Hal Draper with Anne Lipow

Women and Class

* * *

Part 1: Class Roots of the Feminist Movement

Chapter 2
The Society of Revolutionary
Women of 1793

The women’s movement in the French Revolution reached its apogee with the formation of a unique club, the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women, called for short the “Revolutionary Women” (RW in our English abbreviation).

It was one of the few citywide political clubs, as distinct from section clubs and assemblies. It was the first all-women’s revolutionary vanguard association. It was the extreme left wing of the Revolution in organized form. And it made a name for itself in the contemporaneous movement. And yet, despite these unique qualifications, its very memory has been largely suppressed in the writing of what passes for history. Or perhaps because of these qualifications ...

The life and death of the Revolutionary Women was closely bound up with the left wing in the Revolution, and this needs explaining first.

1. “Wild Men” and Revolutionary Women

The extreme left wing of the Revolution does not mean the left wing of the Jacobins. Left Jacobinism was the tendency represented by Hébert, Chaumette, and much of the leadership of the Commune and the Cordeliers Club. Outside of the Jacobin Club and hostile to it, critical also of its left-wing Hébertists, was an unorganized tendency which we can label for convenience the Left Opposition: the revolutionary anti-Jacobins.

The leading men of this tendency were Jacques Roux, Théophile Leclerc, and Jean Varlet. Actually they formed no group, club, or organization of their own, and even cooperated among themselves only sporadically. We will see that, organizationally speaking, the Revolutionary Women were well ahead of them; if (say) Jacques Roux had had Claire Lacombe’s operational sense, events might have gone a little differently.

The label Enragés (“wild men”) was pinned on these men by later historians who were as willing to replace science with slander as the Jacobins themselves were ready to replace criticism with calumny in order to dispose of their enemies. There was nothing “wild” about Roux or Leclerc; they were intelligent, rational, compassionate men in the context of their day, and much more admirable personally than most of the Jacobin leaders who sought to assassinate their characters before they guillotined their bodies. The legend of their “bloodthirstiness” is of a piece with the myth that Lenin ate little children for breakfast. If to this day the real role of these men has to be excavated, all the more is this true of the women who fought for the same goals and ideals, in flagrant disregard of “womanly” stereotypes.

The “Enragés” became enraged around two major issues on which they differed from the Jacobin establishment. One was the embryonic class issue: the socioeconomic needs and demands of the poorest workers, against the economic exploitation of high prices by the rising propertied classes, an exploitation aided or tolerated by the new bureaucrats of the Revolution. The other was the related issue of popular control of the Revolution from below, of democratic rights in the Revolution, and eventually of opposition to the forms taken by the Jacobin Terror. On both of these basic issues, Claire Lacombe and the RW stood four-square with Roux and Leclerc.

At the same time, this oppositional alliance on the left was the most consistent and militant pro-feminist wing of the Revolution, as the most bitterly anti-feminist wing was the Jacobin leadership.

There was a clear social reason for the leftists’ innovative attitude on women’s rights. Jacques Roux was not primarily a theoretician, nor did he act mainly on the basis of thought-out political generalities. In large part he was responding to the needs and aspirations of the poor sansculottes among whom he lived, articulating their viewpoints. As an ex-priest, he knew, better than most, how the people lived and what women went through. In the poor sansculotte sections, the day-to-day role of women was quite different from what it was in the circles around Mme. Roland or Robert-Keralio or Etta Palm’s three-livre club. The workingwomen did not spend time fretting about the innate coquetry or light-mindedness of “Woman,” or similar nonsense characteristic of women who were rich enough to cherish this view of themselves.

They had to feed hungry families. This formed their politics; this was their politics in the first place; and so they were not imbued with the superstition that only men could act politically. And in acting on their “politics” they did not typically react to issues by writing declarations or pamphlets; they went into the streets. And in the streets they assumed equal participation in the teeming life of sansculotte politics, without anyone’s say-so. From the streets they went into the clubs, the section assemblies, the Revolutionary societies.

It was in the sansculotte-dominated sections and assemblies that the increasing participation of women was most widely accepted, whether in practice or in by-laws – until the Jacobin crackdown on women’s rights in 1794.

There is a type of feminist historians who can recognize only their own type of feminism in the events of history – the type of feminism that writes documents, makes public gestures, and strikes certain known postures, while it passes over with a blind eye the mass surge of the sansculotte women into political life. In another part of the forest, the historians (male, anti-sansculotte, pro-Jacobin or counter-revolutionary) tend to regard the political role of the workingwomen as an irrelevant curiosity, since Everyone Knows that only men count historically. As a result, we often have only fragmentary indications of the considerable participation of the sansculotte women in the life of the clubs, as well as the life of the city, especially as hard economic times and a soaring cost of living aroused a turbulent resentment in 1792-94. Historians tend to treat turbulence as engineers treat noise, something that has to be tuned out.

Jacques Roux was, personally, exceptionally sensitive to the important role of women in the Revolution even before he moved to the far left. It is said that it must have been his background as a priest that gave him this insight, and perhaps this helped; but it did not apply to Leclerc’s case; and it is not altogether necessary to look for special reasons in the case of men who were immersed in the hard lives of their sansculotte neighbors. We have seen that it was Roux who, right after the fall of the Bastille, testified to the broad participation of the women of Paris in that first upsurge of the Revolution. In the same printed sermon there is his admiring comment on the new fact of feminine militancy as distinct from the old stereotype of womanly timidity:

A sex, naturally timid inside and outside the home, almost incapable by nature of warlike enterprise, nevertheless behaves as if brought up on the battlefield, and, in the intoxication of patriotism, exchanges the distaff and bobbin for the glory and perils of combat, the myrtle of love for the laurels of Mars.

The language is very eighteenth-century and early-Roux, but the thought was calculated to make “manly” men shudder. It only led Roux to express added admiration for the women who fought “like roaring lions.”

Leclerc’s militant pro-feminism was expressed in his total support to the aspirations and movement of the Revolutionary Women. Young, handsome, brilliant, and bold, he became personally linked with the two outstanding women leaders: he was Claire Lacombe’s lover in the spring of 1793, and he married Pauline Léon on November 18 of that fateful year. It is not uncommon for historians and others to assume that women’s political activity is conditioned by the men they sleep with; but this chestnut has no application to the present case. Lacombe’s and Léon’s militancy and views antedate their liaison with Leclerc. On the other hand, Leclerc may well have had his pro-feminist ideas sharpened up by his friends; his keen mind could have picked up this element of advanced thought as easily as C.L. Rousseau’s; and of course another influence may have been his ally Jacques Roux.

The essential fact before us is that the militant women’s movement could make an alliance only with revolutionary men, only with the extreme left wing of the Revolution.

2. Two Women

Pauline Léon had become a Revolutionary activist in Paris before Claire Lacombe came to the city. Léon is the only Parisienne in our cast of characters. Born September 28, 1768, her father was a chocolate maker who, though poor, was a liberal philosophe-type intellectual in his own way. He educated his daughter in the ideas of the new age, and in fact she became a competent writer. Until her marriage to Leclerc, she worked with her mother in the family trade.

Not yet 21, this chocolate worker became a militant of the Revolution from the first day after the Bastille. In February 1791 when she participated in a demonstration against Lafayette, she was introduced to the leftist Cordeliers Club and the local “fraternal society.” She fought in the crucial journées of the on-rolling Revolution. In March 1792 – a month before Etta Palm’s demand to the Assembly – she appeared before that body at the head of a women’s delegation to present demands on behalf of the women. The central demand, at this point, was the right of women to arm themselves to defend the Revolution – on the home front and under official command. We have seen that this was not a new proposal, but Léon’s address put the matter in a wider context when she said: “You cannot refuse, and society cannot deprive us of, this right that Nature gives us, unless it is claimed that the Declaration of Rights has no application to women ...”

The historian Marie Cerati, I think, is right in maintaining that the political meaning of this address went beyond the request for arms; that it utilized the patriotic issue as a vehicle for asserting the more general right of women to an active part in political life. “This petition,” says Cerati, “reawakened the people of Paris, who were dozing after the shooting in the Champs de Mars, as was bitterly noted by the president of the Assembly, Guiton de Morveaux. He thought good to contrast the ardor of the women to masculine apathy; and the Assembly ordered the printing of Pauline Léon’s hot-blooded address.”

