Women figured prominently in the French Revolution and their activism and bravery brought about tangible changes which were reflected in the social and political organization of the First Republic. Unfortunately, many of those advancements were swiftly retracted by Napoleon after the Revolutionary Era came to an end. In 1789 French women were largely confined to the private sphere. Domestic duty and family obligation dictated their behavior, and the public life was a man’s domain. However the ideas of equality and brotherhood that sparked the French Revolution captivated women from all backgrounds. Women were eager to voice their political opinions and grievances. While the intellectuals of the upper classes debated property rights and universal suffrage, the working classes took to the streets with their own frustrations such as affordable bread. The French Revolution was born out of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire challenged the thinking of French society. New ideas about education, class, and individual rights were being discussed at the evening gatherings of Paris high society called salons. These gatherings were often hosted by women, known as salonnières. These ladies wielded a significant amount of indirect influence in the world of politics and diplomacy. They were the daughters of French ministers or the wives of aristocrats, and they had grown up with the privilege of an expansive education. Though they did not enjoy legal rights, in many instances they were regarded as intellectual equals to the men in their lives. At the very least, they held sway in the domestic realm, and in the emotional lives of the men around them. While abstract rights were debated in high society, the common people, who were far from united, were gathering momentum and pushing their own agendas to form their version of a new and more just republic.
Women have never operated as one monolithic group, and the French Revolution proved no exception. If the movement was unified in the early days, that unity dissolved quickly. There was some fluidity between these groups, but in general the upper class had very little to do with the street workers. And even among the working class women, there were stark ideological differences between the more radical républicaines révolutionnaires such as Pauline Léon, and the ordinary market women who did not relate to their political fervor. Needless to say, these women did not always agree on what was important, and the men in power exploited their (sometimes violent) disagreements in order to shut down the more radical protests. These divisions among women were mirrored in the movement at large, and the debate in France over true liberté continued to play out in cycles of revolution and counter-revolution.
This section is a starting point — a more comprehensive guide on Women of the French Revolution is also available from the Library. Select bibliographies below also focus on Women in the Haitian Revolution (1794) and Women in the American Revolution (1776) due to their historical connections. These two bibliographies should be considered contextual rather than exhaustive. There are other guides and resources that focus exclusively on these topics, though unfortunately not many that focus on the experiences of women in once colonized countries. These sections indicate a space and need for further research in this area. There is also a selection of satirical cartoons from the Revolutionary era to look at the French Revolution from a different perspective. The majority of materials in this guide are available on-site at the Library of Congress, however an effort has been made to locate digitized material, especially primary sources, that allow these women to speak for themselves.
The list of books below include books by and about prominent feminists, or proto-feminists of the day. Although these women did not view themselves as feminist — as the term only began to be used in the 1830s in France — their independent thinking and willingness to challenge the accepted constraints on women at the time, secures them a place among key feminist figures.
The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.