As historians, we are often discouraged from applying concepts, with the benefit of hindsight, to times, places and spaces in which they did not exist. This is, in part, because it can complicate the ways in which we understand, and our relationships with, the past. To use a concept that did not exist in the time in which it is being applied, can lead to increased subjectivity. Whilst we can never remain truly objective in a discipline like history, it is important to mitigate subjectivity where possible. Although I try to do this in my own research, recently it became apparent that modern concepts can also provide benefits when studying the past. The example I am referring to here, is the use of power couples in relation to a minority of exceptional couples who lived during the French Revolution.
The term power couple is estimated to have originated in the twentieth-century. Cambridge dictionary provides the following definition: two people who are married to each other, or in a relationship with each other, and both have extremely successful careers, especially in politics or entertainment. Modern day examples of power couples are plastered on the television, in newspapers and on social media, and include the likes of Harry and Meghan, William and Kate, the Obamas, and the Clintons. Both partners in the couple are influential and contribute something significant to the public reputation of their pairing. Whilst this concept is rooted in the modern day, the beginnings of it can be found in previous centuries: particularly revolutionary France.
As gender historians and theorists, there is a tendency to focus upon the inequalities that women faced, when trying to rewrite them into history. As a result, we tend to think of patriarchal institutions, such as marriage, as being oppressive for women. But, what if we considered them in an alternative way? What if we turned our attention towards Deniz Kandiyoti’s argument around patriarchal bargaining, in which women manipulated oppressive structures to experience some benefits. Marriage is one such structure that experienced the effects of patriarchal bargaining.
We tend to think of marriage as being restrictive for women, particularly in the early modern period. In many ways this argument is valid. Upon marriage, women suffered the effects of coverture. Consequently, they were rendered almost invisible. Expected to remain in the domestic sphere, where possible, raising children and overseeing the organisation of the household, there were few opportunities for women in terms of occupation, education and political participation. However, whilst this picture appears rather bleak and was the experiences of many women in early modern Europe, this was not the case for all women. Woman is not an all-inclusive term in which all belonging to this cohort share the same experiences. Intersectional factors, such as age, social status, occupation and place of residency, determine individual experiences. Therefore, marriage was not oppressive for all women, particularly in revolutionary Paris.
In terms of power couples during the French Revolution, one can consider the likes of: the Condorcets, the Desmoulins, the Julliens, the Roberts, the Rolands, Pauline Léon and Théophile Leclerc, and Jean-Paul Marat and Simonne Evrard. The defining feature of all of these couples was the equality between the partners. In spite of being legally defined inactive citizens by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, published on 26 August 1789, the female counterparts of these couples enjoyed considerable access to and freedom within the political sphere. For example, both Kéralio-Robert and Condorcet were prolific writers and translators in their own right, but utilised their marriages as a platform to disseminate their views more broadly. In contrast to Kéralio-Robert, who established the Mercure National with François Robert and occasionally put her name to articles, Condorcet translated articles by Thomas Paine and contributed anonymous articles to Le Républicain, which she co-created alongside the Marquis de Condorcet, Paine and Brissot. Furthermore, both of these women attended the Cordeliers Club with their spouses and, in the case of Kéralio-Robert, played a prominent role in the fraternal societies. For Condorcet, the Republican Society, which her husband helped create, consumed much of her time. Therefore, through their marriages these women exploited the profiles of their spouses, who were key figures in revolutionary society, to gain opportunities within traditionally masculine arenas.
Another woman who benefited from her marriage to a high profile figure was Madame Roland. Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière served as the Minister of the Interior on two separate occasions under the government of Louis XVI. Within this capacity, he was tasked with drafting official documents, something Madame Roland aided him with. This caused considerable outrage amongst revolutionaries, such as Georges Danton, who argued that she was the one running the office and meddling in affairs that did not concern her. Additionally, she utilised her home as a bi-weekly meeting place for her husband and his colleagues. She worked on behalf of her husband as a political pawn, networking and establishing relationships with potential political allies. Her meddling in the political sphere ended with her demise at the hands of the guillotine on 8 November 1793. Evidence that she was considered a threat by male revolutionaries, particularly Maximilien Robespierre, who headed the Jacobin Government under which she was executed.
These power couples are examples of women using marriage to their advantage. They engaged with key revolutionary figures that they would not have had access to otherwise, and manipulated their marriages as a sort of apprenticeship in politics. They participated in the political sphere by attending club meetings and spectating in the galleries, and played the role of the salonnière when necessary, to further their spouses’ ambitions and promote their ideologies. Hence, perhaps using modern concepts, albeit cautiously, in historical contexts can be beneficial.
Some Further Reading:
Élisabeth and Robert Badinter, Condorcet, 1743-1794: Un intellectuel en politique (Paris: Fayard, 1988)
Judith M. Bennett, History Matters (Manchester: Manchester University Press
Sandrine Bergès, ‘Sophie de Grouchy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed.by Edward N. Zalta <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/sophie-de grouchy/>
Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Lindsay H. Parker, Writing the Revolution: A French Woman’s History in Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Sîan Reynolds, Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
Leigh Whaley, Radicals: Politics and Republicanism in the French Revolution (Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2000)
 ‘Power Couple’ in the Cambridge Dictionary [online], <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/power-couple> [accessed 26 March 2021].
 Quoted in History Matters, by Judith M. Bennett (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p.59.
Doctoral Researcher at the University of Glasgow