Thus Léon was becoming known as a leading woman militant. We have seen that she already had some club experience, by attending the Cordeliers (which was dominated by left Jacobins, with some “Enragé” influence) and by actively participating in Mme. Robert-Keralio’s mixed society (which was too moderate for her politically). She may have been the initiating spirit in the founding of the society of Revolutionary Women, along with women militants who had been drawn around her in the course of her activity.

Claire Lacombe was only a little older, born March 4, 1765, in a small town south of Toulouse. Her baptismal certificate does not give her father’s occupation or position, and next to nothing is known of her early life. What is certain is that, before coming to Paris, she was an actress in southern France – a modestly successful one according to some indications. It appears that her republican sentiments attracted hostility, enough to cause her to pull up stakes in the spring of 1792, soon after her 27th birthday. She arrived in Paris in April. She did not work on the stage in the capital and, during the following year and a half, lived on her savings and by selling possessions. (This was later verified by hostile investigators who unsuccessfully sought some reason to discredit her.)

Her first appearance on the revolutionary scene was on July 25, 1792, at the Assembly, where she presented and read her petition for a post in the army. As we have mentioned, this was the usual way in which militant women proposed a role for themselves in the Revolution. Lacombe’s petition was explicitly put forward as a personal one; she made clear she did not recommend this step for mothers or for women who did not enjoy her own free and unattached status. Politically, her petition was an eloquent paean to liberty, plus a special attack on Lafayette, who represented the last stand of royalist sentiment. The address was officially welcomed, and even ordered to be printed; but her request for military employment was ignored as usual.

In the next month she showed that her military offer was not mere rhetoric. In the storming of the Tuileries she fought at the head of an attacking corps, and an official citation testified to her role in rallying the Federals under fire. This gave her a burgeoning reputation, which she increased in the next period as her “burning eloquence” was heard in the fraternal societies she attended. There is no sign that she ever took the weak line of being devoted to “women’s work” – charity and such – as Etta Palm had done or pretended to do. She addressed herself to the main political issues of the day in the same way as the men did. We know that at a critical juncture, on April 3, 1793, at the Jacobins’ meeting, she was heard urging bold measures to combat the Girondin threat represented by General Dumouriez.

No doubt her brunette beauty, attested by all, was no hindrance to her welcome at the political clubs. But she herself addressed political questions as one militant to others. Her public demeanor, reported a contemporary, was imposing, dignified, and majestic. Among the scraps of information that are available about her on the personal side are several testifying to her generosity and warmth of feeling for friends and co-workers, as well as unflagging nobility of heart and courage in the face of often venomous hostility.

In May of 1793 Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon were the leading figures in the founding of the Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires – the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women: called the Femmes Révolutionnaires, the Revolutionary Women.

3. The Revolutionary Women and Feminism

The RW was founded on May 10, 1793. The statement of purpose said it was “to deliberate on the means of foiling the plans of the enemies of the Republic” in “a society which only women could join.”

The modern reader may not immediately appreciate how provocative these terms were. Etta Palm’s women’s club had come forward as a non-political group concerned with special tasks suitable for the Gentler Sex; but the RW bluntly presented itself as a political society concerned with the central issues of the Revolution in the same terms as the Jacobins or Cordeliers. In fact there were only about four societies in Paris which purported to play this role, the other clubs being sectional societies.

The RW was not a sectional club; not a “women’s work” group; not a “mixed club” which tolerated women members. It was the first and only organization that openly proposed to organize women for participation in political life on the same terms as men. The RW was the cutting edge of the women’s movement in the Revolution.

Some feminist historians have failed to understand this because of their limited conception of feminism. They brush the Revolutionary Women aside as irrelevant to the ism because the RW were allegedly concerned not with “women’s issues” but with the central questions of the day. Olympe de Gouges is to be celebrated because she had a pamphlet printed on women’s rights; the first organization of women militants that ever existed is to be ignored because it did not conform to a certain conception of “feminism.” Let us examine the facts.

It is true, as we know, that the RW did not base the programmatic crux of their existence on special women’s questions. They chose to assume their rights, and thereby forced everyone else to react to this assumption. Their stance said to the people: We do not counterpose women’s rights to the central needs of the Revolution; we use women’s rights to achieve the Revolution.

The RW did not stop at advocating women’s rights or demanding rights that did not yet belong to them. They took those rights, rights that women were not supposed to have. In this way they did not present men with the prior necessity of agreeing to or dissenting from the granting of women’s rights to organize and act in politics; they did not ask for prior permission. The men were confronted with a different decision: whether to deal with the fait accompli, whether or not to recognize and deal with the RW as an independent revolutionary society. The RW did not rely on argumentation to give them this right to participate in politics in an equal manner; they demonstrated their right to participate by participating, by working for the Revolution. Men affected to scorn the ability of women to deal with politics clearheadedly. (As if most men did that! – but this is another matter.) Claire Lacombe did not have to argue that women could do this, because she dazzled them by her actual political work in both talk and action.

The result was that the RW could not be, and were not, refuted by argumentation, either. The Robespierrists had to deal with them as with other dangers to their rule. On the one hand, Olympe de Gouges had put the slogan of equal rights on the banner of a reactionary, and she could be cut down without any popular reaction at all. On the other: the RW made women’s rights an instrument of revolution, and in order to bring them down (as we will see) the authorities had to mount their first organized attack on feminism. This would be hard to explain if the impact of the RW was irrelevant to feminism.

What the foregoing discusses is a question of programmatic emphasis: the RW’s way of implementing women’s rights by putting the general needs of the Revolution in first place. But there is also a question of fact. Some feminist histories assume that the Revolutionary Women were not concerned about women’s rights and feminist issues as such. This is not true.

The minutes and papers of the society are not extant. (As has happened to so many other daring dissidents, documentation about them has disappeared or been destroyed, while their victorious enemies feel free to spread uninhibited lies about them; the transmission of this sad state of affairs is called historical research.) We have few details about the day-to-day life of the society. Often the information is fragmentary, and the fragments come from bitterly hostile reports and statements by venomous enemies. But despite these difficulties, we do know that the RW concerned themselves importantly with the question of women’s rights. It could hardly be otherwise.

For example: we learn from Soboul that in some of the section assemblies the more militant women were not content with having their votes accepted de facto but wanted explicit recognition of their right to vote. In September 1793 – at the high point of the RW’s impact – the women of the Droits-de-l’Homme section denounced the prejudice that would make “passive, isolated people” out of half the population, the female half. To make this protest, they went to the Revolutionary Women:

And should women who are endowed with the ability to feel and express their thoughts pronounce their exclusion from public affairs? The Declaration of Rights is common to both sexes.

The same month, a contemporary report by one Latour-Lamontagne noted that “feminine pride” had struck a new chord: the women were being told they should demand the same rights as men. This report may refer to the demonstration at the RW, or indeed at a second demonstration.

It happens that we have only one extensive account of a meeting of the RW. It is as if we are allowed to sample one meeting of the society by chance, one meeting and only one. It happens that this meeting was entirely devoted to the issue of women’s rights at large – precisely the issue which the RW is alleged to have ignored.

This account comes from an acridly hostile source. A certain Proussinalle one day took an English aristocrat slumming; to titillate the visitor’s noble sensibilities, he was taken to see that entertaining curiosity – a club of women who were actually pretending to be a political society. Proussinalle’s account explains that he split his sides laughing at the very idea. But the fact that the narrator was an ass in no way obscures the main point: the meeting thus fortuitously chosen was on the subject the RW are supposed to have spurned.

Claire Lacombe, in the chair, asked reporters on the subject to present their findings. A report was read by “Sister Monic” which astonished even Proussinalle’s bird-brain by its “superb flight” over the facts of women’s history. (He concluded it must have been written by a man; for Monic was only a woman of the people who ran a little mercer’s shop on the Petite-Rue-du-Rempart: how could she know about these things?) Monic argued: we need not bog down in the dust of history; we have seen the valor of women in our own Revolution and before our own eyes. Here she referred among other things to the women’s march on Versailles, and, “despite the modesty of the présidente [Lacombe],” she recalled the latter’s role in the storming of the Tuileries “at the head of a corps of Federals.”

