Louisa May Alcott's novel, Work: a Story of Experience, is a defence of women's quest for independence through work that seems to owe much to Mary Wollstonecraft's philosophy. One running theme of the novel is that poor women can achieve emancipation through work. Much work doesn't allow them to do so because it is drudgery for abusive employers. But the book features a number of virtuous people who make it part of their life work to help create better employment situations for women in need, women who want to escape forced marriage (as is the case with 15 year old Kitty) or women who forfeited family ties by entering in a relationship outside marriage and are now shunned by society (such as Rachel)
The heroine of the novel, Christie Devon, declares to her aunt in the first line of the book that there is going to be 'a new declaration of independence', and that she is going to leave home, try out various lines of work and hopefully end up with a career. She wants to see the world and earn a living, but mostly, she wants to be free ('I do love luxury but I love independence more', says she when turning down a rich suitor she does not love). She tries various professions: maid, governess, actress, companion, seamstress, and at one point she is without work and destitute and considers suicide, but is rescued by a woman who is part of circle of people who help working women. By the end of the story, Christie has found a career: she has become a speaker and activist on behalf of working women.
The women she helps are poor, but she believes that there is room for improvement in the condition of rich women too, and when a rich acquaintance comes to ask her how she might help, she tells her as much: rich women 'need help quite as much as the paupers, though in a very different way'. The task she gives Bella is to set up a beautiful and elegant salon in her brother's home, and there set a new fashion, one for common sense. She adds: " I don't ask you to be a De Stael and have a brilliant salon: I only want you to provide employment and pleasure for others like yourself who are now dying of frivolity or ennui."
What's distinctive about Alcott's proposal is that the salon is designed primarily for the improvement of women. Like a traditional salon, it is hosted by a woman, and welcomes men and women of good society. But unlike traditional salons which are mostly for facilitating the exchange of ideas, literary, political or otherwise among men, this one is designed to encourage women to think about things other than dress and parties, and to embrace more 'old-fashioned' and 'commonsensical' ideals. This, according to Alcott is the sort of help rich women need, and it sounds very much like Wollstonecraft's quest for a slowly achieved revolution in manners.
The #Tradwife movement which emerged in the last couple of years on social medial should be in a position of power and scrutiny right now. Those women who claim to have embraced domesticity can revel in the self-isolatory measures imposed on most of us. They know how to stay at home, and they have made a career out of making their home a comfortable and happy place for others who live there. So, one might think, they are better off, right now, than those feminists who still abide by second wave feminism beliefs about the shackles of domesticity. If like Simone de Beauvoir, your home is just a place where you sleep, but that you prefer to work, eat, and play outside, then right now, you will not be in a good place. At least, that seems like the obvious inference to draw.
"Suddenly “looking to the past” and doing things the #TradWife way doesn’t seem quite so crazy. I can happily care for & teach my child without complaint, cook a meal from scratch, minimise, economise and budget - AND I actually like spending time with my family. Born for this!"
Last week I looked to the past at Manon Roland's productivity in prison to see if I can find something helpful for us in these trying times.
Part of Manon Roland's success was her domestic training: she was able to make her cell comfortable for working in a few minutes, and then it required very little upkeep.
But the point here, is that she knew how to spend very little time on domestic work so that she could have more time to herself for what was truly important: writing and studying! This seems pretty much like the opposite of the tradwife's philosophy. Manon did not clean to serve others, but to serve herself.
Of course, there was no one else for her to serve while she was in prison: what if she'd been at home, still, with her husband and their daughter?
One thing we do know about the Roland marriage, is that both parents were happy to spend time with their daughter, whether teaching her, playing with her, or just minding her while the other was busy. So it's unlikely that had she been in isolation as we are, in her home, with her family, that Manon Roland would have turned into a tradwife, and reveled in cleaning and cooking for the sake of making others comfortable.
Manon found that her aptitude for home making came in handy when she was forcibly isolated in prison in the months prior to her death. While she did not enthuse that she was 'born for this!' she did say that her skills at making any space comfortable in a short time and being able to stay in a small enclosed space, from which she escaped through her reading and writing made that difficult period tolerable. What her skills helped her with, was not enjoying her prison cell, but making time and space to escape it through her work. So for her domestic work is not an end in itself, nor a subservient activity performed for the benefit of others only.
Manon Roland did not live through a pandemic. But she did spend several months in forced isolation, when she was arrested and sent to prison, first at l'Abbaye, then at Sainte Pelagie.
Did her experience bear any resemblance to ours, who have to self-isolate at home while Covid19 weakens and hopefully goes away?
Certainly there are many points in common:
Fearing for her friends' lives – check: those of them who were not also in prison were running, and in fact many of them died.
