French playwright Joseph Alexandre Pierre de Ségur, the Viscount of Ségur, was imprisoned during the French Revolution. Once the Reign of Terror was at an end, he wrote about the conduct of women in the Revolution, in Women: their Condition and Influence in Society, which was translated into English and published in 1803 by TN Longman and O Rees, London (I am referring here to Volume 3), two years before his death. Over the years, he had many children by many mistresses, so it is not surprising that his assessment of women is in general quite negative, and certainly chauvenistic by modern standards.
During the revolution the women displayed their natural character. Incapable of anticipating events, their wit and levity were indulged at the most serious crisis. While some assisted in fomenting political discord, others laughed at the most alarming symptoms of anarchy. Their mischievous frivolity, their inconsiderate conversation produced incalculable evils. Displaying their self-love and vanity, rather than a just dignity of mind, they obeyed the momentary impulse of passion, without calculating the dangerous consequences of their conduct: vain of their empire of opinion, they stimulated the individuals whom they could influence, not to a dignified and powerful self-defence, but to oppose the progress of the revolutionists by a feeble resistance, and a petty war of idle words; which merely irritated their enemies, when it was necessary to have encountered them with courage, and to have struggled to destroy them. They were guilty of a much greater error; they induced all those, who had been dispossessed of authority by the revolution, to refuse the offer of any of the newly instituted places of power, which they made the subjects of their ridicule. In consequence of which conduct, every part of the government was occupied by their adversaries, and the evil was left without a remedy.
Whilst it is true that the actions of women had some bearing on the origins of the Revolution (such as the Women’s March on Versailles of 1789), this is still a slightly bizarre attempt to blame women for the Revolution on the grounds that they were a bad influence on the men in their lives (although there were a few women in positions of great influence and power). The Viscount of Ségur’s opinions then take a complete u-turn when he describes the conduct of women after the outbreak of the Reign of Terror.
The flame had burst forth, blood had been spilled, and in their view everything was annihilated. The apprehension alone of not being useful occupied all their thoughts. Their eyes were bathed in tears, which flowed from sentiment alone. Where were they? Far from dangers, in obscure retreats, which their natural timidity should have induced them to seek? No – many of them were to be seen surrounded by weapons, fire, and carnage, endeavouring to suspend, at the least, the crimes and massacres which they could not prevent.
The first thing that probably comes to mind when thinking about women in the Reign of Terror is the knitting women while the executions took place, an image that will remain forever in the public consciousness, as long as Dickens is read, due to the character of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. Many of these women were veterans of the 1789 march. However, according to the Viscount of Ségur, they were not typical of the actions of women in general during the Revolution.
Dreadful insurrections,- prisons, – scaffolds, – massacres, – fires, – all the accompaniments of terror, present on all sides women employed in diminishing their horrors. Here, behold them wiping away the tears which fall; and there endeavouring to heal the wounds which have been inflicted; while still further on, some are occupied in consoling and encouraging a devoted victim. In short, on every side men are creating miseries, on every side women are endeavouring to alleviate and repair them.
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