The second part of Monic’s report took up “the aptitude of women in government.” After another historical survey, she ended as follows: “From this it can be concluded that women are worthy of governing – I would almost say, better than men. I ask the Society in its wisdom to consider the place that women should have in a republic, and whether they should be excluded from all posts and administrations.” Vigorous applause. Then other members made proposals for continued consideration, including admission of women into all places in government. (This makes it clear that other meetings on allied subjects were held or scheduled.)

Then, apparently after the end of the members’ discussion period, Proussinalle reported surprisingly that Olympe de Gouges was present and asked for the floor. (This is the only known contact of Olympe with any of the revolutionary clubs.) Proussinalle devoted almost as much space to reproducing Olympe’s talk as he gives to all the rest of the proceedings, although he makes no mention of her pamphlet; for she was Personality.

Olympe set out to add certain “essential proposals” that Monic had left out of her admirable report. Were these omissions perhaps related to a program of women’s rights? Not in the least. Olympe added these “essential” thoughts:

  1. Women are important in inspiring their warrior men.
  2. On a one-to-one basis, women can dominate their lovers; men’s “pride” becomes dominant only in the mass.
  3. Women’s costume is their greatest obstacle.

And a final smashing proposal:

  1. Women should be in charge of – holiday celebrations.

It is painfully clear that Olympe’s head is back in Old France, which she had never left, and that her conception of women’s role was that of the old regime.

For the reason explained, we do not know how often such discussions were held at formal meetings, still less how much discussion took place off the floor. But one thing is certainly clear: the RW was definitely not a “consciousness-raising” klatsch. The Revolution was raising consciousness all about the society. If the RW had been mainly a forum for talk about equal rights, it would have been far more easily tolerated, and Robespierre’s men would not have been moved to suppress it.

4. The First Month of the RW

This point reminds us of an episode which may indeed have contributed to the formation of the RW in the first place. It took place three months before its founding.

A deputation of women from one of the sansculotte sections asked the Jacobins to be allowed to meet in their hall, to fight profiteering and rising prices. (These objectives mean they were sansculotte women of the sort then following Pauline Léon.) When it looked as if the request might be granted, Robespierre intervened to stop it, on the ground that such meetings might cause alarm (that is, trouble for the leaders). The women thereupon denounced the Jacobins for sheltering profiteers in their own ranks. (This is an accusation later raised by the RW.)

One of the Jacobins responded: “If we permit the citoyennes to meet here, thirty thousand women might get together and whip up a Paris movement disastrous for liberty.” (That is, disastrous for the Jacobins.) It is a startlingly frank admission of how much the Jacobins feared the mere fact of sansculotte women organizing – on their left flank.

When, three months later, the RW decided to form their society and meet on the premises of the Jacobin Club, they did not apply for permission; they simply met, and then announced their presence to the men. They later had to move to other quarters at Sainte-Eustache.

The Jacobin leaders were not the only ones alarmed by women’s organization. We saw in Chapter 1 that Etta Palm had gotten some discreet encouragement from the Girondin leader Brissot; but it was another matter with Brissot when it came to the “pushy” women of the people, who attacked propertied gentry. Brissot denounced them as “wild women” – “bacchantes.” Danton joined in heaping execrations on the heads of the militants. Crooks and graft-takers (who were going to be exposed) like Fabre d’Eglantine cursed the “emancipated hussies.” It must be understood that these hussies were not busy advocating emancipation. Much worse: instead of advocating rights, they took them. This is what sent a special thrill of alarm through the body politic.

The RW did not inspire fear by its vast size. It probably had about a hundred members or so on the books; Proussinalle’s account showed about 70 members at the meeting he attended. This was neither extremely large or small. The strength of a society was importantly reckoned in terms of the numbers it could mobilize for an action; in the case of the RW, this was sometimes said to have mounted to thousands of women in particular junctures, but it no doubt varied considerably.

The RW started with pro-Jacobin sympathies, as evidenced by its proposal for affiliation. There is also Lacombe’s statement that at first she and her friends were politically “infatuated” with Robespierre. The club wanted to operate in effect as the women’s section of the Jacobin tendency. It was the Jacobin leadership that withheld its hand because of the potential danger.

For the first months of its existence – say, May to August the RW’s activity was hailed even in Jacobin ranks and in the Convention. The women, for example, participated prominently in the civic celebrations that had become an important part of Paris’s revolutionary life. They were certainly not yet dismissed as “wild women”; this smear spread as they went into opposition to the Revolution’s establishment. Indeed, at one point, in June, they sought to calm excited spirits and restore order as women began reacting tumultuously to the economic squeeze.

Above all, during this period their militancy was directed mainly against the danger which they saw coming from the right wing of the Revolution, the Girondins, whose fall came on June 2. During this phase, the Revolutionary Women took the Jacobins’ enemies to be their own; still they differentiated themselves from the Jacobins in practice by the greater aggressiveness and boldness of their proposals. The men of the Jacobin tendency were more cautious (the pejorative synonym is pussyfooting) and provided a more shilly-shallying sort of leadership, they felt.

Two days after the founding of the RW, their delegation at the Jacobin Club made proposals for tougher action against the Right, as well as for heavier taxes on the rich; they asked for the formation of women’s battalions, as had other women before them. A few days later, they made common cause with the Cordeliers on similar proposals, combining demands for stepped-up action against the Girondins with plans for crushing profiteers and for mass arming of the people. On May 27 an RW delegation at the Jacobins promoted the women’s program; the spokesman told the men that her comrades “were not domestic animals” and were ready for action against the enemies of the Revolution.

Already in this first month of existence the Revolutionary Women organized women’s demonstrations – the first overtly organized mass actions by women – directed against the Girondins’ attacks on the sansculotte left. They raised a row about being admitted to the Convention sessions on the same terms as men. One day an RW group created a disturbance after being barred; one of them was arrested; a crowd of women tried unsuccessfully to snatch her from the gendarmes, and then packed the courtroom as she was arraigned. In one melée around the Convention doors, a guard asked the women who had given them permission to gather there. A woman snapped back: “L’egalité! Equality did! Aren’t we all equal?”

Politicians and papers began to comment with increasing frequency that assemblages (“mobs”) of women were exercising pressure by their presence on the Assembly and on the Jacobin Club. The erroneous belief was expressed that they were being egged on by Robespierre and his friends; for men had to be behind this new development – women could not organize women, could they? By the end of May, only three weeks after the founding of the RW, the Girondins were indignantly calling on the Paris authorities to repress “the women who call themselves revolutionaries” and who were “running around the streets yelling like mad,” “steel in one hand and the banner of revolt in the other,” and so on.

The Girondin Buzot even stated, in his memoir of the time, that Lacombe as the head of the RW had become so important that her support could swing the balance in the conflict between Robespierre and Danton. Perhaps this was an exaggeration, but it at least reflects the extent to which the RW quickly became bogeys to their enemies. Certainly, in the course of the campaign that led to the elimination of the Girondins from the Convention, the RW were so much in the forefront, so much in the public eye, that Buzot’s memoir wonders whether the Girondins should not have saved themselves by seizing those two foci of subversion, “the Jacobins and the women’s club.”

It was in the course of this period that the Girondins, facing defeat, sought to use the last shreds of their power to strike at the left wing of the Jacobin tendency, around Hebert. On May 26 the RW under Lacombe’s leadership organized a street demonstration in support of Hébert; sixteen sections also backed him. The hesitating Robespierre (Mathiez tells us) now swung over to take the lead against the Girondins. The Girondins were finished when a sansculotte-organized insurrection temporarily took over Paris.

The Revolutionary Women were totally involved in this movement, along with other left forces. On May 27 one of the Revolutionary Women, speaking before the Jacobin Club, told them that the women’s society was gearing to join in the imminent insurrection: “We have sounded the tocsin of liberty in all hearts. We want to back up your zeal and share your perils. Tell us where our presence is needed.” The Jacobin chairman congratulated the speaker and applauded the women’s zeal.

