Marie-Jeanne ‘Manon’ Phlippon Roland 1754-1793 was a martyr of the Reign of Terror during the. As a girl she was educated in traditional Roman Catholicism but quickly began a rigorous secular self-education. She learned to read at the age of four and devoted herself to Ancient writers, especially ’s Parallel Lives about heroic Romans that shaped her dedication to republican virtue and personal freedom. She taught herself Latin, English, and Italian. Roland’s reading encouraged her to write. She married an older man that her parents thought suitable for her. She moved to Paris with her husband where he rose to leadership of the moderate Girondist party after the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 by hungry working-class Parisians. Manon Roland’s knowledge of history, political savvy, and facility as a writer brought her to the attention of many of the leading revolutionaries of her day, mostly men, but a few women, including Mary Wollstonecraft and the émigré Helen Maria Williams, in the salon at the Roland’s’ apartment. She wrote many of her husband’s political texts, and was recognized as a powerful force in circles. When the extremist Jacobins took over the government, Roland was arrested for her own political activities, not as her husband’s wife. She was sentenced to death for disloyalty to the Revolution and also charged as a female activist who had ‘renounced her sex.’ She was imprisoned in the Bastille; while she waited to be executed she wrote her memoirs which she titled An Appeal to Impartial Posterity. She arranged for the manuscript to be published after her death. With that assurance, she wrote with unprecedented honesty about her intellectual and sexual awakening, her affection for her husband, her erotic love for a younger revolutionary, and her sense of her own historical destiny: ‘I was born into a corrupt age and confronted with a revolution which I certainly did not foresee,’ she wrote. ‘In these dramatic circumstances there was something in my character which drove me to make great sacrifices and to suffer great wrongs.’ Roland remained true to the ideals of the Revolution as she understood them: ’[H]ere in prison, a proclaimed victim, every hour that I remain alive gives tyranny new scope for boasting. I cannot bear the highpriests of slaughter, but I can at least defraud them.’ She was guillotined in November 1793, the same month as another female activist, Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791), a pro-women book that brought the wrath of the Terror down on her as well.
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Jeanne Manon Roland