Writers, philosophers, and clerics had long debated the question of a woman's role in society, but this discussion did little to inspire government action before 1789, or to prompt the formation of clubs or societies concerned with improving the status of women. Enlightenment writers interested in the subject focused on the education of women, rather than on their civil or political rights. Most people in France, men and women alike, believed that a woman's place was in the home, not in the public sphere. This widely held view helps explain the absence of organized women's groups in France before the outbreak of the Revolution. Once the King convoked the Estates-General in 1789, however, women took the opportunity to submit their own petitions, thereby helping place their own concerns on the revolutionary agenda.

As the notion of rights spread, it became increasingly radical. When King Louis XVI called the Estates-General to meet in 1789, he inadvertently released a torrent of complaints about the future of the country in the form of pamphlets. One of the most influential of these pamphlets was written by a clergyman, Abbé Sieyès. In "What Is the Third Estate?", he offered a fundamentally new vision of French society in which position would be determined by usefulness, not birth. In short, he attacked the concept of a hereditary nobility. Sieyès's pamphlet helped clear the way for the views that would be expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Before the revolutionaries could establish the Declaration of Rights as the fount of governing authority, however, they had to tear down the ancient edifice. They did not immediately abolish monarchy itself; instead they tried to put it on a different foundation of constitutionalism. But they did abolish the old system of special privileges. In one long session (throughout the night of 4 August 1789), the deputies to the new National Assembly voluntarily renounced the privileges of their towns, provinces, and various social groups. Nobles, clergy, judges, and even ordinary taxpayers lost whatever special standing they had gained over the centuries. From now on, everyone was to be identical before the law. This concept of equality became one of the cardinal principles of the new declaration, passed only three weeks later.

The declaration gave birth to the famous revolutionary triad: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In all images of the time, these principles were represented by female figures—but that did not mean women were about to gain equal access to the rights the triad embodied. The declaration said nothing about women, or about religious minorities, or men who did not own property, or slaves. Not surprisingly, the moment the declaration passed, the status of all these groups became the subject of heated debate.

The first issue taken up was the question of property qualifications for full citizenship. The National Assembly instituted property qualifications only to rescind them in 1792 and reinstitute them after 1795. When the question of religious minorities came up, the assembly readily agreed to grant full rights to Protestants but hesitated to do so for Jews. Jews petitioned for full rights and finally gained them on 27 September 1791.

The question of slavery was more complicated still, if only because a large proportion of French commerce depended on the colonies, whose agrarian economy rested heavily on that institution. In the French colonies, mulattos and free blacks had begun agitating for rights, but any such move was fiercely resisted by white planters, who feared it would undermine the entire slave system. The National Assembly tried to take a middle course, still supporting the slave system but granting rights to certain free blacks and mulattos (in May 1791). Some deputies wanted to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. When a massive slave revolt broke out in the largest French colony, Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti; see Chapter 8), the deputies rescinded the rights of free blacks and mulattos, only to reinstitute them a few months later (March 1792). The assembly originally tried to suppress the slave revolt, but rather than lose the colony altogether when the slaves threatened to ally with Great Britain and Spain, the National Convention, on 4 February 1794, finally abolished slavery in all the colonies. It would be reestablished under Napoleon in 1802.












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