Once the Girondins had been eliminated and the Jacobins ensconced in power on a national scale, it was inevitable that the Robespierre leadership should look on the RW with a wary eye. It resisted the pull to the left. No matter how the RW regarded themselves, Robespierre understood that they were a potential threat on his left.

The threat from the left became real in conjunction with the worsening of the economic situation of the mass of people during 1793.

5. Choosing up Sides

During 1792 and 1793, soaring prices of staple goods made hunger a reality for the Paris poor. Scarcities, real or induced, added to the economic nightmare of the mass of people. Profiteering in the crude sense was only one part of the economic picture, but it was rife – in the circles of the new bourgeoisie; in the ranks of the little shopkeepers; and also in the ranks of the leading political parties, Jacobins included, as subsequent trials proved.

The term profiteering was not yet in use, but it best suggests what the people saw as the enemy. In the contemporaneous language, the devils were the “speculators” and commodity cornerers and hoarders who were blamed for hoisting prices. The main drive behind the movement of discontent was simple want and privation, the spur of starvation. This was also one important reason why the issue pushed the sansculotte women of Paris to the fore.

This is not the place to discuss whether the programmatic demands then raised by the left were economically and socially sophisticated enough to be effective. It should not be surprising to find that all sides were unenlightened and naive about such matters. But that is not how the real issues were posed before the people.

To the women of the people who saw their children going hungry, political lines resolved into social essentials. The basic divide was between two kinds of actors in this social drama: on the one hand, those who wanted to help the poor sansculottes, and on the other, those who wanted to sacrifice them to what they called the “higher interests” of the Revolution. In social reality, sacrificing the interests of the mass of people meant sacrificing them to the interests of some other social stratum. In terms of the ongoing social struggle, one either helped the poor to smash the profiteers, or else one sheltered the profiteers (naturally, in the interests of the Revolution) and helped to smash the movement of discontent.

Actually, there was a third approach, or rather a two-and-a-half approach, as always: there were those whose hearts bled for the poor people as profusely as was practical, but who, when push came to shove, dragged their feet and pulled their punch at every point, because they could not resolve to break with the responsible authorities, whom they accepted as incarnations of the Revolution.

The main dichotomy stated above described the antagonism between the Revolutionary establishment behind Robespierre and the sansculotte left – the latter being represented in unorganized fashion by the leftists who have been given the pejorative tag of Enrages. The Jacobin leadership, no more than the Girondin leadership before them, could not cross the magic line constituted by the interests of property. Robespierre was impelled along this course not by sympathy with profiteering, which of course he execrated, but by the social realities: the class forces on which the Revolution balanced, and which set its limits. [1]

To be sure, it is strenuously argued – by historians like Mathiez and Soboul, for example – that the Revolution had no “realistic” alternative to the Robespierrist course; that the mass of people had to be condemned to hunger and exploitation, in the “higher interest” of the Revolution; and presumably that the Enragés had to be framed up and assassinated ... For present purposes I merely want to point out that it has always been hard to convince the victims that this course is reasonable and moral. For the participants actually involved on the social scene, the real question before each one is not “Whose victory is inevitable?” (whatever that means), but rather: “Which side are you on?” Historians who cannot distinguish between these two questions may sometimes deserve our sympathy but never our respect.

Therefore we wish not to examine rationales but to exhibit the nature of the social struggle that was powered by the victims’ resentment. In this framework, the two-and-a-half approach (in later political jargon sometimes called “left centrism”) was represented by the faction of left Jacobins around Hébert, Chaumette and the leaders of the Commune (that is, the city government as distinct from the national). This was the vacillating center, capable of sincerely making ferocious noises against the profiteers and convulsively making efforts to do something about it, until they were swung back to the safer ruts of political “realism” by the equally sincere desire not to break the “unity of the Revolution,” i.e., not to break the ties binding them to the establishment.

Such sociopolitical antagonisms cannot easily be blurred over as long as the people are in motion below, spurred by privation. The journée of February 25 witnessed a riotous pillaging of food stores and other shops. There is no evidence that Roux, unlike Marat, egged on such mob actions. What Roux and the sansculotte militants agitated for was government action to enforce price ceilings on staples (the “Maximum”), fixed price schedules, stern enforcement at the source by store visitations, jail for offending profiteers, and similar measures to keep down the cost of living. What they got, even as discontent increased, was half-hearted “Maximum” laws that were not enforced. Thus sides were chosen up for the struggle.

It is not true that the approach of the left – of the Enrages or the RW – was narrowly “economic” in some simplistic sense. The issue constantly tended to spill over into a more general one. This general issue was the social extension of the Revolution: the extension of its social benefits downwards, down through the lower strata of society. We are now touching on (but of course cannot deal with) the embryonic beginnings of modern socialism; specifically with the precursors of the Babouvist movement of 1796, which was the first form in which an organized socialist movement appeared. The echoes of this social issue can be heard not only from the Enragés and the RW but even at times from the Commune centrists of the Hébertist faction.

The Commune naturally became the transmission belt between the economic pressures below it and the National Convention leadership. On April 18 an address by the Commune to the Convention sought to draw the latter’s attention to the food question:

The people ... are asking you for bread ... It is a question of the poverty-stricken class for whom legislators have done no thing ... Let no one raise objections about the right of property. The right of property cannot be the right to starve fellow citizens. The fruits of the earth, like the air, belong to all men.

In June, Roux and his friends presented an economic program to the Convention. They said: Your new constitution does not proscribe the profiteers; you have not done all you have to do. “Watch out: how long will you suffer the rich to suck the blood of the poor?”

For raising these accusatory questions they were angrily expelled, and the Jacobins set in motion the drive to crush their accusers instead of crushing the profiteers. But it was only because of this pressure from the lowest strata of the hurting people that the Maximum was voted at all – in May, then extended in September. The fine words were not enforced; let them eat words! Getting the Maximum onto the books only shifted the focus of the social struggle to the question of enforcement. In October, the Commune’s Chaumette even went so far as to propose nationalization of enterprises; this was his irritated reaction to the difficulties of controlling the profiteering enterprisers.

In his history of the Revolution, the early state-socialist Louis Blanc, who was of course hostile to the Enragé left, pointed to the Maximum issue as a measure that “implied a vast social revolution.” If we highlight the word ‘imply,’ this was also the implication of Roux’s June address, which has become known as the Manifesto of the Enragés. It presented a program for shifting the center of gravity of the Revolution toward the interests of the poor sansculottes and away from the interests of the men of property.

The Enragés (as has been often pointed out) were not socialists – if by socialism one means the presentation of a definite plank for the introduction of a new social order based on the abolition of the capitalist system. This is not to be found in the Manifesto of the Enragés or other writings of the left. But the criterion itself represents a misunderstanding of how the history of socialism really developed. What the Enragés – and the Revolutionary Women too – proposed was more fundamental than a proposal about social orders: carrying on the class struggle for the interests of the mass of people regardless of the interests of property and the ruling classes. The sansculotte demands could not be carried out within the framework of the new or old propertied classes; they therefore bore within themselves the “vast social revolution” that Blanc recognized. This is why the Enragés were the heralds of modern socialism.

Struggle for the sansculotterie regardless ... This is the socio-economic issue that united the individuals who have been given the Enragé tag (Jacques Roux, Leclerc and Varlet in particular) and that united them politically with the Revolutionary Women. In this way the RW, who had started by wanting to be the women’s section of the Jacobins, became in fact something like the women’s section of the unorganized Enragé tendency – in fact, the only organization of the revolutionary left in Paris.

The Robespierre establishment had to remove this pressure from its left flank. It had two weapons to use against the Enragés: (1) slander, especially the charge that these leftists were really agents of the counter-revolution – a system of big lies later plagiarized by the Stalin regime for its Moscow Trials; and (2) the political argument resting on an appeal to the “unity of all revolutionary forces,” meaning that the poor had the duty to starve quietly without making trouble for the leaders. (The “unity” appeal was the prime method used by the Stalinist forces in the Spanish Civil War to crush their left opponents within the anti-Franco front.) While wielding these lethal weapons, sharper than the guillotine, the Jacobins did what they could to pretend that they were acceding to the leftist demands, such as the Maximum laws.

