The following is an article from an archival issue of Women and Revolution, Spring 2001, that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of Women and Revolution during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
Women and The French Revolution-Spring 2001
We publish below an edited version of a presentation given by our comrade Susan Adams at a Spartacist League forum to celebrate International Women's Day 2000 in New York City, first published in Workers Vanguard No. 752, 16 February 2001. Susan, who died this February (see obituary, page 2), was a longtime leader of the ICL's French section and maintained an intense commitment to the study of history and culture throughout her years as a communist. These interests were put to particular use in her work as a member of the Editorial Board of Women and Revolution while that journal existed.
International Women's Day originated in March 1908, with a demonstration here in Manhattan by women needle trades workers. They marched to oppose child labor and in favor of the eight-hour day and women's suffrage. March 8 became an international day celebrating the struggle for women's rights. And then on International Women's Day in 1917, right in the middle of World War 190,000 textile workers, many of them women, went on strike in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the capital of the Russian tsarist empire. They rose up from the very bottom rungs of society, and it was these most oppressed and downtrodden of the proletariat who opened the sluice gates of the revolutionary struggle leading to the October Revolution, where Marx's ideas first took on flesh and blood.
The Soviet state was the dictatorship of the proletariat. It immediately enacted laws making marriage and divorce simple civil procedures, abolishing the category of illegitimacy and all discrimination against homosexuals. It took steps toward replacing women's household drudgery by setting up cafeterias, laundries and childcare centers to allow women to enter productive employment. Under the conditions of extreme poverty and backwardness, those measures could be carried out only on a very limited scale. But they undermined the institution of the family and represented the first steps toward the liberation of women. The collectivized planned economy laid the basis for enormous economic and social progress. Fully integrated into the economy as wage earners, women achieved a degree of economic independence that became so much a matter of course that it was barely noticed by the third generation after the revolution. We fought for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution up until the very last barricade.
The great October Russian Revolution has now been undone and its gains destroyed. Surrounded and pounded by the imperialists for seven decades, the Soviet Union was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. The responsibility for that lies primarily with the Stalinist bureaucracy which usurped political power from the working class in 1923-24 and betrayed the revolutionary purpose of Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Party and the revolutionary Communist International that they founded. Not the least of the Stalinists' crimes was the glorification of the family and the reversal of many gains for women. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky.
In celebrating International Women's Day, we reaffirm that the struggle for women's rights is inextricably linked to revolution and we honor the women fighters through the centuries whose courage and consciousness has often put them in the vanguard of struggles to advance the cause of the oppressed. The Russian Revolution was a proletarian socialist revolution; it overthrew the rule of the capitalists and landlords and placed the working class in power. The Great French Revolution of 1789-94was a bourgeois revolution, the most thorough and deep going of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The French Revolution overthrew the rule of the monarchy, the nobility and the landed aristocracy and placed the bourgeoisie in power. It swept Europe with its liberating ideas and its revolutionary reorganization of society. It transformed the population from subjects of the crown to citizens with formal equality. Jews were freed from the ghettos and declared citizens with full rights; slavery was first abolished on the territory of the French nation. It inspired the first successful slave revolt in the colonies, the uprising led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in what became Haiti. And, within the limitations of bourgeois rule, it achieved gains for women that were unparalleled until the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Today's capitalist ruling class is unsurpassed in bloody terrorism against working people around the world in defense of its profits and property. As hard as it is to imagine, the ancestors of this bourgeoisie played a historically progressive role then, sweeping away the backwardness, irrationality and inefficiency of the previous feudal system. The leaders of the French Revolution, who represented the most radical sector of the French bourgeoisie, spoke with—and for the most part believed—the words of the Enlightenment, justifying its fight to destroy the nobility as a class and take political power itself as the advent of "liberty, equality and fraternity" for all. They could not, and the majority of them did not intend to, emancipate the lower classes. Nevertheless, something changed in the world.
Particularly since "death of communism" propaganda has filled the bourgeois press and media following the destruction of the Soviet Union, there's been a real attempt to demonize not just the Russian Revolution but any revolution, the French Revolution in particular. The push for retrograde social policies has been historically justified with a virtual flood of books and articles attacking the humanist values of the Enlightenment philosophy which laid the ideological basis for the French Revolution. Today, while the bourgeoisie in its decay disowns the rationalist and democratic values it once espoused, we Trotskyists stand out not only as the party of the Russian Revolution but the champions of the liberating goals of the French Revolution.
Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin identified with the Jacobins, the radical wing of the French revolutionary bourgeoisie, whose most prominent leaders were Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. Lenin wrote that the "essence of Jacobinism" was "the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class" and that Jacobinism was "one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class." You can better understand why Lenin was inspired by the Jacobins from the following words by Saint-Just: "Those who make a revolution, with half-measures are only digging their own grave."
Women's Oppression and Class Society
In the early 19th century, a French socialist named Charles Fourier carefully studied the French Revolution. He wrote biting, witty and humorous criticism of existing social relations, including working out a whole scheme—kind of nutty but fun and food for thought—for perpetually satisfying sexual relations. Needless to say, he thought sexual monogamy was a curse worse than death. In a famous statement quoted by Karl Marx in his 1845 book The Holy Family, Fourier said:
"The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women's progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation."
And that quite profound observation guides us today in our understanding of society.
Women's oppression is rooted in the institution of the family and has been a feature of all class societies. At one point before recorded history, it didn't much matter who the father of a child was, since children were largely cared for communally. But then inventions such as agriculture made it possible to produce more than the producers could actually consume. This ability to produce a surplus meant that a leisure class could live off the labor of others and accumulate property. It became important to know who the father of a child was so that he could pass on his property to his own children. Monogamy appeared, making the man dominant and the woman subservient, enslaved.
The family is a key social unit for the maintenance of capitalism. For the capitalists, the family provides the basis for passing on accumulated wealth. And where there is no property to pass on, the family serves to rear the next generation of workers for the capitalists and to inculcate conservative social values. It is the family—and the necessity to control sexual access to the woman to ensure that the man knows who his real heir is—which generates the morality codified in and reinforced by religion. It is the family which throughout a woman's life gives definition to her oppressed state: as daughter, as wife, as mother.
We Marxists fight to rip the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists in order to put them at the service of the needs of the working people that create the wealth. Only then can household drudgery be replaced with socialized child-care, restaurants, laundries and so on. The program of communism is for a classless society in which the family is transcended by superior sexual and social relations which will be free of moral or economic coercion. Our slogan is: "For women's liberation through socialist revolution!"
Marx said that revolution is the locomotive of history. In the Great French Revolution, the women of Paris were often the engineers in that locomotive. I'm going to be talking about the role of thousands of women leaders, military commanders, propagandists and organizers whose role at key junctures of the French Revolution was quite simply decisive. Groups like the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women literally shaped history. Count Mirabeau, one of the major actors in the beginning of the revolution, was an extremely sleazy guy, firmly in favor of a constitutional monarchy, occasionally in the pay of the king. But even he said: "Without women, there is no revolution."
Most histories of the French Revolution concentrate their chief attention on the upper levels of society and the top layers of the plebeian masses. In recent years, a number of French and American women historians have done very interesting and important research into the dusty archives of the revolution in Paris—police reports, newspaper articles. Some of these historians are feminists; that is, they see the fundamental division in society as that between the sexes.
At the time of the revolution, a movement focused specifically on women's rights was in the minority. One person who was what you would call a feminist today, at least as far as I have been able to put together her history, was Olympe de Gouges. In her pamphlet, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen, written in the fall of 1791, she implicitly called for the vote for women, for a women's assembly and for equal rights with men. She also dedicated her pamphlet to the despised queen Marie Antoinette! De Gouges was not an aristocrat but a butcher's daughter from outside Paris, yet she remained a royalist throughout most of the revolution and was guillotined in November 1793.
Some of the recent analysis by feminist historians feeds right into today's reactionary climate. Taking aim at the French Revolution itself, they claim that the failure of women to secure the right to vote for national parliaments and the suppression of the exclusively women's political clubs during the most radical period of the revolution proves that misogyny triumphed. This view is also promoted in an article in the New York Times Magazine (16 May 1999) called "The Shadow Story of the Millennium: Women." The article states that the French Revolution's "new philosophy of rational natural rights placed all men on an equal footing in regard to citizenship and the law" but adds: "Men of the revolution said that women should stay home and rear their sons to be good citizens."
Let us allow a participant to refute this falsehood. Mere Duchesne was a domestic servant, a cook, who, unlike most domestic servants then, defied her aristocratic masters. She was described in a police report as "the satellite and missionary to all women under Robespierre's orders, a most ferocious woman." The Mere Duchesne newspaper wrote in September 1792:
"In the past, when we wanted to speak, our mouths were shut while we were told very politely, 'You reason like a woman'; almost like a goddamn beast. Oh! Damn! Everything is very different now; we have indeed grown since the Revolution."
