Women, Virtue, and Politics: From 1793 to Today

On October 30, 1793, the French National Convention — having repeatedly declined to recognize women’s right to vote — abolished women’s debating clubs and other political societies. It may be tempting to dismiss this as a little-remembered moment of misogyny by revolutionaries five weeks into their Reign of Terror. Except that the Jacobins and other radicals who then dominated the French Revolution had recently expanded voting to all adult men (in June 1793) and were about to abolish slavery (in February 1794).

Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen – Wikimedia

Why would revolutionaries avowedly committed to the progressive expansion of human rights (including social rights like the right to education, also part of the June 1793 constitution) then foreclose the main form of political action open to a part of the French population already kept from voting? (Incidentally, the most famously political Frenchwoman of the Revolution, Olympe de Gouges, was executed just days after the debate over women’s political societies.)

The chief spokesman for the government was a lawyer from Grenoble named Jean-Baptiste-André Amar, a staunch Jacobin who had advocated for the revolutionary tribunal at the heart of the Reign of Terror (though he would turn on Robespierre the next summer) and now took the podium to argue against women’s debating clubs — and, really, any involvement by women in political life. Here’s the section of his speech included at the page on this event hosted by George Mason University:

Should women exercise political rights and get mixed up in the affairs of government? Governing is ruling public affairs by laws whose making demands extended knowledge, an application and devotion without limit, a severe impassiveness and abnegation of self; governing is ceaselessly directing and rectifying the action of constituted authorities. Are women capable of these required attentions and qualities? We can respond in general no….

Why would women be incapable of the “attentions and qualities” required for public affairs? Amar contended that, by natural law, women were meant for a more private sphere:

…should women gather together in political associations?… No, because they will be obliged to sacrifice to them more important cares to which nature calls them. The private functions to which women are destined by nature itself follow from the general order of society. This social order results from the difference between man and woman. Each sex is called to a type of occupation that is appropriate to it. Its action is circumscribed in this circle that it cannot cross over, for nature, which has posed these limits on man, commands imperiously and accepts no other law.

Nicolas de Condorcet
Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794)

Here, at least, there had been some debate within the revolution. As early as July 1790 the revolutionary journalist Nicolas de Condorcet had editorialized that women had the same capacity for citizenship as men. But his was a minority point of view. Both the 1791 constitution and its more radical successor of 1793 treated citizenship as a purely masculine activity (citoyens, not citoyennes, as many women’s historians have pointed out). Condorcet had been forced into hiding earlier in October 1793 (not for his views on women, but his alignment with the Girondin rivals of the Jacobins), and Amar spoke for the vast majority of his listeners when he argued that only men possessed the physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual qualities necessary for public life:

Man is strong, robust, born with a great energy, audacity, and courage; thanks to his constitution, he braves perils and the inclemency of the seasons; he resists all the elements, and he is suited for the arts and difficult labors. And as he is almost exclusively destined to agriculture, commerce, navigation, voyages, war, to everything that requires force, intelligence, and ability, in the same way he alone appears suited for the profound and serious cogitations that require a great exertion of mind and long studies and that women are not given to following….

In general, women are hardly capable of lofty conceptions and serious cogitations. And if, among ancient peoples, their natural timidity and modesty did not permit them to appear outside of their family, do you want in the French Republic to see them coming up to the bar, to the speaker’s box, to political assemblies like men, abandoning both the discretion that is the source of all the virtues of this sex and the care of their family?

At this point, the George Mason edit of the speech proves slightly unhelpful: the ellipsis separating the two paragraphs above replaces the following question and answer, central to the Jacobins’ understanding of gender and society:

What character is suitable for women? Morals and nature itself have assigned her functions; to begin the education of men, to prepare children’s minds and hearts for public virtues, to direct them early in life to the good, to elevate their souls, and to instruct them in the public cult of liberty: such are their functions, after the care of the household; woman is naturally destined to incite love of virtue. When they have fulfilled all their duties, they will have deserved well of their country. Without doubt it is necessary that they should instruct themselves in the principles of liberty in order to make their children cherish it; they can attend the deliberations of the sections and the discussions of the popular societies; but made as they are to soften the morals of man should they take an active part in discussions the passion of which is incompatible with the gentleness and moderation which make up the charm of their sex? (Linda Frey and Marsha Frey, eds., The French Revolution, p. 147)

I don’t know that this makes Amar’s voice more palatable to modern ears, but it is crucial to understand that Amar — like his ally-turned-enemy Robespierre — viewed virtue as an indispensable precondition for a healthy republic, and women as chiefly responsible for cultivating republican virtue via their roles as mothers (and perhaps also to “soften the morals of” the men to whom they were wives, daughters, sisters, etc.).

On any count, Amar’s argument likely strikes us as foreign, a relic of a less enlightened (but very Enlightened) age. First, virtue often seems absent from our political discourse. During the 2008 campaign season, my colleagues Dan Taylor and Mark McCloskey wrote an article encouraging voters to assess the prudence, courage, temperance, and other virtues of political candidates — rather than focusing so heavily on policy positions. They even quoted Gandhi: “The obligation of accepting a position of power is to be, above all else, a good human being.” But they acknowledged how unlikely their argument would seem in the 21st century:

“You’ve got to be kidding,” one hears our CNN commentator saying. “‘Good human being’? Who’s to say what constitutes a ‘good human being’? I want someone competent to run the country.” Wrong again. Competence without virtue is poisonous. It simply makes one more effective at doing wrong. Furthermore, being virtuous is, in itself, an expression of competence. Since virtue is a requirement for leadership, a lack of virtue in a leader is a sign of incompetence and grounds enough for rejecting that leadership. Virtue is a personal matter, but it is never wholly a private one, certainly not in a President.

I do wonder if we aren’t too quick to discount virtue as a vital component of a well-functioning polity. And I’d like to believe that recentering virtue would at least liberate us from partisan gridlock, but I fear it would just change the nature of political vitriol from “My opponent is absolutely wrong on the issues” to “My opponent is ridden with vice.”

Be that as it may, unlike Amar I don’t believe either that mothers are chiefly responsible for cultivating virtues or that women would find it impossible to remain virtuous as they enter a public sphere to which they have as much claim as men. So Amar’s strict segregation of women — separated from politics, but supposedly having an equally important role to play — tests the limits of this historian’s empathy.

Nevertheless, we ought not be too quick to judge the French. They might have waited until after the Second World War instead of the First to grant adult women voting rights, but women make up 27% of the French National Assembly as opposed to 17% of the U.S. House of Representatives. And the French have had women lead their political parties and run for president. (Though I’m not sure that the most prominent woman in French politics today is likely to be celebrated by too many feminists.)

Kristin Kanthak
Kristin Kanthak – University of Pittsburgh

As political scientist Kristin Kanthak noted in a recent post for OUPblog, “In the United States, women outnumber men both among college students and among professional and technical workers. Despite this, women lag far behind men in holding political office.” And the two main parties have yet to nominate a woman for the highest office in the land. (Barring a spectacular reversal of fortune in which the Green Party nominee overtakes Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, that is.) Kanthak continues:

Yet political scientists know that when women run for political office, they win at least as often as men, and when they win their elections, they are at least as effective as their male counterparts. The problem, then, is simple: Women don’t run. And part of the reason they don’t run is because women have a different relationship to family than men do.

Read the rest of her post for insights into why women don’t run: key is this continuing sense of women having “a different relationship to family than men do,” but also “that women who might run for office are more likely than men to declare themselves unqualified for politics, even if we control for the actual qualifications of the potential candidates.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.