HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The French Revolution

This week has two big questions!

  1. How are the major course themes evident in our examination of the French Revolution? From module 1, we can certainly see some major changes. How is the Revolution a response to that world? Can we see how the historical patterns we've seen in modules 2 and 3 influenced the Revolution?
  2. How can the concept of gender help us to analyze the primary sources for this week's Lesson?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

You have two main tasks this week.

TASK ONE: The first task in the Forum is to do your best to connect the history of the French Revolution with the broader themes of ATLANTIC WORLD history, using only the resources that we have provided you in this course. To do this you should do your best to connect major themes from Module 1 with major themes from what you know of Module 4. So far for Module 4 you have the Lesson on the American Revolution. Ask yourselves the following questions: Try to make as many connections to course materials and themes as you can in as concise a way as possible.

TASK TWO: The second task is to analyze the assigned primary sources [including the images] to see what you can learn and infer about French Revolutionary attitudes about gender. "What is gender?" you might ask. In a famous essay from 1986 the historian Joan Scott defined "gender" as attitudes about the relationship between biological identity and socio-political power. Gender history asks us to consider the ways ideals of masculinity, femininity, and other dimensions of gender identities have influenced history, be that ordinary everyday understandings of meaning and identity, or major events like the French Revolution.  Last week, we saw for example, that Abigail Adams brought different dimensions to her understanding of the American Revolution than did her husband. Minimally, such examples suggest men and women may have interpreted their worlds differently; it could also mean that gender differences profoundly influence human relations, and therefore history.


Liberté [liberty], as it was in America, was the defining and revolutionary idea propelling the revolt in France. Yet, also as we saw in America, exactly what that meant, and to whom it applied, was not quite so straightforward as the term suggests. More so than the American Revolution, the French Revolution was very much about giving political power to people who had never held it before. 

In its broad sweep, the French Revolution was about shifting political power away from the aristocratic ancien régime (old regime) to ordinary French citizens, Unlike America, where democracy had existed for some time and the colonists feared Britain was trying to remove democratic capacity, prior to the revolution there were very few democratic institutions in France, and the monarchy still held real power. But in our examination this week, we're going to focus not on that big story but on the role fo women in the revolution. We pick up our basic question from the American revolution and pursue the question of how liberty and freedom were defined. In particular, we'll examine the debate on what role women were imagined, and ultimately allowed, to have in liberal society. As we'll see, the answer was not much, but that did not stop several active political women from making the case. Thus, here we'll be examining how gender shaped political liberalism in the French Revolution.  

When each of us is born, our parents and the world around us expect us to behave in certain ways. These expectations are the building blocks of our own sense of ourselves. Most times we accept these expectations as the way things are (that is, the natural way) and the way we should be, but sometimes we react against these expectations so that we define ourselves differently (that is, we react against the way others think is natural and necessary). Many of these expectations are based on our biological identities as girls / women OR boys / men, COMBINED WITH the cultural values that other people (and we???) associate with girls and boys.

The "complicated" part of this story of gender​ is that many of these expectations change with circumstances. What this means is that to be a "girl" or "boy" in the middle ages was not necessarily the same as being a "girl" or "boy" in the 1920s (your great grandparents' decade), or the 1980s (your parents' decade??), or the 2020s (your decade??). These expectations can even / also change from place to place in the same time (e.g., St. Catharines versus [any other city anywhere on the planet during whatever decade]).

The exercise above forces you to think about gender -- that is, attitudes about the relationship between biological identity and socio-political power (or meaning). Think BIG about the course title in its relationship to this week's themes, and you'll start to get an idea of what we want you to think about. EVERYTHING, particularly relationships of power (which is one way of thinking about politics, and which is certainly important for making sense of revolutionary times). That's what gender is about. And that's what this Lesson is about. What's unique about gender​ is that it provides us as historians a different analytical perspective from which to view sources​.

This week as always we encourage you to think big, BUT you are also required to write things that you can defend based on evidence from the sources that we have provided for you. This is the same challenge that you have for the final course project and the final exam. Now is a good time to practice!

Primary sources


In all of these documents, do you see criteria offered as to why, or why not, women should be allowed to participate in the politics of the new French Republic? That is, are there specific reasons offered by these writers suggesting where women fell short of what they maintained men held? 

Wollstonecraft, you should note, was not a French writer, but was English. Her observations came not from the streets of Paris, but from the intellectual salons of London. 

Secondary source

Joan Scott, “French Feminists and the Rights of ‘Man’: Olympe De Gouges’s Declarations,” History Workshop, 28 (1989), pp. 1-21.

Supplementary reading

Robert Darnton, "What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?", New York Review of Books January 1989.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, 1790. Our introductory video invites you to consider the debate between Wollstonecraft and Burke. We have shifted our focus a little this year, but for those of you who are interested in exploring this debate as an alternative, feel free to incorporate Burke in your forum posts.


This page references: