Lacombe, Claire (1765–?)

views updated

Lacombe, Claire (1765–?)

French actress who became a vocal champion of women's rights during the French Revolution only to discover that most men, revolutionary or not, were unwilling to concede the political equality of the sexes. Name variations: Rosa Lacombe. Born in Pamiers in southern France on August 4, 1765; date and place of death unknown, though it was after 1795.

Toured southern provinces as a tragic actress in plays of Corneille and Racine and attained a minor reputation in the theaters of Lyons and Marseilles; came to Paris during the French Revolution (1792), just before her 27th birthday, and took a prominent part in the popular attack on the royal palace, the Tuileries (August 10, 1792), that led to the fall of the French monarchy; organized Women's Republican Revolutionary Society in Paris (spring 1793) to agitate for female political rights, and associated with protosocialist faction known as the Enragés; denounced by the Jacobin faction and arrested on orders of the Committee of Public Safety (April 1794); detained in prison until 1795 after which she disappeared from public view.

Claire Lacombe, although not as well known to history as Manon Roland and Germaine de Staël , was a talented and dedicated champion of a woman's right to participate in the political life of the French nation during the era of the French Revolution. Devoid of the wealth of Roland and de Staël, and having no social position, Lacombe could not affect the development of the Revolution from the comfort and security of the salon. Instead, a woman of theatrical experience, she entered the drama of the streets, the world of blood and bad odors. Relentlessly, she argued that as women had risked their lives to make and to save the Revolution to the same degree that their brothers had, women should, therefore, speak with equal voices and with equal votes in the new order. Eventually, her voice was stilled.

Nothing is known about Lacombe's girlhood. She was born in poverty in 1765 and drifted into the itinerant life of an actress in a repertory company. Accounts of her as a young woman suggest that she was quite beautiful with her well-proportioned body, dark hair and eyes, wide mouth, and practiced stage presence. Drawn to drama on the stage and in life, she played the heroine in the elevated plays of Racine and Corneille which were so popular in the late 18th century on the eve of the Revolution. By her early 20s, she was an accomplished performer and had trod the boards in Lyons and Marseilles playhouses. Her object (and that of all actresses of her day) to appear in the great theaters of Paris, eluded her, however. At best, Lacombe was a regional luminary, a prisoner of the mobile and insecure career she had chosen. Without connections or family, she made her way as best she could in the filthy hotels, reeking taverns, and provincial theaters of the Old Regime.

During the 1780s, Claire Lacombe grew into adulthood, and in the same decade her native France ventured into a new age of radical political and social transition. In the wineshops and hotels, in the lobbies and stalls of ancient playhouses, in the halls of distinguished parlements and provincial assemblies, the talk was of reform, of change, of a new way of life for all the French. Louis XVI, the king of France, became the subject of ridicule, and his queen, Marie Antoinette , the object of hatred and vicious slanders. The country, deep in debt and unable to satisfy the conflicting demands of aristocrats, peasants, urban workers, or ambitious men of the professions and the market place, drifted from one crisis to the next. Lacombe learned that the playwright Beaumarchais had staged the subversive Marriage of Figaro in Paris and had become the darling of the city. Great events seemed to be at hand, and Lacombe, never one to be far from center stage, did not intend to be a spectator.

In May 1789, an exasperated Louis XVI convened a meeting of representatives of the nation, an Estates General, at Versailles. With royal bankruptcy looming, with one reform after another thwarted by vested interests, the king, good hearted if ineffective, hoped that such an extraordinary consultation might produce a solution to the knotty financial problems of his dynasty. The assembled delegates, however, were not content with discussions of loans and taxes. Inundated by a century of literary enlightenment, inspired by the successful American Revolution, and determined to knock down the doors of privilege and secure for themselves and their posterity the blessings of liberty and the rights of man and citizen, the delegates defied the king and formed the National Constituent Assembly. They would, they vowed, write a new constitution for France that would limit the monarch, create uniform justice and rational administration, and bring into existence a national legislature. The Revolution had begun. But little or nothing was said about the one-half of the population that was female.

It is not enough to tell the people that its happiness is imminent; it is necessary that the people should feel its effects.

—Claire Lacombe at the bar of the National Convention of Revolutionary France, 1793

Claire Lacombe yearned to go to Paris, to be in the midst of the stirring events of the time. In October 1789, Parisian market women marched to Versailles to demand that the king and the National Assembly take action to control soaring bread prices. After some violence, in which Marie Antoinette almost lost her life, the royal family and the Assembly were coerced into taking up quarters in Paris under the watchful eyes of the increasingly influential municipal government, the Commune, and the newly organized Sections of the city. These Sections, with their local revolutionary assemblies, pressed for significant economic changes to improve the lot of the poor and to bring about political and social equality. The gentlemen of the National Assembly, on their side, feared the leveling designs of the poorer Sections, and placed restrictions on the suffrage while reserving office in the new regime to men of property. Despite petitions for political equality, and regardless of their prominent role in the march on Versailles and in the overthrow of royal power in Paris in July 1789, women were not included as "active citizens" in the Constitution completed by the National Assembly in 1791.

