Although she became a political thinker at a very early age – eight, if we believe her memoirs, being the age she discovered Plutarch and decided she too was a republican – Manon did not become interested in politics until the Revolution. That is, she was interested in political theory, but felt that these were so distant from the shenanigans at Versailles that her interest had to remain political. In the early 1780s, Manon Roland had lost all illusions that the world would ever be ruled in a just manner.
In 1783, she wrote to her friend Champagneux:
Virtue, liberty, are only to be found in the hearts of a small number of decent people; to hell with the others and all the thrones in the world!
But from the very start of the revolution, when she was recovering from pneumonia and writing powerful letters to her friends in Paris, advising and admonishing as to what had to be done, Manon became fully involved. She wrote letters and newspapers articles, and helped Jean-Marie find a position for himself that would allow them to participate more fully. As soon as it became possible the Rolands moved to Paris. In June 1791, she wrote to her friend Bancal explaining her transformation:
While peace lasted, I kept myself to the tranquil role and the kind of influence that seem to me proper for my sex. But when the King’s departure declared war, it struck me that we must all devote ourselves without reserve; I went and joined the Fraternal Societies, persuaded that zeal and right thinking can sometimes be very useful in times of crisis. I cannot keep to my home and am visiting all my acquaintances in order to excite us for the greatest actions.
In 1777, the Académie of Besançon proposed an essay competition with the following question: How can educating women contribute to the improvement of men? Such competitions were common at the time, a way both for the provincial academies to make themselves known throughout the country, and for fledgling writers to get published.
Competitions were especially rife during the decades preceeding the Revolution, with 357 between 1770 and 1779, that is, more than 35 per year. As well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose career as a writer took off when he won the Academy of Dijon competition with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1749, many famous names of that time entered and won academic competitions, such as Jean-Francois Marmontel, novelist and friend of Olympe, Jacques Pierre Brissot, Abbe Gregoire and Jean-Paul Marat to edit.
Manon’s first mention of her academic project to her friend Sophie Cannet is very brief, and almost blustery – look at all the crazy things I’m trying to do, she seems to say – none of them will come to anything:
14 January 1777
In April she sent it the Academy, and in June, still waiting for an answer, she told her friend about it:
21 June 1777
It turned out nobody won. Bernardin de Saint Pierre, Rousseau’s disciple, and author of the novel Paul and Virginie, got an honorary mention.
On 15 January 1793, Louis Capet, previously King of France, is found guilty by an overwhelming majority of the 749 deputies. Two days later, the deputies are asked to vote for a penalty. 346 vote for the death penalty. Others, including Thomas Paine, who had been offered honorary French citizenship, vote for exile, or for imprisonement.
One citizen, who had not voted, argued against the death penalty. Olympe de Gouges started by offering herself as Louis’s unofficial advocate on 16 December, arguing at first that while as a King, he had done harm to the people of France by his very existence, once Royalty had been abolished, he was no longer guilty.
As king, I believe Louis to be in the wrong, but take away this proscribed title and he ceases to be guilty, in the eyes of the republic.
This proposal, written as a letter to the Convention, was then printed as a placard and distributed throughout Paris. The Convention disregarded the letter. Sèze was made Louis’ advocate, and the argument that Gouges put forward was not taken into consideraton. Louis Capet, stripped of his title, was still tried for high treason, i.e. for actions he had performed while he was still King of France.
Olympe did not stop at this. On 18 January, after the King had been found guilty, but before his death had been voted, she put up another placard addressed to the Convention and to the people of Paris, entitled “Decree of Death against Louis Capet, presented by Olympe de Gouges.” In this piece she also attempted to dispel the mistaken impression that she was in fact a royalist.
