who now asks the central question:

There is a striking contrast with the revolutionary period, when, except for very short periods, as soon as there were feminist ideas there were feminist movements. What are the causes of this contrast? First and foremost, the indifference of the majority of women to the amelioration of their lot, an indifference which is the stumbling block of the feminist movement in every era, and which in the 18th century prevented it even from getting started.

This explanation explains no more than the answer given by Mme. de Robert. In her case, even if we accept that “women” are coquettish and dissipated, why was it that the many women already conscious of the issue, like Mme. de Robert herself, organized nothing and attempted nothing? The question is only moved back one step. Abensour’s answer is just as empty. Does he really know that the “majority” of women were indifferent to bettering their lot? Of course, he has no information on this whatever. (He “knows” the women are indifferent because they don’t organize, and they don’t organize because, naturally, they’re indifferent ...) Yet somehow women who were indifferent to bettering their life suddenly became violently concerned with precisely this issue just as soon as the Revolution broke out!

The facts are easier to understand if we suppose that the concern was already there, even in massive form, but that it was socially invisible (from above). This suggests that what the Revolution did was to smash the mufflers that kept that concern muted or unheard; or rip through the veils and screens that made invisible to lady novelists what every woman of the people knew. Before 1789 there was no sensitive microphone to pick up the voiced discontents of the mass of women; then the Revolution broke out, and for the first time even the upper classes could hear the threatening voices from below, from far down the social strata.

We will see what these voices were saying. But even Abensour, our modern pro-feminist historian, is deaf to them. For this is what he writes next:

The working woman, on whom the iron law weighed most heavily, was not even conscious of her miserable state. It will be that way for over a century more.

The facts about what these workingwomen did give a faint idea of the mind-boggling absurdity of this statement, as we will see. But even without these facts, one can realize that this claim by the most industrious historian of bourgeois feminism has an interesting resemblance to the old claim that the slaves on the antebellum plantations were typically joyous darkies living a good life and devoted to their white masters, or else mindless zombies who could not feel pain. The typical historians of bourgeois feminism can look straight in the direction of massive struggles and see nothing. The working-class woman scarcely exists, or is seen as only a shadowy figure.

To continue with Abensour’s explanation, it is good to find that it now improves:

The declassée bourgeois woman so numerous in the 19th century, who, moved by a generous feeling of solidarity as well as personal interest, fought for the political and economic enfranchisement of their sisters and tried to draw in the masses, with more or less success – these had not yet made their appearance. The most ardent and thoroughgoing feminists to fight sex prejudice ... were women of privilege whose own lot was a pleasant one; because of aristocratic circumspection, because they were grown accustomed to chains so gilded and so light, they refused to do whatever had to be done in order to hasten the day of liberation, and they considered feminism only as a theme that lent itself to eloquent declamation.

Very well: it would appear that these “women of privilege” (the women of the privileged classes) were inhibited from taking organizational steps by their class position, by their class prejudices and class ideas. From the summit of the class society in which they lived, they could see little of the oppression under which the women of the people lived; and there was little they wanted to see. Anyway, what they saw was no skin off their class. To be sure, Abensour sees this fairly clearly with reference to the women of the aristocracy, that is, the old ruling class, while he refuses to believe that the same pattern applies to the feminism of the new bourgeois rulers.

Abensour has a final reason which is very important:

... the great feminist movements of the modern era were aroused by the prospects of political emancipation. But before the revolution, this prospect could not make its appearance ... It required the spectacle of men’s liberation to arouse political aspirations among some women and organize them into groups directed toward a struggle with the stronger sex, in a word, to create a real feminist movement. Nothing of the sort before 1789.

The point about the French Revolution was that it could not be simply a matter of “men’s liberation.” The fact is that it took a mass social-political revolution to bring the women’s movement into being for the first time. The danger of invoking revolution even for a class-limited objective is that it suggests to all oppressed people that the power on top can be overthrown; in that sense, it is infectious or contagious. This is one reason why revolutions – real revolutions, that is, social upheavals that turn society upside-down – are so often truly creative, fructifying, and personally liberating for masses of people. This belies the common historical myth that revolution is nothing but a bestially destructive force.

Feminism – after centuries of existence as an idea, a complaint, a servile grumbling – now takes the stage of history as a social-political force, because all of society has been brought under a question mark, not simply by words but by deeds. Women take the stage as an autonomous force at the same time as the masses do; the emergence of their movement is coincident with the surge of popular forces from below. This will be especially plain in the case of the French Revolution, for it is a watershed; but it will be a constant of modern history that everywhere, insofar as a revolutionary upheaval reaches down into the recumbent strata of society to set them into motion, women too are set in motion; and insofar as popular social forces are inert and passive, the women’s movement too is quiet or only partial.

2. The Condorcet Connection

Professor William O’Neill begins his introduction to his historical work The Woman Movement with this remarkable claim: “All histories of feminism properly begin with the appearance of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.”

And what did Wollstonecraft begin with? Spontaneous generation? There is the old joke about the Russians claiming priority on all inventions from the safety pin to the safety razor, but it is no joke that most American and British writers on feminism think that the first great case for women’s rights was published by Mary Wollstonecraft.

But in fact her Vindication of 1792 was an English echo of ideas burgeoning on the other side of the Channel, ideas that were given their first great formulation by the Marquis de Condorcet. It was he who, first on the eve of the Revolution and again in 1790, set down the case for women’s social and political equality, including the right to vote and hold office. He not only preceded but went farther than Wollstonecraft did later. And while Wollstonecraft’s book was published in England to general apathy, Condorcet’s pro-feminist manifestos were a political scandal that resounded in great publicity.

Condorcet – unfortunately for the prejudices of some historians – was a man; but, all prejudices aside, there was a woman in the picture too. Condorcet, often called the last of the philosophes, a living link between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (on the right wing of the latter), was the only one in this intellectual tradition to adopt a profeminist attitude. Why was he different? No doubt one reason is that he lived on into the immediately prerevolutionary period and therefore came under new influences. Secondly, in my opinion, we must take account of the influence of his wife.

As mentioned, it had been especially in the writings of advanced women intellectuals that the 18th century heard open attacks on women’s lack of equality. Condorcet married into this milieu, so to speak, in 1786. His wife, Sophie de Grouchy, was a woman of aristocratic family, a person of considerable intellectual attainments; and his relationship with her was one of close collaboration. To be sure, she herself never published any special views on feminism. She apparently accepted the prevalent pattern by confining herself to being an “inspiration” to her husband, and in her own name operated only as the organizer of a political salon rivaling Mme. Roland’s in influence on the Girondin side of the Revolution. What gives wings to speculation is a coincidence of dates.