In June 1791, Louis XVI and his family failed in an effort to escape France in order to resist the Revolution from abroad. Leaders of the Assembly, fearing the growing power of the Commune and the urban masses all over France, resisted suggestions for a republic and accepted Louis' promise to rule as a constitutional monarch under the new Constitution. Soon, a new legislature, the Legislative Assembly, was elected and convened. For many, the Revolution seemed to be over, but not for the inhabitants of the Parisian Sections hard hit by inflation under the newly freed economy. Inevitably, perhaps, the revolutionary press blossomed with sharp criticism of the new "bourgeois" government and with demands for a republic to check the "bloodsuckers" of the market place. Torn by factional strife, especially between the provincial clique known as the Girondins, inspired by Madame Manon Roland outside the Assembly, and the Jacobins, led by popular heroes such as the journalist Jean Paul Marat and the lawyer Maximilien Robespierre, also outside the legislature, the Legislative Assembly stumbled into foreign war in April 1792 with the hostile German states of Prussia and Austria. The French, particularly the Girondins, wished to liberate Europe from the tyranny of kings; the Jacobins, at first opposed to war, leaned toward greater democracy at home and sought to liberate France from the tyranny of money. On all sides, suspicions took root and none more firmly than those regarding the loyalty of the royal family.

Having carefully husbanded her money, Lacombe made her way to Paris in July 1792. She arrived in a city at war, in revolution, and in trouble. Despite joyous celebrations on July 14, in observance of the fall of the royal fortress, the Bastille, three years before, in which Lacombe eagerly joined the throngs in dancing and singing, the citizenry was worried and frightened. The war was going poorly. Prussian forces had defeated ill-prepared and poorly disciplined French armies at the front, and invasion was expected daily. Everywhere, people saw spies, traitors, war speculators, and profiteers. The young actress could hardly avoid being influenced by the talk in the streets; she heard of the oppression of the people, and she felt it. From the beginning, her heart was with the underdog citizens of the Sections.

As soon as she could, Lacombe took a room in a cheap hotel and attended sessions of the Legislative Assembly and the Commune. She also visited the Jacobin Club where orators such as Camille Desmoulins and Jean Paul Marat denounced the Girondins for ineptitude and oppression of the people and Louis XVI for treachery. In this heady atmosphere, Lacombe began to make friends, establish contacts, and attempt to pocket a little money by acting in the numerous patriotic tableaus of the time. She sewed herself a dress in the colors of the tricolor, the red, white, and blue flag of the Revolution, and fell into the inflammatory language of the Sections. Although attending the Jacobins and frequenting the Commune, she felt the helplessness of being female in a world owned by men, even if many of those men stood for liberty and equality. Even so, she gained some attention by being called upon to speak before the Legislative Assembly in late July. Employing her best dramatic style, Lacombe proclaimed that she had no money to give for the salvation of France, but, like many other women, she was ready to lay down her life for the nation.

On August 10, 1792, Lacombe got the opportunity to take direct action on behalf of her ringing affirmation and strong political convictions. A conspiracy formed by a new Revolutionary Commune, the Sections, and the Jacobins exploded into a massive attack on the Tuileries by thousands of armed citizens. Determined to save the Revolution from the foreign foe and from internal counterrevolution, the crowd forced its way past the king's Swiss guards, killing most of them, and pursued the king into the Legislative Assembly. Cowed by the mob, the legislators voted to suspend the monarchy and to place Louis under arrest. Claire Lacombe, apparently everywhere at the same time, was among the leaders of the assault, and she was shot through the arm. The next day, she was proclaimed the Heroine of August Tenth and given a "Civic Crown." The time had come for her to perform her most important role.

Two days after the attack on the Tuileries, Lacombe spoke again to the Legislative Assembly. Offering her "Civic Crown" to the delegates, she praised them for their "courage, wisdom, and patriotism." The actress from the south was now a figure of renown, and her circle of comrades expanded, especially among the radical element known as the Enragés.

