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Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and France

Linda Garbaye
p. 213-230


This paper retraces the involvement of American and French women and men in favor of women’s rights during the periods of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. In both the United States and France, women participated in these major historical events through street protests, in their writings and correspondence, and, in rare cases, they took part in fighting. In spite of this, the issue of women’s rights remained controversial, mainly because their social role was strictly confined to domestic tasks. Nevertheless, some women and men, on both sides of the Atlantic, chose to be involved in activities favoring women’s rights. These individuals and/or groups were more or less well-known, and they came from various social backgrounds. In this article, I seek to present them, as well as the objectives and arguments they used to achieve their goal. While taking stock of the social, political and institutional specificities of each country, I will highlight the parallels between the activities of these women’s rights supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing in particular on their use of the Enlightenment’s concept of natural rights and of other revolutionary ideas.

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Editor's notes

This article was presented in the “XVIIIe siècle” workshop at the SAES 2015 conference on “L’engagement”.

Full text

1Supporters of women’s rights in this period were mostly Enlightenment intellectuals and politicians who strongly believed in individual rights, whatever the sex of the person. Among prominent supporters – men and women – who are often presented in the historiography on this subject, are Abigail Adams (Garbaye, “Women and Politics in North America”) or Judith Sargent Murray (Skemp). In France, the classic references on the subject include Nicolas de Caritas, better known as Marquis de Condorcet (Badinter) or playwright Olympe de Gouges (Blanc). In addition to these historical figures, there are also American and French citizens, individually or in groups who, on specific occasions, voiced the necessity for women to obtain equal rights with men. I highlight the diversity of active participants who supported and acted in favor of women’s rights. In addition to the prominent political actors and writers of the time, there were also ordinary American and French citizens, acting either individually, in all female groups, or in mixed ones.

  • 1  In the 1780s public schools were opened to girls in the north, and the majority of white women cou (...)

2What are the main resemblances and differences between the United States and France regarding women’s rights and their supporters? Even though the history of the two countries, their respective institutions and systems of government, language and religion differ, one finds in both countries several points of similarity. For instance, they both experienced a revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, and supporters of women’s rights were influenced in each case by Enlightenment ideas, insisting on equality, education, solidarity, reason, rationalism, science, anti-absolutism and sociability, and which had an impact on the issue of women’s rights. Whether in Europe or in America, equal educational opportunities were greatly advocated, by comparison with other types of rights, like political rights, which were considered to be less consensual claims.1

3Beyond these resemblances, however, the two countries are also characterized by key differences related to the organization of government and the public space. In the U.S., a federal country, issues such as political rights should be understood both at the local and the national levels, which is not the case of the French Republic. Additionally, as I also show below, women’s rights supporters in France went further in their claims than their American counterparts, for instance on the question of voting rights. As also mentioned by Lynn Hunt, the fact that secular female organizations existed in France, and that they discussed politics collectively, is considerable for the period and had no equivalent in other countries. The political spaces that existed in France did not exist in America. American women had to resort mostly to charitable and benevolent societies to act collectively (Hunt 204-05). Following Hunt’s approach to the differences between women’s political participation in the United States and France, one possible explanation for this, among others, thus seems to be linked to the differences in the mode of expression of conflicts; in France, public and political spaces – salons, streets, clubs, and societies, etc. – were more open to women. It is these public and political spaces that may have enabled French women to participate more actively than their American counterparts.

4American women did not entirely abstain from taking collective action; one can mention for instance the boycott of British products, or the support lent to the American continental army through the collection of funds, as for example by the Philadelphia Ladies Association in 1780. This type of endeavor was also a way for such groups to show their patriotism and to engage in informal politics (Norton 178). However, there remains the fact that women were less active than in France in political debates, and that they mainly attended or participated in smaller, more private circles, and in their personal correspondence.

Women’s Political Rights in The United States

5In America, both women of the elite and working-class women participated in the revolutionary war effort in a variety of ways. There were rare individual involvements in the army like the one of Deborah Sampson Gannett. And some women participated to the American Revolutionary Committees of Safety (Kerber, Women of the Republic 54-55). Women from a privileged background such as Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams considered that it was fully appropriate for women to be interested in politics. Working-class women were preoccupied by revolutionary concerns and they participated in food riots as well (Knott & Taylor 24; Zagarri, “The Rights” 206). As mentioned above, they would also engage in the collection of funds for the army or the boycott of British products.

The Colonial Period and the War of Independence

6In colonial America, any colonist, including unmarried women, possessing at least fifty pounds was qualified to vote. But in practice not many women voted, for several reasons such as the weight of traditional exclusion of women from public activities. Furthermore, in rare cases, changes took place in the seventeenth century in disfavor of women’s political entitlements; this was the case of the Virginia Laws of 1699 that withdrew these entitlements for propertied unmarried women. And in Maryland, Margaret Brent tried to use her voting rights, as she was the legal executrix for the deceased Leonard Calvert. He himself had represented his brother Lord Baltimore. Consequently, she claimed that she had to be granted two votes, i.e. one vote due to the fact that she was Calvert’s executrix, and the other on behalf of Lord Baltimore. But she failed to achieve this (Flexner 14).

7Later, in their writings, American revolutionaries insisted on the right for proprietors to be politically represented. On this subject, a major source of inspiration for American revolutionaries was John Locke, who had established tightened links between voting activities and property in the seventeenth century:

The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society: to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making […] For the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the commonwealth, and the public good should, upon examination and mature debate, be judged to require. (Locke 469-70)

8His natural rights theory implies that in the state of nature men are equal and they choose to set up a social contract collectively; in this contract, they accept limitations to their liberties to a certain extent, in exchange of the protection of their property by the government.

9The issue of political representation was thus at the heart of the American War of Independence. In this context, a “citizen,” in the political sense of the term, was a proprietor who had the privilege to vote, in theory regardless of his or her sex. Voting “rights” came later.

10James Otis Jr., a Patriot during the American Revolutionary period, wrote in his pamphlet of 1764 that “taxation without representation is a tyranny.” And, contesting the legality of British economic and political measures, he expanded debates on the principles of the British Constitution. The British authorities had no right to tax colonists, whether men or women, if they had no actual political representation in the House of Commons:

Is not every man born as free by nature as his father? Has he not the same natural right to think and act and contract for himself? Is it possible for a man to have a natural right to make a slave of himself or of his posterity? Can a father supersede the laws of nature? What man is or ever was born free if every man is not? What will there be to distinguish the next generation of men from their forefathers, that they should not have the same right to make original compacts as their ancestors had? If every man has such right, may there not be as many original compacts as there are men and women born or to be born? Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature? If every man or woman born or to be born has and will have a right to be consulted and must accede to the original compact before they can with any kind of justice be said to be bound by it, will not the compact be ever forming and never finished, ever making but never done? Can it with propriety be called a compact, original or derivative, that is ever in treaty but never concluded? (Otis 420)

11Women’s rights in this extract are not the central preoccupation, but it is worth noting that to mention these rights publicly was significant at that time.

12Women from a privileged background, or entrepreneurial women, expressed their views on issues such as women’s entitlements or political participation. Hannah Lee Corbin, sister of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, promoted women’s voting rights. Her brother represented the state of Virginia in Congress and, in a letter of March 1778, she asked him to act in favor of single women and widows. She argued that because these women were also taxpayers they also had to be admitted to the suffrage, in coherence with the revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation”. On this principle, Richard Henry Lee agreed with his sister but he did not try to implement it (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 668). Instead he referred to the existence of a delegated representation of women, through their male family members, to resolve the problem. Some other women, like Mary Willing Byrd, encountered similar problems. She paid taxes in the early 1780s, but she had lost her property during the war. But, in her case, and even though she considered that Virginia legislators had to treat propertied men and unmarried women equally, she did not claim voting rights for women (Norton 226). Other women were concerned by this issue in this wartime period context, like Rachel Wells, a widow of New Jersey, and North Carolina Elizabeth Steele. The latter used the phrase “great politician[s]” (Norton 171) to refer to her and to other women’s informal political participation.

The Early Republic

13Some changes occurred during and after the American War of Independence on the subject of voting rights. American states drafted their specific constitution, some expanded voting rights, and others did not. The diversity of American experiences in expanding or restricting voting qualifications concerns women, as well as free African-Americans, Amerindians and foreigners. In 1756 Lydia Chapin Taft cast a ballot in the hall of a Massachusetts town-meeting, in place of her deceased husband. But it was no longer possible to do so later on, because the Massachusetts Constitution of March 2, 1780 did not allow women to vote. In eighteenth-century United States, five states – New York, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts –, restricted the vote to men exclusively: the terms “males” and “sons” were used in their respective constitution, which was not the case in the Constitution of New Jersey (Garbaye, “Opacity and Transparency”).

14Among the few supporters of propertied women’s voting rights, there were American politicians, like James Otis Jr. (as previously mentioned), who publicly voiced his support, under his own name, and judge George Tucker of Virginia (Kerber, Towards an Intellectual History 37). Others expressed their support through anonymity, like “Essex” [William DeHart] in New Jersey in an article published in the New York Journal of 1776 (Kruman 106; Gerlach 473). Still in this state, legislators passed election laws in the 1790s that granted voting rights to widows and single women. It is worth noting here that the specific rights that could be established in American states could not be implemented in centralized France at the very end of the eighteenth century.

15Among the mainstream American citizens who voiced their ideas in favor of women’s political rights is Priscilla Mason, at her graduation from the Philadelphia Young Ladies Academy in 1793. In her address, this student claimed that women could work in all types of professions: “[…] the Church, the Bar, and the Senate are shut against us […]. Who shut them? Man; despotic man, first made us incapable of the duty, and then forbid us the exercise.” She also suggested the creation of “a senate of women”:

[It] would fire the female breast with the most generous ambition, prompting [it] to illustrious actions. It would furnish the most noble [sic] theatre for the display, the exercise and improvement of every faculty. It would call forth all that is human – all that is divine in the soul of a woman; and having proved them equally capable with the other sex, would lead to their equal participation of honor and office. (Zagarri, “American Women’s Rights” 674)

16Women’s political rights were also dealt with in major writings and in some fictional works. The British writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman “I really think that women ought to have representatives instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government” (335). As her book became famous, her ideas fuelled the debates on women’s rights in the United States. In Charles Brockden Brown’s Alcuin: a Dialogue, published in 1798, a central character, Mrs. Carter, denounced the paradox between the ideals of the new American nation, such as freedom, and the exclusion of women from this freedom and from any participation in public political decisions. In the novel, Mrs. Carter says to her companion Alcuin:

I shall ever consider it, as a gross abuse […] that we are hindered from sharing with you in the power of chusing our rulers, and of making those laws to which we equally with yourselves are subject. […] Even the government of our country, which is said to be the freest in the world, passes over women as if they were not [free]. We [women] are excluded from all political rights without least ceremony. Lawmakers thought as little of comprehending us in their code of liberty, as if we were pigs, or sheep. That females are exceptions to their general maxims, perhaps never occurred to them. If it did, the idea was quietly discarded, without leaving behind the slightest consciousness of inconsistency or injustice. […] [This reality] annihilates the political existence of at least one half of the community. This constitution […] is unjust and absurd. (Zagarri, “American Women’s Rights” 675)

17And some women from a privileged background would voice their views on women’s rights as mentioned previously. Abigail Adams was aware of New Jersey women’s voting rights, at a time when the Constitution of Massachusetts did not include voting rights for women (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 33).

18The variety of expression in favor of women’s political rights in the eighteenth century indeed ranges from legislators to mainstream American citizens, and to famous writers or wives, sisters and daughters of major politicians. A similar observation can be established on the question of women’s political rights in France. But, as noted below, women’s political demands were not necessarily expressed in France in the same way as in America; French women could benefit from emerging political clubs, for instance, to express their views on their rights.

