History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Political Revolutions

Factors in the French Revolution Click here for Audio


womenWomen contributed to all aspects of the revolution. They led the bread riots in Paris and the storming of the Bastille. They were among all the demonstrations and mob actions against the government of Louis XVI. Within the left wing of the Republic, some of them fought for the rights of women. They wrote speeches, signed petitions, and operated radical presses. Their quest for equality put them in the radical camp, rather than the liberal.

Between 1789 and 1793, women were influential in the course of the revolution, and helped pull it toward the radical left. One example was Olympe de Gouges:

* Textbook document: Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women
  • audio/text feature
    Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges: Voices of a Dual Revolution
  • De Gouges would be guillotined in 1793, because she opposed the death sentence of Louis XVI (she even offered to defend him in court, believing him to be no worse than any other king). She had also spoken out against the bloody policies of Jacobite Jean Paul Marat and Robespierre, who considered her a royalist counter-revolutionary.

    Marat dead in his bathOther women also took an active role in revolution. Charlotte Corday, horrified at the excesses of Jacobites murdering without cause, killed leader Jean Paul Marat in his bath. This moment was marked by painter David, who seemed to always be in favor of whichever government hired him. (He sketched the Oath of the Tennis Court in 1789 but survived to paint Napoleon later on.)

    1793 was not only the year of the deaths of de Gouges and Corday, but it also marks a shift away from the demands of women for equal rights. The Convention, in other ways the most politically radical of the French governments, tried to outlaw women in politics. They accused women of counter-revolutionary activities (such as the trumped-up charge against de Gouges), lack of education, moral weakness, and excitability (pretty funny coming from guys feeding the guillotine on a daily basis).

    Debating women's rights as a public issue, the possibility emerged that they could become citizens and vote too much. Thus the Convention took on the task of defining women's rights for them, removing them from most public influence. Throughout the Directory and Napoleon's rule, most of the gains made by women during the Revolution were reversed. Under the Napoleonic Code, women had no political rights, and their legal status was dependent. They couldn't sign contracts, buy or sell property, and they were restricted in initiating divorce.


    Two peasants repairing a plow
    The participation of peasants began right after the storming of the Bastille, though resentment had already been brewing due to the rise in the price of bread. Beseiging towns and villages hoping for assistance, peasants were hopeful that the Estates-General would solve their problems. Assuming this, they took action in the countryside: poaching in the forests of the nobility, attacking food convoys, and refusing to pay taxes and tithes. With the formation of the National Assembly and the storming of the Bastille, they began burning manor houses and debt books. Others, fearing the king would send troops to kill them, went on rampages of rural violence.

    This violence was instrumental in forcing the aristocrats to give up their privileges, as dictated by the National Assembly. Nobles renounced their exclusive hunting rights, tax exemptions, monopolies on high office, manorial courts, and debts of service. All well and good, but the Assembly had trouble controlling the peasants' demands. As liberal middle-class men, Assembly members held fast to policies regarding property rights, which peasants ignored. This would be a major problem all the way through the Revolution.

    5. The Napoleonic Experience ->