Why Early American Feminists Owe It to the French

Why Early American Feminists Owe It to the French

Why you should care

Because U.S. women’s political activism didn’t start at Seneca Falls.

The cannon’s boom rang out over Boston as revelers began celebrating the first major victory of the French Republic. It was early January 24, 1793, and with the war well underway overseas, ordinary Americans were making a statement by applauding democratic revolution — something George Washington’s administration had notably failed to do.

Abigail Adams, the vice president’s wife, noticed something new in the celebrations that day. The gathering of people in the streets and the feast that followed were different in that they involved American women marching alongside men and wearing tricolored ribbons inspired by the French. Women in France were proclaiming the motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” and American women had taken notice. Together the masses began supporting liberty and equality for both genders while asserting women’s place in the public political sphere.

Working women, in fact, had long been involved in protests about working conditions and food. They were, after all, the ones who had to feed their families. But when French men and women from different economic backgrounds started chiming in, they set a broader stage for revolution that saw women involved in protests, marches, riots and organizing committees. Leading up to the French Revolution, “women of higher status were becoming more steeped in history, politics and government, and felt they could contribute to the political discussions,” says Amy Froide, a history professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

French women and their role in the revolution inspired American women to participate in politics …

Women in the U.S., meanwhile, were hearing how their French counterparts were beginning to assert their rights. “The development of American society, and the place of women in it, was heavily influenced by French examples and ideas,” writes Susan Branson in These Fiery Frenchified Dames. French women and their role in the revolution inspired American women to participate in politics — and to dream of how they too could shape their infant democracy.

In 1793, the United States had had only one president, but the public was slowly dividing into two different political parties: Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Republicans participated in parades, feasts and celebrations of the French Revolution and, at first, encouraged the participation of women in these public displays, even toasting “the Rights of Women.”

Any news of French women engaging in politics became inspirations for their American sisters, but the so-called Valmy celebrations in Boston were the most famous festivities for seeing U.S. women dabble in the political sphere. In Bordeaux, 4,000 had worn tricolored ribbons to support educating their children under the new Constitution, the Virginia Gazette reported in 1791. In turn, upper- and lower-class American women started wearing the ribbons as a sign of support for the new French Republic. In addition to the tricolored ribbons, women often wore white, a look later adopted by 20th-century suffragettes and even by Hillary Clinton during her Democratic nomination acceptance speech.

Some American women asked that they be called citess — a feminine but equal term to “citizen.” Later, in 1793, in Menotomy, Massachusetts, 50 women gathered “to felicitate their sisters in France upon the happy revolution in their nation,” the New York Journal reported. In South Carolina, meanwhile, a French and an American widow publicly married each other, representing the union and support of women across borders. In 1794, the Feast of Reason in Philadelphia became a major celebration in supporting France, and it featured young women dancing in white dresses with tricolored ribbons.

Gettyimages 481658455

The Women’s March on Versailles

Source Universal History Archive / Getty

As women created their own celebrations, the Republicans grew less enthusiastic about women’s participation in politics. Male Republicans were troubled by such displays of female agency in public spaces,” write Branson and Simon P. Newman in the article “American Women and the French Revolution,” and these men believed a woman’s role was to support her husband and educate his children. There was an assumption that the interests of a husband and wife were the same, and that he should be able to speak and vote for her.

The Federalists were even less thrilled about women dabbling in politics. John Adams complained about using a word like citess, and when his wife, Abigail, described the Valmy celebrations to him, she reflected his view, saying that “for to men of reflection the Cry of Equality was not so pleasing.”

There was the idea that “women did not belong in the statehouse anymore than they belonged on the battlefield. And if women engaged in [politics publicly], they were going way out of their sphere,” says Sheila Skemp, an American history professor at the University of Mississippi.

Women like Abigail Adams may have believed that white, educated, literate women should be allowed to vote, but they didn’t believe in public celebrations. And in reality, most women were “interested in practical things, like having influence — being taken seriously, having their opinions listened to,” Skemp adds. But the right to formally vote? “That was way, way, down on their list,” she says.

Ironically, American women would say mais oui to a woman’s right to vote in 1920, 24 years before their French counterparts.

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