Fearing for her own – check: and quite rightly too, as she was guillotined after 5 months of prison.
Having to stay away from her loved ones to protect them – check: the motive for her arrest was that she might give away the whereabouts of her husband and other Girondins, including her lover Buzot, so she had to make sure that she kept her contacts with them very discreet indeed.
Being confined to a small indoor space, without all her work stuff – check: Though her first cell was fairly comfortable, she was moved somewhere smaller. And though she had some books sent to her, and was able to buy pens and papers, most of things were inaccessible under seals.
Knowing the world around her was falling to pieces because its leaders were mad and not having a clear idea of when it would all be over – check: she saw the Terror as the death of the Revolution and did not think the republic would ever recover.
How did Manon cope with isolation? Not being ill, and being completely isolated from anyone she may have had to care for or homeschool, such as her daughter, Eudora, she could use the time pretty much at her own discretion:
I plan to use the leisure of my captivity by retracing my personal life from my earliest childhood until now. To go back thus, on every step of one's career is to live a second time. And what better is there to do in prison than to take one's existence elsewhere through a happy fiction or interesting memories?
How did she manage to settle down to work in such circumstances? Manon tells us that her education, which mixed Plutarch with omelet making, and dancing lessons with Latin was an ideal way of preparing for a varied life, and especially useful for knowing how to make the best of a very unpleasant situation:
This mixture of serious study, pleasant exercise and ordered domestic tasks, seasoned by mother's wisdom, rendered me fit for everything. This seemed to predict the vicissitudes of my fortune and helped me bear them. [...] I am nowhere out of place.
So when she first arrived at l'Abbaye, her first prison, she immediately set about to organize herself, so that she would be comfortable and able to work:
Up at noon, I examined how I would settle in my new home. I covered a small and mean table with a white cloth and placed it under the window, intending to use it as a desk, resolved to eat at the corner of the hearth in order to keep my work space clean and tidy.
But before you ask yourself how you could be more like Manon, and make your quarantine more productive and tidier at the same time, remember that Manon died at the guillotine. Don't be like Manon. Stay safe.
The French translation of Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published before she arrived in Paris in the winter 1792, and reviewed favourably in at least four reviews, including one, La Chronique de Paris, edited by Condorcet. The name of the translator is not noted anywhere in the translation. Isabelle Bour, in an article on the reception of Wollstonecraft in revolutionary France, suggests that it was a Girondin.
The translation is a good one: it contains spelling mistakes rather than mistakes in translation, suggesting that it was done in a hurry by someone who knew English well. It is also annotated in a way that suggests familiarity with English culture and literature, and a desire to defend 'Papist' France against the allegations of a protestant writer, while at the same time poking fun at Wollstonecraft's old fashion religiosity.
The translator seems thoroughly on board with Wollstonecraft's defence of women, until, that is, we reach a footnote to Chapter 11 (which mostly concerns education of women) where we get a peak at the translators's common-revolutionary-garden variety and insidious sexism:
Here the author is talking about France. It is true that the Revolution is allowing us to pay attention to women who for too long were treated with superficial respect and deep contempt. We owe them a better education; because mothers are the first teachers that nature and society offers children. We owe them divorce, which only the tyranny of priests was able to take from them. A large number among them have proven that they were worthy of liberty; they only need to be enlightened. More enlightened, they will become more virtuous and happier. We owe them reparation for all the gothic crimes of feudality against them, for inheritance, etc.; for if nature seems to refuse them political rights, they have as many claims to civil rights as men. In a word, it is up to them to give the new regime the firmness it needs. Since the French nation has shaken off it yoke, we have heard much about a counter-revolution. Legislators! Don't deceive yourselves: if there is to be a counter-revolution, it will come from the influence of women. So let the constitution concern itself with them, what you do for them will not be lost. What you have deposited in the hands of the paterfamilias really belongs to them, as they will transmit it to the future generations.
The translator is quite clear that women are not and should not be political rights holders, and that the main reason why we should grant them rights is that they are mothers to future citizens.
Although Wollstonecraft does emphasise the importance of the role of women as mothers in a republic, she by no means reduces their citizenship to that, indeed, takes pain to say that women need not marry nor have children, but that they still deserve to be treated as full citizens. The translator clearly accepts what Sieyes proposed in the draft of the Constitution, namely that women should be only passive citizen, i.e. enjoy civil, but not political rights.
