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To what extent did women’s role in society change as a result of the French and American Revolutions?

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To what extent did women’s role in society change as a result of the French and American Revolutions?

A revolution can be described as a fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed. During the 18th century many changes took place such as the French and American revolutions. The French Revolution largely was inspired by the American Revolution, there is no doubt change occurred but many believe that these revolutions did not benefit women. Women had been devalued in history even if they had played some role in emergency situations.They believed that a time of change such as a revolution would bring changes and that it was a perfect time to gain some rights that had been granted to men for centuries. Many see the involvement of women during the French and American Revolutions as a turning point in women’s rights history. Many revolutionary men however fought for their rights and ignored women’s fight. Although women had a newly found chance of expressing themselves during the French and American revolutions, the inequalities in society remained.

The French Revolution which lasted from 1789 to 1799 was an attempt by the French people to uproot old institutions such as absolutism and the feudal system. The upheaval was caused by widespread discontent with the French monarchy and the poor economic policies of King Louis XVI. The French people, inspired by the American Revolution were determined to put in practice their new views on power and authority. France was considered one of the most advanced countries of Europe and had been the center of Enlightenment.. A great discontentment was caused by many factors such as bad harvests, high prices, high taxes and questions raised by the Enlightenment and strongly encouraged by literature. Popular writers such as Voltaire or Rousseau demanded equality, liberty and democracy. The privileged estates, which were composed of a large minority of the people were overthrown by the third estate which had modern ideas about power and authority and were eager for change. Women, who were among the activists helped during this revolution and saw an opportunity to change their role in political and economic life. It is true to say that women had been poorly represented during the Enlightenment. However one could observe some movements such as Salons de France which were assembled by a small number of elite women concerned with education and promoting philosophies of the Enlightenment. Many saw Marie Antoinette's bad reputation for feminine interference in state affairs, and traditional male supremacy as an excuse to exclude women from politics. However feminism emerged in Paris as part of a broad demand for social and political reform. Women demanded equality with men and then moved on to a demand for the end of male domination. They conducted many operations in order to obtain these demands , pamphlets were distributed and women's clubs emerged, such as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women.

A Club of Republican Women.

This came as a shock for most since a woman’s education usually consisted of learning to be a good wife and mother. They were not supposed to be involved in the political sphere, as the limit of their influence was the raising of future citizens. This can be seen through the role of Arnolphe in The School For Wives by Molière who is a caricature of men’s perspective of women at that time: mere objects that can be used and manipulated to satisfy one’s idea of what a woman should be. The upper class women who held these clubs were seen by many as purely superficial and vain. However there was some progress in the representations in the arts. Women such as Olympe de Gouges inspired many others to pursue equality between genders. When the French Revolution started in 1789, she decided to work hard and fight for equal rights regardless of gender, color or social class. She also insisted on the right to divorce, which took place shortly after, in 1792. She published Declaration on the Rights of Woman with an intention of exposing the failures of the French Revolution in the recognition of sexual equality. Other writers fought for women’s rights through literature and the arts such as Marie Roland, who didn’t fight directly for the rights of women but is considered a feminist for trying to influence political change.

Some women decided to fight in a more physical way for their rights. The Women's March in Versailles is one example of feminist militism during the French Revolution. While largely left out of the fight for increasing rights of citizens,in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt persisted for full citizenship of women.

Women’s March in Versailles

Pauline Léon, on 6 March 1792, submitted a petition signed by 319 women to the National Assembly requesting permission to form a national garde in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion. As part of her call, she claimed that the right to carry arms would transform women into citizens.

However, many of these revolutionary movements were either forgotten by many or destroyed. The Jacobin government in power abolished all the women's clubs in October 1793 and arrested their leaders. A decade later the Napoleonic Code confirmed and perpetuated women's second-class status. Advancements such as divorce was maintained for a while then was abolished during the Restoration. Women were, nonetheless denied political rights and democratic citizenship and failed to create any lasting impact on the direction of the Revolution. Most of these activist women were punished for their militancy. The kind of punishment received during the Revolution included public denouncement, arrest, execution, or exile. Théroigne de Méricourt was arrested, publicly flogged and then spent the rest of her life sentenced to an insane asylum. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were arrested, later released,

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