The National Razor

Hilary Mantel

  • The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution by Dominique Godineau, translated by Katherine Sharp
    California, 415 pp, £45.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 520 06718 5

We have seen her at the edge of crowds, dwarfed against public buildings. We have seen her in woodcuts, a naked sabre in her hand, the tricolour cockade pinned to her cap; in drawings, with her wooden clogs and apron, her basket over her arm, her knitting in her hands: click, click, through the debates of the Assembly, in the gallery of the Jacobin Club, and each day at the foot of the scaffold, where the tumbrils bring up their freight of dying flesh. She is the ‘fury of the guillotine’, given to a habit of ‘atrocious vociferation’. She is at once an ultra-revolutionary, bloody and unrestrained, and a destroyer of radical will, priest-ridden and superstitious. For the historian Michelet, she is honest and spontaneous, but credulous, a victim of her own sensibility. For the historian Mathiez, she is stupid. For more recent scholars, she is a very defective sort of feminist, or an armed and violent housewife, less concerned with liberty than with the price of sugar. And though this latter concern is seen as legitimate, it does not fail to detract from her status.

The woman of the Revolution is depicted as earthy and solid, but the harder you look for her the more elusive she becomes. She is, as Dominique Godineau says, ‘lost within a paragraph’. She hides in the thickets of partial and compromised evidence, compiled by male hands and reflecting male concerns. She does not speak, but ‘screams’ or ‘yelps’ down the years. She does not write; on the eve of the Revolution, it is believed, 65 per cent of the women of Paris could not sign their names.

Unable to make sense of the sketch and the woodcut, historians first noticed those famous women whom portraitists have fleshed out. The shelves of the libraries of the last century were crammed with books about ‘great women of the Revolution’ – ‘great’, in this sense, meaning ‘well-documented’. So we have innumerable studies of Félicité de Genlis, of Madame Roland, of Charlotte Corday who was famous for fifteen minutes. There were the marginal, romanticised figures like Théroigne de Méricourt, held to be a very salutary example of what revolution does to women, since she was very violent – though fetchingly pretty – and died insane. Queen Antoinette alone, until recently the chief patron saint of those who like royalty and frocks, sustains a biographical cottage industry of some economic importance. In considering these women it was not thought necessary to apply scholarly concern, only to make stories, stories with morals; to rehash the prejudices of their contemporaries and season them with some timid liberalism; no one ever suggested that stabbing Marat was a silly thing for a girl to do.

Then fashions changed, the ‘great women’ were left behind, and the search for working-class heroines began. All our attention is claimed by Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon, of the Revolutionary Republican Women. Is this shift helpful, or productive of real knowledge? Godineau dares to wonder. Certainly, it tells us more about our own concerns than about the Revolutionary women themselves. Figures who do not quite fit – like Marat’s printer, Anne Félicité Colombe, or Louise Kéralio, a radical but middle-class journalist – are forever consigned to the footnotes; and we are no nearer to being able to imagine the day-today life of the ordinary woman.

Godineau wonders if, in the field of Revolutionary scholarship, the rise of ‘women’s history’ has generated more heat than light. Dorinda Outram put the problem in simple, clear terms in The Body and the French Revolution. Feminist scholarship, she says, has ‘very often been tempted to see the actions of militant women during the Revolution, and their political clubs in particular, as forerunners of modern feminist movements, rather than examining them in the context of the history of the Revolution’. As a result, the failure of the women’s clubs, their suppression in 1793, is seen as an act of male hostility to nascent feminism. The members of the clubs are seen as women who lost the sex war, not politicians who lost the debate. Women are seen as victims, and Godineau believes that this determination to show the Revolution as anti-feminist leads us to undervalue the important role women played in it. Godineau’s great strength is that she doesn’t apply 20th-century values to 18th-century situations. She will have no truck with a schematised, generic, representative ‘revolutionary woman’. So it is that the first part of her brilliant study is devoted to investigating the public and private lives of the Revolutionary Parisienne. And gradually we begin to see her: wearing men’s clothes very often, which is easier if you deliver water for a living, or haul coal and wood. There is almost nothing men do, that she can’t.