"The Columns of French Liberty"
Now I want to go into some detail about the French Rev¬olution itself. A revolution is a monumental military and social battle between classes. The dominant class in any society controls the state—the police, courts, army—which protects its class interests. In modern society there are two fundamental classes: the big capitalists who own the means of production (the mines, factories, etc.) and the workers who own absolutely nothing except their personal effects and are compelled to sell their labor power to the capitalists. At the time of the French Revolution, there were essentially four
classes. The king and the nobility who owned nearly all of the land, the rising bourgeoisie, the peasants (who constituted over 80 percent of the population) and the urban sans culottes. The latter consisted of artisans, who worked either at home or in very small workshops, shopkeepers, day laborers, the poor and unemployed. Those who did manual labor wore loose trousers and were sans—without—the tight silk leggings worn by aristocrats and those imitating them.
A revolution happens when the ruling class can no longer rule as before, and the masses are no longer willing to be ruled in the same way. We're talking about a political crisis in which the rulers falter and which tears the people from the habitual conditions under which they labor and vegetate, awakening even the most backward elements, compelling the people to take stock of themselves and look around. That political crisis was provoked in France by the 1776 American Revolution.
France had taken the side of the American colonies against its perpetual enemy England and so had emerged on the side of the victors, but totally broke. In May 1789, King Louis XVI convened an Estates General—a meeting of representatives of the nobility, the clergy and the non-noble property owners and lawyers (the so-called Third Estate)— at Versailles, where his palace was located, about 12 miles from Paris. He hoped to convince some of them to pay more taxes. But they refused, while every village throughout the country wrote up its grievances to be presented at Versailles. The meeting of the three estates transformed itself into a National Assembly.
It was clear that the king was gathering troops to disperse the National Assembly. The negotiations out at Versailles might have gone on forever, except the Parisian masses took things into their own capable hands and organized to arm themselves, seizing 60,000muskets from armories like the Invalides and the Bastille prison fortress around the city on 14 July 1789. You know of this event as the storming of the Bastille. The freeing of the handful of prisoners was incidental; it was the arms that were the goal. The Paris garrisons had been deeply influenced by revolutionary propaganda following a massacre of rioters in the working-class quarters of Faubourg Saint-Antoine some months earlier. In June, the troops paraded through the streets to shouts of "Long live the Third Estate! We are the soldiers of the nation!"
The king backed down, but the monarchy still had its army and its throne. The bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, mutually hostile classes, were relying on essentially incompatible government institutions, the National Assembly and the royal throne. One or the other would have to go. Either the king (and his many royal cousins and relations by marriage ruling other countries of Europe) would crush the National Assembly or the king would meet up with what came to be known as "Madame la Guillotine."
The weeks following the July 14 events were known as the "Great Fear," the fear that the aristocrats were coming to take the land back and were organizing brigands and robbers and bands of pirates and so forth. So the peasants armed to protect themselves. Then it turned out to be a rumor, but there they were, armed and ready, and being practical sorts, they turned on the landlords' manor houses and made use of the arms that they'd gotten.
The people's representatives, who were deliberating out at Versailles, took note of the insurrection and on August 4 passed laws eliminating feudal privileges, which had been the original issue all summer. The problem was that you had to buy your way out of your feudal duties and pay 25 times your feudal taxes in order to free yourself from them. Most peasants simply ignored that and had been seizing the land all over the country since July 14. They also would burn down the lord's manor house, where the records and the deeds were kept. You know, straightforward and practical.
The next major event is crucial to our understanding of the women's role. It was October and the people of Paris were starving again. October is usually a cold and wet month in Paris. It was indeed raining at 8 a.m. on the morning of 5 October 1789. Thousands of women—eventually some 8,000—had already gathered in front of City Hall. They knew where to find the arms because it was they who had helped store them here after July 14.
