From Past & Present to People Magazine: The Lives and Loves of Maximilien Robespierre

All of His Power Lies in the Distaff: Robespierre, Women and the French Revolution

guest post by Noah Shusterman

My article in the May issue of Past & Present discusses the rise of Maximilien Robespierre, the role of women in the French Revolution, and the way that those two questions were related. In the piece, I tried to draw attention to something that contemporary observers had remarked on and that nineteenth-century historians had discussed at great length, but that twentieth- and twenty-first century historians had largely ignored: the attraction that many Parisian women felt for Robespierre during the Revolution. Looking at the role that those women played can not only help us understand why Robespierre was so successful, but can also help rethink the question of women’s place in the Revolution.


These are issues generally accepted to be of historical and historiographical importance, ones that deserve a place in any history of the Revolution. But beneath these classic questions was a question that was not only less of a classic question of revolutionary historiography, but was also in some ways a much less appropriate question for a journal article: why did women like Robespierre?


One point right off the bat: the answers to this question can’t be found in modern notions of feminism or women’s rights. For all of the importance that Robespierre’s female supporters had, this was not a phenomenon that most historians would consider a “women’s movement.” During the French Revolution there were leaders – both male and female, though mostly female – who articulated the cause of women in ways that we recognize today as precursors of modern feminism. But those revolutionaries all opposed Robespierre, and several were even victims of the Reign of Terror and of the Montagnard government in which Robespierre played such a major role. So the first potential answer is eliminated and the question remains: why did women like Robespierre?


Now that the piece is out, I can admit that this was a question that bothered me for a few reasons. The first was that I did not have as good an answer for it as I would have liked. (Among other issues, during the Revolution there was a lot written about the women who supported Robespierre but very little written by those women). But the second reason was that, at a gut level, I just didn’t get it. That is, I got that women supported him and that he sought out their support, and I understood why he sought out that support, but I did not understand why he succeeded in that quest. He was not the only politician seeking their support. What was it about Robespierre that so many women found appealing? What made him stand out from a Danton, a Barère, a Brissot? But this in turn lead into the third reason that the question bothered me – the problem of what is or is not an appropriate issue for discussion.


Now, asking why Robespierre appealed to women is not a priori an inappropriate question, but it risks coming across some decidedly inappropriate answers. Imagine the two following hypothetical responses: 1) women supported Robespierre because his policies favored an increased role of women in political life; or 2) women supported Robespierre because he was handsome and charismatic. Either could make sense, in its own way, even if the first answer would leave readers – and myself – feeling better about the human race. Answer number one would be an appropriate topic for a journal article; answer two, not so much.


Neither answer is true. Really, it is hard to come up with any argument that the women who supported Robespierre were doing it to advance their own interests as women. But neither did they seem to be doing it for the sort of shallow, People-esque reasons that the second answer implies. By all accounts he was neither attractive nor charismatic. He was a poor public speaker and awkward in social situations. My favorite detail about his personality comes from his sister, who later wrote that when they were children her brother Maximilian rarely played games with other children, and when he did join in it was not to play, but to clarify the rules. Yet this was a man who for the first five years of the Revolution would have women crowding the galleries and pledging their support.


I could explain why this was important, I could talk about why historians had ignored it, and could use this to try to rethink the role women played in the French Revolution, and how other accounts had gotten the role of women in the Revolution wrong. But I still didn’t see the attraction. For all of the time that I spent investigating the issue, if there was a People-esque reason for Robespierre’s support, I sure didn’t – and don’t – get it. And I was not always ok with that.  Because it meant that there was something about the topic that, whatever its importance, whatever its appropriateness, I just did not understand.


But the question of appropriateness has its own history, of course. It is hard not to see the line that separates Jean Jaurès’s defense of Robespierre in his 1901 socialist history of the French Revolution from Hector Fleischmann’s Robespierre et les femmes (translated into English as Robespierre and the Women he Loved) that appeared eight years later. But it is also not hard – and at times gratifying – to see the emergence of so many new lines of questioning among historians that earlier generations had tried to disregard or marginalize, but which have returned to the forefront of the history of the Revolution. The rise of both gender history and cultural history has allowed Marie-Antoinette and the rumors that spread around her to become part of the story of the Revolution, even as works like Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette remain outside of the scholarly realm.

One final note. The article is about the women who supported Robespierre; it is not about the men who supported Robespierre, without whom he would not have succeeded. I think that Michelet was right when he wrote that one of Robespierre’s challenges was how far he could go to attract women without alienating too many men, and there is much work to be done to understand the gender dynamics within the ranks of the Sans-Culottes and other supporters of Robespierre and his allies. Class-based interpretations of Sans-Culottes behavior have been taken around as far as they can go, but explorations of their notions of masculinity have only just begun. In any case, the last impression I would want to give is that the men who supported Robespierre did so for rational reasons but that women did so for irrational ones. Do I think that all of the reasons for women’s support of Robespierre were “rational”? No. But in that, I suspect that women and men are a lot alike.

Read Noah’s full article in Past & Present

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