LIBERTY: THE LIVES AND TIMES OF SIX WOMEN IN REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE
By Lucy Moore
HarperCollins, $27.95, 464 pages
REVIEWED BY CYNTHIA GRENIER
Coinciding with the 214th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the onset of the French Revolution, it seems perhaps only fitting to examine a lively new work by a talented young English historian, dedicated to “The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France.” The six women whose lives Lucy Moore has chosen to study could hardly be more disparate. (The book, incidentally, despite its subject matter is not overly feminist in its orientation.)
The feminine sextet ranges from Germaine de Stael, a rara avis who has earned her own place in history, to Pauline Leon, a political activist who died totally unknown. As for Madame de Stael, she was daughter of Louis XVI’s Minister of Finance, Jacques Necker, married at 20 to a Swedish diplomat 17 years her senior. As Ms. Moore puts it succinctly, “Stael married Germaine for her money, and she married him for her freedom.”
Every Tuesday evening, she used to hold small dinner parties in her home on rue de Bac on the Left Bank. It was considered the hottest invitation of the day to attend one of Madame de Stael’s glittering salons. Everyone who mattered in the realm of arts, literature and politics would be present. America’s envoy to France, Gouverneur Morris, jotted down in his journal in 1791, “Go hence to Mme de Stael’s, I meet here the world.”
The salon was a very special, uniquely French institution dating from the 17th century, always presided over by women. As the Goncourt brothers were to observe a century later, woman was ordained as “the governing principle, the directing reason and voice” of 18th-century high society.
Many reformers of the age viewed the influence exercised by women, particularly by the salonnieres, as evidence of the corruption of the ancien regime. Indeed boudoir politics, as they were so termed, were cited as one of the chief problems plaguing France at that time. In 1788 Thomas Jefferson told George Washington that women’s demands “bid defiance to [natural] laws and regulations” and had reduced France to a “desperate state.”
In October 1789 at five in the morning, some 2,000 women gathered in front of the Hotel de Ville — city hall — breaking into the building, blocking its doors and refusing entrance to all males on the grounds that men were not strong enough to take vengeance on their enemies and that women would do a better job of it.
In no time the crowd had swelled to more than 6,000 women, who then marched through a driving rain 14 kilometers to Versailles to set their plaints before the king himself. Louis XVI, faced with these hoards of angry, wet women, yielded to their demands, agreeing to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, an act he had been delaying for nearly a month.
Two months before the fall of the Bastille in May, a group of women went to the Hotel de Ville to register the first all-female revolutionary society: The Societe des Republicaines-Revolutionnaires. The impetus for the group came from a 29-year-old actress from the south of France and a 35-year-old chocolate seller named Pauline Leon, who devoutly desired that their society would speed the Revolution and bring about a “glorious” new era.
The author details a meeting that eerily foreshadows some of our century’s own feminist gatherings. Citing female warriors of history from the biblical Judith to Joan of Arc, from the Amazons to the matrons of Sparta, the speaker declaims: “If women are suited for combat, they are no less suited for government.” Perhaps her choice of Catherine de Medici, Madame de Pompadour and Madame DuBarry (who had gone screaming and struggling to the guillotine a few days before) was perhaps not the most felicitous for making her argument. (The latter two women being kings’ mistresses.)
But each of these women’s lives were indeed touched by the Revolution — one, Manon Roland, lost her head to Madame la Guillotine; another, Theroigne de Mericourt, officially declared insane in 1794 before Napoleon came to power, spent the last 13 years of her life chained in wretched asylums; and the third, the chocolate seller, simply vanished from the pages of official records after being released from prison upon the execution of Robespierre.
For all the role women yearned to play in the Revolution, their actual influence, according to Ms. Moore, ultimately was slight. Yes, they did have a certain vestimentary impact. Elaborate gowns, confining corsets, whalebones and voluminous skirts of Marie Antoinette and women for hundreds of preceeding years abruptly gave way to flimsy robes and generously exposed bosoms. Theresia de Fontenay took to wearing diamond toe rings and anklets to conceal or perhaps show off her scars from the rat bites she had received in prison.
Robespierre, a misogynist of the first order, chose to view women exclusively as wives and mothers, placing pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers in the first ranks of a procession celebrating the Festival of the Supreme Being. Napoleon, before he came to power and was still simply a young general, found the revolutionary women quite to his taste, writing in a letter to a friend, “What all these frivolous women have in common is an astonishing love of bravery and glory.”
But when Madame de Stael, taken with Napoleon’s bravery and glory, sought to win him to a more intimate relationship, and asked him on one occasion who was the greatest woman in history, the general retorted curtly:
“The one, Madame, who has had the greatest number of children,” and turned on his heel and walked off. “Extraordinary man,” gasped Madame de Stael, not accustomed to receiving this sort of response from any male.
Napoleon’s Civil Code became law of the land in March 1804, two months before he was declared emperor. Not surprisingly, the laws dealing with women were structured so as to severely restrict their independence. Women were viewed as legal minors all their lives. “We need the notion of obedience, in Paris especially,” said Napoleon, “where women think they have the right to do as they like.” Public education, he judged, was not suitable for girls “because they are never called upon to act in public.”
Perhaps the last and most fitting comment to make on this quite admirable work are the words of Manon Roland, who stoically met her death on the guillotine. Looking up at the mighty knife about to fall upon her neck, she murmured, “Oh, Liberty, what crimes they commit in your name.”
Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer and critic.