Jacques Roux was arrested on August 22, temporarily released on the 27th, arrested again on September 5, and this time sent to the Sainte-Pélagie prison. He remained in prison until he committed suicide in protest, January 12, 1794. From September on, successively, the Jacobin power struck at Leclerc, Claire Lacombe, and Varlet, until all were eliminated. When the Jacobins thus destroyed the pressure on their left flank, the Thermidoreans were enabled to strike from the right, without effective resistance.

6. The Fight for the Sansculotterie

Since there was no organized force behind Jacques Roux, the Jacobins felt confident enough to strike at him by arbitrary arrest, relying on the two weapons described. In the case of the Revolutionary Women, two frame-up attempts were necessary in the ensuing two months before the Jacobins could properly utilize a split in the ranks of the sansculotterie. This pattern requires some preliminary explanations.

After the fall of the Girondins, and as the cries of the needy became louder, the activity of the RW concentrated increasingly on economic issues, as described above. But it must be understood that they had paid attention to economic issues from the beginning of the RW’s existence. We have already mentioned some incidental examples. The historian Cerati says that a number of the Revolutionary Women were recruited to the club from the women’s demonstrations and food riots of February.

On May 19, accompanied by a Cordeliers deputation, Claire Lacombe had lectured the Jacobins in these terms: “Legislators, strike at the speculators, those who corner the market on products, and the egoist-tradesmen. There is a terrible plot that is starving the people by pushing provisions to enormous prices ... Our hearts are torn by the sight of the people’s poverty. Our aim is to save Man ...”

In July, besides the Maximum the RW were demanding relief measures for the poor such as the organization of public aid to the indigent. By this time, if not before, it was Claire Lacombe who was recognized as the outstanding leader and speaker of the RW; throughout, Pauline Léon stood at her side.

At the beginning of August, their main ally Leclerc, in his paper L’Ami du Peuple, published a ringing tribute to the revolutionary work of the RW. He hailed the women as virtually the main driving force of revolutionary courage and energy: “You have merited the priority” in sounding the tocsin of liberty. By the same token, as the RW’s left-opposition role became increasingly clear, Claire Lacombe’s eloquent speeches for aid to the poor were being received with increasingly hostile faces – at the Convention, for example. RW delegations were turned away unheard, to keep these trouble-making women silent.

At the end of August, Lacombe presented an important petition to the Assembly which summarized the common programmatic ground of the revolutionary left. Leclerc devoted a whole issue of his paper to this demarche by the women. Through September, also, in spite of the harassment to be described, the RW continued to present concrete, practical programs of measures to be taken in the interests of the people.

If this has to be emphasized, it is because the “wild women” slander still obscures the fact that there was not a single political club of the Revolution which acted more responsibly as serious revolutionists than did the Revolutionary Women. It was because they were too serious as revolutionists that they had to be cut down.

The job was done through the agency of the very profiteering elements who were the targets of the RW’s campaign. Involved here were two species of profiteers – big and little – corresponding to the two coming assaults on the RW.

The big ones were the relatively large manufacturing and trading enterprisers, processors, and merchants, whether supplying the government (wartime needs being swollen) or selling to small shopkeepers and enterprisers. The new slogans about Freedom meant, to them, freedom to trade as they pleased, without the restraints that the royal power had formerly imposed to impede business. One can be very sure that they were sincerely opposed to royal oppression; the Revolution had indeed brought them la Liberté to follow profit-making norms without inhibition. By September 1792 popular pressure had forced some regulatory action by the government, but the Girondin leader and economist Roland had taken the first opportunity to abrogate these measures.

If Roland supported the new men of property by conviction, Jacobin leaders could be found who were both persuadable and corruptible. We will be concerned with three in particular who took leading and initiatory roles in the drive to destroy the RW: Francois Chabot, Claude Basire, and Francois Desfieux. The first two were exposed as crooks before the year was up, and they were executed for enriching themselves in corrupt money deals. Corruption is one of the main forms in which money exercises political power.

Before going to the guillotine Chabot wrote in a memoir: “Around the middle of September, I was denounced by Hébert, by the Revolutionary Women, and by Dufourny.” Of these it was the RW who were most vulnerable. If these leading Jacobin profiteers were anxious to take the lead against the women and to fabricate the case against them, the main body of the Robespierrists (who were not simple crooks) could then join in the hue and cry in order to eliminate the women as a political danger.

The small fry were small shopkeepers and such, like the marketstall women. The latter were commonly called poissardes, “fishwives.” The Jacobins utilized a classic split in class interest within the vague social stratum called the sansculotterie, that socially heterogeneous aggregation of “little people.”

The poissardes, to be sure, were by no means the main villains in the profiteering pattern; they themselves were squeezed from above as they squeezed an extra sou or two out of their poor customers. But they were the most visible, the most accessible to defence measures by the increasingly desperate people; hence the harassment from mob action like the June food riots, which the RW had sought to restrain. Many of the proposals for price control had the well-known defect of involving control only at the outlet level; the big operators were less vulnerable to simple means of regulation. The poissardes, even though they may have pushed their little exactions as boldly as anyone else, were themselves victims of this situation.

Thus an antagonism was created between different parts of the sansculotte population. The wage-workers, not yet numerous, were in an especially disadvantageous position. There was a Maximum on wages too, and, as always, this Maximum needed no special government action to enforce it; it was enforced by employers, who were only too glad to hold wages down even as they evaded enforcement of the Maximum on their own prices. In private businesses, wage-workers in demand might possibly insist on and get more than the Maximum, while the authorities turned a blind eye; but in the factories supplying war goods, under government control, the condition of the workers was less favorable. Soboul writes:

The government, paying suppliers at the rates fixed under the maximum, imposed a fixed wage schedule on the workers, under penalty of favoring inflation. Using the traditional methods of the Old Regime, which the Constituent Assembly had confirmed by the Le Chapelier law – prohibition of strikes and prohibition of workers’ organizations – the Committees could silence the workers’ demands. Thus the general system of fixed prices accentuated the differentiation in the people’s condition; it tended at the same time to divide the sansculotterie and set them up, for various reasons, against the revolutionary government which the sansculotterie itself had brought to power.

The wage-workers, says Soboul, were the principal component in the demonstrations of September 4. But it was the master artisans, shopkeepers, market sellers, etc., whether or not they were also small employers of labor, who could and did exercise the decisive pressure on the authorities. The national authorities (dominated by the Jacobins) and the city authorities (the Commune, dominated by left-Jacobin types like Chaumette) were torn between the necessity for rhetorical radicalism and the practical necessity of appeasing the shopkeepers and stall keepers.

To the women of the poor, the most visible price-hikers were the poissardes. To the poissardes, the most visible enemy (of their ability to charge as much as they could) was the Revolutionary Women. These women, wearing the tricolor cockade which was flaunted by militant patriots, carried on their agitation against profiteering right in the marketplace, denouncing the catastrophic rise in the cost of living and also the government authorities who failed to stop this rise effectively.

On their side, the RW, like Jacques Roux and Leclerc, turned more than ever to appealing to the revolutionary democracy of the masses against the hardening bureaucracy of the Jacobin committees. The very democratic constitution of 1793 had been put on paper by the Jacobins and then put on ice; it had never been put into effect. One of the basic demands of the Enragés was that this constitution be instituted immediately, not in the dim future. This step would give the people down below a greater leverage over the government authorities who did not respond to their needs now.

Leclerc demanded in his paper: “The Constitution, the whole Constitution, nothing but the Constitution.” He wrote: “People, do you expect that the revolutionary shakeup in which you put your hope of salvation will come from the constituted authorities? No, they are only the passive organs of the law; they can only preach its execution.” The people can expect help only from a “spontaneous movement” to achieve that revolutionary shakeup. In this way he was, in effect, appealing for mass intervention from below to put the Revolution on a new track.

