Women in the French Revolution, Cross Dressing Women, Female Soldiers and 18th Century Feminists

15 Apr

I am currently in the planning stages of a lesbian romance novel set in the 18th century. One of the two main female characters is a soldier and a republican that had fought for the French Revolutionary forces and had championed the rights of women during the revolution. My character pretends to be a male soldier to remain in the army and a few years later while employed as a guard instructor she wears male attire (breeches and riding boots). She wears a tight fitting jacket that does not hide her bosom and wears her hair long. In doing so she presents herself as a woman wearing male attire in a male profession.

During the research for my novel / story, I have read about women actively involved in the French Revolution, campaigners for the rights of women (in addition to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a key Revolutionary document), female writers who wrote about the Revolution (including English women writers such as Mary Wollenstencraft) and female soldiers who fought in the French Revolutionary forces in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and also on the Royalist side against the Revolutionary government.

From early in the Revolution, women were involved in various activities protesting regarding essential items such as food, storming the Bastille, supporting the Revolutionary cause through writings, revolutionary clubs and subtle ways such as incorporating symbols and colours of the Revolution in their dress (such as Tri-colour cockades and ribbons). More radical Revolutionary women advocated for the rights of women in conjunction with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the ability of women to bear arms and fight for the Republic.

I was also inspired by the stories I have read of women over the centuries cross dressing as men to enter the armed forces and experience a life of freedom and adventure not able to be experienced by women from pervious centuries. What an inspiration. I wonder what young women in the 18th century, with an enlightened mind / sense of adventure / feminist leanings thought of these women? Through my reading I discovered that there were some novels written in the 18th and 19th centuries with female revolutionaries and / or soldiers who wear male attire. These include Ormond / The Secret Witness written by the American author Charles Brockden Brown and published in 1799, and The Wanderer by Fanny Burney, published in 1814. I find it hugely fascinating that novels in this period included such inspirational and unconventional female characters. I have a real interest in this period, and am using this period (late 1700’s to early 1800’s) as a setting for my novel, so I am so inspired and reassured of the existence (even if in fiction) of such women during this time.

For me Mary Wollstonecraft is also a great source of inspiration. Her writings and belief in the rights of women, especially to education, equality, her passionate friendship / speculated love for her female friend Fanny Blood, her desire to set up house and share a life with another woman (even if this was in the context of a romantic friendship), her unconventional relationships with men and baring children out of wedlock fascinate me. Such a powerful image and symbol of a woman advocating equality and choice in one’s own love affairs and life in a time when a woman’s role was perceived and “enforced” as being a wife, mother and daughter with little rights (including legal rights) over their lives.

I also must admit that some elements (determination, Republican sympathies, gorgeous gowns, active involvement in adventures) of the character of Marguerite St. Just / Lady Marguerite Blakeney from the Scarlet Pimpernel novels by Baroness Orcy were influential. When I first saw the Scarlet Pimpernel (one of my favourite period / adventure series) I was struck by this strong, French, revolutionary woman. She sets off on adventures, confronts Revolutionary officials, holds to her political beliefs and loves her husband passionately. What a woman! And consequently I also really like the actress Elizabeth McGovern who played Marguerite.

I was inspired by these strong, tough, fighting, revolutionary and feminist women when creating my character.

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One Response to “Women in the French Revolution, Cross Dressing Women, Female Soldiers and 18th Century Feminists”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 18th and 19th Century Women who have Inspired Me | Lipstick On My Lab Coat - May 7, 2013

    […] on from my post – Women in the French Revolution, Cross Dressing Women, Female Soldiers and 18th Century Feminists, here is a list of women (real and fictional) from the 18th and 19th centuries that have inspired […]

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