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French women revolutionaries march on the king's palace at Versailles

French women revolutionaries march on the king’s palace at Versailles

All through the 1700s, Enlightenment philosophers in France had been figuring out new ways of thinking about the world. Little by little they rejected religion and inherited power. They invented the idea that people should use logic and reason to make choices, that people – both men and women – had natural rights, that everyone should be equal to everyone else, and that people should control their own government. The English revolution of Oliver Cromwell encouraged these ideas, and then the American Revolution in 1776 talked about these ideas too. The French kings tried to change French government to fit these new ideas, but, partly because rich lords stopped them, they didn’t change fast enough. Bad harvests caused by the Little Ice Age also left people hungry and angry. By 1789 the French people turned from reform to revolution. Women led many of the riots, because the king’s soldiers were less likely to shoot a crowd of women than a crowd of men.

A woman being guillotined (killed)

A woman being guillotined (killed)

In the most radical part of the French Revolution, people rejected almost everything about the past. They smashed up churches all over France. The revolutionaries killed priests and monks and nuns. They created a new calendar and new clocks (which didn’t last) and a new measuring system, the metric system (which did last). Scientists thought these new systems would be easier to learn, which would help democracy because all the citizens would be educated. The revolutionaries used the newly invented guillotine to cut the heads off thousands of rich men and women, while crowds of poor people cheered.

But by 1794 people were beginning to want to go back to something more familiar and normal. And rich men were beginning to figure out ways of getting power in the new system. They pushed poor people and women out of power, and created a government run by rich men again. By 1796, Napoleon was getting into power as the leader of the new government.

Learn by doing: consider women-led protests as a tactic for your own protests
More about Napoleon
The American Revolution

Bibliography and further reading about the French Revolution:

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