4 women who totally owned the French Revolution

The supposed heroes of the French Revolution are names embedded in history – the evil Robespierre, the brave Lafayette, the tragic Jean-Paul Marat. But what of the women of France? They were not idly sitting at home with their embroidery waiting for an end to the chaos: they picked up their pikes and stormed the Bastille; they dragged their cannons to Versailles; they petitioned for the right to bear arms; they dressed as men and joined the army. Here are four amazing women of the French Revolution.  

Charlotte Corday

Sitting in his bath on a warm summer’s day, when journalist and supporter of revolutionary violence Jean-Paul Marat let Charlotte Corday enter his room, he could not have predicted she would stab him to death. It was 13 July 1793, and the ‘Reign of Terror’ was beginning.

Charlotte Corday was born in a timbered manor house into a minor aristocratic family in Normandy in 1768, raised in a convent after the death of her mother, and lived with her wealthy cousin in the large town of Caen. She read widely, and saw in the revolution the opportunity for a ‘moral transformation’. She was to be disappointed.

One event in particular violently alienated Charlotte from the Revolution. The priest Abbé Gombault had given the last rites to Charlotte’s mother in 1782, when she died in childbirth. As religion was banned, he had gone into hiding in the woods to avoid arrest. A search party of tracking dogs hunted him down and he was executed in Caen. Later that month the first of many letters to the Convention complaining of the tyranny of the radical Jacobins. “Your divisions are the source of all our troubles. It is a Marat, a Robespierre, a Danton who preoccupy you and incite you and you forget that an entire people is suffering…” These attacks were published and widely posted in Caen, and Charlotte is likely to have read them.

In 1793, the Girondins, the moderate faction in the Convention, the revolutionary government, supported federalist insurgencies in various regions of France, like Caen, to protest the growing influence of the Jacobins and the centralisation of power in Paris. Marat urged the Convention to suppress the revolt in Caen with “pitchforks, scythes, pikes, guns and sabres…and crush them without mercy”. It was not surprising he was a hated figure.

Let Marat’s head fall and the Republic is saved… Purge France of this man of blood… Marat sees the Public Safety only in a river of blood; well
then his own must flow, for his head must fall to save two hundred thousand others.

Pamphlet against Marat, Caen, 1793

As a supporter of the federalist cause and the Girondins, Corday saw Marat as the personification of the violent excesses of the revolution, and resolved to take action. She journeyed to Paris, and purchased a wooden handled sharp kitchen knife for the deed, as well as a stylish black hat with green ribbons – green would soon be a banned colour, to the dismay of hat-makers. Disappointed that Marat’s illness kept him at home (he suffered from a skin condition, possibly pruritis, and spent much of his time in a cool bath which he found relieved the itching) as she wanted to kill him in the midst of the Convention, she visited his home. At first denied entry, she wrote him a letter in which she claimed to have the names of Girondin conspirators, to pique his interest. She returned later that evening, and was this time allowed to enter the bedroom. Marat was in his bath, writing an invective against Marie Antoinette, on an upturned wooden box next to the bathtub. Pretending to give him names, she suddenly stabbed him in the chest with the knife; despite efforts to save him, Marat bled to death.

“having seen that civil war was on the point of exploding throughout France and persuaded that Marat was the principal author of this disaster, she had wished to sacrifice her life for her country.”

Charlotte Cordat to Commissaire de Police, Guellard, 1793

Charlotte was arrested immediately, interrogated by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and sentenced to death. On 17 July, after her portrait was painted in her cell at the dreaded and dark Conciergerie, she was dressed in red as befitted a traitor to the revolution, her hair was shorn, and she was placed in the back of a tumbril for the short journey to the guillotine. After her execution, her head was apparently picked up and her face slapped by an outraged observer.

I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.