Louis dead will still enslave the Universe. Louis alive will break the chains of the Universe by smashing the sceptres of his equals. If they resist? Well! Let a noble despair immortalize us. It has been said, with reason, that our situation is neither like that of the English nor the Romans. I have a great example to offer posterity; here it is: Louis' son is innocent, but he could be a pretender to the crown and I would like to deny him all pretension. Therefore I would like Louis, his wife, his children and all his family to be chained in a carriage and driven into the heart of our armies, between the enemy fire and our own artillery. (http://www.olympedegouges.eu/decree_of_death.php)
Here Gouges is appealing to a well-known fact about the workings of royalism: a King cannot die. The holder of the title may die, but the title passes automatically to the next contender, without, even, the necessity of sacrament. The immortality of the king was such an important precept that a Chancelier, when a monarch died, could not wear mourning. Bossuet captured the phenomenon thus in his Mirror for Kings:
Letting Louis live, she would go on to argue in her final published piece, 'Les trois urnes'. would have made it clear that he was no longer a threat to the republic - as no one individual is. To execute him is both to betray a certain lack of confidence in whether the people have truly succeeded in aboloshing the monarchy, and perpetuate that doubt, as after Louis's death, his title is transferred to his descendent.
Having just returned from the fantastic "Bridging the Gender Gap Through Time" conference in London, I want to share a quote and an image highlighted by my friend and collaborator Alan Coffee during our joint presentation.
You may think it too soon to form an opinion of the future government, yet it is impossible to avoid hazarding some conjectures, when every thing whispers me, that names, not principles, are changed, and when I see that the turn of the tide has left the dregs of the old system to corrupt the new.
The phenomenon of the common man turned petty tyrant by the Revolution was entirely familiar to Olympe de Gouges, who relates that after a journey from Auteuil to her Paris printer, she was dragged to the police by a disgruntled cab driver who insisted on charging her an exorbitant price for the journey.
[...] I owed the coachman for an hour and a half but in order not to get into a fight with him I offered him 48 sous; as usual he loudly demanded more I stubbornly refused to give him more than his due for an equitable soul would rather be generous than duped. I threatened him with the law; he said he cared nothing for it and insisted that I pay him for two hours. We arrived at a justice of the peace, whom I shall generously not name, although the authoritarian way he dealt with me merits a formal denunciation. No doubt he was unaware that the woman asking for justice was the authoress of so many charitable and equitable works. Paying no attention to my reasons he pitilessly condemned me to pay the coachman what he demanded. Knowing the law better than he did I said to him, ‘Sir, I refuse and I would beg you to be aware that you are exceeding the prerogative of your position.’ So this man, or to put it better this lunatic, got carried away and threatened me with La Force [prison] if I did not pay straightaway, or he would keep me in his office all day. I asked him to take me to the district tribunal, or the town hall, as I needed to lodge a complaint against his abuse of power. The grave magistrate, in a riding coat as dusty and disgusting as his conversation, tells me pleasantly: ‘No doubt this affair must reach the National Assembly?’ ‘That may well be.’ I said, half furious and half laughing at this modern-day Bride-Oison, ‘So this is the type of man who is to judge an enlightened People!’ This sort of thing abounds. Good patriots, as well as bad ones, indiscriminately suffer similar misadventures. There is but one cry concerning the disorder of the sections and tribunals. Justice has no voice; the law is disregarded and, God knows how, the police are inured.
Before she became Madame Helvetius, the famous hostess of the Auteuil salon in which our heroines and their friends met to discuss politics and philosophy, Anne-Catherine de Ligneville was destined for convent life.
One of twenty children in an impoverished aristocratic family, there was no money to marry her. But before she could be sent off to a convent, Anne-Catherine was adopted by an aunt, Madame de Graffigny. Madame de Graffigny had no children of her own, and an abusive, violent husband, whom she kept at bay as much as possible. She certainly did not want a child from him.
Madame de Graffigny was a friend of Voltaire and he invited her to join him and Madame du Chatelet at Cirey while she arranged to leave her husband. Unfortunately, she wrote some rather indiscreet letters while she was there, including one describing in details a very contentious play by Voltaire, La Pucelle. Chatelet, who read all incoming and outgoing mail, took exception. She had dedicated her life to preventing Voltaire from being sent to the Bastille for his writings, and would not have a guest endangering him for the sake of gossip.
Soon afterwards, Madame to Graffigny moved to Paris with Anne-Catherine, whom she called affectionately Minette.
She had adopted her niece with the intention of educating her and introducing her to Paris Society. As she was not rich, in order to succeed in the latter, she had to become famous. That she did with the publication of her novel, Lettres d'une Peruvienne, a satirical account of French life viewed by a kidnapped Inca princess who is introduced to the Paris society. Madame de Graffigny's salon became famous, and so did her niece.