Condorcet’s first declaration on women’s rights came in the year after his marriage, in 1787. It was rather late in his life; he was 44. Speculative though it be, it is hard to avoid wondering if what we have here is the influence of a strong-minded and intelligent woman on her husband, exercised “underground” in a pattern well known to history and enforced by the mores of the time. If this is so, the break-through must be credited to a collaboration of Condorcet and his wife Sophie.

The declaration was embodied in Condorcet’s Lettres d’un Bourgeois de New-Haven, the American milieu being used as the stage setting for the expression of liberal ideas. This was the culmination of 18th century intellectual feminism, the feminism which does not demand immediate political deeds of implementation. But deeds were in the offing; the fall of the Bastille was only two years away.

After a year of the Revolution, during which Mme. de Condorcet’s salon became one of the best known, Condorcet made a considerable splash by publishing an essay, on July 3, 1790, entitled Sur l’Admission des Femmes au Droit de Cité (On Giving Civil Rights to Women). The argument included political rights. To be sure, the reaction in the ranks of the Revolutionary establishment was overwhelmingly hostile, as was to be expected. The important thing was that an eminent thinker had now spelled the issue out and forced it before the eyes of a nation in turmoil, for the first time on a big scale. The historical importance of this event was immeasurably greater than the publication of the book which came out two years later to an indifferent public in another country.

In view of the treatment of Condorcet by what passes for feminist history, we have to make clear that he put forward a view as advanced as anything offered by bourgeois feminism in the next century. Since the material available in English is so inadequate, we offer a summary of Condorcet’s then-sensational views. (The framework of this summary is based on that of his biographer, F. Alengry.)

In the first place, Condorcet based his conclusions on the principles embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 1789). Since this proclaims that men are born equal in rights, hasn’t one “violated the principle of equality of rights in calmly depriving half the human race [of the right] to participate in the making of laws, by excluding women from civil rights?” (Note that Condorcet takes the stand that the word ‘Man’ in the great declaration is of common gender, not exclusively masculine, thus refusing to hand the declaration over to the enemies of women. This will be a long-standing and confused issue among feminists.)

Men have rights “solely from the fact they are sensible beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and reasoning on the basis of these ideas.” Women have these same qualities, and so necessarily have equal rights. (The philosophic-moral sweep of these principles determine the equally sweeping scope of Condorcet’s conclusions.)

He answers arguments that point to female “weaknesses” as making them unfit to exercise political rights. But “why shouldn’t beings who are liable to pregnancy and transient illnesses exercise rights that one would not dream of taking away from people who get the gout every winter and who easily catch colds?”

What of the argument that women have less cultivated minds? He replies that in fact “inferiority and superiority are shared equally between the two sexes.” (Is Condorcet equating ‘cultivated’ with ‘intelligent’? At best this is not clear.) To show that at least some women might equal or even surpass men, he cites Queen Elizabeth, Maria Theresa, the two Catherines of Russia, and the English novelist Mrs. Macaulay – truly a mixed bag.

If “women” let themselves be guided by instinct and sentiment, the fault belongs to the laws, the education, and the social existence imposed on them. If rights are refused to women on this ground, then political rights should also be withheld from the common people, the ignorant in general, and anyone who has not had a course in public law.

Would equal rights only redouble women’s influence on men? But, he replies, this influence is “more to be feared when in secret than when exercised in a public discussion.”

Would women be taken away from care of the household and family? No more “than laborers will be taken away from their plows ...” Anyway, only a small number of women would be called to public office, and he argues this number can be spared. In the background, of course, are the usual assumptions about women’s proper sphere. In this connection he remarks: “habit has familiarized us with the idea of a female sovereign but not that of a female citizen.”

It would be too much to expect that even Condorcet might be immune from the pattern of implicitly defining ‘women’ as the females of the upper classes. Women, he argues, are superior to men “in the gentle and domestic virtues.” Women’s reason is not always that of men; they do not value the same things. “It is as reasonable for a woman to concern herself with the graces of her face as it was for Demosthenes to take care of his voice and gestures.”

In a concluding passage, Condorcet records the fact that the antifeminists do not refute arguments but like to treat the question as a joke (The more things change ...). He does not think it is funny:

I now demand that someone deign to refute these reasons other than by jokes and declamations; that above all someone show me, as between men and women, a natural difference on which the exclusion of a right can legitimately be based. The equality of rights which our new constitution has established among men has gained us eloquent declamations and inexhaustible joking; but no one has yet been able to oppose a single reason to it, and that surely not for lack of talent and zeal. I dare to believe that the same will be true of equal rights as between the two sexes.


Condorcet’s pro-feminist manifesto aroused great attention – a succès de scandale. It undoubtedly must have had considerable impact on the minds of women active in the Revolution. But it did not impel the development of a feminist movement or even a small women’s movement. The immediate reason is that Condorcet himself made this unlikely by refusing to propose any implementation of his good ideas. Yet he was in a perfect position to implement them. In 1792 a commission to draft a republican constitution was set up; Condorcet wrote the draft as its dominant member. What did he propose on the rights of women?

Nothing whatever. The liberal historian J.S. Schapiro, who has written one of the important English-language works on Condorcet, considers this a puzzle:

Curiously enough Condorcet, the pioneer of woman suffrage, did not include votes for women. The only possible explanation is that, just as he was dismayed when le peuple appeared in the mobs of Paris, he was disgusted when la femme appeared in the Faubouriennes, or mobs of market women, who were mobilized by Marat to disturb the sittings of the Convention.

This “only possible explanation” hardly explains why Condorcet’s dismay did not operate against the “mobs” of male sansculottes, say, by advocating property qualifications. Yet, although he had been in favor of such limitations right up to the Revolution, what convinced him (he wrote) to advocate universal equal suffrage was the role of the masses in taking the Bastille – a “mob” action. Later, Marat mobilized more men than women for the purpose of dismaying Condorcet’s liberal soul. Moreover we know that Condorcet’s intellectual conviction about woman suffrage remained unchanged.

One fears that the “only possible explanation” left is a simple one, well known to history: an active campaign for women’s rights would be so fiercely resisted that Condorcet’s own political hopes would be killed. While Professor Schapiro’s liberal hero was willing to make impolitic proposals on other subjects, he refused to stick his neck out on the woman question.

