Anne-Josèphe Terwagne was born in Mercourt, in Belgium in 1762. As a child and a young woman, she was abandoned, moved from house to house, country to country, job to job, and eventually ended up in Paris, with some money left her by a lover. There she took up the name Théroigne de Méricourt and started to dress in Amazon fashion, that is a comfortable style of dress that allows women the same freedom of movement as men She was an early enthusiast of the French Revolution who spoke out in favour of women's rights, but especially of women's participation, demanding that she be allowed to arm a battalion of women, so that if the men had to leave France to fight abroad, the country would not be undefended.
In 1790, during a trip back home in Belgium, she was arrested and taken to an Austrian prison, where she was interrogated about her revolutionary activities. The text below was written shortly after her return. It is an address to the 48 'sections' of Paris, the units of democratic government that had replaced the 'districts' set up in 1789.
During her imprisonment, Theroigne learnt much about what foreign powers intended for France. What the enemy wants is division among the French, Civil war. She cites the fact that there has been some in-fighting in Paris already, and explains that the foreign enemy does not care about party politics except in so far as it sets the revolutionaries against each other.
"Citizens" she says. "Let's stop and think, or else we are lost." If we care about the public interest, she carries on, we must put aside our personal differences and band together. The French, she says, are enlightened, and they will fight for their liberty till the last drop of blood.
It wouldn't take much, she adds, to put a stop to the in-fighting and change the course of the revolution back to its true goals. After all, she says, it didn't take much for the French to step over the line and massacre the King's army at the Tuileries the previous year.
So here's what she suggested:
"I propose, consequently, that each section should elect six older female citizens amongst the most virtuous and wise to reconcile and unite citizens and remind them of the dangers faced by their country. They will wear a large scarf on which it will be written 'FRIENDSHIP' and 'FRATERNITY'. Whenever the section hold a general assembly, they will be present in order to call to order any citizen who would stray, and would not respect the freedom of opinion, so precious for the creation of a good public spirit. Those who have only strayed but have good intentions and otherwise love their nation will keep silent. But those of bad faith, placed here by the aristocrats, the enemies of France and the agents of the king to interrupt, swear, and fight will not listen to the voice of those female citizens any more than to that of the president so it will be a way of finding out who they are. Their names will be noted and they will be investigated. Those female citizens should be changed every six months. Those that demonstrate the most virtue and firmness in their task of uniting citizens and protecting freedom of opinion can be re-elected within one year. Their reward should be to have a special place in our national holiday, and to be in charge of inspecting the schools for girls.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.