Charlotte Corday to the Revolutionary Tribunal, 1793

(Related post: Last words from the guillotine)

Félicité Fernig

The French Revolution was in full swing when the 16 year old Félicité Fernig threw away her corset and joined the Armée du Nord in 1792. Taking advantage of the chaos and political infighting in Paris, European allies Austria and Prussia had gathered their armies and invaded the north of France. Terrified families such as that of Fernig, who lived close to the French-Belgique border, found themselves under attack and their lives and livelihoods at risk. When her family home was burnt to the ground in the invasion, Fernig was so outraged (and homeless) that she donned men’s trousers and a soldier’s coat, and with her younger sister Théophile, joined the National Guard, determined to be a woman of the revolution.

Fernig sisters, image from public domain

It didn’t take long for the stories of Fernig as a fearsome fighter to reach Paris, and two strong and battle-ready horses were sent to the sisters on behalf of the Convention. Riding alongside the future king Louis-Phillipe, Fernig fought in the Battle of Jemappes, an important victory which enabled the French to capture Mons and to then enter triumphantly into Brussels to spread the revolutionary fervour. It was in this particular battle that Fernig saved the life of a Belgian soldier; with a pistol in each hand and her bridle between her teeth, she shot dead two assailants, hoisted the wounded soldier onto her heroic steed and rode with him to the field hospital. This soldier, M. Van der Walen, later became her husband.

There were already thousands of adventurous women who had joined the army in these early days of the French Revolutionary Wars. Experienced soldiers were hard to find and officers found the female fighters to be tenacious and courageous.They didn’t even have to pretend to be men, though a soldier’s costume was infinitely more comfortable than a flouncy dress whilst charging into battle.A law was passed in 1793 to officially ban female participation in the armed forces, but many women chose to ignore it and continued their own personal rebellions by fighting in an institution formerly reserved for men.  

Fernig’s military career came to an abrupt halt when she followed the treasonous actions of her army commander, General Dumouriez, who was opposed to the execution of Louis XVI and attempted an overthrow of the revolutionary government in 1793. Fleeing to Belgium with the other ‘traitors’, they were not allowed to return to France until 1801.

Claire Lacombe

One of the leaders of the most revolutionary of all female organisations in the French Revolution, former actress Claire Lacombe was used to making grand speeches for an audience. Born into poverty in 1765 in the south of France, she played and performed in cities large and small until, learning of the forment in Paris and, hoping to make her mark, was on her way to the capital in July 1792. It was a chaotic time, but Lacombe sewed herself a dress in the revolutionary tricolours of blue, white and red, and made friends in the newly formed Legislative Assembly. She declared that she, like other women in France, was ready to lay down her life for the salvation of France.

This was put to the test in August 1792 when, amidst rumours of foreign invasion and counter-revolution, Lacombe, along with thousands of outraged Parisians, breached the walls of the Tuileries Palace, killing Royal Swiss guards and chasing the royal family out of their home. She was shot in the arm, fortunately not fatally, and was proclaimed a ‘Heroine of August 10’. Her elevated status and growing radicalism needed an outlet – and the Women’s Revolutionary Republican Society (Société des Révolutionaries Républicaines) organisation was born. Fellow revolutionary Pauline Léon was the first president, Lacombe was the secretary.

In love at this time with radical Théophile Leclerc, Lacombe felt recognised as a political force in her own right. The Jacobins were winning, the extremists were on their way up, while the Girondins were on the way out. Gaining in confidence, the Society persuaded the ruling body, the Convention, to pass a law enforcing price controls. This did not go down well with the market women of Paris, who were no strangers to revolution. One chilly October morning in the Saint Innocent’s Market in Paris, an enthusiastic yet determined troupe of the Women’s Society appeared with the intention of forcing the market women to wear the tricolour cockade and the red Phrygian cap, both symbols of the revolution. It was not to be; the outraged market women attacked first and with sticks, stones, and rotten fruit, beat the  women mercilessly. The fighting continued for several hours. Regardless of who was responsible, the Women’s Republican Revolutionary Society was blamed.