Still, it is true that the abstraction Woman did change before Condorcet’s eyes in the course of the revolutionary events: not merely into a “mob” but, worse, into the class reality of workingwomen. To see this, let us do Condorcet justice by recording two minor matters of women’s rights which he did include in drafted documents. In 1789 he drafted a Declaration of Rights which included a proposal for equal inheritance by all children regardless of age and sex. Later, as a member of the Legislative Assembly, he proposed equal education for women. Equal inheritance, equal education: it will be observed that both issues were then relevant only to the women of the propertied classes. But the right to vote (if not limited by property) would have redounded to the benefit mainly of the mass of workingwomen.

One need not believe that Condorcet reasoned: Let there be equal rights only for women of my class. On the contrary: insofar as he reasoned, the answer came out as abstractly non-class as one of his beloved mathematical equations. But as soon as the abstractions had to be clothed with political reality, class-conditioned mentalities took over.

It would have been totally unrealistic at that time to try to openly draw the class line also for men’s suffrage. For one thing, Condorcet keenly realized that property qualifications for voting would shift all power to the rising bourgeoisie, and he was quite sincere in stating that he was against installing a new “bourgeois aristocracy” in place of the old aristocracy. Anyway there was the constraint of the mass movement: the leaders could not have gotten away with a denial of universal suffrage at least as a paper promise (which is all the Jacobins made of it).

Condorcet’s conception of how to handle the essentially unwelcome intrusion of the masses into politics was to use them as a counterweight against the bourgeois elements, manipulated in the hands of Statesmen interested only in Justice and Humanity, that is, people like himself. It is enough to mention that he supported Danton as the least evil among the representatives of the Mob because Danton was the man “who, by his leadership, could restrain the very contemptible tools of a revolution that was useful, glorious and necessary.” The masses were the “contemptible tools”; it was the Good Leaders who were Glorious and Necessary. That Condorcet looked for this leadership in the Gironde did not prevent the Girondin whip, Mme. Roland, from seeing him as “pathetic”; “a fine liqueur soaked in cotton.”

The fine liqueur can still be found in his essays on women’s rights. When he addressed paper with his pen, social classes did not exist; when he addressed France with constitutional drafts, class realities got in the way. He was for equal rights for Woman, and deserves honor; what appalled him was the movement of the real women unleashed by the Revolution.

3. The Movement of the Nameless

In point of fact, women played a massive role in the French Revolution. This fact is not often mentioned by historians. A good deal of this role was played out “underground” – not in the sense of being secret or conspiratorial but in the mole’s sense: inaccessible to historical documentation except in large terms. All the more reason to give some space to an informed appreciation by the historian Guerin:

In a period of revolution, the popular vanguard is composed indiscriminately of men and women. And the women are not the least resolute. Being responsible for feeding the home, they resent even more directly than the men the sufferings consequent on the rise in the cost of living and the increase of want. More impulsive and more sensitive, they reacted with still more fervor against oppression, from the moment they understood its class character. Since 1789 women had played a role of the first order in all the great revolutionary events. The royalist Duval willy-nilly renders them homage when he writes in his Souvenirs, in his insulting language:

Through the whole course of the Revolution, it was women – in fact women of the most abject class of people – who set in motion the insurrections great and small. From the dawn of that Revolution, you saw them in crowds lending aid and assistance to the brigands who pillaged and burned Reveillon’s house. On October 5 [1789] it was women who dragged the men to Versailles to besiege the chateau ... It was they too whom you saw on June 20 [1791] ... pushing the wheels of the cannon that was lifted into the king’s apartments. On August 10 [1792] they finished by killing ... the fatally wounded Swiss [in the storming of the Tuileries] ... In the September days [1792] it was again women who became accessories to the massacres in the prisons ... That is a sad thing to relate, without doubt, but it is nonetheless a fact of history.

Corroborating the malevolent testimony of this royalist from the other side of the barricades, Jacques Roux talked in an article “of those heroines who had such a large part in the taking of the Bastille, who at Versailles made the tyrant’s myrmidons eat the dust [October 1789], and who braved all dangers to overthrow the crown; of those brave women who have been at the head of all the revolutionary acts, who effectively prepared the insurrection of May 29 [1793] ...” The riots against the cost of living, in February and June 1793, had been above all the work of women. The former priest [Roux] was well acquainted with feminine psychology, and he knew that a revolutionary vanguard needs women’s support. On August 23 [1793] he wrote a friend: “Victory is beyond all doubt as soon as the women mingle with the sansculottes ...”

The contemporary statement by Jacques Roux about the participation of women in the assault on the Bastille, and other testimony to the same effect, are unaccountably ignored by some historians, who assert that the crowd at the Bastille was almost exclusively male – on the ground that later, when participants were asked to register, only one woman responded.

The first mass action of the Revolution powered by women was thoroughly anonymous; that is, there are no known names to attach to it. But it was decisive for the course of events. It came in October, when the king, holed up in Versailles, was clearly plotting counterrevolution, while bread and jobs were growing scarcer for the people.

On October 5 a crowd of women broke into Paris’s city hall; the National Guards were in sympathy and offered little resistance. The beadle Maillard, who had taken part in the attack on the Bastille, was taken up by the massed women to “lead” them to Versailles in a massive march. This unexpected intrusion by the people into the many-sided intrigues and maneuvers among the politicians sent the whole pack of cards flying into the air.

Suffice to say, in summary, that after staying on in Versailles until morning, the crowd invaded the palace precincts; the queen fled in terror to the king’s apartments in dishabille; some palace guards were killed. Terrorized, the king made an appearance, and, as the crowd shouted “The king to Paris!” announced that he would go there. And he went.

This transfer of the king to Paris – that is to the arena of the revolutionary masses – was (says the historian Mathiez) “even more important than the capture of the Bastille. From that time onwards, the king and the Assembly were in the hands of Lafayette and the people of Paris. The Revolution was securely established.” Lafayette soon discredited himself; the second wave of emigration by aristocrats emptied the court; the crucial impulsion was given to send the Revolution on its way.

The women did it. Historians see a puzzle in how this movement got started; if it has baffled research, it is perhaps because there was no mystery such as was being sought. The October 5 throng was organized by high prices and profiteering, by hunger and fear of hunger, by joblessness and despair; all of these conspirators made irrefutable arguments against the meaningless political intrigues that occupied the forepart of the stage. In such elemental movements there are often numerous partial, ad-hoc, local “leaders,” none of whom moved to the front in this case. There was no experience of women following women in action, and this is why they asked a man (Maillard) to lead the van, obeying the sex-stereotype.

