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 is 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 guide is a starting point for finding resources on Women of the French Revolution of 1789 in the Library of Congress as well as some helpful resources available to the public online. Select bibliographies focused on women are also provided for the Haitian Revolution (1794) and the American Revolution (1776) due to their historical connections. These 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 best way to find books about Women in the French Revolution is to search the Library's online catalog. The following LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) will bring you to the various works held in our collections. The best way to find all relevant material is by searching through a variety of subject headings. There will be overlap, and these subject headings are not always entirely comprehensive. For example, Women revolutionaries--France--Biography will not bring you every biography on revolutionary women in France. You will find additional works under Women intellectuals--France--Biography. Try the following LCSHs to start.
For biographies of individual women, do a name search and be sure to try several different forms of the name. For example, to find the correspondences of Sophie de Grouchy, search Condorcet, Marie-Louise-Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de, 1764-1822--Correspondence.
The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about Women in the French Revolution it is useful to browse by authorized subject heading. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections.
There will be some overlap, and these subject headings are not always entirely comprehensive. For example, Women revolutionaries--France--Biography will not bring you every biography on revolutionary women in France. You will find additional works under Women intellectuals--France--Biography.
For biographies of individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).
For example, to find all forms of the names Sophie de Grouchy, browse "AUTHORS/CREATORS (Containing)":
In addition to this guide to Women in the French Revolution, staff of the Library of Congress have produced several other detailed guides on French and Francophone resources. They are linked below.