The Enragés were a shifting group of politicians, agitators, intellectuals, and workers whose sympathy was generally with the Jacobins. Unlike the majority of that national faction, however, the Parisian Enragés wished to see the Revolution bring about a controlled economy to curb the ballooning power of the moneyed middle classes and to reduce, if not abolish, all social distinctions in the new society. More moderate Jacobins, even the fiery journalist Marat, disliked the Enragés and suspected them of being destructive of the Revolution either by excessive populist demands or by being secret agents of the counterrevolution. Lacombe, on the other hand, found the Enragés much to her taste. She began to associate with Jacques Roux, a former priest, sometimes called the "Red Priest." Others in the group included youthful Jean Varlet, in love with his own voice, Pauline Léon , a laundress, and, of the most significance to Lacombe, Théophile Leclerc, a 22-year-old journalist who served as a deputy from Lyons in the Legislative Assembly. Théophile and Lacombe agreed on many issues, including her intense belief in political rights for women. Fascinated by accounts of his voyages to the French West Indies and his strong devotion to the people, Lacombe fell in love.

Léon, Pauline (1758–?)

French revolutionary and feminist. Born in Paris, France, in 1758; death date unknown; daughter of a chocolate manufacturer; married (Jean) Théophile Leclerc, in November 1793.

The daughter of a father who was a chocolate manufacturer, Pauline Léon joined with her mother in running his business following his death; she also helped raise her five siblings. In 1791, Léon joined the Jacobin Société des Cordeliers and was chosen to speak at the National Assembly where she sought approval for a women's militia. Along with Claire Lacombe , Léon was one of the principle founders of the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society (Société des Révolutionaries Républicaines), becoming its president in 1793. In 1794, she was arrested, along with her husband Théophile Leclerc, and detained in Luxembourg prison. At this point, she is lost to history.

The couple were soon caught up in their romance and their dedication to the Revolution. In late 1792 and early 1793, they and other Enragés were constantly involved in discussions, plans, and dreams. They survived and probably approved of the dreadful September Massacres in which more than 2,000 political prisoners were murdered through the "people's justice" of the Revolutionary Commune. Then in the spring, Lacombe, with some assistance from Leclerc and Pauline Léon, organized the first purely women's organization of the Revolution. Called the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society (Société des Révolutionaries Républicaines), it was loosely attached to the Jacobin Club and sometimes met in the club's quarters. Pauline Léon became its first president and Claire Lacombe its initial secretary. From the Society's podium, women of the common people gained the opportunity to voice their grievances and to appeal for full political rights. Sheltering under the protection of the powerful Jacobins, Lacombe and her comrades took part in the denunciation of the Girondins, carefully examined questions before the newly convened National Convention, occasionally presented petitions to that body, and armed themselves to patrol the streets against counterrevolutionaries. On May 26, for instance, upon seeing the female Girondin, Anne-Josèph Théroigne de Méricourt , in the gallery of the Convention, Lacombe attacked the woman with a whip and almost killed her.

By the summer of 1793, the Girondins had been proscribed, and the Jacobins began to turn on one another. Marat denounced the Enragés as agents of the counterrevolution shortly before he was murdered by a Girondin sympathizer, Charlotte Corday , on July 13. Shocked by the murder, the Enragés, and the Women's Revolutionary Society, proposed a memorial to Marat in the Commune. When nothing was done, Lacombe, now president of the Society, moved ahead on her own to set up a temporary wooden obelisk in the Place du Carrousel. To many in the Commune, in the Jacobins, and in the Convention, however, the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society was beginning to appear an altogether too independent entity. Most ominously, Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins and a key member of the Convention's dominant Committee of Public Safety, expressed his view that the women were bringing ridicule upon the Revolution. In fact, Robespierre, like most men of the time, regarded any political action by women as unnatural. Moreover, the Committee of Public Safety, launching a frightening official Terror to force the nation to destroy internal and external enemies and to make the sacrifices necessary for victory, would not tolerate any "unofficial" terror or political independence. Claire Lacombe either did not understand this or did not care. She pressed on. She petitioned the Convention to establish price controls on basic commodities.

Among the Jacobins, the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society was frequently the target of fierce denunciations and even more so as the autumn of 1793 approached. Lacombe was almost always blamed for every transgression. She stood fast but was, even so, surely hurt by her lover Leclerc's desertion in favor of Pauline Léon. Then, on September 16, François Chabot, a sometimes friend of limited women's rights, bitterly attacked Lacombe's group in the Jacobins and said that Lacombe had attempted to secure freedom for certain counterrevolutionaries. Lacombe had no chance to deny the charge, and when her female friends burst into the hall, there were shouts of "Down with the new Corday!" Some called for her arrest. Lacombe and her supporters counterattacked, however, by calling for the arrest of the wives of absent counterrevolutionaries, and for the rehabilitation of prostitutes. Indeed, the Society even succeeded in persuading the Convention to decree that all women must wear the national cockade and influenced the enactment of the Law of the Maximum, which placed price controls on key goods.