The men of the Revolution had already had enough of Lacombe and her engagement with radical elements.  As a result, all female clubs, popular societies and salons were banned. Lacombe and her women marched into the Commune to protest but were strongly advised to go home, attend to their domestic duties and raise the citizens of tomorrow. With no stage for her performance, Lacombe was defeated. She was arrested in 1794, the Jacobins themselves having faced defeat, and when she was released from prison 16 months later she faded into revolutionary history.       

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

Pauline Léon

The other half of the Women’s Republican Revolutionary Society, Pauline Léon’s background could not have been more different to Claire Lacombe. Léon was a born and bred Parisian, her father a chocolate maker. She was 38 years old when she picked up her sharpened pike and joined the impassioned mob who attacked and tore down the Bastille prison. A few months later, on the morning of 5 October, 1789, she was awoken by the ringing of the tocsin and joined the thousands of women who marched to Versailles to bring the king back to Paris. She took up her weapons again almost two years later with 50,000 other Parisians on the Champ de Mars who demanded a republic.  Luckily for Léon she was unhurt when the National Guard began firing at will into the crowd, causing anywhere from 12-50 deaths.

The use of violence to achieve political aims and to remove the monarch was a favourite topic for Léon. In 1791 she presented to the Legislative Assembly a petition signed by 319 women to form a militia in case of foreign invasion, and demanded the right of women to bear pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles. With fervoured patriotism, she declared passionately that if women were denied the right to bear arms, they would die “regretting not life, but the uselessness of their death; regretting moreover, not having been able to drench their hand in the impure blood of the enemies of the fatherland.” Given that the revolutionaries were pretty sexist, albeit ‘normal’ for the time, Léon was denied. She retorted, “We wish only to defend ourselves the same as you; you cannot refuse us, and society cannot deny the right nature gives us, unless you pretend the Declaration of Rights does not apply to women, and that they should let their throats be cut like lambs, without the right to defend themselves.” Result? Denied again.  

It is not known where Léon met Lacombe, perhaps at the Legislative Assembly, perhaps at the storming of the Tuileries in 1792, where she stormed but escaped uninjured. Wherever it was, they were alike enough in their belief in women’s rights and a revolution that the Women’s Revolutionary Republican Society (Société des Révolutionaries Républicaines) came to be. Léon was the first president of this society which boasted of 170 members and over 3000 supporters, and which met in the church of Saint Eustache near Les Halles. The lofty rules of this female-led organisation read: “All the members of the society are nothing else than a family of sisters…[who must] instruct themselves, to learn well the Constitution and laws of the Republic, to attend to public affairs, to succor suffering humanity, and to defend all human beings who become victims of any arbitrary acts whatever.”

With one (wo)man’s trash being another’s treasure, Léon was quick to move in on Théophile Leclerc when he and Lacombe broke up, and they were married in 1793.

However, Léon soon bowed to pressure from the patriarchy and became less involved publicly, by being a good citizeness and staying home where women were told they belonged. She and Leclerc may have thought they were safe after the Jacobins lost their own heads following the Reign of Terror, Robespierre having been publicly executed in 1794, but they were arrested in the same year and imprisoned for a brief period. For the pair, the revolution was over.  

in conclusion

Women’s participation was an important aspect of the revolutionary decade, across the political spectrum. Despite the energetic campaigns of individual feminists in the early years of the Revolution, the intervention of working women in collective action in Paris, and their presence in clubs and societies, almost all male politicians were firmly opposed to women’s political rights. Women were completely excluded from the Constitution of 1791 in which only men were “born free and equal in rights’.

further reading

This post was published on International Women’s Day!

United Nations, International Women’s Day

Youtube, Evolution of Women’s Rights in France

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4 thoughts on “4 women who totally owned the French Revolution”

  1. Thoroughly absorbed! I learn so many new facts every time I read one of your articles. Merci, madame . . .

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