Even as the fortunes of women's political activism were rising and falling, women began playing another kind of role, as symbols of revolutionary values. Most of the major revolutionary values—liberty, equality, fraternity, reason, the Republic, regeneration—were represented by female figures, usually in Roman dress (togas). The use of female figures from antiquity followed from standard iconographic practice: artists had long used symbols or icons derived from Classical Roman or Greek sources as a kind of textbook of artistic representation. French, like Latin, divided nouns by gender. Most qualities such as liberty, equality, and reason were taken to be feminine (La Liberté, L'Egalité, La Raison), so they seemed to require a feminine representation to make them concrete. This led to one of the great paradoxes of the French Revolution: though the male revolutionaries refused to grant women equal political rights, they put pictures of women on everything, from coins and bills and letterheads to even swords and playing cards. Women might appear in real-life stories of heroism, but they were much more likely to appear as symbols of something else.

Although women had not gained the right to vote or hold office (and indeed would not do so in France until 1944!), they had certainly made their presence known during the Revolution. At the end of the decade of revolution, a well-known writer, Constance Pipelet, offered her views on its impact on women. Although she stopped short of repeating Condorcet's or Olympe de Gouges's demands for absolutely equal rights for women, she did insist that the Revolution had forced women to become more aware of their status in society. She also argued that the Republic should justify itself by offering women more education and more opportunities. Her writing shows that women's demands had been heard and that even if they had gone underground, they had not been forgotten.

Women as Symbols during the French Revolution

Women participated in the French Revolution in many ways: they demonstrated at crucial political moments, stood in interminable bread lines, made bandages for the war effort, visited their relatives in jail, supported their government-approved clergyman (or hid one of those who refused to take the loyalty oath), and wrote all manner of letters and petitions about government policies. As symbols, however, they did not appear in their normal guise in ordinary life at the end of the eighteenth century. To take but one example, an early allegorical painting by the artist Colinart of a woman dressed like a Roman goddess is a far cry from the actual mother of 1790 wearing ordinary clothes and depicted with her children in another painting.

Although no one has completed a statistical study of female figures in revolutionary art, even a cursory review shows many more depictions of women as allegorical figures than of women in their actual roles of the time. The most popular figure was Liberty, who became, in effect, the preferred symbol of the French Revolution. Called Marianne by her detractors to signal that she was nothing but a common woman (perhaps even a prostitute), Liberty nonetheless became indelibly associated with the French Revolution, so much so that she still appears prominently on French money and in patriotic paintings and statuary. Liberty usually appeared in Roman dress, often in a toga, holding a pike, the people's instrument for taking back their liberty, with a red liberty cap perched on its tip (the liberty cap too came from Roman times—it was supposedly worn by recently freed slaves).

Liberty was often joined by another revolutionary virtue such as truth, as in the painting Allegory of Truth by Nicolas de Courteille. After the Republic was proclaimed in September 1792, depictions of the Republic as a female allegorical figure sometimes took over from Liberty. Liberty, Reason, Regeneration—as in this engraving of the Festival of Reunion of 10 August 1793 —Wisdom, and of course Equality and Fraternity, were all represented as women. These allegorical figures sprouted on every surface. Festivals featured them prominently, but so did the new republican calendar and the new revolutionary playing cards, which used Roman figures, both male and female, to replace the kings, queens, and jacks of old.

Why did women appear so frequently in these allegories and symbolic depictions? Why, for instance, does a giant female statue overshadow the scene in a painting by Lethière (Gillaume Guillon) showing a typical scene of registering for the draft. Although the picture is filled with ordinary people of the time, including many women, it emphasizes symbolically "the country in danger" through a gigantic female figure with her breasts exposed. The figure stands for "the country," which in French is a female noun (la patrie). As noted, it was iconographic tradition to depict virtues as female, but not as contemporary women. An artist signaled their symbolic status by dressing them in Roman or Greek garb or even by showing them half naked. No French woman would have dressed in this fashion, so no one would think that these women were real women. In Watch Yourself or You'll Be a Product for Sale, the depiction of contemporary women, albeit women dressing to please men, women are dressed in contemporary fashion; they are not shown as Roman or Greek goddesses.

Any educated person would therefore immediately recognize when a woman was an abstract quality or idea and when she was simply a woman of her times or a particular noted woman. Women made good symbols because they could not hold office or participate officially in politics. That is to say, it was impossible to confuse a depiction of "liberty" with any particular political leader or official, who was by definition male. The French were extremely worried that one man might take power and establish a dictatorship. They preferred symbols that could not be identified with any specific male political leader. Instead, Liberty became the dominant political figure. As a result, no individual ever enjoyed the symbolic status accorded George Washington, say, in the new United States.
















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