The Enragés and the Revolutionary Women were one on the concrete proposal of what should be done immediately: Institute the democratic constitution now. It was not a demand for abstract democracy; it was a way of implementing the struggle for the people’s interests. In this framework of ideas, they also denounced the Jacobin system of terror, which (they saw) was the instrument of a bureaucratic apparatus far removed from the people. The Enragés had been, and still were, in favor of stern repression of the pro-aristocratic and counter-revolutionary forces; but they wanted this basic function of the revolutionary state performed under the open control of the people – as provided in the democratic constitution.

The answer of the Jacobin authorities was to denounce Roux and Leclerc as “anarchists,” “disorganizers,” etc., thereby providing us with an early collection of such anti-leftist cusswords. [2] Roux’s incarceration was approved not only by the Robespierrists but also by the Hébertists and Commune shilly-shalliers. Still, Leclerc’s paper was making its way. One hostile report of the time said: “his subscribers increase daily and his journal is grabbed with an avidity which proves only too well the principles of disorganization it advocates.” (That is: the more the paper appealed to the democratic masses the more “disorganizing” its impact.)

The Revolutionary Women, under Lacombe’s leadership, proposed measures along the same lines as Leclerc. On August 26 the RW’s petition demanded the application of the constitutional laws. “Organize the government in accordance with the Constitution,” it said, “and then we’ll believe that ambition does not reign in your Committees.” In this way they connected the fight for the Constitution with the fight against bureaucratic careerism and corruption.” What do you suppose the crooks Chabot and Basire really thought of the “disorganizers” who wanted immediate application of the democratic constitution?

In short, the RW sought a renewal of the Revolution on a new track, one that recognized the overriding social interests of the poor through a political shakeup: “organization of the executive power [constitutionally], destitution of the nobles of all functions, purge of the administrations, creation of extraordinary tribunals.” (Soboul’s summary.) The Revolutionary Women turned against the worshipful cult-of-the-individual that had formed around the person of Robespierre; in fact Lacombe was going to be accused of actually referring to that idol as “Monsieur Robespierre.” The RW denounced the “dangers of idolatry”:

Some of our public men are like petty tyrants; they would like to be flattered ... Since the Revolution there have been seven or eight main idols all of whom betrayed the interests of the people who burned incense to them.

By September the popular movement against profiteering was at its height, and the authorities were between a rock and a hard place. The Jacobins had to free themselves from this bind by striking either right or left. Of course they responded by smashing the popular movement on the left.

With Jacques Roux already in jail, the assault proceeded against the Revolutionary Women and Leclerc, with the crooks Chabot and Basire acting as impresarios. Next came the entire women’s movement; then the whole structure of the popular section societies, in which the people were organized independently of the state apparatus. And so on down the line. We know the rest.

7. The September Assault: At the Jacobins

The first general attack on the Revolutionary Women was made in the middle of September 1793. Like the October frame-up described in the next section, the triggering incident may have been some spontaneous happening, with the authorities jumping in to take advantage of a situation handed to them, or which they may have been waiting for. The celerity and dispatch with which the apparatus acted makes this the less likely possibility. The probability is that the scenario was arranged from the start.

We need only consider how it began. At a meeting of the RW society, a woman named Gobin made a speech with a slanderous attack on Leclerc. That is, the target she chose for mud-throwing was the man who was the society’s main ally and co-fighter! It was a most peculiar choice of place and target, for a simple woman of the people ... unless we assume that what happened was what she intended to precipitate. Viewed as a provocation, it was an infallible move, for it could not be ignored. Claire Lacombe called on the speaker to present proofs of her allegations, or suffer the usual penalty of exclusion. Instead of presenting any evidence, even alleged evidence, the woman Gobin instantly went to the Jacobins to lodge a complaint against the RW.

Not to the Commune authorities; she went to the Jacobins, the political enemy, who were getting ready to smash the left. The RW instantly understood what this meant; as Lacombe said sarcastically at the time: “To prove she isn’t a slanderer, she denounces us to the Society of Jacobins!”

At the Jacobins, on September 16, one of the leaders was all ready with a response to the Gobin complaint. It was Chabot, the crook under fire. He immediately announced that he would unmask the intrigues of the “alleged revolutionaries” of the RW, and, on the spot, related a fiction linking Lacombe with royalists, as well as with a remark disrespectful of Robespierre.

Who followed Chabot? It was his fellow grafter Basire, who took the line that the leadership of the RW was bad and had to be purged, though the society itself was “pure.” That is, the RW would be cured by being beheaded.

Other Jacobin notables proceeded to insert their daggers, on general political grounds. (There was little pretence that the performance had much to do with the Gobin complaint.) It was charged that the RW were on the side of “Leclerc, Jacques Roux’s friend.” This at least was true, for the purposes of a political lynching. An accusation was raised against Lacombe: she was charged with wanting to have a delegation check the prisons for unmotivated arrests, to prevent injustices: this, mind you, was an accusation. Taschereau complained that “Citoyenne Lacombe pushes her way into everything.” Another Jacobin stalwart cried: “The woman who is being denounced to you is very dangerous because she is very eloquent; she talks well at first, and then attacks the constituted authorities ... She fires with red cannonballs ... against both the Jacobins and the Convention.” By this time no one was pretending that the anti-RW pogrom was due to the Gobin provocation.

Claire Lacombe was present. Firm and courageous as always, she asked for the floor to reply. The response was a lynch-mob tactic that had already been used effectively against Jacques Roux at the Cordeliers. The tumult and commotion that broke out from the assembled Jacobin bravos was so strong that the chairman threatened to suspend; Jacobin onlookers shouted the dirtiest insults they could think of, including “Down with the new Corday!” (Charlotte Corday was the pro-Girondin woman who had assassinated Marat.)

Some of the more valiant Jacobins left their seats to threaten Claire Lacombe personally. She faced them down firmly and boldly: “The first one of you who dares advance – I’m going to teach you what a free woman can do.” A voice cried out that she went about armed (this being one of the standard myths), and the heroes of the Jacobin Club contented themselves with making sure that she was not allowed to speak.

Lacombe was duly arrested; her lodgings were searched for incriminating papers and belongings at least suitable for a frame-up; but nothing was found except correspondence “breathing the purest patriotism” (according to the report rendered). She was freed during the night. Whatever Chabot and Basire had sought to accomplish, the Jacobin leadership was ready at this point only for an attempt to scare her out of the way. They had reason to fear that more drastic steps might evoke a mass protest from the women. But the scare tactic did not work – quite the contrary; and so preparations had to be made for a more ambitious frame-up.

The Jacobin efforts did achieve one positive result: Leclerc’s journal went under, from the day of the aforementioned Jacobin meeting. Soboul, though a Robespierrist historian himself, says with justice: “with him [Leclerc], the advanced sansculottes lost their most combative spokesman, the government Committees lost their most dangerous adversary.” Jacques Roux, in jail, learned of the attack on the RW and wrote indignantly that “now that the Society of Revolutionary Women who rendered so many services to liberty has been denounced in the Jacobin Club,” it was clear that the scoundrels who were supposed to have been suppressed with the Girondins had revived from the ashes.

The hypocrites – they used men like Leclerc, Varlet, Jacques Roux ... They used the Revolutionary Women, like Lacombe, Colombe, Champion, Ardoin, and so many other republican women in order to break the tyrant’s scepter, after which they aspired to overthrow the Statesmen [Girondin] faction, who exercised the despotism they thirsted for ... Today they trample underfoot the instruments of revolution.

The Revolutionary Women redoubled their activity. On September 20 they asked the Cordeliers for affiliation; but the Hébertists, dominant in that club, had no stomach for an alliance with the revolutionary opposition against the Jacobins. The next day, an RW delegation came before one of the sansculotte sections with an explanation of their overall economic and political program. The delegation also denounced the plans being laid for the arrest of the RW, thus linking their self-defence with (in Soboul’s words) “a veritable program of public safety bringing together the main demands of the sansculottes.” The defence campaign was programmatically based. In contrast, they could read in a Jacobin organ the announcement, gleeful but premature, that Claire Lacombe had been put in jail, along with the usual spate of Jacobin slanders of an odorous personal nature.

On September 30, Lacombe headed an RW delegation to the general council of the Commune, presenting a program to enforce the Maximum through domiciliary visits among the tradesmen, who were generally suspected of keeping the prices of staples high by an artificial scarcity. The Council actually decided to present the RW petition to the Convention as its own. The pressure from below was mounting.