Women’s Political Rights in France

19As mentioned previously, there are considerable parallels between the revolutionary experiences of France and the United States. In addition to these parallels, I also highlight the considerable specificities that characterize France compared to America. These specificities are linked to the singularities of French history and politics in the late eighteenth century. For example, women’s clubs were numerous and active in France compared to other countries in that period. And in France in the same period, the issue of women’s voting rights was put forward both locally and nationally.

The Ancien Régime

20In addition to the use of the Salic law to exclude women from the throne of France, there were many writings and speeches that underlined the “nature” of women, which was supposed to expose them to physical instabilities, and to prevent them from exerting power. But customs in specific French regions gave liberties, autonomies and acknowledgements to women, in particular to widows.

21In the Ancien Régime, some women ran the Aquitaine, Champagne, Toulouse or the Flanders regions, with respect to feudal custom’s succession rules. From a strict legal point of view, according to royal regulations, Article 20, of January 1789, female proprietors possessing a fiefdom – as well as female members of religious communities – could be represented to the bailiwick assembly, through the delegation of their votes (Godineau 200). When King Louis XVI called for an Estates General meeting in January 1789, the orders’ privileges from the Ancien Régime were maintained, and the French, including women from the Third Estate, wrote down their claims. They denounced their unequal educational opportunities in the Book of Grievances. Their expression was anonymous but they put forward the paradox existing between the French nation acknowledging natural rights and their exclusion because of their sex (Remontrances, plaintes et doléances des Dames françaises, 1789, Guilhaumou & Lapied 140).

22In the last years of the Ancien Régime, politics became more important in the salons, as well as in French public debates (Kale 43). Many liberal constitutionalists and Girondins discussed politics. Freemasonry played an important role as well; in Europe and in America, it advocated ideas of equality, education, solidarity, reason, rationalism, science, and sociability. Originally, women were excluded from Masonic lodges, and this was made clear in James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons of 1723. But in some cases, and at certain periods, women could be included among the membership of some lodges. In France, there were female freemasons as early as the 1740s and mixed lodges existed in the 1760s. Among famous female masons were Madame Helvétius and Sophie de Condorcet (Burke & Jacob 515, 519, 533). With the exception of Saint Ann Lodge in Boston at the end of the 1770s, it is only later, in the nineteenth century, that American women were also able to become freemasons (Bullock 154-61).

23During the Ancien Régime, the “citizen” did not exist and some rights that we today consider to be associated with citizenship, such as voting rights, were not necessarily perceived as such then (Godineau 199). With the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, things started to change: Article I of this declaration stipulated that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” In spite of this universal rhetoric, the individuality required of citizens was denied to women (Scott 32). When women participated in the revolutionary events of October 1789, whether in the province or Paris, they denounced the contradiction that existed between their participation and their political exclusion (Requête des dames à l’Assemblée nationale).

The French Revolution and the Republic

  • 2  Collection des lois et décrets, approuvée et encouragée, par le Comité de Salut Public de la Conve (...)

24As mentioned above, whether in the United States or in France, women of the elite and working-class women participated to the revolutionary war effort, in various ways. There were rare instances of individual involvement in the army like the one of Ursule Aby in France.2 French working-class women were the first to intervene in periods of starvation; they led the way in food riots from 1789 to 1795 (Badinter 12). Women of the elite – for example the members of the Société Fraternelle Des Patriotes Des Deux Sexes, Défenseurs de la Constitution, founded in 1790, insisted more on educational and political rights.

25Women voiced their will to be acknowledged as full participants of the new regime and, in some examples, as full French citizens to the National Assembly members (Adresse des femmes bretonnes, March 29, 1790 and Vues législatives pour les femmes, Guilhaumou & Lapied 143). Additionally, the political pamphlet Les Étrennes Nationales des Dames strongly and vividly denounced women’s subordinate status and the role that men played to maintain this inequality (November 30, 1789, 1). The demands formulated in this publication were radical: Women had to be elected to represent French citizens in government, to be full participants in the assemblies, and to be members of the National Guard (McIlvanney 31).

