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France: Women in the Revolution

Pauline Léon

Émile Wattier, artist. Likely depiction of Pauline Léon. Augustin Challamel, Histoire-musée de la république Française, depuis l'assemblée des notables, Paris, Delloye, 1842.

Pauline Léon was born on September 28, 1768 in Paris and died on October 5, 1838 in La Roche-sur-Yon. A complicated character, Léon is most remembered for her militancy and enthusiasm for taking action (often violent) to defend the Revolution against the tyranny of the monarchy. Her father's death as a young girl left her in charge of helping her mother raise her five siblings and run the family business of making chocolate. This had the natural consequence of instilling Léon with an independence and confidence that brought her into direct conflict not only with the more moderate liberals (she had a visceral hatred of Marquis de Lafayette for example), but with the traditional views on how women should be allowed to behave. Léon was born into a lower-middle-class family and her father had taught her to read-a rarity for someone of her situation and influential in her increased awareness of Parisian politics. However, unlike the more circumspect salonnières, Leon was a fille sans-culotte who wanted to be in the fray, carrying her pike, literally fighting for the Revolution. She advocated strongly for the right of women to bear arms, but at the same time was constrained in subconscious ways by the established notions of the French patriarchy. For this reason she is remembered as a warrior for the Revolution first and foremost, and only secondarily as an advocate for women's rights. Her emphasis was on defending the Revolution (even if you are a woman) rather than fighting specifically for the rights of women in society. Like Olympe de Gouge, these strong and fiercely independent women still existed in the context of the day. Despite their protestations, on some level (as seen in select quotes) they still subscribed to the Enlightenment notion that women were second to men, and were meant to be primarily in the home. Her drive to fight was motivated by her desperation to defend her patrie regardless of her gender. Léon and her close friend, Claire Lacombe- the co-founder of their Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires (Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women)- were primarily focused on the preservation of republican values. Her political activism and dedication to the Revolution was close to the fever pitch of the enragés (madmen). Indeed she married the leader of the enragés, Théophile Leclerc. Not long after her marriage she took a step back from politics and ultimately devoted herself to the domestic care of her husband and household, largely distanced from radical activity.

Because of Léon's status as a working-class woman she did not publish works, nor does she have scholarly biographies dedicated solely to her; however there are resources listed below which contain first-hand accounts of her life, words and actions. There are also books which include her as one of the many women active in the Revolution.

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.

To find more works about Pauline Léon: Women revolutionaries--France--History--18th century

Selected Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

External Website