January 23, 2021

Feminism in the French Revolution and before the cry of “Equality, Liberty and Fraternity”


The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed on August 26, 1789, at the dawn of the French Revolution, was the expression of a true turning point in the history of mankind. His articles legitimized “resistance to oppression” and, for the first time, established that “men are born and remain free and equal” (something unthinkable in a world dominated by absolute monarchs and feudal lords). These ideas were so powerful that they inspired revolutions in other parts of the map and can be considered as the germ of current conceptions of human rights.

Although the spirit of the text was – worth the redundancy – “universal”, from the title it is understood that it did not include all people. Historian Joan Scott (author of Women and men’s rights. Feminism and suffrage in France, 1789-1944) explains that “the Declaration was a success in rallying patriots for the revolution, but it also aroused discontent among those excluded from sovereignty”: in particular, among blacks, slaves, the inhabitants of the French colonies … and the women. It was just then that the feminism gave his first steps as a social movement and a theoretical current.

The flame found fuel in decades of disobedience. Women had played a key role in the incessant revolts of the 18th century. They showed their bravery in the so-called “flour war” of 1775, which arose as a response of the people to the increase in the price of grains. They were also seen on the “Day of the Texas” in the city of Grenoble, in 1788, taking up arms to avoid the monarchy’s abuses. “We are not willing to bear children destined to live in a country subjected to despotism,” wrote some of the rebels, in a defiant letter to the king.

Freedom has the face of a woman

The women were at the famous Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. But the first testimony of that year, written by them, with their own claims, appeared he January 1: it was the Petition of the Women of the Third Estate. The conditions for the Revolution were in the cauldron, without it burning yet. France was going through a major economic and financial crisis, and King Louis XVI had convened the “States General” – a meeting of the nobility, the clergy and the so-called “common people” – to discuss a tax reform. Within this framework, “Notebooks of complaints” or written records addressed to the monarch, with a long tradition. Women took the opportunity to leave the domestic sphere and intervene in the public arena. There the Petition was published.

Alicia Puleo and Celia Amorós -editor and presenter respectively of The forgotten Enlightenment: the controversy of the sexes in the 18th century– They say that this did not redound in theoretical foundations. His expectations were moderate, compared to later elaborations: he sought concrete daily reforms and appealed to the “heart” of the king, putting the female cause “at his feet.” Even so, embodying the spirit of the 18th century, its authors subtly criticized aristocratic privilege, by contrasting those that were born with fortune or dowry and those that were not. They themselves were probably educated women, without lineage, who enjoyed a certain economic well-being (as can be inferred from their knowing how to write in a largely illiterate society). They postulated their speech from the Third Estate – opposed to the nobility and the clergy – which was beginning to rise and from which they did not intend to be left out.

In the first lines, they pointed out that almost all the women of the common people grew up without any training. In turn, they denounced that this made them “prey to the first seducer”, when it did not force them “to sell themselves at auction” or “to enter convents to survive.” In coexistence with these disruptive elements, the manuscript reflected a series of ingrained prejudices. The editors, for example, reported the conditions that forced many young women to engage in prostitution; In any case, they confessed the wish that “that class of women” – in their own words – would carry “a distinctive mark” so as not to be “confused” with the rest.

Something similar happened with the approach to labor matters. The petitioners expressed the will that all their fellow citizens enjoy a Own job, through positions that could only be filled by the female sex. “We beg to be educated, to have jobs, not to usurp the authority of men but to be more esteemed by them; so that we have the means to live under cover of misfortune ”. In this sense, they asked for “the needle and the spindle”, committing “not to handle the compass or the square.” On the one hand, they narrowed their field of professional expectations to embroidery, sewing, and fashion; on the other, they subtly introduced the problem of the lack of female education and denounced unfair competition within the -changing- world of work, in which men always ended up winning. Without knowing it, they were not only advancing some important debates – such as sex work and economic dependence – but one of the central tensions that later feminisms would go through: that between difference and equality.

Echoing illustrated visions such as Diderot’s (for whom women privileged the heart over the head), the editors concluded: “That we are taught above all to practice the virtues of our sex, sweetness, modesty, patience, vanity (…). Science only serves to give us foolish pride (…) they make us mixed beings, who are not faithful wives ”. At the same time, indirectly pointed against matrimonial injunctions and they questioned that “if old age surprises them single, [las mujeres] they spend their time crying and are the object of contempt from their closest relatives ”. These apparent contradictions, typical of a period of transition, only enrich the text and throw it into our era, sometimes fearful of conflicting principles, of the clash between tradition and novelties, of “incorrect” expressions.

As the Revolution gained momentum and became more radical, so did the discourse of its participants. Neither the historical changes, nor the social movements that carry them forward are linear or homogeneous. The researcher Paul-Marie Duhet, who worked with newspapers and first-person documents and testimonies, said that, in shocked 1789, women took the lead in marches, requisitioned carriages, loaded gunpowder. The Petition is just a small sample that they did not officiate as mere companions of this founding fact of the Contemporary Age. On the contrary, they acted as protagonists, aware that, without their participation, there could be no equality, freedom and fraternity.

This was present from the first paragraph of the Petition, when the signatories asked themselves: “At a time (…) in which each one tries to assert their titles and rights; in which some torment themselves in remembering the centuries of servitude and anarchy; in which others strive to shake the last links that still link them to an imperious remnant of feudality; women, continuous objects of admiration and contempt for men, women, in the midst of this general upheaval, could they not also make their voices heard?

Taking advantage of the collapse of millenary institutions, appropriating the words that circulated and resignifying them, the enlightened women -although not only them- created what Puleo and Amorós call “foundational rhetorics and politics”: they came to speak of a “male aristocracy”, of a “Third State within a Third State.” Today we repeat that “what is not named does not exist.” Perhaps we owe them that inheritance.

“Woman, wake up! The chimes of reason are heard throughout the universe. Acknowledge your rights! ”Olympe de Gouges urged a few years later. his Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens, from 1791, remains the best known and most elaborate expression of female involvement in the process.

Olympe synthesized the spirit of thousands of peasant women, artisans, housewives and workers who suffered the abuses of the aristocracy, the impossibility of supporting their homes and oppression by men. More than two centuries later, the strength of the French revolutionaries continues to provoke debates, inspiring pending challenges.

JB

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