In her Memoirs Manon Roland questions the idea that it is wrong that women should serve as their husband's official secretaries. It is natural that husband and wife should work together she says. It is better for a woman to use her skills and intelligence drafting political pamphlets and letters than intriguing in her salon. Unfortunately, the other Jacobins did think that Roland was intriguing in her salon as well as drafting documents, and that the documents she drafted she did so in secret. Marat called her study a 'boudoir', suggesting that it was the entrance to her private quarters, where she entertained male visitors. The boudoir (a sort of sitting/dressing room, sometimes with a writing desk) was a boundary between the public and the private domain. While a 'salon' was a room used for entertaining visitors, and was as such very public, especially in the home of politically active people, the boudoir was more private and could only receive personal and close friends. But is was not as private as the bedroom, where only family and lovers could be entertained. The Marquis de Sade exploited this ambiguity of the boudoir in one of his books – La Philosophie dans le boudoir (sometimes badly translated as Philosophy in the Bedroom), the boudoir being the place where we can both debate public ideas, and perform private acts.
Israel's Revolutionary Ideas (2014) uses the French Revolution to argue for his greater intellectual agenda which is to show the historical importance of the Enlightenment. Putting the radical ideals of the Enlightenment into practice, he argues, is what the French Revolution was mostly about. Certainly, he is not the only person to think so.
I picked the book hoping to find a narrative that I could use to develop my own understanding of the French Revolution, but also, because I was rather curious as to how he would refer to the women of the French Revolution. His previous books on the Enlightenment have been rather male heavy, with less discussion than one might have hoped, for instance, of Mary Wollstonecraft or Catharine Macaulay. Revolutionary Ideas is no exception: out of 167 names listed as the "Cast of Main Characters", only 8 are women. Some omissions are surprising: Pierre-Francois Robert is listed, but not Louise Keralio-Robert. In the book she is referred to as his collaborator on the Mercure National (p.123). It would be more accurate to say that he had been her collaborator, as it was Louise who started the journal (previously, Le Journal d'Etat et du Citoyen) and she was its editor-in-chief. Robert joined the journal later, and they eventually married.
While there are a number of references to both Grouchy and Gouges, they are not particularly enlightening or accurate. Grouchy is referred to as a 'leading exponent of women's rights' but we have no real evidence that she was even interested in women's rights. She did not write about it under her own name – that we know – nor is she reported to have discussed it with anyone. She did, however, contribute in writing and in editing Le Républicain to the leading ideas and arguments of the Revolution. Israel adds her names to various others, including most other women's names (they are rarely mentioned as individuals), also oddly, to Desmoulins's on p.206, and to a list of people who were released from prison after the Terror (she never went!) on p. 582. Olympe de Gouges is referred to as an ex-prostitute ('high class courtisane', p.123), which she certainly was not. She did, as far as we know, have a few lovers over the course of her lifetime, but by that criteria, it's likely that most of the characters listed by Israel were also prostitutes! She also gets the usual treatment of being described as an emotional creature – she is in turns fiery (123), angry (122) and disgusted (400). Gouges is also referred to, several time, as a leading feminist, which she was; but although her other political writings and activities are referred to, it seems that Israel only considers her notable for her feminism, which means that, like Grouchy, the greatest part of her contributions to the ideas that shaped the Revolution are forgotten.
Israel is a leading historian of ideas, and Revolutionary Ideas is a very recent book. The fact that it says so little about the women of the French Revolution shows that my project of writing about these women is a much-needed one.
In 1792, the conflict between Brissot and Robespierre came to a head, and eventually, a group of people whom we now call the Girondins, left the Jacobin club.
Robespierre attacked Brissot in his own journal, Le Defenseur de la Constitution (issue 3, p. 138), and along with Brissot, he criticized his circle of friends, several of whom had been made ministers, arguing that much of their decision-making happened 'behind closed doors' and that they were not, therefore, publically accountable as republican politicians ought to be.
Behind closed doors also means inside people's homes. Robespierre was accusing the Girondins of conducting public business outside of the public sphere, and in the private, or domestic one, where women were allowed to talk, and expected to take part in the decision-making. That this was a consideration becomes clear if we read Robespierre's tirade against Jean-Marie Roland. During both of Roland's turns in the ministry, Manon Roland held meetings in their homes. This, for Robespierre, was highly questionable:
His house is the rendez-vous of the intriguers who assemble regularly in order to manage the interest of this faction [the Gironde], and the systematic calumnies they direct against the patriots
And indeed, later on in the text, as Robespierre unravels what he sees as the extent of Brissot's treachery, he finds that at the end of a 'labyrinth of intrigues', there is a 'female triumvirate' (140).
The image of the triumvirate is itself powerful: it refers back to Cesar, Cassius and Pompei taking over the Senate, and eventually destroying the republic. The early days of the Revolution had seen a different triumvirate: Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth, constitutional monarchists who eventually left the Jacobins to found their own clubs, the Feuillants. All Jacobins, including the Gironde, had been united in denouncing them.
