The Fight for Women's Education by Feminists during the French Revolution
The right to education is one of the most important rights a person could have. Education prepares you for your future occupation as well as your private life and lifestyle. The women of France during and even before the French Revolution wanted the right to education. Feminists led the forefront of this fight for equal education.
Women’s education and the public opinion of women’s education before the revolution was greatly impacted by the famous writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Published in 1762, Emile was a favorite among the French people. In this book, Rousseau described his vision of an ideal education for women. He believed that women take an active role in the family and domestic life and should not try to take any active roles outside of the home. He states since a women’s life revolves around men, her education should also be relative to men. He specifies this by saying,
“…to please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to educate them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, and to make life agreeable and sweet to them - these are the duties of women at all times, and what should be taught them from their infancy.”1
While this was the popular view, many women objected to his insistence that women did not need any serious or formal intellectual preparation for life.
Since women could not address their grievances to the King or the Estates General personally, they had to send petitions and pamphlets outlining their concerns.2 They also used brochures to discuss important topics. The writers would argue that human beings were naturally equal so any sexual discrimination was unnatural; husbands and wives should be equal in marriage; women should have a better education and access to more jobs, along with other demands for equality.3
The most education that women could receive, unless they could afford education elsewhere and actually get accepted into an institution, was at a convent. They were taught to read the service of Mass in French and the Vespers in Latin.4
Before and during the revolution, there were many supporters among the male population. One of the more famous supporters was Marie-Jean-Antione-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet is often referred to as one of the last philosophes or as an early champion of social science.5 Condorcet went as far as to propose that since women were not allowed to vote, then they should not be taxed.6 In 1786, the Condorcets’ helped to open a Lycee, which is a secondary school, for women.7 In 1793, Pierre Guyomar presented the Convention with his own opinions and revelations of equality. In this, he stated that the only differences between men and women lay in their reproductive systems and that he could not understand why physical differences should lead to differences in the law.8
More action began to be taken after the revolution began and the National Assembly was established. In November of 1789, the National Assembly received a series that attacked the economic subordination of women and the evils of convent life. In 1789, the Assembly assigned Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a high-ranking clergyman, to reorganize public education. He limited women’s culture, stating that women had been created for a domestic life with their children and that it would be an error to violate natural law. The Assembly then decided to allow girls to go to school until they reached 8 years of age. After that, their education would be their parent’s responsibility.
There were more attempts for girls’ education, like the boarding school of citizenesses, which educated girls on developing their reasoning and memories, as well as teaching them to be useful citizens of their country, and finally about motherhood, virtue, manners, and societal standards.9 There were also a handful of women who created “homes of equality” in 1793, where they raised children from the ages of 5 to 12.10 In 1795, the Convention’s Committee on Public Education voted to suppress girls’ schools but changed their minds in 1796.
While this was a small victory for children’s education, the fight for women’s education was still ongoing. In 1790, Mme Mouret went to the Assembly to present a speech on the need for women’s education. Sadly, there was still little to no action of education for women, though there was more talk amongst the elite than amongst the common women. Women of the working class spared little to no interest in education. The women of the bourgeois classes made education for girls one of their short-lived hobbies until they reverted back to Rousseau’s lifestyle.
Though with that being said, it is hard to say that the revolutionary governments neglected women and their education since not one of the governments was able to create or run a national educational system.11
While there may not have been many permanent changes made toward women’s education, there was in fact a lasting impact from this progressive movement. The Revolution created a sense of independence in women, and according to Bessiéres and Niedzwiecki, this may have been the only gain that they kept after the Revolution. This opened the doors of literature for individuals like Georges Sand and Marie d’Agoult. Women also began to write about other varying topics spanning from politics to science and education.12