The royalist press looked for a women’s leader to account for this baleful event; it found one, and made her name notorious, even though she had in fact had nothing to do with the movement. Théroigne de Méricourt was a well-known courtesan who had talked about organizing women into armed groups; many other women had talked this idea up as well, for it was a favorite notion about independent women’s action in the revolutionary situation. Théroigne had been seen and recognized in Versailles on October 5, and indeed she had been there – because she lived there. Although she spoke kindly to the women marchers, she did not participate in the historic movement of women that unfolded on her very doorstep. Their world was not hers, and she kept her distance. (You can see the same gulf today in the feminist historians who glorify Théroigne as a feminist while they ignore the real women’s movement.)

Théroigne seems to have had no special views about social or political matters outside of a general sympathy with the Girondins, whose advocacy of war appealed to her. Insofar as she had a feminist idea, it was mainly tied up with her interest in forming a “woman’s phalanx” to aid the Revolution. “Women should emerge from their shameful nullity” and show men they are not inferior by taking up arms, like the men.

She made the error of agitating for her “women’s phalanx” not among the women of the privileged classes, who might have benefitted from the exercise, but among the workingwomen of the faubourgs (working-class “suburbs”), who were growing desperate about being able to find food for their families (spring of 1792). The harassed women of the people, worried not about Amazon armies but about starving children, got fed up with being agitated to spend several hours a day training with pikes. On April 12 Théroigne was roughed up in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by a number of sansculotte women. In 1793 her pro-Girondin sympathies were even less welcome among workingwomen. That year, Théroigne’s pet proposal was the establishment of a special magistrature of Peace and Fraternity composed of women – that is, of certain women; for a mere woman of the people was not likely to expect a seat among the notables. In May, at the end of which month the Girondins were ousted from power by a sans-culotte insurrection, Théroigne caught a whipping as a Girondin sympathizer from a crowd of sansculotte women. To finish her story: she was arrested in 1794 as the Terror intensified, but released; not long afterwards, her early tendency toward insanity reasserted itself, and she was insane for the rest of her life.

Outside of the free Royalist publicity which made her a Public Character, she played no role of any real interest. What goes to the heart of our subject is the social gulf between the “women’s issues” she played with, and the issues that really mobilized a women’s movement in 1793 – the social gulf between the worlds of Théroigne de Mericourt and of Claire Lacombe.

On the other hand, we will see in the next section that Olympe de Gouges does deserve a niche in the history of feminism. But before we turn to her, we must deal with a preliminary question. We mentioned that Théroigne was a courtesan; well, Olympe had also been a courtesan, and quite a successful one, all her working life, before the outbreak of the Revolution. And we will see that Etta Palm, who was more important than both of them, had also been a courtesan. Outside of the Revolutionary Women of Lacombe and Léon (who are controversial for other reasons), the three most prominent feminist figures emerging out of the Revolution were courtesans. A remarkable fact! Could this pattern have been accidental? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.

Independent-minded women (“strong-minded females” in the derogatory form) born in the upper classes had an outlet for ambitions and talents through such activities as writing and salon-keeping. They enjoyed a long tether because of their class position. But it goes without saying that women of the people had no such opportunities. Whatever their abilities or potentialities, they had virtually only one future course before them, the respectable interment of their individualities in marriage, or else fossilization in spinsterhood or cold

storage in a nunnery. But there were loopholes. There was, for example, a recognized profession that offered the prospect of a more independent life: the profession of courtesan. To be sure, a courtesan can perhaps be defined as a high-class prostitute, and indeed the class context was a decisive feature; but, besides, a really successful courtesan had to offer more than basic sexual gratification and had to have more than physical endowments. She had to have esprit, intelligence, resourcefulness. She usually had a measure of non-conformism to begin with. The courtesan was one of the few independent woman entrepreneurs of the day.

Furthermore, the courtesan’s relation to the world of men and its rulers was not such as to inspire her with awe or disabling respect for these pillars of the society; she lived on the side of their weaknesses and follies, on the tawdry side of power. Usually sprung from the lower classes, she typically presented herself as upper-class or a reasonable facsimile thereof; hence the invention of aristocratic names like Olympe de Gouges (by Marie Gouze), or Théroigne de Mericourt (by Anne Josephe Terwane), or the Baroness d’Aelders (by Etta Palm). The courtesan was the reverse of a déclassée – she was a class upstart from the viewpoint of her clientele. In practice she often lived in the interstices of the class structure, and hence might be one of the few who were neither blinded nor immobilized by it.

We may add that by 1789 two of the three courtesans under consideration were superannuated from the profession. Olympe was 41, Etta Palm was 46; only Théroigne was still operative, at 27, and we have seen she was the least important. Finally, we must note that two of the three had been born outside of France – Théroigne in Luxembourg, Etta Palm in the Netherlands – hence were outsiders nationally as well as in a class sense. For that matter, the Frenchwoman Olympe was “foreign” to the Île de France, being thoroughly provincial in birth and upbringing (like Lacombe, for that matter).

At a juncture in history when the past still lay heavy on the mass of women suddenly thrown into the maelstrom, the courtesan type was peculiarly fitted to take advantage of changing patterns. We will see that this type had limitations.

4. Olympe De Gouges

With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, there appeared a number of appeals for justice to the oppressed sex, written by women, published in pamphlets, placards and manifesto-like statements or petitions. The first wave of declarations, judging from the material assembled by Le Faure, was relatively modest in demands, none going as far as the stand taken by Condorcet the following year. Then, after Condorcet, in September 1791, came a pamphlet by a woman which did go as far as Condorcet’s advocacy of full equality. Its writer, moreover, tried hard to achieve fame in various ways, and succeeded in attaining a degree of notoriety among contemporaries as a rather “bizarre personality” (to use Le Faure’s cautious expression).

Marie Gouze’s energetic enterprise had made her a successful courtesan under the name of Olympe de Gouges, though this career had been exhausted by the time of the Revolution. She was a woman whose natural raw talents fought a losing battle against her lack of education and cultivation, a handicap on her ambitions which she never overcame. Before the Revolution, she had set her mind on a literary career, especially in playwrighting, for she had a mind that teemed with ideas and also the ability to talk a streak. Unfortunately she could barely write; she has been called nearly illiterate functionally; it was only with effort that she could put a ragged letter on paper. She had to resort to dictating her profuse literary works, which sometimes rose to the level of the mediocre.