We find her at the street-corner bar, sharing a bottle of wine and reading, or listening to a friend read, the latest speech of Robespierre. (All those speeches, Godineau reminds us, that were later picked over by historians, were picked over first by seamstresses and washerwomen.) We find her in temporary wooden shelters, leaning against great buildings or clustering at crossroads: shelters vulnerable to the first gust of wind, or blow from a rival’s hammer. She is always on the street, a sociable being, curious, a bearer and exchanger of news; this will fit her, when the Terror comes, for her two great, misunderstood roles: as denouncer, and as spectator of death.

She may belong to a trade which involves artistry and skill. For example, she may be a bookbinder, or polish metal for a jeweller, or be the colourist to an engraver. If this is the case, she will earn more than some men, but a man will always be the best-paid person in the workshop, because men have reserved to themselves those processes which require greatest skill and longest apprenticeship. Her demand is not for equal pay, but for the chance to do equal work. The Revolution will do something for her. 1791 sees a proposal for a School of Typography, to take in literate but needy women and train them in an essential Revolutionary skill; the printers of Paris are a powerful group of people. By 1793 the school is actually turning outwork, and the Committee of Public Safety rushes to employ it. The idea is floated that it could become an official government printer. But by 1795, the school has disappeared from the records. For the female typographer, and the female in general, the Revolution is over.

More likely, the woman of Paris is a textile worker of some sort. She may be employed at a workshop, or as an outworker. Her fortunes in the Revolution will depend on her training and adaptability. If she works in gauze, or is a fine embroiderer, she will be out of a job, like so many who catered to the elegant taste of the Old Regime. If her fingers are tough enough to deal with hemp without bleeding, perhaps she can earn a living. If she is a spinner she can find refuge in a government workshop and learn her politics through running battles with bourgeois overseers, appointed in 1790 when the Revolution wasn’t quite so revolutionary as it was going to be.

Many women – for example, fan-makers and button-makers – were part of sophisticated multi-stage processes of manufacture, but little mechanised production was involved, and Godineau questions how far their working patterns prefigure those of the 19th century. It is certain that a transition is taking place, and there is a move to larger workshops, but the topography of the capital’s labour starts to look different when you concentrate specifically on the work women do and where they do it. It is because of her unique perspective that Godineau’s book provides such a useful addition to the work of Daniel Roche and George Rudé; she keeps a very exact eye on both wages and working conditions in the trades she examines, and is able to question some of Rudé’s conclusions about pre-industrial organisation.

On the eve of the Revolution 80 per cent of the domestic servants in Paris were women, and we know less of their lives than we do of the lives of women who were part of a more visible labour force. The women who worked in a large household with many servants might have an uncomfortable time during these years. Her employers might emigrate, and leave her adrift in the vast pool of unemployed. If they stayed, they might suspect her of spying on them for the authorities. At the same time, the Revolutionary authorities might think her a repository of aristocratic notions. The maid-of-all-work in a humbler household would live on very intimate terms with her family and might go with them in the evenings to a popular club or to the district assembly, but no one had a very high opinion of the independence of thought allowed to domestic servants, and the fact that so many women were servants cannot have helped their chances of being seen as free and equal political beings.

What can we know about the private lives of these women? Saint-Just said ‘happiness is a new idea in Europe,’ and it seems to have been an idea the women of Paris shared. They expected to love their husband and their children, and to be loved in return. They did, it’s true, seek marriage for economic security, often marrying a man in the same trade, and looking to apprentice their children to it. They were working women as well as wives and mothers – few of the families of unskilled or semi-skilled workers could survive on one income – and they bore the responsibility, whether helped by their husbands or not, of putting food on the table and procuring the necessities of life, like soap and candles. This was not always a matter of having the money to pay for them, but of finding the articles in the first place. Cyclic famine was familiar from the closing years of the Old Regime. During the Revolution the mother of a family had to contend with a complicated and shifting pattern of hardship. Sometimes there was no bread, sometimes there was plenty of bread but of a pitiful quality. Price maximums, imposed in 1793, solved one set of problems and ushered in another, as supplies to the capital dried up. It was the women who joined the bread queues before dawn, or waited at the city gates to ambush carts and set up forced sales of whatever commodity was in short supply. Sometimes women looted, but more often they enforced a rough and ready sort of justice.

