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  • Clare Burgess

The Language of Male Virtue - a literature review

Dorinda Outram’s short chapter in The Social History of Language is a gold mine of well-articulated and well-supported opinions on women’s involvement in the French Revolution, and the historiography that has tackled it. Quoting Furet, Barny and Higonnet, discussing Michelet and de Gouges with equal weight, and frequently using the words of revolutionary women themselves, Outram manages to give a comprehensive account of the historiography that is easily accessible to a complete layman. She also uses history, sociology and linguistics in conjunction with one another to create a more thorough picture of the study done in this area – something which is often lacking in other historians’ work.


She comes to a few principle conclusions, which are as follows:


The very discourse of the French Revolution was designed, intentionally, to keep women out of politics and the public sphere.


The Ancien Régime was seen by revolutionaries as corrupted by the influence of women and their boudoir politics (Marie Antoinette being the prime example), and in the new regime virtue was prized above all else.

This is certainly an argument I would agree with – time and again in the sources I have studied, women who involve themselves in politics are seen as corrupting influences on the state as a whole, and the slurs against Marie Antoinette speak for themselves in this regard.



Virtue, as a concept and a duty, weighed far more heavily on women than it did on men.


For a man, virtue meant patriotism, whilst for a woman it meant chastity and confinement to the private sphere. This creates the notion that female involvement in politics would automatically lead to corruption.

Again, an argument I would struggle to refute. Even today, in a far more open-minded world, female virtue means something entirely different to male virtue, and women are punished sexual transgressions that are not even transgressions when committed by men. It is clear to see in contemporary sources, where the slander thrown at politically involved women usually questions their virtue – focusing largely on their sexual crimes (real or imagined) as a way of discrediting their politics.



"Le souvereign" meant the people at large, active citizens, and was automatically good, and this did not include women.


Therefore, thanks to the dichotomy created by the revolution women were impure and automatically bad. It is easy to see how, with this ideology at the heart of the Republic, women were pushed further and further onto the margins of society.

It is, of course, hard to say whether this discourse arose deliberately or merely through an unhappy accident. However, with men like Robespierre and Chabot so often holding power, I think it would be naïve to dismiss the idea that the anti-woman rhetoric of the republic was entirely unintentional.



The revolution, and the regime that followed, was often dismissive of family and the private sphere.


As a result, women who used public discourse (and the rhetoric of the revolution), were implicitly endorsing the destruction of their only refuge – the home and family. This also explains why the counterrevolution was so frequently female in nature – because in the traditional discourse of the church and nobility, women found their homes and families exalted and protected.


Michelet’s assertion that women formed the backbone of many counterrevolutionary movements has proven hard to cast aside, and I think Outram’s explanation of the reasons behind this is plausible too. However, it is certainly an argument that most women’s revolutionary history tries to disprove, and thus it is difficult to see the truth of either argument.


Outram also discusses what she views as the limitations of the current study of women in the French revolution: she believes that feminist historians do not focus enough on the private lives of women, whilst sociolinguistics focuses entirely too much on the private sphere, at the expense of the public. She also raises the point that, perhaps, focusing only on a small group of female activists might result in women’s revolutionary history remaining entirely separate from the wider history of the revolution. This is an idea which I considered at length after reading the chapter, specifically in relation to my own project. Was I, by focusing so intently on these six women, doing women in general a disservice? Was I conforming to the decades of historians who had pushed women’s history aside, separating it from “real history”? In many ways, I was forced to admit that I was. However, my aim was not to complete a sociological overview of the entire revolution, or to tell the story of every women through these six. This project is a form of micro-history, in a way: it focuses solely on six women out of the thousands that were part of the French Revolution. It does this not to represent all women in their image, but to explore the lives of a few extraordinary individuals. I did not mean to write a history of women’s involvement in the revolution, merely of these women’s involvement. It is possible that in doing so I have neglected the other thousands of women involved – however, I have attempted to reinstate these six women, who have been neglected or mistreated by history since their own time. For now, that is enough.


“Women are now respected and excluded, under the old regime they were despised and powerful” – Olympe de Gouges

SOURCES WORTH READING TO UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPTS DISCUSSED ABOVE –


DORINA OUTRAM, “LE LANGAGE MALE DE LA VERTU”, IN THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGE, ED. PETER BURKE AND ROY PORTER (CAMBRIDGE UP, 1987): 120-135


FRANÇOIS FURET, INTERPRETING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (CAMBRIDGE UP, 1981)


ROGER BARNY, “LES MOTS ET LES CHOSES CHEZ LES HOMMES DE LA RÉVOLUTION FRANÇAISE”, LA PENSÉE (1978), 96-115


PATRICE HIGONNET, CLASS, IDEOLOGY AND THE RIGHTS OF NOBLES DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, (OXFORD UP, 1981)

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