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The Revolution devours its own daughters: Over My Shoulder #36, from Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from chapter 4, There Will Be No End of It, in Lynn Hunt’s new book, Inventing Human Rights: A History. The chapter has to do with the expansive logic of natural rights, and the way in which the universalizing ideal gradually (though, in the French case, fairly rapidly) to encompass demands for religious freedom, the emancipation of the Jews, rights for free blacks, the abolition of slavery, and the liberation of women. Unfortunately, in the end, the self-styled vanguard of the Revolution was more willing to recognize the rights of their brothers than they were with certain other of their siblings.

In September 1791, the antislavery playwright Olympe de Gouges turned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen inside out. Her Declaration of the Rights of Woman insisted that Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights (Article 1). All citizenesses and citizens, being equal in its [the law’s] eyes, should be equally admissible to all public dignities, offices, and employments, according to their ability, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents (Article 6). The inversion of the language of the official 1789 declaration hardly seems shocking to us now, but it surely did then. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft did not go as far as her French counterparts in demanding absolutely equal political rights for women, but she wrote at much greater length and with searing passion about the ways education and tradition had stunted women’s minds. In Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she linked the emancipation of women to the explosion of all forms of hierarchy in society. Like de Gouges, Wollstonecraft suffered public vilification for her boldness. De Gouges’s fate was even worse, for she went to the guillotine, condemned as an impudent counterrevolutionary and unnatural being (a woman-man).

Once the momentum got going, women’s rights were not limited to the publications of a few path-breaking individuals. Between 1791 and 1793, women set up political clubs in at least fifty provincial towns and cities as well as in Paris. Women’s rights came up for debate in the clubs, in newspapers, and in pamphlets. In April 1793, during the consideration of citizenship under a proposed new constitution for the republic, one deputy argued at length in favor of equal political rights for women. His intervention showed that the idea had gained some adherents. There is no doubt a difference, he granted, that of the sexes [sic –RG] … but I do not conceive how a sexual difference makes for one in the equality of rights. … Let us liberate ourselves rather from the prejudice of sex, just as we have freed ourselves from the prejudice against the color of Negroes. The deputies did not follow his lead.

Instead, in October 1793, the deputies moved against women’s clubs. Reacting to street fights among women over the wearing of revolutionary insignia, the Convention voted to suppress all political clubs for women on the grounds that such clubs only diverted them from their appropriate domestic duties. According to the deputy who presented the decree, women did not have the knowledge, application, devotion, or self-abnegation required for governing. They should stick with the private functions to which women are destined by nature itself. The rationale hardly sounded new notes; what was new was the need to come out and forbid women from forming and attending political clubs. Women may have come up least and last, but their rights did eventually make the agenda, and what was said about them in the 1790s–especially in favor of rights–had an impact that has lasted down to the present.

–Lynn Hunt (2007): Inventing Human Rights, pp. 171–172.

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