That same day, at the Convention, the Jacobin crook Chabot sought to launch another pogrom against the Revolutionary Women. His speech tried to smear the RW with charges of Girondin and aristocratic connections, with “sowing division,” and so on. (Today this may strike us as old and tired chicanery, like the above-mentioned Moscow Trials’ effort to make Trotsky an agent of Hitler’s; but it was then still original.) The attempt did not succeed on that day; the Jacobin leaders were not yet ready to move. On October 5, an RW delegation to the Convention protested against the free-handed spewing of slanders by the Jacobin paladins, and challenged them to produce evidence for anything. No evidence was ever adduced; the campaign to discredit the RW was fueled purely by mudslinging.

As Guerin puts it, the drive against the RW had to be orchestrated, that is, organized with some semblance of verisimilitude. An important step was taken on October 6, when one of the fraternal societies, the “Men of August 10,” was gotten to come out with a public demand for the dissolution of the RW. The next day Claire Lacombe came with a women’s delegation, and was allowed to speak. She took the opportunity to flay the “Corday” slander, and took the offensive by explaining the RW political program. She asserted their aims: “Our rights are the people’s rights, and if we are oppressed we will know how to meet oppression with resistance.”

The day after this, October 8, Lacombe went to the heart of the cabal by appearing before the Jacobin Club itself, again accompanied by a delegation. This time she got the floor; and after delivering a refutation of the charges, she was received by the audience with applause. What accounted for this sea-change between the Jacobin lynch mob of September 16 and the applauding hearers of October 8? In the first place, the fact that Lacombe got an opportunity to present her RW ideas, and that she could not be booed into silence. We can conjecture that the Jacobin crooks felt good reason to fear that maybe Lacombe and the RW were turning the tide of opinion in their own favor, by the power of their argumentation and the appeal of their activity. To the Jacobin leadership, this meant that the RW was even more of a threat than before! (If we reject all conjecture, this is still the basic conclusion; and so it is not conjecture that is our main guide.)

Besides, there was another threat intensifying, with the same RW in the center of the threatening picture.

It looked as follows. On October 9, the day after the RW success at the Jacobin Club, an RW delegation appeared at the Commune’s General Council to protest the failure to execute and enforce the Maximum laws. “Trouble” started among the sansculotte women. On the 12th, a gathering at one grocer’s door demanded that he sell sugar at the price set, though the price schedule had not yet been published. Alerted immediately, and hoping to defuse the situation, the General Council decreed that the Maximum schedules be published the next day. The shopkeepers reacted with hostility; on October 14 the Council was told that some shops had closed up and others claimed to have no supplies. On the 17th the Council went so far, under pressure of the sansculotte women, as to accept the measure that the RW had been demanding to deal with this problem: domiciliary visits. This remained on paper, for the Council was in fact unwilling to crack down on the commercial elements. On October 25 the RW again came before the Council with an exposure of the situation confronting the poor. Critical voices were likewise raised in the national government: on October 26 the commissioners who were supposed to be fighting profiteering complained they had not been paid for three months, and publicly called on the Convention to apply the new laws. The pressure was getting heavier and heavier.

When some of the local section committees decided to proceed with domiciliary visits – i.e., real steps toward enforcement, favored even by the local Jacobins – the central administration stepped in to stop them from doing so. When the sections proposed to name two commissioners simply to look into ways and means of providing subsistence goods for the people, the government’s reaction was prompt: it quashed the plan. It made this decision on October 30, and in the next section we will see that on that same day the Convention was going to order the RW dissolved. During the two-three days before that day, something had finally been done to get rid of the troublemakers ... Let us see what it was.

8. The October Frame-Up – And The End

On October 28, some poissardes in the market section picked a brawl with a member or members of the Revolutionary Women, or with persons purporting to be RW members. (Since the engineers of the frame-up never bothered to identify these women, there is no way of knowing.) According to people who were going to immediately demand that the RW be suppressed for this misconduct, these alleged Revolutionary Women insisted on the poissardes’ wearing not only the tricolor cockade (which was required by the Convention) but also the red cap of liberty, the Phrygian bonnet rouge. The charges were also going to allege that these odd RW members even insisted that the poissardes had to wear pants – pants! – and, in one version, that they had to wear pistols!

In short order, an army of nearly 6,000 poissardes descended on the nearby RW hall at Sainte-Eustache, intent on breaking up the women’s meeting in the name of the sacred “freedom of costume” issue which had just been discovered to be one of the inalienable rights of humanity. The breakup of the RW was accomplished “legally” when a government official, who came along ostensibly to restore order, proclaim ed that the RW meeting was at an end and that entrance to the hall was now open to everyone – that is, to the waiting lynch-mob of vandals. The poissardes took over the hall and did their job of wrecking it. During the melée itself, one of the RW members (it was reported) cried out to her comrades that this was a put-up trick to bring about the dissolution of the society.

Since nothing is known about the initiation of the brawl, it can be conceded, as one possibility among many others, that it may have started with some careless statement by an over-enthusiastic RW member, trivial in itself. Such speculation is virtually meaningless, since vituperative arguments were standard stuff in the market area and elsewhere. No one, in particular none of the authorities that hastened to suppress the RW in double-quick time, ever bothered to point to any known (or unknown) RW member as having precipitated the affair. All that the officials had was a claim by poissardes, long enemies of the RW, that some unknown, unnamed, alleged RW member or members had made patently ridiculous demands on them about dress – demands that had never been heard from the RW before or after.

It was not just of matter of the RW’s repudiating these absurd demands as soon as they were alleged. The story about the start of the brawl was obviously a clumsy invention – as far as the bonnet rouge tale was concerned. Here’s why.

To the Revolutionary patriots, the red cap was not the symbol of patriotic citizenship (this was the tricolor cockade); the red cap was the symbol of revolutionary honor, reserved for those who deserved such honor. The Revolutionary Women themselves did not regularly wear the red cap, let alone insist that it be worn by the most anti-revolutionary women in the neighborhood. Even at formal RW meetings, it was the présidente and the secretaries in charge who wore the red cap, in accordance with RW statutes; it was not prescribed for ordinary members, nor worn by them – even at meetings, let alone on the street. According to Proussinalle’s account of an RW meeting, some of the members present wore the red cap.

So much for its use by RW members. But the ridiculous accusation had to do with insistence that others had to wear it. Yet the preceding year a proposal to make the wearing of the red cap compulsory for all Jacobins had been quashed by Robespierre. A month after this, the Commune’s General Council made it compulsory for the red cap to be worn by Council members. In general, the patriotic attitude was that the red cap was to be used as a symbol or badge of office, duty, and ceremony.

It is therefore difficult to believe that even an unusually stupid RW member could get the idea that poissardes had to wear the red cap; the market women would more likely be seen to be tainting it. When to this improbability one adds the charges about insistence on wearing pants or pistols, one has left the area even of fantasy. Something else is involved here. This part of the fable reflects the time-honored sexist conviction that any female so unwomanly as to want to act like a man in political life must surely aspire to other coveted masculine attributes. The attribution of this view to the people who suppressed the RW is not conjectural; it can be read in the Assembly speeches made by these same men as they justified their suppression of the women’s movement in general (as we will see below).

If any altercation of any kind had taken place in the market area, the subject of angry words would have most likely been the wearing not of the red cap but of the tricolor cockade. But the RW could not have been suppressed on this charge, for the simple reason that the wearing of the tricolor cockade had been legally prescribed not by the RW but by the Commune and the National Convention. And this patriotic requirement had been supported by elements as far right as (for example) Mme. Keralio, let alone the Jacobin Club. On September 13 the Commune had decreed that cockadeless women would not be admitted into certain public places; and in truth this decision had already touched off street brawls. On September 20, in the very district now involved (according to a police report), angry poissardes had “whipped some patriotic women of the Sainte-Eustache market” because of this decree.

(There is no record that the RW was involved in this or similar events.) These current happenings might well have suggested elements of the frame-up; for a frame-up could count on this sort of thing taking place with little or no extra provocation; for the poissardes’ anger against cockade wearers was the symbol of their anger against the militants who were pushing for price controls.