Her first political pamphlet preceded the fall of the Bastille by a year. After the Revolution she concentrated on self-published political pamphlets and political placards which she distributed on the city walls. History has been kind to her in remembering mainly her salvo on the woman question; here at least she had something to say, even though it was not original. Unfortunately she spent most of her energies as a defender of royalism, even after presumably becoming a republican, and it was as a pro-royalist agitator that she ended up on the guillotine of the Terror.

From the real movement of the revolutionary women she recoiled in horror and hostility. When the women of the people took over the streets in October 1789 and set the Revolution on its course by the march to Versailles, Olympe denounced them as “infamous brigands,” and wept for the sad fate of the queen who was actually rousted out of her royal bed. Her first pamphlets were enthusiastically royalist with a philanthropic cast, upholding not only the sacred person of the Sovereign but also the system of estates in which the aristocracy ruled. She was as pro-aristocratic as the noble émigrés in Coblenz, whose return to France she pleaded for. This pattern is common enough among the hangers-on of a ruling class, and it must be remembered that most courtesans were as much an appendage of the privileged classes as a chateau’s majordomo.

After the king’s flight to Varennes, which made republicans even out of the right wing of the Revolution, Olympe also became a republican formally. But she remained apologetic about the king, and in August 1792 she offered herself as a volunteer to defend him personally before the Revolutionary tribunal. It was either a courageous act testifying to the constancy of her reactionary convictions, or a piece of naiveté showing her inability to understand what was happening in the country. In July 1793 she was arrested for proclamations on the city’s walls demanding a plebiscite on monarchic versus republican government; but advocacy of monarchism had been illegalized. When she was guillotined in November, she was one of those executed for actually committing a capital offence in a juridical sense. (This has not stopped feminist historians from portraying her as guillotined for her feminist views.) She came to grief as a militant royalist in open practice – so thoroughly a woman of the Old Regime that one cannot be sure she ever understood the danger she was courting.

From her enemies she received the same boon as had Théroigne: the invention by them of a historically flattering myth, with the intent to slander. For by the time she was executed for royalist agitation, the regime had started cracking down on the women’s movement, including women’s clubs, because of the activities (still to be recounted) of the Revolutionary Women led by Lacombe. The Jacobins had already started their customary slander pattern: in order to link the leftist women with the convicted royalist, the Jacobins spread the smear-charge that it was Olympe who had organized the first women’s society! This may put a fictitious halo around her head for us, but its purpose was to discredit the very idea of women’s organization by making it the sinister offspring of reaction and royalist plotters. This Jacobin falsification was taken up by historians of the Revolution like Michelet, who were important for the later inflation of poor Olympe’s role.

In point of fact, Olympe never dreamed of organizing anything but personal adherents, and did not work with the women’s clubs or mixed clubs that existed. (Later we will catch a glimpse of her at a meeting of the Revolutionary Women where the difference between her and the new feminists was evident.) The very idea of a women’s movement was as foreign to her as it was repugnant to the anti-feminist Jacobins. She shared the established conception of political activism: one put forward proposals which, on being acclaimed by the People, made one a Leader.

She had many proposals to make, spawned by her turbulent mind, and some of them concerned women particularly: for example, the establishment of a national theater for women’s productions. She had had difficulty in getting her plays produced, and such an enterprise would provide people like her with a stage for their literary ambitions. She liked to make the kind of “women’s” proposal that was supposed to give “recognition” to women in some ceremonial way: for example, a special entourage of women for some notable’s funeral; a special women’s guard for the queen; that sort of thing. What these ideas had in common was that they meant kudos for certain female notables, though they meant nothing for the mass of women, who had no time to primp at funerals or wait on the queen. Note the two kinds of approach, the two kinds of mentality, marked by this difference, for this dichotomy will be seen throughout the subsequent history of the women’s movement. It is the difference between the feminism of the privileged classes and of the workingwomen.

Olympe went beyond these games when, with an inspirational flash that suited her active mind, she thought of incorporating the general idea of equal rights for women in a Declaration of Rights for women and citoyennes. Condorcet had put forward this position magisterially, but Olympe usefully did in a propagandistic way what the liberal marquis had refused to do in his own draft of a Declaration of Rights.

It has been conjectured that since Olympe did not mention Condorcet’s bombshell of 1790, she did not know of it. This is almost impossible to believe. It requires us to accept that a quick-minded woman with literary aspirations did not know that the most eminent intellectual of the country and the age had recently published a historymaking statement on the subject closest to her heart, to the accompaniment of unprecedented public attention to the equal-rights issue. On the other hand, it was scarcely odd for an ambitious publicist to refrain from forcibly reminding the reader that the ideas put forward in the new pamphlet were not altogether original or unique. It is a strange merit that is suggested for Olympe. A similar point will have to be made about Wollstonecraft, who came along the following year and also did not mention Condorcet – or for that matter Olympe.

The Condorcet context also helps to explain why Olympe’s Declaration seems to have attracted even less attention at the time than it does now. If one stops to think, this was scarcely unexpected. If French society had already spent the preceding year decrying Condorcet’s scandalous ideas, it would not have been much interested to find these same abominable notions echoed by a demirep who was mainly known (however unfairly) as an upstart crackpot with no intellectual standing. Modern feminist historians endow Olympe with a certain retrospective importance insofar as they ignore Condorcet on the one hand and the Revolutionary Women on the other.

Lastly, about Olympe: there is a telltale issue that helps to relate the general “woman question” to the “social question.” This is the question of prostitution as a social problem. We saw that the hanger-on of the aristocracy Olympe de Gouges had denounced the women’s march on Versailles as “infamous.” We can now observe that the high-class prostitute (a.k.a. courtesan) Olympe de Gouges proposed that the prostitution problem be turned over to the police, to “sweep the streets clear” of them and herd them into certain quarters to be designated, all under the control of the cops. After all, unlike courtesans, ordinary prostitutes were Low Creatures. In contrast, the Revolutionary Women led by Claire Lacombe also proposed a social plan to deal with prostitutes. They wanted a project for rehabilitating prostitutes in national homes with “kindness and humanity” to make them “good citizens and mothers of families.”

5. Etta Palm

We now come to a figure who was more important than Théroigne and Olympe combined and doubled, because with her we have the first steps toward the organization of women.