The king had allowed the symbol of the revolution—the red-white-and-blue cockade (rosette)—to be trampled underfoot by some foreign troops brought in to protect him and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette. The women intended to stop this anti-revolutionary activity and they wanted bread. Huge stores of fine white flour waited at Versailles. They began to walk there. They couldn't get anyone to come with them, but later in the afternoon about 20,000 troops of the National Guard—which had been formed by the bourgeoisie—forced the very reluctant General Lafayette, whom you might know as a hero of the American Revolution, to lead them there. One of the women was Pauline Leon, a chocolate maker, who was later to lead the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. That day she was armed with a pike, which was known as the people's weapon, because it was so easy to make. You could pull something off the top of a railing and attach it to a good hefty stick. It was said that "the pikes of the people are the columns of French liberty."
This was no protest march—it was a sea of muskets and pikes. The women were determined not to come back without the king and his family. There were still plenty of illusions in the king, but they wanted him under their watchful eye, in Paris. At one point the crowd apparently invaded the palace and was wandering through Marie Antoinette's chambers and some things were getting broken and stepped on and stomped and so forth. One very respectable woman in a velvet hat and cloak turned around and said very haughtily, "Don't do that, we're here to make a point, not to break things." And a woman from the artisan class turned around and said, "My husband was drawn and quartered for stealing a piece of meat." Finally the women demanded that the royal family get into their carriage. Lafayette's troops led the way and the women marched in front carrying on their pikes loaves of fresh, very white bread—the kind reserved for the upper classes—and the heads of two of the king's bodyguards.
The Revolutionary Jacobin Dictatorship
While pretending to be happy with the situation, the king was secretly corresponding with the other royal heads of state and nobles began to emigrate en masse, establishing counterrevolutionary centers outside the country. In June 1791, the king and queen disguised themselves and tried to escape, intending to return with the backing of the Austrian army. But an observant revolutionary recognized them in the town of Varennes, and they were brought back to Paris. This destroyed the people's remaining illusions in the monarchy and triggered an upsurge in revolutionary agitation. But the bourgeoisie, fearing things could get out of hand, sought to maintain the monarchy and clamp down on the mass turmoil. A month after the king's arrest, a petition to abolish the monarchy was being circulated among the crowd on the broad expanse of the Champs de Mars. The National Guard fired on the crowd and many were killed. Commanded by the aristocrat Lafayette, the National Guard had been organized as a force not only against the king but also against the threat that the bourgeoisie had already seen coming from the Parisian working people.
The Champs de Mars massacre marked a split within the bourgeois revolutionary forces. The two main factions that emerged—the Girondins and the Jacobins—represented the same social class, but they were deeply politically divided. The Prussian monarchy and the rest of royal Europe were mobilizing militarily and in April 1792 revolutionary France went to war. The Girondins sought a "negotiated solution" with the reactionary feudal armies combined with concessions to the nobility and the clergy. The Jacobins were ready to make temporary concessions to the hungry urban masses in order to thoroughly vanquish feudal reaction. You could say that the Girondins were the reformist wing and the Jacobins the revolutionary wing of the bourgeoisie.
In June 1792, thousands of armed marchers, including numerous women armed with sabers, paraded through the Assembly in the first of what became known as journees, or days of action. One official observed at the time, "The throne was still standing, but the people were seated on it, took the measure of it." The monarchy was finally overthrown by a second journee on 10 August 1792, when the masses invaded the king's residence at the Tuileries Palace in Paris and imprisoned the royal family.
The war was not going well. Most of the former officers, aristocrats, had emigrated. A government representative appealed for recruits by invoking "the heartbreaking thought that, after all the efforts that have already been made, we might be forced to return to the misery of our former slavery." While the best of the revolutionaries volunteered for the front, they were untrained and assumed to be undisciplined. Most of the new recruits were trades people, artisans and journeymen, not the sons of the bourgeoisie as before. The road to Paris seemed open to the Prussian royal armies.
The king of Prussia expected the French troops to scatter in disarray when his troops moved to drive them out of a strip of land near Valmy in eastern France. But not a man flinched as the French general waved his hat in the air on the point of his sword, shouting "Long live the nation!" The sans-culottes fired straight and repeatedly at the enemy. With a torrential rainstorm some hours later, the armies fell back. The German writer Goethe was present at Valmy, and as he looked out over the battlefield that night he said, "This day and this place open a new era in the history of the world."
He could not have been more prescient. On that day, the Assembly gave way to the Convention, which was elected by universal male suffrage and convoked expressly to give the nation a constitution which codified the overthrow of the king. Also, as we will see, the most progressive marriage and divorce laws until the Bolshevik Revolution were passed on exactly the same day as the victory at Valmy. Five months later, the king was beheaded.
In a third uprising in June 1793, the people of Paris and 80,000 National Guard troops surrounded the Convention and demanded the arrest of the Girondins and a comprehensive program of revolutionary defense of the country. This ushered in the Jacobin revolutionary dictatorship, which irremediably abolished seigneurial (feudal) rights, instituted the price controls (referred to as the "maximum") demanded by the sans-culottes and destroyed the resistance of the feudal order through a reign of revolutionary terror carried out by the Committee of Public Safety.
A month after the foreign troops were driven from France in mid-1794, on July 27 (9 Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar), the conservative wing of the bourgeoisie took the reins of power. The next day Robespierre followed the Grindings to the guillotine. The Thermidorians thought they could do without the alliance with the lower classes. That calculation was proved false, and they were themselves replaced in 1799 in the coup of the 18th Brumaire (November 9) by Napoleon Bonaparte, who subsequently declared himself emperor. But the Jacobin dictatorship had irreversibly consolidated the central achievement of the French Revolution, the rooting out of feudal relations in the countryside.
Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance
As materialists, we understand, as Marx put it, that "Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure." The rising capitalist class was firmly committed to the preservation of private property, as indeed it had to be. It was precisely this which staked out the limits of the revolutionary social changes that could be carried out, although the most radical years of the French Revolution went very far indeed.
The family was temporarily undermined in order to serve the needs of the revolution against its enemies, the feudal nobility and Catholic church. This is one demonstration of the fact that social institutions which seem to be immutable, to be "natural" and "eternal," are in fact nothing more than the codification of social relations dictated by the particular economic system that is in place. After the bourgeoisie consolidated its power as the new ruling class, it re-established the constraints of the family. But nothing would ever be the same again. The contradictory reality of the French Revolution—the breathtaking leap in securing individual rights and the strict limits imposed on those rights by the fact that this was a bourgeois and not a socialist revolution—was captured by Karl Marx in The German Ideology:
"The existence of the family is made necessary by its connection with the mode of production, which exists independently of the will of bourgeois society. That it was impossible to do without it was demonstrated in the most striking way during the French Revolution, when for a moment the family was as good as legally abolished."
The feminists who want to dismiss the bourgeois revolution as anti-woman end up echoing those who justify suttee (widow-burning) in India and the imposition of the chador in Iran and Afghanistan as "cultural differences." Where the bourgeois revolution did not triumph, the status of women is qualitatively inferior. It is enough to contrast the condition of women today in West Europe with Afghanistan, groaning under the rule of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.
I'll give you a very small example of what it meant to have a society in which a rising, vigorous, productive class—the bourgeoisie—was held in check by outmoded institutions. France was a Catholic country. In 1572, tens of thousands of French Protestants were killed in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and more fled the country. The 1598 Edict of Nantes assured them the free exercise of their religious beliefs, but this was revoked in 1685. Some of the richest merchants were Protestant, but marriages performed by their own pastors were not officially recognized. At the death of a spouse, you would have distant Catholic relatives claiming the inheritance, because legally there was no spouse and the children were illegitimate. Both Protestants and Jews accepted divorce. In 1769, according to James Traer in his Marriage and the Family in Eighteenth-Century France (1980), a respected author advocated permitting divorce on the grounds that "the Protestant nations of northern Europe were enjoying both population growth and prosperity while the Catholic states of southern Europe were suffering from declining population and poverty." But the conservatives always managed to get the law postponed.
Under the Old Regime, women had the right to exactly nothing. The monarchy consistently sought to reinforce, supplement and extend the father's control over the marriage of his children. Women found guilty of adultery were sentenced to public whipping or imprisonment. Women were also put into convents for life for adultery. Marriage was indissoluble—a life sentence. If you were a man, you couldn't marry until you were 30 without your parents' permission. If your family had property, your father could get the king to issue a lettre de cachet, something like an unlimited arrest warrant, and you could be locked up indefinitely. If you married a minor (under the age of 25 for women) without permission, the penalty was death for rape notwithstanding the woman's consent. By the way, actors and actresses couldn't marry either, because their profession was viewed by the church as immoral.
The aristocracy was hardly committed to the sanctity of marriage. It was said at the court of Louis XIV some decades before the revolution that the aristocracy frowned on marital fidelity as being in bad taste, and a German visitor noted, "I know of not a single case of mutual affection and loyalty." I introduce this to make the point that marriage for the upper classes was all about property. Many of the sans-culottes did not marry at all. But in the Paris of the French Revolution, women were still largely dependent on men for economic reasons (whether or not they were legally married).