Before the philosopher and dandy Helvetius cast his eyes and intentions on Minette, she became a close friend of Turgot, then a priest, and together, they played badminton.
When Olympe first came to Paris, she was able to mix with the aristocracy through her half brother, Pompignan's heir. But her big break as an author was an introduction, through her friends Louis Sebastien Mercier and Michel de Cubière, to the salons of Fanny Beauharnais and Madame de Montesson. Cubiere was a poet, a socialite and a flirt, whose official mistress was Fanny de Beauharnais. During the revolution he used his charms to make a place for himself in the ever changing government, and it is to him that Olympe attempted to write when she was first taken. Cubière survived the revolution. Mercier, poet, novelist, playwright and philosopher, also survived, despite being put under arrest in 1794 for having protested the sentencing of the Girondins.
Madame de Montesson was a talented widow, who became a patron of playwrights welcoming in particular those, like Olympe, who had experienced difficulties with the Comédie Francaise. She set up a private theatre in her Paris home in the Chaussée d’Antin, close to Mirabeau’s home, as well as a number of other famous literary salons of the 18th century such as that of Juliette Recamier or Louise d’Epinay. Her theatrical manager was Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint George, a composer and soldier born of a rich planter and his Guadeloupean slave, Nanon. Saint-George became one of Madame de Montesson’s protegés after his first Opera, Ernestine with a libretto by Choderlos de Laclos, failed miserably at the Comédie Italienne. In 1792 Saint-George was put in charge of a legion of soldiers who were also men of colour and fought under the celebrated General Dumouriez.
On 7 November 2017, 314 Francophone teachers signed and published a document promising not to teach or enforce a particular rule of French grammar:
"Le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin" - that is, when a noun group is of mixed gender, the corresponding pronouns and adjectives should be written in the masculine form, because that form is 'stronger' or 'wins over' the feminine one.
For instance, a group of men reading is refered to as 'lecteurs', a group of women reading as 'lectrices' but a mixed group as 'lecteurs'.
Proponents of Inclusive Writing suggest that it should be 'lecteur·rice·s'
The guardians of the French language, the Academicians, who are in charge of vetting new dictionary entries and proposals for grammatical reform, immediately rose against the proposal, declaring it to constitute a 'mortal danger' for the French language'.
The minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, agreed, adding that it was 'very ugly' and that real feminists should concern themselves with other, more important problems.
The Prime Minister Edouard Philippe followed suite, declaring that the new 'écriture inclusive' would not be legal in official documents.
Two years before the petition for inclusive writing was signed, historian Eliane Viennot addressed the National Assembly on the need to reform language. She has since been an active member of the movement and noted that far from being new, the idea that language should be reformed to include women as equals dates back, in France, to the Revolution, and in particular to Olympe de Gouges.
According to Viennot, Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman was a direct challenge to the failure to include women in the new Constitution. Viennot points out that 'l'homme' in French does not, and never did correspond to 'humanity', but really only to male humanity. Counting the number of uses of the word in several authors of the Enlightenment, she says it is clear that the word is not meant to include women, except on a few occasions. Pretending that the use of the masculine is neutral or universal is pure hypocrisy - except if we understand 'universal to mean 'applying to men only' which in the French 'universal suffrage' of 1848 , it did.
On 26 July 1789, Manon Roland wrote the following to her friend Louis-Augustin Bosc d'Antic:
No, you are not free; no one is yet. The public trust has been betrayed. Letters are intercepted. You complain of my silence and yet I write with every post. It is true that I no longer offer up news of our personal affairs : but who is the traitor, nowadays, who has any other than those of the nation? It is true that I have written you more vigorously than you've acted. But if you are not careful, you will have done nothing but raise your shields. [...]
Bosc d'Antic was a thirty year old botanist, who had just founded the first French Linnean society. But as a close friend of the Rolands, he was also a republican, and keen for France to change. In 1791, he became Secretary of the Jacobin's club. It is not clear what role he played before then. Manon Roland mentions 'his districts' - the old parishes, which under the Commune became 'Sections' - which leads one to suppose that he had been elected at the Assembly of June 89, sworn to give France a Constitution. His name does not feature, however, among the 300 Parisian members. Certainly, however, he and Roland's two other correspondents at the time, Lanthenas and Brissot, were active and influential. And they listened to her, asking for her advice and opinion on what to do. Brissot even published some of her letters in his new paper, Le Patriote Francois.