This role – of forceful, informal regulator of the day-to-day economy – is a very important one. But Dominique Godineau brings home to us that these women have not only material, but emotional concerns. They suffered political rebuffs, but the personal ones were more acute. A 25-year-old woman servant tries to kill herself, not because she is destitute, but because she is depressed, ‘having no other occupation but a continuous boredom with her own person’. Dissatisfaction is personal, as well as political; when divorce is introduced in 1792, 71 per cent of the petitions filed come from women. The Revolution gave a precarious kind of independence to divorced women, and some protection and assistance to unmarried mothers. The fall of Robespierre and the Thermidorean reaction took these gains away.

We cannot write the sentimental history of a woman of the Revolution. Happy lives leave few traces in police records. (We know about the women whose husbands beat them up, not about the ones who co-exist in harmony.) But we can, by looking at their political demands, learn something of how they perceived themselves. What does it mean to be a ‘female citizen’? Is ‘female’ a word that qualifies and limits? Olwen Hufton has explored the issue very intelligently in Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution, and from her work and Godineau’s we learn that we must be wary of grafting a feminist agenda onto demands for equality. The Revolutionary woman demands to be as good as the merchant’s wife – not as good as the merchant. Godineau leaves us in no doubt that, though women could not vote, they did not feel themselves excluded from sovereignty. Her approach, with its weight of detail and its mix of the statistical and the anecdotal, seems to give us greater access than ever before to what the women themselves thought: and what they thought was often surprising. In the Year III, spinners in one government workshop maintained that as the workshop belonged to the nation, it belonged to them. They were not demanding the ownership of the means of production. They were asserting that they had it already.

The assertion of a fact, no doubt, is the way to make a beginning. Claire Lacombe always added, after her signature, the words ‘free woman’. But how, in a Rousseauist climate of opinion, could the ‘free woman’ be born? Both male and female thinkers argued that nature had made women unfit to take part in the business of government. The contemptuous demolition of their argument by the deputy Condorcet is one of the most heartening texts to emerge from the Revolutionary years. ‘Either no individual of the human species has real rights, or all have the same rights, and anyone who votes against the right of another, whatever his religion, his colour or his sex, has henceforth renounced his own.’

Olympe de Gouges backed up his arguments, asking for equal distribution among the sexes of ‘positions, employments, responsibilities, dignities and industry’. Godineau shows that demands for sexual equality are not restricted to the early years of the Revolution, as is sometimes thought. And male support for women’s rights did not depend on factional affiliation. Condorcet was a Girondin; there were Montagnard politicians, far to his left on other issues, who clung devoutly to their Rousseau and their view of women as meek and dainty creatures requiring protection. The Montagnard deputy Amar spoke of women’s lack of political sophistication, their vulnerability to ‘error and seduction’. Men who spoke in this way were afraid, there is no doubt: afraid of how women would exercise power, if they were allowed it.

Perhaps these men were the victims of their own success. The men who staffed the government committees of ’93 had worked the crowds in ’89. They knew how naivety could be exploited, for they had done it. Perhaps they were at fault in characterising women as more foolish, more credulous, more easily-led than the uneducated working man. But it is worth remembering that universal male suffrage was not in place till 1792, and many of the arguments used against women’s rights had very lately been employed to deny men’s rights. When one looks at the record of individual male politicians, it does not seem that, for instance, either Robespierre or Marat gave much by way of direct reward to the thousands of women who were their adoring followers. But what they did was to create a climate in which questions about equality could be asked. Could equality be created simply by granting the franchise? Or was it a more intimate process? The Montagnard deputy Lequineo pointed out that granting women political rights would not necessarily abolish their ‘enslavement’ to men. Women would need to fight their own habits and prejudices, and they would need to work actively to ‘break their chains’, because men would find it difficult to give up an authority ‘so old, so universal and so convenient’. Perhaps, then, the war must be fought in the human heart, and in every house in every street. Perhaps the Revolutionary woman was at the beginning of an evolutionary process. At any rate, in 1793, a woman could imagine herself free. A year later, it was a different story. Godineau shows how sharply the situation of the working woman deteriorated after Thermidor, until at last she slid into the muffling darkness of the Napoleonic Code, unequal and dependent because the law said so.