Much debate and several pieces of draft legislation on marriage and divorce had already been considered by the National Assembly before September 1792. All proposed to make marriage d simple civil affair. However, what stood in the way of this was the Catholic church. Those clergy who refused to swear an oath of loyalty were threatened with deportation. But the Pope forbade it, and a lot did refuse. Though some were deists or free thinkers, the bourgeois deputies in the Assembly had no intention of suppressing religion; they nearly all agreed that some kind of religion was necessary to keep the people pacified. But now they had a big problem on their hands as the village priests became organizers for counterrevolution.
The local priests not only carried out marriage ceremonies, baptisms and funerals, but also recorded them. If these records were in the hands of hostile forces, how could you count the population? You wouldn't even know if you had enough draftees for the army. When in June 1792 the Minister of Justice wrote that the civil war launched by the aristocracy and the church in the Vendee region in southwest France had completely disrupted the keeping of records, one delegate rose to propose that the marriage ceremony be abolished with the cry, "Freedom or death!" So in some ways, the progressive marriage and divorce laws enacted in September the same day as the victory at Valmy were war measures.
The age of adulthood was lowered to 21 and marriage without parental consent was legalized. This was followed by a June 1793 decree that proclaimed the right of illegitimate children to inherit from both their mothers and their fathers. At a stroke, the institution of the family lost one of its main functions as the framework for the transfer of property from one generation to the next. While inheritance rights didn't mean much to those without property, the new laws also tended to legitimize "free unions." For example, soldiers' common-law wives could receive government pensions.
Divorce had not been high on the list of grievances before the revolution, but as the pamphlets flowered, so did the notion that divorce was a necessary right in society. Probably rarely in history had a simple law so delighted the female population. When a certain citizen Bellepaume came to the town hall intending to oppose the divorce demanded by his wife, he found that she had organized "a considerable number of citizens of both sexes, but chiefly women" who pursued him in the corridors, abused him and tore his clothes. In the first year after the divorce law was passed, women
initiated over 70 percent of all divorces. One woman wrote to the Convention:
"The female citizen Govot, a free woman, solemnly comes to give homage to this sacred law of divorce. Yesterday, groaning under the control of a despotic husband, liberty was only an empty word for her. Today, returned to the dignity of an independent woman, she idolizes this beneficial law that breaks ill-matched ties and returns hearts to themselves, to nature, and finally to divine liberty. I offer my country six francs for the expense of war. I add my marriage ring, which was until today the symbol of my slavery."
The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women
The question of women's status in society had been a subject of debate throughout the Enlightenment. The Encyclopedia, published just before the revolution and intended as a compendium of all knowledge, contained four contributions under the category "Women": one in favor of equality, one ambiguous and two against. Even in a very radical work like Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), woman's role as subordinate to man inside the family was not seriously called into question. Wollstonecraft was part of a circle of British radical-democratic revolutionaries who supported the French Revolution against English monarchical reaction, even participating in the French government.
Most of the Enlightenment thinkers and writers concentrated on education for women, and that was about it. Now, this is undeniably a very important question, and it refuted the prevalent idea that women were inferior to men and their brains worked in an inferior way. Only about a third of French women at the time were literate. You'd find them during the revolutionary years at the corner cafe with their glass of red wine, reading or listening to someone else read Robespierre's latest speech. The hunger for knowledge was totally linked to the desire to change society. Before 1777, France had no daily newspaper. Two years later, there were 35 papers and periodicals and by 1789 there were 169. Thousands of political pamphlets rolled off the printing presses.
One of the novels based on the new research published in the last few years has the Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet, who wrote very eloquently about women's rights, and his lovely young wife enjoying long mornings reading a bit of Voltaire or the equivalent of the Sunday New York Times in bed with their cafe au lait, making love, and then getting up in the afternoon to walk in the garden and do their very serious intellectual work. Not a bad life, right? But it wasn't available to most people, of course. Condorcet ended by opposing the execution of Louis XVI, ostensibly on the grounds of opposition to the death penalty.
The working women of Paris who were a motor force in the revolution lived very different lives. Perhaps 45,000 women in Paris, some 20 percent, were wage earners; a similar percentage of women in cities like Lyon and Rouen worked. Because of the war, women were able to break into traditionally male professions and they were also employed at sewing, as domestic servants. Some were proprietors of shops. Wives, legal or otherwise, of soldiers at the front were given subsidies. The Paris municipal government and the political clubs set up spinning workshops that at a certain point employed several thousand women, though the wages were miserable. They were centralized by the government office responsible for producing clothes for the troops.
