Etta Palm D’Aelders – Intriguing Woman of the French Revolution



From all the different subjects that I have researched, thus far, in the history classes here at Young Harris College, I truly enjoyed delving into the women of the French Revolution.  One of the most intriguing historical figures from that period, which I came across, was Etta Palm D’Aelders.

Madam D’Aelders was a Dutch feminist who was very outspoken during the French Revolution, and an upper class woman who played an important role within the political realm as a supporter for the socially conscious, establishing salonnieres for the philosophes, and public discussions circles for those who inspired free thinking, and new ideas.  As a person who was able to read, she helped to introduce the ideas of the Enlightenment to other women, and offered her salon as a meeting place, which afforded them the opportunity to refine their education, and, of course, exposed them to the philosophy of equality in all beings, both male and female.

Yet it is her private life that I find very fascinating.  She was the former lover of Stadtholder William IV, Prince of Orange, who became the courtesan for the better classes, after her relocation to France.  During this time D’Aelders was recruited by the French Secret Service because she had so many lovers at the French court, and employed as spy.  (Talk
about Hollywood movie subject material)

With the money she received from her secret job, D’Aelders was able to afford a larger house, and with her new wealth, transformed herself into a Baroness.  Now, passing as an upper class women, she was able to support these revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, when before she could not.

After the Revolution many prominent figures frequented her salon, and because of their support she wrote a memorable speech.  On December 30, 1790, she read her words to the French National Convention.  Her declarations championed the cause of equality between both sexes. Her speech is known as the “Discourse on the Injustice of the Laws in Favor of Men, at the Expense of Women,” and D’Aelders also made this same address to the Friends of Truth, a political club that admitted both women and men, of which she belonged.

In this speech, she stated that justice “must be the first virtue of free men, and justice demands that the laws be the same for all beings.” (D’Aelders)  Her education allowed her to see that men acted as monarchs to women, and she argued, that as men sought to gain their
freedom from their kingly monarch, so should women receive the same freedom from their masculine monarchs.  She insisted that if women were “to be enthusiastic about the happy constitution that gives back men their rights,” then men should begin by treating women the same way. (D’Aelders)

She is an intriguing figure to me because she fought so hard to attempt to secure equal rights for women in a society ruled by men.  Etta Palm D’Aelders stood her ground against obstacles that others did not.  As the Revolution evolved, and the temporary government shifted, those of the Enlightenment soon became targets.  Many of the upper class left France, but D’Aelders did not.  She was cast aside by her employers in the Netherlands, for whom she was spying for, as her political involvements increased on behalf of females.
They grew fearful they would be discovered, and abandoned her.  She was eventually arrested and jailed.

While she did not experience the guillotine like Olympe de Gouges, she did not fair well after
her imprisonment, and upon her release, her health deteriorated, and she died shortly thereafter.   She was a remarkable figure to me because of what she experienced, and for what she fought to accomplish. Etta Palm D’Aelders is one of my most intriguing figure in History.

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