But if a woman of the Revolution asked for freedom, what did she want it for? Not, it is clear, for self-realisation; but to serve the community. She wants to have responsibilities as well as rights; to bear arms in defence of her country and her revolution. Her feminist demands, if they are that, exist in the context of wider political demands, and Godineau’s insistence on this point leads us always to ask, not what was prohibited, but what was achieved. What could a woman do in the Revolution, if she could not vote? Godineau shows that she could do a great deal to insist on her status, on her share of sovereignty.

First of all, she could revolt. In October 1789 the women of Paris went to Versailles and fetched the royal family to the capital. This was not just an act of enforcement, it was a moral act, given symbolic weight because of the decisions women made and carried through, and the heroism of those days would be invoked again and again in Revolutionary discourse. It was special; it was not to set a pattern. Godineau shows – and again she extends the work of Rudé and other interpreters of the Revolutionary crowd – that women have a special role as the instigators of revolt. It is they who spur the men on, begin the street action. When the heavy fighting begins, the women disappear. (This did not guarantee a more revolutionary result: Gwyn Williams in Artisans and Saru-Culottes has pointed out that the Prairial revolt of 1795 might have had a grimmer outcome for the authorities if the gunners who turned their cannon on the Convention had been female.)

Pauline Léon, a chocolate-maker, illustrates in her own person the process Godineau describes. Léon was active on the streets in the Bastille days, putting up barricades and urging the men on. In summer 1791 she went with her mother and her friend Constance Evrard to the Champ de Mars to sign a petition calling for the deposition of the King, and she was in the crowd that was fired on by the National Guard. The following spring she read a petition to the Legislative Assembly, calling for permission to set up a female National Guard. On 10 August 1792 she passed the night at the general assembly of her section and then went out with her pike to play her part in the overthrow of the King. But there was a male sansculotte with no weapon and at the request of many patriots Pauline handed over her pike and disappeared from the front line.

There were a few women who sang ‘Abandon your hearths ... Let us march’ and went off to the armies. Many of them distinguished themselves in action and some became officers. But as Godineau shows us, a division of labour was readily accepted. If it was the job of the men to defend the frontiers, it was the specific task of the women to be vigilant against the internal enemy, and when her partner went to war she often thought of her presence replacing his in the district assembly. She could attend the galleries of the National Assembly, and later of the Convention, and make her voice heard. She could take her children with her, and her sewing, if she did that kind of work. At the Jacobins a woman in the gallery could send a note to the President asking for permission to speak; no women were members at the Jacobins, and from the early days of the Revolution they had more influence at the Cordelier Club on the Left Bank. There were fraternal clubs for both sexes and for women only. The women-only clubs were banned in the autumn of 1793, in a move often thought of as specifically anti-feminist. Godineau charts the splits and factions within the society of the Revolutionary Republican Women, at whom the measure was aimed, and destroys any notion of monolithic opinion within its ranks. Turning over a mass of confusing documentation to make her case, she shows persuasively that the women of the club were not forbidden to gather because they were women but ‘because they were part of a revolutionary process riddled with struggles’. The contentious issue she isolates is that of direct democracy. The women were taking up a position in favour of greater autonomy of the sections. Their position could be equated with federalism, and a federalist opinion was rapidly becoming the same as a treasonable opinion. In the climate of the time – and this was wartime, when liberty never increases – it was inevitable that the National Convention should close down the club.

When women packed the galleries of the Convention or the male clubs, their role was not passive. Even when they were not officially joining in the debate, they were carrying out their supreme Revolutionary role: that of witness. The Revolution set a premium on the attendance of women at all demonstrations and public events, as if they validated what was performed. The presence of women ensured that the Revolutionary virtues were always public ones. In every street and workshop and bar, the women were the eyes and ears of the Revolution, and took up with enthusiasm one of the great revolutionary roles – that of ‘Denouncer’.