Clearly Manon was worried that the Revolution would peter out, because her friends did not act firmly enough. She was only just recovering from a life threatening illness, and still nursing her husband, so could not come to Paris herself to see to it that things were done properly.
* The 'illustrious heads' she says must be tried are the king's brother and the king's wife, who were then believed guilty of a failed coup d'Etat.
** Decius, is Decimus Brutus, not the Emperor Decius.
*** "You are f..." is in French "Vous etes f...". She no doubt wrote, or intended it to be read 'foutus', which means exactly what my translation suggests.
During a recent visit to the Conciergerie, I picked up a prettily bound book, entitled Note sur le supplice de la guillotine. The book contained a short essay of that title by Cabanis, five drawings by the artist Cueco, and a discussion of the moral and political philosophy of the guillotine by French philosopher Yannick Beaubatie.
For the main part, Cabanis's article, written 1799 (an IV) argues against recent articles that claimed that the torment of the guillotine ought to be abolished because it cannot be proven that the guillotined do not feel pain. The articles (by members of the medical profession, Cabanis's own colleagues), cite as evidence witnesses's reports of decapitated heads moving in such a way as to suggest that they responded to the situation, and attempted to communicate. One example they cite is that of Charlotte Corday, whose decapitated head was slapped by one of Sanson's valets, after which it apparently reddened as if in shame and indignation. Cabanis answers that while he was not present at any decapitation (as he did not have the stomach for it) he was present at the testing of the machine and certifies that death must be instanteanous. He then goes on to discuss the philosophical question of where pain resides, and the medical phenomenon of bodily movement after death.
At the end of the essay, Cabanis offers his moral and political reflections: the death penalty, he claims, ought to be abolished. But if it is not, the guillotine has to go. Not because it causes pain to its victim, but because it is too swift so that as a performance of a punishment it cannot serve its rightful purposes. Beaubatie takes this up in a fascinating discussion. In particular, he notes a resemblance between Cabanis' s reservations about the guillotine and Beccaria's utilitarian theory of punishment. Beaubatie notes further that Beccaria and Cabanis both frequented the Helvetius home, although two years apart.
What Beaubatie does not note, however is the strong resemblance between Cabanis's thought and that of his sister in law and long term friend and collaborator Sophie de Grouchy. Cabanis's principal reason for thinking that the guillotine should not be used is not - as Beaubatie claims - that it cannot serve as an exemple or detterrent, but that it does not allow enough time for spectators to react emotionally in such a way that would help their sympathy grow.
The guillotine’s work is done in less than a minute.
That it did not occur to Beaubatie, in his commentary written in 2002, to look to his long term philosophical correspondent Sophie de Grouchy for influence, as well as to Beccaria (whose path with Cabanis crossed, but two years apart) is a sign of how much work has been done over the last fifteen years in recovering the works and influence of women philosophers.
The gift shop of the Conciergerie is situated in a narrow room at the back of the largest medieval room in Europe, La Salle des Gendarmes. The narrow room is called Rue de Paris, after "Monsieur de Paris", an affectionate nickname for Charles0Henri Sanson, the executioner of the Revolution.
The Rue de Paris was what prisonners who could not afford to pay for a private cell walked through in order to reach the large room where they would stay until their trial along with hundreds of others.
Private cells were called 'A la Pistole', because it cost a Pistole per night to stay there, a Pistole being a Louis d'Or, so a substantial amount of cash.
Those who could not afford this were called 'Pailleux' because the room where they stayed was covered with (dirty) straw.
Men and women were kept separately, and aside from Marie Antoinette's cell, and the women's courtyard, the Conciergerie has only reconstituted the living quarters of the male prisoners. This leaves us to speculate as to how women were accommodated.
We know that Manon Roland was not rich, but yet she spent her last nights at the conciergerie on a bed - given her by another prisoner - rather than in the straw.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.