Theroigne de Mericourt

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Méricourt, Théroigne de (1762-1817): Feminist, Belgian Revolutionary Woman

Théroigne de Méricourt was born Anna-Josépha, in Marcourt, Belgium on August 13, 1762. She was the first child of Pierre Terwagne, a peasant, and his wife Anne-Elizabeth Lahaye. She had two brothers: Pierre-Joseph, born in 1764, and Nicolas Joseph, born in 1767. Elizabeth Lahaye passed away 3 months after the birth of her second son, when Anna-Josepha was 5 years old. Her aunt sent her to a convent for her education where she learned to read, but not write. At 9 years old, she came back from the convent to serve as a cowherd, and, in 1773, as a domestic to take care of her father’s children from his second wife, Thérèse Ponsard. She left her father’s house in 1774, with her two brothers. In 1777, she became a companion to the daughter of an English lady, Madame Colbert, who provided her with education and singing lessons. However, she fell in love and soon followed an English man who had promised to marry her as soon as he would inherit, but he instead abandoned her. He nevertheless gifted her 200,000 pounds. She had one daughter with him, Francoise Louise Septenville, who died in early childhood from the smallpox.

Théroigne then followed Ferdinand-Justin Tenducci, an Italian castrato and a crook, who had her sign a contract that would force her to pay him each time she would refuse to sing but she managed to withdraw from this contract. While in Italy, Théroigne discovered that she suffered from the syphilis, and she started to be treated with mercury. In May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General. At age 27, Théroigne left Italy for Versailles, in order to witness and perhaps participate in the great turmoil that was shaking France. On July 17, 1789, she was with the people when the king visited Paris, wearing a white amazon and a round hat, a costume that would make her famous and contribute to her subsequent fame. She was symbolically setting herself apart, as long Amazon skirts were usually worn only by women riding horses. In France, she first attended the debates at the National Assembly, and became close to important revolutionary men such as Jérome Pétion, then a deputy for the Third Estate. Contrarily to some later accusations, she did not participate in the Women’s March on Versailles on October 5-6, 1789, that brought the Royal Family back to Paris. She was instead at the Assembly, focused on its debates.

Back in Paris, she held a Salon that would gather Pétion, Brissot, Jacques Pierre, Fabre d'Eglantine, andSieyès, Emmanuel Joseph. In January 1790, she founded a political club, La Société des Amis de la Loi, with Gilbert Romme. The club met at her place, at the Grenoble Hotel on the Bouloi Street but it was short-lived and with very limited influence. In both her Salons and her political club, Théroigne was often the only woman. Because of her political activities and her demands for freedom for Jews, women and the press, she became a target of vicious attacks from the royalists. The French particle “de” was added to her name, so she would appear as nobility. A Catéchisme Libertin à l’Usage des Filles de Joie et des Demoiselles qui se Destinent à Embrasser cette Profession (Libertine Catechism for the Use of Prostitutes and Young Ladies who Intend to Embrace this Profession) (1791) was published under her name in an attempt to sully her reputation and activities.

Accused of having violently participated in the Women’s March, Théroigne avoided an imminent arrestation by fleeing from Paris to Liege. Unfortunately, she was abducted by two former French officers, and was turned in to Austria after a ten day-travel period. Imprisoned in the Fortress of Kufstein, Austria, she was suspected of acting as a spy on behalf of the Jacobins. There, she wrote her Confessions – originally at the demand of her interrogator, Aulic councilor Francois de Blanc. Convinced of her innocence, he succeeded in having her heard by Prince Kaunitz. At her request, in October 1791, she met Emperor Leopold II. After a fruitful conversation with her, Leopold II ordered Théroigne’s release. She was given 600 florins to cover her travel expenses. She left for Brussels, and then Paris, where the Jacobins gave her a triumphal welcome. The accusation of “crimes against the queen”, because of her supposed participation in the Women’s March, no longer stood, thanks to the amnesty law of 1791. A feminist, Théroigne kept fighting for equality between men and women whether in political participation to clubs or even in the physical defense of the nation. In 1792, she created some female battalions, the Amazons, as a means to both defend the country and to attempt to have equality recognized between men and women. Yet, women’s Clubs were forbidden on October 1793. She was opposed by Royalists and Patriots on that front. On April 23rd, 1792, the Deputy Chabot notoriously affirmed that “a man must not be blinded by a female” – “femelle” being a French derogatory word when it refers to a woman.

Théroigne participated in the Insurrection of August 10, 1792 and was rumored to have murdered the journalist and polemist, Francois-Louis Suleau. This was also part of the campaign against Théroigne, even though she did not participate in the killing. On May 15, 1793, she was partially undressed and publicly beaten, in front of the Convention by Jacobine women who were accusing her of supporting Brissot, a leader of the Girondins. This attack had a physically profound effect on Théroigne, but it also greatly destabilized her mentally. In the Spring 1794, her brother Nicolas-Joseph Terwagne, a laundryman in Paris, sent a letter to the judge and president of the first arrondissement, declaring that his sister was in a state of “absolute dementia”. This was certainly done in the hopes of sparing her an arrest as an “enemy of liberty” for participating in the assault of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. In Spring 1794, she was jailed until September for being Brissot’s friend and for making suspicious remarks. The worsening of her mental health caused her to be locked up at the Asylum on the Faubourg Saint-Marceau in July 1795. In 1797, she was interned at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital and finally transferred on December 9, 1799 at the Salpêtrière Hospital where she passed away on June 8th, 1817. Her body was autopsied by Esquirol’s students, and her cranium molded by Dumontier.

Théroigne de Méricourt inspired numerous artists and writers, such as Baudelaire, Jules Michelet, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. She also inspired Delacroix in his "Liberty Leading the People" painting (1830).

Further Readings:

Lacour, Léopold, and Ligaran, Trois Femmes de la Révolution : Olympe De Gouges, Théroigne de Méricourt, Rose Lacombe, 2016.

Roudinesco, Elisabeth, Théroigne de Méricourt : a Melancholic Woman During the French Revolution, 1991.

Caroline Strobbe

The Citadel