By claiming the existence of a Girondin female triumvirate Robespierre is doing two things. First, he is suggesting that like the Roman and Feuillant triumvirates, this one presents a serious risk to the republic. Secondly, by making it female, he places it 'behind closed doors', in the domestic sphere, and therefore hidden from citizens who might hold it publically accountable.
The identity of Robespierre's female triumvirate is unclear. Marisa Linton, in her excellent book Choosing the Terror, suggests that the three women are Manon Roland, Louise Keralio-Robert and Sophie de Grouchy. Her source is a footnote in a 1939 edition of Le Defenseur de la Constitution by Gustave Laurent. Gita May also names those three women (using the same source) in her 1964 De Jean-Jacques Rousseau a Manon Roland: Essai sur la Sensibilite Pre-romantique et Revolutionaire. But it's very unclear why Laurent gave these three names in the first place. Certainly Manon Roland must be one of the three, as Robespierre mentioned her salon just a few pages earlier. Sophie de Grouchy (Madame Condorcet) also is a likely candidate as Condorcet is very much a target of Robespierre in that article, and because he mentions secret meetings of the Girondin faction with Lafayette, who was a close personal friend of the Condorcets. I'm not clear why Louise Keralio-Robert should be the third woman. She was not a saloniere, but frequented the salon of her neighbours, the Petions, and she was closer to Robespierre than to the Rolands. Other possible candidates for the third member of the Triumvirate would be Germaine de Stael – Brissot did frequent her salon – or Madame Petion. If any one has information about the identity of this third woman, please contact me or leave a comment!
While we continue to investigate the lives, deeds and works of the great women of the French Revolution, let's not forget that some of these women were married, and that their husbands sometimes also contributed to the political events of their times. This is not, sadly always the case, and sometimes, what we have are rather petty disputes between men who were not as good at their jobs or deserving of their honour as they might have been!
This is partly true of an exchange between Jean-Marie Roland, Manon's husband, and Charles Lebrun, husband to the celebrated painter Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun.
Lebrun was an ambitious art-dealer, supported entirely by his successful wife's earnings and works. However, Vigee Lebrun, who was Marie Antoinette's favorite portraitist, had gone into exile in the early days of the revolution. When she left, she took only 80 louis with her and left most of her fortune with her husband. While abroad she worked and continued to send her some of her substantial earnings to Charles. In order for that money not to be confiscated, Charles asked for a divorce – this was on paper only, and married life resumed as soon as she returned from her 12 year exile.
Jean-Marie Roland was minister of the interior – but we know that a lot of his decisions were made by his wife, and that she wrote several influential letters for him. The two husbands came to fight over the question of how to look after the art confiscated from the aristocrats and the clergy. Lebrun thought he should be given the job and paid handsomely to do it. Roland thought this was not a priority.
Lebrun published a pamphlet which Roland found insulting and even threatening, and Lebrun responded with an epistolary meltdown, accusing Roland of not being a true republican.
I owe the details of this story to Bette W. Oliver's book, Surviving the French Revolution (chapter 4).
Here is the first page of Lebrun's letter below, courtesy of Gallica
When Manon Roland was at the prison of Sainte Pelagie, she found at first the company a bit too loud for her tastes: the prison was full of prostitutes and thieves whose ribald jokes she could hear through the thin walls of her cell. So when an old acquaintance Louise Petion was brought to Ste Pelagie, Manon was saddened, of course, but also relieved: she now had some company.
Unfortunately their friendship was tinged with tragedy. In September 1793, when she heard of the arrest of her daughter, Louise Catherine Angelique Ricard, veuve Lefevre, came to Paris to petition for her release. She was in turns arrested, and take to the Conciergerie. Almost immediately she was tried and condemned to the guillotine on the grounds of defending the re-establishment of monarchy. She is reputed to have claimed, when asking for her daughter's release, that Brissot and Petion and the proscribed Girondins were true republicans, and that if the French people wanted a king, they should have one. She was executed on 24 September 1793, at the age of 56, her daughter was still in Ste Pelagie.
When Manon visited with her friend, she would have been dealing with the loss of her mother, but also been fearing for her husband. Jerome Petion had escaped with Buzot, Manon's lover (although the relationship was a secret, so Manon could not tell Louise that he was that). Petion and Buzot died together in a suicide pact. Their bodies were discovered in a forest, eaten by wolves.
Louise-Anne Lefevre eventually came out of Ste Pelagie and, after the Terror, was granted a widow's pension. Her son, Jerome, lived on and pursued a military career under Napoleon.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.