Since the French Revolution: The Job and the Vote

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Since the French Revolution: The Job and the Vote

Book excerpt

By: Simone De Beauvoir

Date: September 1989

Source: De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

About the Author: Simone De Beauvoir was born in 1908, the eldest of two daughters. De Beauvoir graduated from the Sorbonne in 1929 and taught high school while she developed her philosophy on feminism and existentialism. Her writings were influenced by her friend, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and focuses on the historical oppression of women. Her works include, "The Second Sex," "The Mandarins," and "The Coming of Age."


In 1788, economic hardships in France caused unrest among the middle class. As a result, King Louis XVI was forced to summon the Estates General, the medieval legislative body which had not met since 1614. The Estates General opened at Versailles on May 5, 1788, to address the "cahiers de doleances," or list of grievances compiled by citizens. However, controversy erupted at the Estates General over the representation of the commoners in the body. The First Estate consisted of clerical representatives; the Second Estate represented the nobility. The Third Estate represented the commoners. Traditionally, members of the First and Second Estates unified and overlooked the concerns of the Third Estate. By June 17, 1789, continued conflict over whether deliberations should take place by estate and how each estate's vote would be tallied led to the Third Estate separating itself to declare the National Assembly. The National Assembly invited members from the other two estates to join and enough defected to the assembly to force the King to acknowledge its existence.

The revolution in France took a violent turn on July 14, 1789 as Parisians stormed and destroyed the Bastille, an old prison. The act was viewed as an attack on feudalism. However, it also set off a period of unrest throughout France. By August 4, 1789, the nobility voluntarily surrendered all feudal rights and privileges. This period also contributed to the creation of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," a document written in the same spirit as the American Bill of Rights. The declaration states, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights" and that "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression" are within the natural rights of man.

In 1791, Olympe de Gouge published the "Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen" in response to the absence of women's stated rights and equality under the law in the "Declaration of the Right's of Man." During the 1790s, women began to form clubs to discuss politics and inject themselves into the political revolution. Women sought equal rights within marriage, the right to divorce, property rights for widows and parental rights for widowed mothers. In de Gouges' declaration, she writes, "Man, are you capable of being just?" She states, "woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights." However, "Having become free, [man] has become unjust to his companion."

Shortly after the death of the king, the second phase of the French Revolution placed Maximilien Robespierre into dictatorial power over the country. Working class men and women held that they had gained little benefit from the revolution. They demanded both universal suffrage and participatory democracy. However, the period became known as the "Reign of Terror" as thousands of protesters were put to death at the guillotines. Olympe de Gouges was one of those executed during the Reign of Terror. Women during this period became identified with extreme violence in images of women knitting while watching executions at the guillotines or by firing guns near their children. In February of 1792 and again in February of 1793, women led protests and riots over rising food prices. In May 1793, the Society of Revolutionary Republic Women formed as a women's club. The group was created to gain political education and voice for women. However, the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, asserted that women did not belong in the political debate and that their influence belonged in the home. As a result, the organization, along with all other political women's clubs, were outlawed and many of their participants arrested.


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Women participated in many facets of the French Revolution. Women organized marches, participated in debates, petitioned for rights and ran schools. However, most 18th Century activists and philosophers viewed women as biologically and socially different than man. Women worked as shopkeepers and seamstresses, defined by their sex not their occupation. Activists sought the primary right of education for women over rights to vote or own property. As a result, women never gained the political rights achieved by men during the revolution. In fact women in France did not gain the right to vote until 1944. Ironically, the images of the French revolution are largely female figures in Roman togas. The image of liberty is embodied in "Marianne," the most famous symbol of the revolution.


Web sites

California State University, Fullerton. "The French Revolution." 〈〉 (accessed March 18, 2006).

Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. "Women and the Revolution." 〈〉 (accessed March 18, 2006).

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Since the French Revolution: The Job and the Vote

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