It would be wrong to assume that because women had come into the Revolution in
1789 asking for bread and liberty and had come out in 1795 with starvation and restriction of
their movements, they had gained nothing. They won laws protecting their rights in
marriage, property, and education. True, women were denied political rights in the
French Revolution (as were the majority of men when the Convention scrapped the
democratic constitution of 1793) but nowhere else at the time did women share political
rights with men.
Although women were a cohesive group during the Revolution, they responded
mainly to the needs of their class and were never an autonomous force. The ideology of
the revolutionary authorities who distrusted women's political movements derived
seemingly from Rousseau, but actually from the facts of their lives: Frances small-scale,
home-based economy needed middle- and working-class women to contribute their
special skills and labor to their families. Women were not yet a large, independent group in
the working class.
In the early days of the French Revolution, women from the middle classes (as can
be seen from cahiers written by them) welcomed the restoration of their natural rights as
wives and mothers to participate in society as men's "natural companions." Women of the
urban poor—wage earners, artisans of women's crafts, owners of small enterprises, such
as the market women—agitated for bread rather than for women's rights. There is,
however, evidence that "respectable" middle-class women joined them. Although these
movements crossed class lines, which were perhaps not rigidly fixed, they did not cross
sex lines. When men participated, as they did in the October Days of 1789, they came as
armed escorts or separate detachments.
As the Revolution entered its more radical phase, as economic crisis followed war and
civil strife, the polarization between the rich and the poor sharpened the older
struggle between aristocrat and patriot. During the last days of the National Convention, the
women who surged into the hall crying "Bread and the Constitution of 1793!" truly
represented the poor, whom the upper classes and their women now feared. The bread
riots belonged to the women of the poor, who incited their men to insurrection, but the
insurrection belonged to both of them, the sans-culottes and their women.
Yet, the Revolution had called upon women to make great sacrifices and they did; in
consequence, women became a revolutionary force unprecedented in history. The men
in power feared women who challenged the Revolutions failure to guarantee bread for
the poor. So feared were the women of the French Revolution that they became
legendary—they became Mme. Defarge later to those who feared revolution itself.
A new elite of the upper middle class, men of wealth and talent, rose to power in the
four years of the Directory following the dissolution in 1795 of the National Convention.
Their women had no political rights but emerged as influential ladies of the salon, such
as the brilliant writer Mme. de Stael, and Mme. Tallien, former wife of
an aristocrat and now derisively called "Our Lady of Thermidor," as a symbol of the reaction. One of these
ladies, Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of a general, became the mistress of one of
the Directors before she married the young Napoleon Bonaparte, who soon afterward
became general of the armies in Italy.
Outside of Paris, away from the glamour of these women, middle-class morality
prevailed. Napoleon subscribed to this morality. When he became emperor in 1804, he
wrote laws into his code to strengthen the authority of the husband and father of the
family as a safeguard for private property. Women lost whatever rights they had gained
in the Revolution, for now they had to obey their husbands unconditionally. Napoleon
left women the right to divorce (for Napoleon to use against Josephine when she failed
to provide him an heir), but this right was taken from them after 1815 by the restoration
of the Bourbon monarchy.
What could not be taken from women was their memory of victories during the
French Revolution: their march to Versailles in the October Days, their petitions to the
legislature, their club meetings, their processions, their insurrections. Their defeats
served as lessons for next time. "We are simple women," a woman was reported to have
said at a club meeting in the days of the uprising of the Paris Commune in May 1871,
nearly a century later, "but not made of weaker stuff than our grandmothers of '93. Let
us not cause their shades to blush for us, but be up and doing, as they would be were
they living now."