As the Revolution unfolded, the organizations of mass participation from below were the clubs, or societies, in which the republican “patriots” could be active. Most of these were based on the sections; only a few were citywide societies like the Jacobin Club. Paris was divided into forty-eight sections; in each section, the section assembly was the widest form of base organization of the popular masses. Alongside the section assembly, which had its own section committee and officers, there was also a “popular society” or “fraternal society” based on the section. This sectional society functioned as the vanguard organization of the most militant elements, usually standing to the left of the section as a whole and comprising its most active core.

Usually women had no deliberative vote in the sections, but in the course of the Revolution they were accepted as regular members in many (perhaps most) of the popular sections. This was where woman suffrage had to be implemented first. There was much variation from section to section; and a whole spectrum of rights was concerned, from the right of women merely to listen to discussions in silence, to the right to speak, to complete equality in voting, and even to quota places on official committees.

It was in the sansculotte-dominated sections, in the working-class districts, that women’s right of participation made the most progress. Here the men’s resistance to women’s rights was weakest. This was not so because workingmen tended to be more pro-feminist ideologically. The reason for this pattern (which gainsays many myths of feminist history) had to do, rather, with the class structure. The women involved here were workingwomen and wives of the poor, who were actively involved in keeping the family alive, whose social role gave them a measure of independence vis-à-vis the men; women who were already “voting” every day on the street on the same issues of survival that were being debated in the sections.

The few clubs that had a citywide scope functioned as political-tendency centers. The most important, of course, was the club of the Jacobins, which operated (to use an anachronistic term) as the “party” of the Robespierrists. The left-Jacobins, around Hébert (“Hébertists”), were strong in the Cordeliers club and in the municipal government, the Commune. To the right of the Jacobins were the clubs leaning to the Girondin moderates. And to the left of the Jacobins (all the Jacobins), constituting a sort of left opposition, were a number of able individuals who were otherwise unlinked, but who were influential in the more militant sections and clubs. The best known of this revolutionary wing were Jacques Roux and Théophile Leclerc. Historians have fastened the label Enragés (roughly, wild men) on them, in a notable example of anti-revolutionary prejudice masquerading as scholarship.

For present purposes, let us direct our attention to the right wing (pro-Girondin section) of this pattern, or rather to one small corner of it. In historical retrospect, a special place was occupied by a club called the Cercle Social, in which embryonic ideas about social reorganization stemming from Mably and Morelly were heard. (This cercle called itself “social” in a sense that later would get called vaguely “socialist.”) The club had been founded by the Abbé Claude Fauchet and Nicolas Bonneville, editor of La Bouche de Fer. Within the historical socialist spectrum, Fauchet may be considered a forerunner of social-democratic state-socialism. In the French Revolutionary context, he represented a relatively advanced social program; but politically he stood for “moderation,” that is, a minimum of political change in the system. His temperament was neither militant-revolutionary nor liberty-seeking. His fate was going to be joined to that of the Girondins.

It was the Cercle Social that provided the forum for the first attempt at an organized women’s movement.

On November 26, 1790, the Cercle Social was scheduled to hear a talk by one Charles Louis Rousseau, who hailed from the Chablis-Tonnerre district in central France. It was to be a speech arguing for the equalization of women’s rights with men. It was a unique occasion: this was over a year before Olympe de Gouges was moved to write her pamphlet, but of course Condorcet had recently published his great essay.

The talk had been well advertised, and even members of other clubs were present. Events do not always measure up to history: the inexperienced Rousseau proved to be a poor and boring speaker. Even so, a part of the audience gave him applause and encouragement; but the noisier part, comprising those who “knew” that talk about women’s rights was nonsense, threatened to stop the meeting. The chairman asked the women present if they wanted the speaker to continue; the cry was Yes, yes! But the disruptive interruptions continued.

A woman rose from the audience, asked for the floor (against precedent), and said:

Gentlemen, can it really be possible that the sacred revolution, which gives men their rights, has made the French unjust and uncivil to women! The other speakers have been heard patiently; why interrupt this one, who speaks in favor of women? In the name of the citoyennes who are here, I ask that the speaker continue.

This received much applause, but the session had to be suspended anyway. The woman who had spoken up was surrounded by the other women present, in praise and support, and she took the opportunity to exhort them: “Since the French have become Romans, let us imitate the virtues and patriotism of the Roman ladies.”

Her name was Etta Palm, née Alders. Now 47, born in Holland, she had carried on her career as a courtesan mainly in Paris, using the aristocratic title “Baroness d’Aelders,” which resembled her maiden name. The husband who had contributed the name Palm had disappeared decades before.

This was possibly the first time that a woman spoke on the floor of one of the societies. The Cercle Social, like some others, was already allowing women to attend; only later did some admit women to membership. It was Etta Palm who first set about organizing the participation of women in the political life of the Revolution. Her own politics were “moderate,” like the club’s, not going beyond Girondin republicanism. But she understood one thing that had not entered the minds of our previous subjects: namely, women should organize, as men did. In this sense there can be little doubt that Etta Palm gave the first impulse to the modern feminist movement, even though her name has been virtually consigned to oblivion by feminist historians.

On November 26 she had reacted with presence of mind, ability and poise; this was only the beginning. A new lecture meeting with Rousseau was advertised, and held on December 13. Men were admitted only if accompanied by a woman (a device, by the way, that had to be revived in 1848). Rousseau’s lecture, an Essay on the Education and Civil and Political Life of Women in the French Constitution, spoke out clearly against special privilege for men and called for giving women “all their rights.” According to reports, it was otherwise filled with boring details about education, divorce laws, breast-feeding, etc.; it seems that Rousseau’s oratory did not sweep even sympathizers off their feet.

The overall effect on the Cercle Social was positive. At the club’s request, on December 30 Palm herself submitted a talk On the Injustice of the Laws in Favor of Men at the Expense of Women. (It was read out by one of the club secretaries.) The club decided to print it immediately at its own expense. At the session the well-known “Anacharsis” Cloots (the self-proclaimed “orator of the human race”) lauded Etta Palm as “the divine Hypatia in person.”

The printed speech had echoes in the provinces where women were becoming aware. It was reprinted in Caen; in Creil, north of Paris, a National Guard company formed of women voted her honorable membership and a medal. (I know of no evidence that Olympe’s later pamphlet had such reverberations among women.)

On March 23, 1791, Etta Palm made an organizational proposal to the Cercle Social, or more exactly to its associated Société des Amis de la Vérité.