26As the French constitutional proposition of 1791 contains no word on the political role that women could play in the country, some legislators, close to the Girondins faction, like Condorcet, tried to change this situation. But Jean-Denis Lanjuinais, a Girondin too, voiced his opposition against women’s voting rights. Gilbert Romme, a Mountain legislator, later favored women’s rights in the National Assembly. There was thus no opposition between the Girondins and the Mountain political factions on the question of women’s rights; individuals from the two political sections expressed their views on this subject.

27During the French Revolution, elections or referendums took place within assemblies called primary assemblies. There citizens met, whether in large cities sections, or in towns, or in counties. Women could not participate in these assemblies, in theory. But other types of vote existed in which some women participated (Godineau 200). The Société de Largentière in Ardèche granted voting rights to women but men still monopolized the highest elective positions in the executive board. In Paris, in the Société fraternelle, women possessed a member-ship card, and they could vote and take important initiatives. Both men and women organized a campaign to abolish the French monarchy after the king had attempted to flee the country. At Besançon, the members of the Société des Amies de la Liberté et de l’Egalité of 1792 pushed the municipality to regulate prices, they drafted petitions to the Convention and they asked that voting rights for women be included in the Constitution of 1793 (Guilhaumou & Lapied 147). Many female clubs throughout the country voted in order to show their acceptance of the Constitution; in Damazan, Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mans, Nancy and Beaumont, women sent their respective endorsement to the National Convention during the summer 1793. They wanted to have a more important political role in French society. Women’s clubs in Nancy, Le Mans and Beaumont also denounced the denial of their voting rights and of their capacity to “ratify the act” and wanted the legislators of the Convention to take them into account (Desan 12).

28The writer and legislator Charles De Villette wanted to achieve political equality for women through their vote. For him, any woman or widow of twenty-five years old at least, and who possessed a property, should be enabled to vote in primary assemblies. Under the Constituante Assembly the distinction between “passive” and “active” citizens was still existent (Blanc, “Charles de Villette” 137-38).

29As already indicated, among French legislators and ardent supporters of women’s rights was scientist and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet. He considered that women’s exclusion violated the principle of equality of rights between men and women. His article on women’s rights is very often mentioned in the historiography: “L’admission des femmes au droit de cité,” published on July 3, 1790 in the Journal de la Société of 1789. Condorcet denounced the denial of political inclusion for women as a violation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’s principles. For him, this denial was irrational since women and men belonged to the same humanity and women were endowed with the use of reason too (Guilhaumou & Lapied 105; Sewell 105).

30Deputy Pierre Guyomar’s pamphlet emphasized voting and office-holding rights for women for the 1793 constitutional project, which was debated in April that year. In the document, he put forward Condorcet’s ideas in favor of an equal participation in politics for men and women. For him, a sexual difference could not be translated as an inequality of rights (Badinter 15-17). The legislator called for reason, for right and for justice for all individuals, which led him to think the same way as Condorcet on the question of women’s rights: all or nothing, rights for all individuals of human kind or no rights at all (15-17). Whereas for legislator Jean-Pierre-André Amar it was impossible that women had political rights (Guilhaumou & Lapied 152). But the rare legislators who advocated women’s political rights failed in their attempt to translate revolutionary ideals into political outcomes, and Amar, the spokesperson for the Committees of the Convention, took a repressive stand against women’s rights (Guilhaumou & Lapied 153).

  • 3  As revolutionary events turned more radical later, moderate republicans became less influential. J (...)

