Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Before she lost her head (quite literally) a few months before she turned forty, Marie-Jeanne Roland believed that a woman's genius resides in "a pleasurable loss of self-control" -- exactly the kind of thing an in-your-face woman might think. As she traveled around and learned more about the ways of the world and most particularly the ways of her world in France in the late 1700's, she began to develop a sense that thrones are fine, but governments ought rather to be in the hands of thinking people.
At twenty-six, she married a man nearly twice her age, but she soon began to wear the intellectual and political pants in the family, though often behind the scenes or through his work by "editing" his philosophical essays or letters before they were sent out. Part of the Girondist revolutionary faction in the 1780's, Roland and her husband supported the idea of replacing the monarchy with a constitutional republic. While "all her principles were with the people," however, "all her tastes were with the ancient nobility."
The result was a mixed bag of messages. In 1791, for example, Roland's salons in Lyon were the center of political development in France. By 1792, on the other hand, her pride and passion -- both written and vocal -- cost her husband his position at the top of the revolutionary food chain. And though a speech she gave in the Assembly bought them a momentary reprieve from their lack of favor, her unwillingness to go along to get along soon put them both in prison.
Though Roland was able to help her husband escape, she did not manage to free herself and so, when she was found guilty of treason and "political activism" (which wouldn't even have been considered a crime for a man), she was sentenced to die. Though she had once said she would "rather chew off her own fingers than become a writer," in the few months before she was carried to the guillotine, Roland wrote her memoirs. Published only two years later, they still stand as a historical record of how one in-your-face woman affected the politics of an entire nation at a time of crisis and change.