The Society of the Friends of Truth is the first which has admitted us [women] into patriotic meetings. Creil, Alais, Bordeaux, and several others have followed your example. Wouldn’t it be useful if, in each section of the capital [the forty-eight sections of Paris], there were formed a patriotic society of citoyennes – Amies de la Vérité, Women Friends of Truth – whose central federated Circle would be supervised by you, gentlemen, and which would invite all the Fraternal Societies of the 83 departements to correspond with it? ... Each circle would have its own leadership, and they would all meet once a week as a general directorate under the supervision of the director of the Friends of Truth.

She went on to present the idea as if the women’s work would be mainly social, philanthropic and educational, rather than political. I think she must have been aware this was a façade.

Palm’s bold proposal was greeted with applause, and the founding of the central Circle was decided on the spot. Previous preparations had been made to get the enterprise through. The Bouche de Fer had already announced the project on February 19, under the bane [banner] of the Federal Club of Patriotic Citoyennes. When the decision was clinched at the March 23 meeting, Palm announced that the founding meeting would be held in two days. The minutes show that she read a letter of congratulations from the top Girondin leader, Brissot. It appears evident that the male leadership of the club was cooperating, though none of the leaders had been known as pro-feminists. Perhaps we have crypto-feminists here who were willing to help in the background, without being publicly “tainted” by the new wild ideas.

The launching meeting took place in two days as scheduled. This March 25 meeting elected Etta Palm its présidente for a short term (the common pattern). The elected secretary was noted to be a bien-aimée of C.L. Rousseau, which may indicate that this gentleman was around. The new club planned to meet weekly, with paid-up members only. The dues set indicate the class composition: three livres per month. This stiff tariff was set this high in order to build a charity fund; it certainly excluded women of the people.

This first meeting of the first women’s club of the Revolution proved its potential by taking political acts right off, thanking the Senate for a decree, and protesting a law-code article. The issues involved here, by the way, were such as to interest upper-class women.

The club made one noteworthy organizational attempt, one which manifested both good leadership and bad prospects. Palm wrote to the forty-eight sections of the city, each with its popular assembly headed by a section committee, with the request that two women representatives be added to each leading committee. It was a good “statesmanlike” proposal, in the abstract. Not one section even responded. Of course, hostility to women in politics was operative, but there was another reason for the nature of the response. After all, this fine proposal came to the sections from a right-wing club entity at a time when the Girondins and their allies were increasingly being fought by a sansculotterie that was moving left in response to socio-economic issues. The sections and elements that would be most sympathetic with the idea of women’s representation were precisely the ones that were girding themselves most fiercely to combat the Girondins’ political power.

In fact, the parent club, the Cercle Social, and its associated Friends of Truth, along with the Bouche de Fer, were coming to the end of their tether, and gave up the ghost by July 1791. Palm, who was secretary of the women’s club now, did not let this stop her work, though she publicly complained of the lack of interest by those to whom she had addressed herself, particularly the lack of contributions to the charity fund. This complaint had meaning only with respect to the rich, who could afford to give money. It is too bad that Palm’s thinking revolved within this class-bound area, and not only in connection with women’s work; for example, she gave the Cercle Social a rosy view of society in her native Holland, “which has neither Bastille nor Red Book ...”

But within her class-bound and political limitations, she still had one more historic move to make, which alone should have guaranteed her a place in feminist history. On April 1, 1792, she led a woman’s delegation before the bar of the Assembly to present, for the first time as an actual political demand, the aim of equal rights for women that Condorcet had first put forward literarily, that C.L. Rousseau had first presented oratorically, that Palm herself had first pursued organizationally, and that Olympe de Gouges had publicized with her Declaration.

We come,” Etta Palm told the National Assembly, “to ask in the name of the [women’s] Society that the laws put our sex on the same level as men.” Her presentation demanded that women be admitted to all civil and military offices; it demanded “moral and national education for girls”; it proposed legal divorce, and coming of age at 21; it asked “that political liberty and equality of rights be accorded both sexes.”

The delegation was politely received, and the petition was formally sent to an appropriate committee, to be buried. The modern reader may fail to appreciate that this reception was a tribute to the careful, effective, responsible work that Etta Palm had performed in getting her women’s movement respected in this hostile terrain, at least for a while. She had chosen a course that went through the moderate mainstream of the Revolution, and she did the best that probably could have been done along this dead-end road. We can see only fragmentary glimpses of her work, whereas we know a great deal more about the operations of a Danton or a Mirabeau; but she had a harder row to hoe; and I suggest that Etta Palm was a leader at least as able as some of the (male) giants of the Revolution whose names have become household words.

How highly regarded she had become, in spite of the hostility to her feminist cause, was shown when she was officially sent to Holland to see if her native country was disposed to receive an ambassador from revolutionary France. (It was not.) True, it is likely that this mission was a way of getting her away from the Paris scene; but the maneuver is itself a tribute to her impact, if not to her political acumen.

In her politics lay Etta Palm’s basic failure. While she tried valiantly to push women’s rights by way of the right-wing mainstream of the Revolution, that stream was drying up in the course of 1792. While the male-counterpart club had given up by July, Palm’s women’s society probably petered out by autumn. By the beginning of 1793, her right-wing stance, plus her foreign birth, made her increasingly suspect, and she became an émigrée. For two years she lived quietly in Holland, until the French armies took the United Provinces and proclaimed a revolutionary republic (the “Batavian Republic”). She was arrested, spent three years in prison, and after her release faded from view.

6. The Keralio Type

Another sort of center for women’s political activity was provided by the “mixed clubs” that arose: clubs in which both men and women participated on more equal terms than elsewhere.

The first of the mixed clubs came about partly through an accidental conjuncture. Early in autumn 1790 a schoolmaster, Claude Dansard, brought together artisans and shopkeepers in one of the Jacobin halls as a sort of self-educational group learning the Assembly’s new decrees. Because of this educational motivation, the members’ wives and children were included. The mixed group took on a life of its own as it grew, until Dansard, who had installed himself as “perpetual president,” resigned in face of its growing involvement with politics. For him it was a Frankenstein monster.

The short form of its name was Fraternal Society of Patriots of Both Sexes. The word ‘fraternal’ occurs in the case of other mixed clubs. One gathers that it was considered to be etymologically desexed. On the other hand, in many cases women curtailed the Revolution’s watchword to Liberty and Equality.

