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France: Women in the Revolution

Key Figures in the Revolution

Cornelis Katz, artist. Pariser poisarden. 1794. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the early days of the Revolution, the women of Paris were highly engaged in politics. Their convictions spanned the political spectrum, often depending on their positions in society. The wealthy women of the bourgeois class often acted as salonnières, or worked in tandem with their husbands. That is not to say that they did not take part in street demonstrations, nor is it to imply that working class women were one unvaried force. There were divisions at all levels, and many Parisian women were concerned with economic conditions and high grain prices, while their neighbor might be demanding institutional reforms such as the right for women to establish their own political clubs.

As the salonnières had the opportunity and leisure time to write, historians have an easier time piecing together their opinions and activities. Madame Roland, for example, was a habitual writer and volumes of her letters are preserved at the Library of Congress. Many of these works have been digitized for remote access. The salonnières also had the funds to commission portraits, which was not an option for the lower classes.

To this day many radical revolutionary women are known only through the words of others who described them in passing and there is little evidence of what they looked like. The market women of Paris, often those selling fish (known commonly as les poissardes) or fruit in the local food markets, were highly engaged in politics, and not all of them were sympathetic to the revolution. Drawings and first-hand accounts of their speeches and political activities help to fill in the gaps, as few of them were able to write memoirs or books of their own. This explains the relative scarcity of material on the women of the lower classes as well as women who participated in the Haitian Revolution which followed swiftly on the heels of 1789.

There were also many outspoken women during this time who were not French but who witnessed and wrote about the French Revolution and the rights of women. Known as a Dutch spy, Etta Lubina Johanna Palm d'Aelders spoke to the issues of the day, as did the renowned English writer, Mary Wollstonecraft who authored A Vindication of the Rights of Women,1792 .

For an overview of French women in history and the evolution of the French feminist movement, please see the research guide Feminism & French Women in History.