Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Student Question

Why, according to Edmund Burke's theory, does he disagree with Mary Wollstonecraft's radical gender relation reforms during the French Revolution?

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Edmund Burke disagrees with Mary Wollstonecraft's suggestion about radically reforming relations between men and women during the French Revolution because of his classism and conservative ideas about gender.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke bemoans the deadly violence that brought down the monarchy and threw the country into chaos. For Burke, the relatively everyday people that rose to power in France were a sign of vulgarity. Burke describes the National Assembly as acting

amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob of ferocious men, of women, lost to shame, who, according to their insolent fancies, direct, control, applaud, explode them, and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them—domineering over them with a strange mixture of servile petulance and proud, presumptuous authority.

In other words, Burke is appalled by the lack of order in revolutionary France. The hierarchy has collapsed, and so have the demarcations between gender relations. Women and men of different classes “mix” and occupy, or try to occupy, the same spaces and positions of power. For Mary Wollstonecraft, such a development was welcomed, as she stressed the plight of the working classes and believed that women should be treated as rational individuals who can contribute to society.

As Burke’s horrified presentation of the dynamics of revolutionary France indicates, he favored nobility, royalty, and restricted access to power. Burke writes,

No experience has taught us that in any other course or method than that of a hereditary crown our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right.

In Burke’s theory, rights and stability had the best chance of thriving with a combination of an authoritative legislature and a clear line of rulers. “The course of succession is the healthy habit of the British constitution,” writes Burke, linking its kings and queens to English law.

Burke’s political theory includes gender relations because a sturdy society had distinct roles for men and women. In Burke’s theory, women play a supporting role. They’re more like objects to be defended because they can’t stick up for themselves. His patronizing attitude toward women manifests when he wonders why Frenchmen’s swords haven’t “leaped from their scabbards” to combat the persecution of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Thus, with his hierarchical, patriarchal theory, Burke doesn’t agree that relations between men and women should be radically reformed during the French Revolution. Burke supports what Wollstonecraft wants to abandon—“the age of chivalry.”

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