The word is odious to the 20th-century ear. We think of betrayal of neighbours by neighbours, of envy turned systematic and socially corrosive. Above all, we think of how the Nazis built their power. But at the beginning of the Revolution, the word had a different resonance. ‘Denouncing’ meant, above all, seeking out the abuses of the authorities and publicising them. It was a dangerous business, which could end with a libel writ, an attack on the street, or a spell in gaol. It was not a female preserve and it was a very public matter. Then, as the Revolutionary spirit permeated every area of life, it became clear that there were certain everyday abuses of power that women were well able to detect: malfeasance to do with weights and measures, the quality of food, black-marketeering. The authorities at all levels were aware of the problem of malicious denunciation and took precautions against it. To put the phenomenon into perspective, one needs to remember that denunciations were seldom anonymous and that often they were a complaint about a state of affairs, rather than an individual. And these denunciations arose from a society far more open and public than any we can imagine, where neighbours policed bad marriages and contained violent men, where, as before the Revolution, the district police commissioner was the arbiter in all sorts of neighbourhood disputes. The openness of society bred a horror of its opposite. Revolutionaries of both sexes and all levels of eminence lived in dread of ‘plots’, of ‘secret committees’ and closed rooms. As we fear informers, they feared conspirators, and the women of Paris thought of themselves as playing their part in keeping patriotism transparent.

The role of woman as witness is bound up with the activity for which the Revolutionary woman has been most excoriated, as a result of which she has most often been caricatured and damned. ‘The least educated part of the people believe that only the merchants and the butchers are responsible for their wrongs,’ a police informant in February 1794 claimed: ‘they say if a good number were guillotined, this example of severity would bring back abundance.’ The women have an almost mystical faith in the power of the National Razor. And of course they take their knitting, as they take it to the public galleries; your fingers need not be idle while you are observing national justice. And that is what they would no doubt have told us: that they were witnessing justice, not bloodshed. It was the ‘political guillotine’ that was a popular spectacle; the women were not interested in the deaths of common criminals. They can be acquitted of a mass upwelling of sadistic impulses; they could not see the decapitation itself, and became angry at any display of brutality or bungling. The male Revolutionary has his ‘sacred pike’, the woman has ‘Saint Guillotine’. So there she sits and knits, exercising her share of the sovereign power, making herself seen and doing what she is allowed to do; and knots and weaves herself into the horrified imagination of posterity.

When we are told, as we often are, that the Revolutionary woman is an uncontrollable fury, ten times worse than her male counterpart, we can in fact gain something by looking at her through 20th-century eyes. By studying the habits of men and women who work together, we have become uncomfortably aware that a woman who speaks twice in a meeting is thought to have dominated it. We can probably extrapolate, and say that six women in a crowd equals one battalion of viragos. Quiet lives disappear from history, and it is the radical, militant, active woman who springs from the pages of Revolutionary history: along with the most unfortunate. Come the end of the Revolution, the misfortune is general, both for the quiet and homely sister and the ‘eloquent audacious and wicked’. In the winter of 1794-95 the woman of Paris, her husband and her son, are fainting with hunger in the streets. The currency has collapsed, the temperatures are sub-zero, the Seine is frozen and all the channels of hope are iced up. Women remember that ‘under the reign of Robespierre, the blood flowed, but we had bread.’ Female militancy once more becomes a force the authorities must reckon with. After the revolt of Prairial, the Convention decreed that women would be arrested if they gathered on the streets in groups of more than five. It was a decree that took away their peculiar weapons, not pikes, but solidarity, communal spirit.

In breaking the Revolutionary woman, one can break the Revolutionary man. Citizen Pathie, a carpenter whose wife was in prison, wrote an account of his situation:

I am unable to work, as every day I must go to the Committee of General Security to request her release, going in the morning, returning in the evening. I have been obliged to sell all my possessions in order to live and to make her time in prison more bearable ... I do not know how to recover from my destitution ... A great many families have been placed in the most horrible situation by the tyranny exercised in all Paris sections. What will they do this winter, having sold everything?

But the Revolution has changed something: even if it is only the quality of the people’s despair. From now on, the demand to live is not isolated from the demand to live free. In the repression and frozen privation of 1795, the cry is not for ‘Bread’, but for ‘Bread and the Constitution of 1793’.