But as the destruction of the RW was carried out in the next few days, the absurd “freedom of costume” scenario was seriously acted out. The Convention solemnly adopted a decree to ensure said “freedom” – even as it simultaneously destroyed women’s freedom to organize.

From the undocumented brawl in the market area between unknown women on an unlikely subject, events moved speedily (as we have seen) to the sacking of the RW meeting hall with the blessings of the authorities. How speedily? The same day, the Jacobin-run committee of the section reported the event to the Commune and immediately proposed that the RW should be prevented indefinitely from meeting again. It was a fast deduction from facts never brought out! The next day it was the attackers, not the victims, who came before the Convention with their declamations about “freedom” – i.e., “freedom of costume.” Already one of the petitioners demanded “the abolition of all the women’s societies in the form of clubs ...” What was the connection between the sin of demanding the wearing of the red cap and the right of women’s societies to exist at all? No word on this was added; what followed, rather, was this telltale observation: “because it was a woman who had brought about France’s misfortune.” From wearing red caps to Charlotte Corday, all in one leap! This reflected the mind of the Jacobin men at work; this leap had already been observed in the lynch mob at the Jacobin Club; and this mind was already quite unconcerned with the pretences about “freedom of costume.”

On this day, the dissolution of the women’s societies was supported by a speech by the Dantonist grafter who was shortly to go down in a money scandal: Fabre d’Eglantine. He was as qualified an expert on the RW as Chabot and Basire had been. “I have particularly observed,” he said, “that these societies are not at all made up of mothers, daughters, sisters concerned with their brothers and sisters of lesser years, but of adventuress types, female knights-errant, emancipated hussies, female dragons [grenadiers femelles].” The Assembly asked the Committee of Public Safety to bring in a report, after it had made France safe for “freedom of costume.”

The next day the National Convention decided on dissolution of women’s societies. This was October 30 – two days, no more, after the frame-up about “freedom of costume” had been acted out by the poissardes. What blinding speed! It is hardly necessary to know anything more than this to see through the poissarde comedy.

The dissolution was decreed on the basis of a report by J.P. Andre Amar for the Committee of Public Safety. Amar did his best to puff up the issue of “freedom of costume” with some rhetoric. But the enormous leap from defending “freedom of costume” to wiping out women’s organizations was too awkward. Amar had to drag in other considerations, particularly old slanders about sinister connections between the RW and counter-revolutionists. Let no one think that Amar, or any other speaker, bothered to adduce the slightest smidgen of evidence for the smear. There was no time to concoct any evidence, and anyway the Jacobins did not usually operate that way; slander was enough.

But even this was not enough: the slanders might justify suppression of the RW, but why suppress all women’s organizations? Amar had to broaden the basis for the decree by going to the fundamental issues of women’s rights. He gave a violent tirade against feminism in general and women’s right to participate in political life.

Should women take part in governmental affairs? No, answered Amar; they were not capable of showing the “extended knowledge, strict impartiality, and self-denial” necessary to govern wisely; the natural weakness and gentleness of women suit them only for the family role; “each sex is called to a type of occupation appropriate to it,” etc. This was the first time this well-known exercise in rhetoric was set down in more or less organized form in the course of a real political struggle.

Ironically, the anti-feminist argumentation unleashed by the Jacobins applied not so much to the RW as to the “mixed societies,” insofar as women there enjoyed equal rights with men. After all, in the RW women organized with other women: shouldn’t women at least be allowed to meet among themselves? Amar actually had to argue even against this; he had to claim that women violated Nature by sacrificing their family roles, and so on. Naturally, no one wondered whether the high-born dames who ran the political salons were violating nature by their unwomanly conduct. Behind the moral rhetoric was the class reality, which everyone knew then better than now.

The objection of a single deputy cut through the fog of Amar’s antifeminist moralizing. This deputy, Charlier [3], stood up to question it: “Unless you deny that women are part of the human race, can you deprive them of this right [of association] common to every thinking being?” In response, the wise men of the Convention muttered into their cravats nothing intelligible, thereby demonstrating the “knowledge, impartiality and self-denial” that made them so superior to mere women. The grafter Basire was then impelled to stand up and tell the Assembly in effect not to pay too much attention to high-flown rationalizations. The “revolutionary regime” sometimes had to “throw a veil over principles” (he explained) for fear they might be abused; the only question before the house was whether the women’s societies were “dangerous”; the events have shown they were bad for public tranquillity (that is, they made trouble for Jacobin crooks and bureaucrats). Thus the voice of Realism, Practicality and Corruption urged them to stop maundering on about principles and get on with the job of smashing the women’s movement in order to preserve their own power, which they had nicknamed “The Revolution.”

Now that the biggest guns of the Robespierrist regime had been mobilized against them, all resistance attempted by the RW was in vain. On November 5 they sent a delegation to the Convention. One of the women, attempting to present a petition on “an urgent need,” declared that the society, “composed in major part of mothers of families,” had dissolved. The Convention delegates demonstrated their superior masculine intellect and grasp of political affairs by hooting them off the floor like hoodlums.

On the 17th a women’s delegation appeared at the Commune, and the left-Jacobin Chaumette demonstrated that he was no different from Amar. The pattern having been set from above, Chaumette too launched into a virulent harangue against feminism, in terms even more stupidly vulgar than Amar’s; he did not neglect to intimate, also, that the “viragos” were “paid by foreign powers.” Again the RW, gagged from speaking themselves, had to hear how Nature assigns to women “the tender care of children, the details of the household, the sweet disquietudes of maternity.” What poetry! In prose, it was decided to hear no more women’s delegations.

“Since when,” raged Chaumette, “is it permitted for women to abjure their sex, to make themselves into men?” The question Since when? is a good one at this point. Since when had these self-styled revolutionaries decided that women had to be banned from political life? The answer is: Only since the Revolutionary Women had shown that equality of rights for women required revolutionary democracy from below, for both sexes; that revolutionary feminists had to make common cause with the movement that fought the good fight for the interests of the mass of people; that women’s cause was also the cause of social revolution.

There is a brief epilogue.

The independent women’s movement of 1793 was indeed destroyed. We know how the Robespierrists chopped down all the forces to their own left, until they stood exposed to the right in the days of Thermidor 1794. For a time women continued to play a considerable role in the life of some popular societies and section assemblies; no doubt the women who had been members of the dissolved RW made themselves heard and felt in other ways. Then, in May 1794, two months before Thermidor, a decree of the still-Jacobin-dominated Convention forbade admission of women into the section assemblies. This took place after the Hébertists – the left Jacobins, including Chaumette – had been eliminated.

There is one last incident to record, taking place in the middle of the drive against Hebert. Claire Lacombe made one brief reappearance on the historical record. At this time she was again working as an actress; it appears that she was still a rank-and-file member of a section club, her support of the Revolution unchanged. On April 2 the regime had her arrested, apparently in the belief that she was close to the Hébertists; perhaps out of reminiscences of fear. She was eventually released, on August 20 – that is, after Thermidor – and this was the last we hear of her.

Leclerc and his wife Pauline Léon had also retired into inconspicuous service to the Revolution. Leclerc had enlisted as a simple soldier in the 17th Division, in the Aisne. The couple were arrested one day after Lacombe was arrested; and both were released in August one day before her. Leclerc went back to his post on September 5, and was not heard from again.

The Revolution was over.

* * *


1. This is a highly controversial subject, indeed an inflammatory one, that obviously cannot be argued here. For the point of view expressed here, we refer the reader to Guerin’s monumental work (see Note on Sources).

2. It is little known that, at this late date in the twentieth century, the government spokesmen of the East European Stalinist states routinely denounce demands for democracy as “anarchist.” The “anarchist” label for the Enragés is still sometimes encountered in modern historical works, purely as a mindless reflection of the Jacobin slander machine. It pays to lie, despite copybook maxims.

3. I find him called Charles Charlier of Laon in some reference works, and Louis Joseph Charlier of Chalons-sur-Marne in others. Both places are in northeast France. He seems to have been on the leftish side of Jacobinism though hostile to Jacques Roux.

Last updated on 12 September 2020