31In addition to Condorcet’s writings were those written by play-wright Marie Gouzes, under the pen name Olympe de Gouges. During the constitutional debates of 1791, she published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen, inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Her seventeen articles asserted that women possessed, by nature, all the rights of individuals, just like men, and in accordance with French major texts on the universal rights of human beings (Scott 20). Additionally, her Les trois urnes, ou le salut de la patrie supported French federalism. This promotion of federalism in France was put forward by the Girondins as well (Scott 51). The Jacobins, on the contrary, supported centralism and insisted that any danger against the integrity of the Republic had to be stopped; they considered De Gouges as a traitor to their ideas. Though she asserted that she did not belong to any political party, she was arrested and, after her trial, was guillotined on November 3, 1793 (Scott 52). This revolutionary period saw increased suspicion of potential enemies in and outside the country.3 One result of this was to make women’s clubs illegal on October 30, 1793. The official justification given by some deputies of the government was the presence of fights in 1793 between female members of clubs and market women, over the most appropriate revolutionary costume to wear. Thus not only were women unauthorized to bear arms but, in addition, their clubs were forbidden in 1793. On the other hand, they had obtained a civil status in 1791 and 1792 (civil marriage and inheritance and divorce rights), a liberal status that they would lose later, nevertheless, through the adoption of the Code Napoléon in 1804 (Sewell 105).

32In addition to salons and lodges, important places for debates were the political clubs or societies. Among prominent clubs was the Cercle Social, which was founded in November 1790. It was the first political club that officially admitted female members. This club was close to the Girondins political group and it strongly promoted women’s rights in newspapers and pamphlets in the years 1790-1791. Mixed clubs or societies were more likely to be found in France rather than in the United States.

33Etta Palm d’Aelders, a Dutch woman who had settled in Paris and who became famous for her speeches on women’s political rights, founded the Société patriotique et de bienfaisance des Amies de la Vérité on March 23, 1791 (Guilhaumou & Lapied 147). At the beginning of the war in 1792, she was at the head of a group of women at the Legislative Assembly on April 1, 1792, to claim women’s admission in civil and military jobs, an equality of political rights, etc. (Badinter 44). The mixed Société Fraternelle and the Club des Amis de la Loi founded by Théroigne de Méricourt, Gilbert Romme and François Lanthenas, contributed to promote women’s rights too (Badinter 43). Big clubs like the Jacobins and the Cordeliers authorized women to attend their meetings, but they could not participate to the deliberations and they could not vote (Badinter 42). Women participated actively in the revolutionary events from May 31 to June 2, 1793, whether in the streets or in the Conventional Assembly’s galleries. Some of them created a women-only club on May 10, 1793: the Club des Citoyennes Républicaines et Révolutionnaires. It organized its meetings at the Club des Jacobins’ library, it had about 170 members who were from a popular background or from the petty bourgeoisie, and it fought to achieve several goals ranging from food needs to participation in political debates. The Citoyennes wanted to bear arms to defend the Revolution: on May 1 Pauline Léon led a delegation to the Club des Jacobins to ask for arms for women, aged from 18 to 50, and to organize them into regiments capable of fighting against the insurgents from the Vendée. Women of the Club des Citoyennes attended the meetings of popular societies and of clubs, but they did not have the right to register as members (Cerati 53).

34There were collective claims of French women to form a national guard, to bear arms and, in the process, they claimed women’s rights in general. To bear arms was generally understood as being part of the duties of French citizens, and it was included in the 1789 Declaration of Rights and of the Citizen. Due to the events of the late eighteenth century, a French national citizenship emerged, and many questions were raised about the implication and extent of this new citizenship. The abolition of the distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens on August 10, 1792 gave all men voting rights as well as the right to bear arms (Godineau 201). But women remained excluded from this change and they were forced to resort to informal styles of political participation. For instance, Pauline Léon presented a petition before the Legislative Assembly on March 6, 1792, a petition that was signed by 319 female Parisians (Riot-Sarcey 15).

35For Suzanne Desan, the women’s clubs of Jacobin tendency “left a mixed legacy,” in the end, because they enabled the political partici-pation of women, but at the same time, and for various reasons, women could become more quickly excluded than men because their exclusion was understood as necessary for the restoration of social order (11). In the legislation of August 1795, women’s clubs were targeted by the Directory, especially clubs and associations on the right of the political spectrum (Kale 58).

36The implementation of the Year III Constitution, initiated by the Thermidorians, put an end to the natural rights of man and to the principles of citizenship as they had been laid down in 1789, and which had enabled French women to express themselves, as citizens, using the rhetoric of liberty and of natural rights – even though they had still remained excluded from the right to vote legally. In the new Constitution, the Thermidorians suppressed the natural rights of the human being (right to life, to liberty, to citizenship, etc.), and women were relegated to an inferior social and political status. Men became heads of households, they did not have to share power within the family, and women of the popular movement were mostly represented as radical rioters, as yelling furies (Guilhaumou & Lapied 164). During the Revolution, public speech became political speech and enabled women to act in both feminine and mixed spaces of sociability. As already mentioned, the presence of French female organizations whose members could discuss politics publicly was a novelty at the time. It had no equivalent in America at the same period (Hunt 204-06).


37In spite of these political spaces that were opening up to women in France, the Enlightenment philosophers generally supported women’s rights but not women’s political rights. However, with the Revolution, the French were no longer subjects, they became citizens entitled to political rights. In both countries, the issue of women’s political rights was both radical and not considered as a priority. Women’s demands to obtain political rights were highly visible, but they were always unambiguously rejected. Men were generally prejudiced and reluctant to accept potential competition from women. Nevertheless, French clubs, including women’s clubs, were influential and relevant regarding the question of women’s rights, in particular their voting rights, which was debated both locally and nationally.

38As mentioned previously, American and French histories, institutions, systems of government, language and religion differ, but one finds certain parallels. In the two cases, supporters of women’s rights were influenced by many Enlightenment ideas. But the analysis of women’s political rights in both countries highlights considerable differences as well.

39Women’s rights supporters in France went further in their claims than their American counterparts, on questions such as voting rights, the bearing of arms, or their inclusion in the national guard. As for women’s voting rights, the available primary sources show that they tended to be more debated and demanded in France than in America in the last decades of the eighteenth century. One explanation for this seems to be linked to the differences between the modes of expression of issues. One example is the notable phenomenon of women’s clubs in France, compared to the relative marginality of such organizations on the other side of the Atlantic. This resulted in higher levels of participation by French women in public debates, compared to their American counterparts who mainly attended or participated in the debates in smaller private circles.

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1  In the 1780s public schools were opened to girls in the north, and the majority of white women could read by 1800 (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 52). Education was advocated by major educational reformers such as Timothy Dwight (Wood 501-02) and Benjamin Rush, for whom the education of American women could also benefit American society as a whole; in this way, educated women could promote American patriotism more efficiently. As for other types of entitlements, American women had the same rights as men regarding petitions or trials by juries. And, in specific places like Pennsylvania, they were authorized to divorce. But they were excluded from equal political citizenship. Most people who wanted to see an improved status for women essentially stressed educational rights. They did so individually, in their correspondence for instance, or in clubs and in salons. In Europe, the claim for equal educational opportunities was not a new phenomenon in the eighteenth century. In the fourteenth century, Christine de Pisan had advocated the necessity to treat women and men on the same level of equality and, in the seventeenth century, Poulain de la Barre wrote De l’Égalité des Deux Sexes. Regarding inheritance and divorce, both Girondins and Montagnards supported inheritance laws reforms and a liberal divorce – the law on which was passed on September 20, 1792 (Hunt 200).

2  Collection des lois et décrets, approuvée et encouragée, par le Comité de Salut Public de la Convention Nationale, Tome 6, Douai : imprimerie de Lagarde, 1794, 90.

3  As revolutionary events turned more radical later, moderate republicans became less influential. Jacobins considered salons as intermediary bodies where conspirators could meet (Kale 60).

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Bibliographical reference

Linda Garbaye, Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and FranceXVII-XVIII, 72 | 2015, 213-230.

Electronic reference

Linda Garbaye, Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and FranceXVII-XVIII [Online], 72 | 2015, Online since 01 April 2016, connection on 26 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Linda Garbaye

Université Blaise Pascal – Clermont-Ferrand

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