It was this very success in securing the Maximum, however, that cost the Society the support of many Parisian women. Market women had been a moving force in the great journées or days of the Revolution. The Maximum was detrimental to their narrow profit margins, and they blamed Lacombe and the Women's Revolutionary Society for it. Their resentment increased when Lacombe demanded that the Commune conduct inspections to enforce the law and punish violators severely. For its part, the Commune leadership did not consider the advice of the Women's Society necessary and, in fact, listened sympathetically when market women complained that members of the Women's Society were indecently wearing men's clothing in the streets, forcing all women to wear the cockade and the red bonnet of the Revolution, and carrying loaded pistols. Meanwhile, in the Convention, Claire Lacombe was shouted down and her friend, Jacques Roux, was censured in the Jacobins and arrested by the Committee of Public Safety. When Lacombe offered to draw up an accurate list of traitors for the Convention, the delegates regarded her with disgust.

It is almost certain that Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety would have struck against Lacombe and the other Enragés sooner if they had not been preoccupied with their life-and-death struggle with the Girondins that September. The Jacobin press, however, now turned in earnest against both the Enragés and the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society. "Rosa" Lacombe, as some of her friends knew her, struck back by accusing Robespierre of mediocrity and claiming he had arranged Roux's arrest to silence him. She could still shout to the Jacobins as late as early October that she believed in the people and that she would rather die than make deals with "robbers and traitors."

The event that finally broke the Women's Society was the riot that erupted between Claire Lacombe and her supporters and the market women on October 28 in the Saint Innocent's Market. The members of the Women's Society arrived at the market intending to force the market women to don the revolutionary cockade and the red bonnet. Warned of the march, the market women attacked first and, with sticks, stones, and rotten fruit, beat them mercilessly. When Lacombe's women tried to retreat, they were ambushed and beaten the more. Eventually, Lacombe and her ragged defenders made it to their headquarters at the Church of St. Eustache, but many market women soon arrived as well. After some excited exchanges and wild rumors made the rounds of the sanctuary, another fight ensued. More blood flowed before officials from the Convention could break up the fray. Regardless of the responsibility for the violence, in the Commune, in the Jacobins, in the Sections, and in the Convention, Claire Lacombe and the Women's Republican Revolutionary Society were blamed.

On the 29th and 30th of October, several speakers in the Convention, led by Fabre d'Eglantine, who hated the Maximum, and Amar, a member of the powerful Committee of General Security, denounced the Women's Society. The Convention responded by banning all women's clubs and popular societies. On November 12, Lacombe led her women into the Commune to protest the ban but was received with catcalls and threats. Commune leaders and the Jacobin press resounded with admonitions to the women to be good republicans by staying home and attending to their domestic duties and raising tomorrow's citizens. Without her organization, now legally disbanded, Lacombe had no vehicle to carry on her fight.

In January 1794, Jacques Roux killed himself. Others close to Lacombe were under surveillance, and she knew she was not safe. Having lost heart and disgusted with the Jacobin Terror raging across France, the president of the Women's Revolutionary Republican Society decided to leave Paris and resume her career as an actress. Of course, in one sense, she had never left that profession. Before she could depart for Dunkirk, however, she was caught by surprise and arrested on April 2, 1794.

For 16 months, Lacombe was confined in prison. Her friends, such as were left, tried to obtain her freedom but without success. When the Robespierrists were themselves overthrown in August 1794, Lacombe wrote to the victors speaking of her services to the nation. She was ignored. In these long months, she served many of her fellow prisoners with remembered services. Finally, in the autumn of 1795, the doors of her prison swung open and she was free.

The actress in the red bonnet, with a pistol in one hand and a whip in the other, disappeared into the darkness of time. No one knows her end. Perhaps she became one of those market women who had hated her so much; perhaps she returned to the rambling life of her youth. Intemperate, impulsive, and impolitic, Claire Lacombe damaged her own cause, the cause of women's rights. Yet, it is difficult to see how a woman of the streets could have gained popular support without her stridency. In any event, her defeat was ultimately more than the rejection of Claire Lacombe, of the Enragés, and of their crude socialism. It was the rejection of women as a legitimate political force, even in a revolution. Many modern women, even those in revolutions, would understand Claire Lacombe's rage.


Bridenthal, Renate, and Claudia Koonz, eds. Becoming Visible: Women in European History. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, pp. 244–249.

Melzer, Sara E., and Leslie W. Rabine, eds. Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sokolnikova, Galina Osipovna. Nine Women Drawn From the Epoch of the French Revolution. Translated by H.C. Stevens. NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1932, reprinted 1969.

suggested reading:

Richet, Dennis. "Enragés," in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf. Translated by Arthur Goldhamme. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

C. David Rice , Chair and Professor at the Department of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri