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The Inequality of Human Rights During the French Revolution

Essay by   •  August 28, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  2,057 Words (9 Pages)  •  2,548 Views

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The French Revolution is often regarded as a time of immense enlightenment, when the Western world first began to realize the basic human rights that all citizens are afforded today. In many ways this is a true statement, as the French Revolution did represent a victory of liberty over tyranny and democracy over feudal monarchy. Yet people should not mistake an initial advancement of civil liberties as a complete victory for human rights. French society made significant progress, but it remained lacking in several areas that would be considered highly discriminatory in today's world. Specifically, the status of Africans and women remained far from anything that could be thought of as free or equal. Regardless of the burst of "enlightenment" that had occurred, the people of France still had serious problems with offering basic liberties to these two groups. While it would be easy to look back and judge the people of that time because of their actions, the more rational plan of action is to look at this conflict of rights from the perspective of the period and seek to understand the reasons behind this inequality.

Perhaps the most important concept that kept women and Africans from achieving their rights was the desire of white males to maintain the status quo in French society. To put it more plainly, France was experiencing an upheaval that was more extreme and more radical than any other societal change in history. There was great chaos and the balance of power was reshaping itself to the new world. Within this change, there was the need for some form of stability so that

France did not suddenly emerge as a completely different and strange nation. There had to be some power structure where one group was more powerful than the other. Only with this dichotomy of weak and strong could there be some natural order to the new democratic republic. The oldest power structure within human culture is the hierarchy of man over woman, and the strongest power structure in the Western world was the dominance of the white man over the African. French society needed some vestige of the past to hold onto to, and it was easiest to fall back on those principles that were the most deeply ingrained. If one analyzes the primary sources from this period, it becomes clear that there was a foundational basis for gender/racial discrimination that made it easy to justify excluding these two segments from the sudden rise of civil liberties.

The writings of this time were truly the basis on which the movement towards human rights began. It was from these words that everyday citizens began to understand the liberties that they deserved simply because they were human. One would think that this would apply to all humans, but the phrasing was skewed so that it became clear that it was only referring to males. Diderot's Natural Law is an excellent piece of writing that was before its time in terms of the author's understanding of civil liberties. Yet when Diderot goes to describe the rights due to each person, his one-sided use of pronouns is very telling. Diderot states that "I am a man, and I have no other true, inalienable natural rights than those of humanity" 1. This would be an appropriate statement except that he is speaking only of men rather than of mankind as a whole. The reminder of Natural Law is riff with masculine pronouns; "his private will...his fellow man...the society of which he is a member" 1. If there was any doubt that Diderot was specifically referring to males, he squashes that consideration by the end of his piece. Sometimes such biased pronoun usage is acceptable, as the author might just be speaking from his or her own gendered

perspective. Yet Natural Law is a general statement about humanity and the fact that Diderot decided on such a clear and biased choice of words is a tremendous indicator of the times that the French Revolution occurred in. What one can take away from this is that, during this period, it was possible to speak about humanity and mankind without making a statement about women or Africans. This seems to be antithesis of the concept, but in the late 1700's there was a very different understanding about what "mankind" referred to. The term was not all inclusive, so it allowed authors and philosophers like Diderot a great deal of leeway when talking about these vast, general concepts of human rights. One could read through Natural Law and agree with every part of it without every noticing that it was crafted in such a way that men's rights are given specific criteria while women's rights were left vague and undetermined.

The Marquis de Lafayette was guilty of the same injustice when he established his fundamental rights of men. Throughout his declaration, one once again see that everything is phrased in such a way that it establishes an argument for masculine rights while disregarding women's rights. "No man may be subjected to laws other than those consented to by him or his representatives" 2. Just like Diderot, Lafayette makes sure that his words leave no doubt that he is exclusively referring to men. Some might not think that these small things mean a lot in the long run but in fact, they mean everything. These documents are what leaders turned to when they were forming their new society. Similar to the Declaration of Independence (which actually played off many of Lafayette's words), this is close to a founding document of France's new nation. It's tremendously important that Lafayette skews his words in this manner. It makes any argument for the rights of women, and Africans to an extent, extremely difficult to maintain in the face of these documents.

To further explain the state that existed in France at this time, one should understand that the groups who were not afforded these new rights did not have a very defensible stance to take. While their arguments were valid, they were attempting to argue against a hierarchy that considered itself better than them. Zalkin Hourwitz, a French

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