It was from among these women of the sans-culottes that the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was formed in the spring of 1793. One of the leaders of the society was the chocolate maker Pauline Leon, whom we last saw with her pike on the October 1789 march to Versailles. Another was the actress Claire Lacombe, who always followed her signature with "A Free Woman." A third was Anne Felicite' Colombe, who owned a print shop. Typography was generally a man's job, so she was already exceptional for this. In 1791, she had been one of the four women arrested when the National Guard shot down demonstrators at the Champs de Mars calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. Colombe printed the revolutionary newspapers of Jean-Paul Marat, L'Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People) and L'Orateur du Peuple (The Orator of the People). She was dragged into a libel suit, which she eventually won, and distributed the 20,000-//vre settlement to the poor in her neighborhood.
While women did not win the right to vote for delegates to the Convention, especially after the establishment of the Jacobin dictatorship in 1793 they played a full role in the Parisian sectional assemblies, intervening, presenting positions, voting and being elected as delegates. They refused to be "servile women, domestic animals," as one put it in May 1793. Interestingly, the one widespread demand for formal equality was for the right to bear arms. In March 1792, Pauline Leon had led a delegation to present a petition to the Assembly declaring:
"You cannot refuse us and society cannot remove from us this right which nature gives us, unless it is alleged that the Declaration of Rights is not applicable to women and that they must allow their throats to be slit, like sheep, without having the right to defend themselves."
The women demanded the right to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, and to assemble for maneuvers on the Champs de Mars. After much debate, the Assembly moved to put the petition in the minutes with honorable mention. Dozens of women actually went to the front when the war began, a few as officers.
The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women solidly backed the Jacobins as the revolutionary government and politically supported the extreme left Enrages around Jacques Roux, who spoke for the popular masses. Just after the Revolutionary Republican Women was founded, they mobilized the support of the masses in the streets for the Jacobins, whose battle to oust the Girondins was then coming to a head. As the split deepened, there were many more women than men in the street gatherings, according to police reports. The Revolutionary Republican Women dressed in military clothes and carried sabers. One account has them waging a military battle in the Convention to get back the seats which had been taken from them by supporters of the right-wing Gironde.
Reversal of Gains Under Thermidor
In October 1793, the society became one of the first organizations to be banned by the Jacobin government. Those feminist historians I mentioned earlier claim that this proves that the French Revolution was essentially hostile to women. That's wrong. The society was banned not because it was composed of women, but because it was one of the most radical expressions of the sans-culottes.
Here's what happened. The Enrages and the Revolutionary Republican Women fought for strict price controls, especially on food, and an upper limit on the size of personal fortunes. In October, the Revolutionary Republican Women launched a campaign to force all women to wear the revolutionary cockade. They brought their campaign to Les Halles, the central marketplace in Paris. The market women were of course hostile to the price maximum on food that had just been imposed by the Jacobin government as a concession to the sans-culottes. The question of the cockade was just the pretext for the major-league brawl that ensued between the market women and the women revolutionaries. This fight represented an early split in the Jacobins' base, and the Jacobins sided with the market women, banning the Revolutionary Republicans.
The peasants wanted maximum food prices, the artisan-proletariat in the cities wanted minimum ones, pointing to the spectre of a civil war which the sans-cullotes could not win. The Jacobins could have tried to strike a deal, but ultimately they could not satisfy the conflicting demands of the urban poor and the peasantry. When revolutionary Russia in the early 1920s was confronted with the "scissors crisis," as the price of scarce manufactured goods rose and the price of agricultural products fell 3nd the peasants threatened to withhold their produce, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky proposed a course of planned industrialization to make more manufactured goods available to the peasants and maintain their support for the proletarian dictatorship. Trotsky's proposal was rejected at the time (only to be implemented at forced-march pace a few years later by Stalin). But such an option was objectively unrealizable in the capitalist economic system of pre-industrial France.
By the fall of 1793, the Jacobins and revolutionary France were gasping for air. Mandatory conscription had provoked mass uprisings in the Vendee; there had been treachery at the front; the armies of the European monarchies had reinvaded France; and Girondin provinces were seceding; Marat, the "friend of the people," had been assassinated by the royalist Charlotte Corday. Against this backdrop, the Revolutionary Republican Women, in their revolutionary zeal against the market women, threatened to get in the way of prompt and regular deliveries of food to the city from the countryside, without which the Jacobins would have lost the allegiance of the urban masses.
Many of the revolutionary women continued to be active as individuals. Even after being arrested by the Jacobin government, Claire Lacombe stayed loyal to Robespierre. She never renounced her support, and after Robespierre's execution she always refused to point out that she had been arrested by his revolutionary government because she hated the idea of becoming a hero of the Thermidorians. Women played a vanguard role in the last uprising of the French Revolution in the spring of 1795, after Thermidor. The rallying cry was "Bread and the Constitution of 1793!"
The modern feminist historians believe that the role of women who rose up from the "cellars and catacombs" has been largely obscured because of prevailing patriarchal attitudes in society. Or they seek to show that women acted only on "women's issues," mainly food shortages. While there's some truth in both these observations, they fundamentally miss the point. The mass of active women in the French Revolution did not fight and organize as women but as revolutionaries. And, as the October 1789 march that brought the king back from Versailles showed, it wasn't simply the question of bread that motivated them.
Thermidor marked the end of the radical phase of the revolution, and women were among the first to feel this. This was especially true for divorced women, who would have trouble finding work and maintaining themselves under the conservative Thermidorians. Divorce became identified with the "ruin of society" and the "torrent of corruption that invaded the cities and especially Paris" during the Terror and the months that followed it. Proof of a legitimate marriage became a requirement for soldiers' wives seeking to receive aid. After May 1795, the Convention banned women from "attending political assemblies," urging them to withdraw to their homes and ordering "the arrest of those who would gather together in groups of more than five."
The Napoleonic Code saw a further reversal of the gains of women. It's reported that the only part of the deliberations on the Napoleonic Code that Bonaparte sat in on was the Family Code enacted in 1804. The Family Code again made women minors from the standpoint of the law, mandating that they had to have the approval of their husbands for all contracts and so forth. In 1816, a year after Napoleon was overthrown and the monarchy restored, divorce was abolished.
For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
I want to briefly trace the revolutionary continuity extending from the French Revolution through the 19th century. The French Revolution, refracted through Napoleon's armies, brought the first notions of women's equality to hideously backward tsarist Russia. Following Napoleon's defeat, Paris was occupied by Russian troops for a period of time. A number of young officers spent a lot of time in the cafes talking to people about what had been going on, and went back to St. Petersburg and led the Decembrist Uprising against the tsarist autocracy in 1825. They fought, among other things, for women's equality.
The very first communist ideas came out of the analysis developed by some of the radical Jacobins while in prison after the defeat of the Jacobin dictatorship. Revolutionaries like Gracchus Babeuf, who organized the Conspiracy of Equals, and Philippe Buonarroti came to believe that private property itself was the cause of oppression. They provided a living link to Marx and Engels, who issued the Communist Manifesto as the next revolutionary wave swept Europe in 1848, declaring: "The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital." In France, a program was advanced for women's emancipation that called for replacing domestic slavery with socially organized and financed services. I found this 1848 program reprinted in an early 1920s women's journal published by the French Communist Party, L'Ouvriere (The Woman Worker).
In the Paris Commune in 1871, women once again played an extremely important role. Marx described the Commune as the first realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though it lasted less than three months. The women of the Paris Commune were called the "incendiaries" by the reactionary press, and a correspondent for the London Times wrote, "If the French Nation were composed of nothing but women, what a terrible nation it would be." But Marx hailed them: "The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives on the barricades and execution grounds" (quoted in Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries ). When the French capitalist rulers finally defeated the Commune after heroic resistance, they slaughtered at least 30,000 people in one week, and many thousands more were sent to penal colonies.
Today, bourgeois France is an imperialist power, where the July 14 storming of the Bastille is celebrated as a chauvinist glorification of the "grandeur of France"—much like July 4 here—while French colonial atrocities are carried out to the music of the once-revolutionary hymn, the Marseillaise.
We Trotskyists know that it will take world socialist revolution to do away with the institutions which are the root cause of women's oppression. In our fight to reforge Leon Trotsky's Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution, to lead new October Revolutions around the planet, we are guided by the words of the Fourth International's founding document, the 1938 Transitional Program: "The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class, consequently among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness, and readiness to sacrifice." Join us!