Among the men who took control of the club was Francois Robert, a republican lawyer, later a law professor, who acted as Danton’s secretary for a time. In 1791 he married the club’s most active woman, Louise de Keralio, who thenceforward usually used the name Mme. Robert-Keralio.

She had already made a reputation for herself as a writer, editor, and translator, and appears to have been an abler politico than her new husband. She was probably the de facto leading force in the fraternal society. In Mme. Robert-Keralio we have the most prominent woman activist who was more or less aligned with the Jacobins, specifically with the Robespierrist leadership.

But it would be inaccurate to equate Mme. Robert-Keralio’s role within the Jacobin tendency to that of Mme. Roland among the Girondins. Mme. Roland, no feminist, played the political game by the old rules, and was at one with the Girondin leaders. Keralio, in contrast, was faced with a Jacobin leadership that was the most consistent anti-feminist front in the Revolution.

The Jacobins had no pro-feminist wing. This statement, like every other one about the Revolution, can usefully be modified a little, but not essentially. It is true that Robespierre’s right-hand man, Saint-Just, did have some mild sentiments on the subject in his book L’Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution: against the double standard; for mercy and justice for unwed mothers and punishment for the guilty men; equal culpability in adultery, etc. He suggests Fourier’s later axiom about civilization when he remarks that “Among people who are really free, women are free and worshipped ...” But his statements do not go very far and are not unambiguous; and there is no indication that he resisted the Jacobins’ assault on women’s rights when push came to shove. Villiers mentions, without much detail, some other elements in the Revolution that showed some sympathy for Condorcet’s views. A Jacobin, Francois Boissel, published a popular Catéchisme du Genre Humain in 1789 (with another edition in 1793) which treated marriage as one of the three scourges of humanity, along with religion and property, but it is not clear if he had anything to say about women’s rights; and anyway he was far more radical than most Jacobins.

And so we can repeat: the Jacobins had no pro-feminist wing; and we can add that within their ranks were the most vicious enemies of the women’s movement, as we will see. We have seen that there was a pro-feminist current in a corner of the Girondin tendency; and we will see that to the left of the Jacobins the so-called “Enragés” comprised the best feminists of the age. When some historians make ignorant statements about the unrelieved anti-feminism of the French Revolution, they are in fact thinking only of the Jacobins. For example, take the Jacobin club in whose hall Keralio’s Fraternal Society met: in the beginning it even refused to receive the Fraternal Society’s delegation unless the delegation was all-male, though subsequently it modified this intransigent attitude.

Keralio was a frequent speaker at the Fraternal Society, and also occasionally showed up on the platform of the Jacobin club, especially as attendance at the Society began to decline in the course of 1792. The Society’s political moderation was at least one reason for the decline, especially for the loss of male members. Here is an indication of how far the Society led by Keralio was lagging behind the people: in August 1792 it expelled two women members (described as “colored women,” incidentally) for the offence of demanding that all royal statues be torn down and for publicly propagating “turbulent and incendiary proposals.” It is true that in 1793 we find the Society, or delegations in its name, attacking the rising cost of living; but actively involved in this work was Pauline Léon, who later that year became a co-founder of the Revolutionary Women. Indeed, when the Revolutionary Women became active, Keralio’s Society sought to put notices in the press proclaiming that it should not be confused with the revolutionaries.

Certainly Keralio should not be confused with Léon, and not even with Etta Palm. (Palm had been admitted into the Fraternal Society in 1791 despite Keralio’s hostility to her, but apparently she did not become active in it.) Both Léon and Palm, with their different politics, pushed for independent women’s political activity. In contrast, Keralio’s view was not very far from that of Mme. Roland.

Mme. Roland acted on the conception that women’s only possible role in politics was to act behind the scenes, not coming into collision with prevailing sentiments. “... I do not believe,” she said, “that our mores yet allow women to show themselves. Women must inspire good, and nourish and inflame all feelings good for the fatherland, but not appear to participate in political work. They can work openly only when the French all deserve the name of free men. Till then, our light-mindedness and our bad ways will make whatever they tried to do at least ridiculous. ..” Our light-mindedness – as usual, this woman of the upper classes substitutes the class for the sex; for the sansculotte women who had to work for a living had no time to be “light-minded,” etc. By refusing to confront anti-feminist constraints, she made it impossible to change them. By pulling strings from the shadows, she solved her personal problem of participation, but helped reinforce the constraints on others who were less happily placed. In the end her example became an argument against the politicalization of women, as if her influence had been responsible for Girondism.

She wrote: “You [men] have strength, ... courage, perseverance, wide perspectives and great talent; it is for you to make the laws in politics: govern the world ... But without us [women] you will not be virtuous, or loving, or lovable, or happy. Then keep the glory of authority in all ways; we want domination only through your hearts, and thrones only in your hearts ...” This was the typical galimatias which men cheered with a smirk, and which strengthened the sexist stereotypes on the basis of which the political exclusion of women was justified.

No more than Mme. Roland did Keralio approve of raising demands for women’s rights. She argued: “The domestic duties of women forbid them all administrative functions,” echoing one of the main bases of anti-feminism. In her we have the type of woman prominent in the mixed clubs who opposed the new feminism with its political thrust; who were in favor of adapting the old pattern of the woman politico as a manipulator in the salon, corridor, or bedroom. Of course, this role was possible only for a few women of the upper classes.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that the Keralio type was characteristic of the women’s movement (or its beginnings) in the provinces. In some cities outside Paris women formed their own societies, but this does not necessarily mean they were advanced beyond the mixed-club type. For we find out that in some places it was the men who preferred that the women meet separately, out of “decency” (prudery or sexism); this was segregation de facto. For example, in Lyons an Association of Citoyennes was formed; but it was the local section leader, a businessman, who laid down its rules as his wife took the presidency – rules excluding politics in favor of charity, religious work, etc. On the other hand, it was in Lyons that the women of the people – not the women of the Association of Citoyennes – took over the city on September 15, 1792, in a struggle against intolerable economic conditions. They dominated the city for three days. “Women police commissioners” established controls over price schedules, which the city authorities were forced to countersign.

Everywhere, above all in revolutionary Paris, the sansculotte women needed a form of organization, comparable to that of the revolutionary clubs formed by men. As long as women’s organizations emanated from women of the upper classes, they did not have it. Yet, such was the dynamic drive of the Revolution, before it reached its apogee the prevalent club form of organization did merge with the militant women’s movement. The result was the society of Revolutionary Women headed by two of the greatest women leaders in history.

Last updated on 12 September 2020