Born Anne-Josèphe Terwagne in Marcourt, Rendeux in the province of Luxembourg, Belgium, Théroigne de Méricourt was far from royalty. She was born in 1767 to peasant parents, the middle child of three. Her mother died when she was five years old and Anne-Josèphe was passed back and forth between a couple of aunts and her father and his new wife. None of these homes were particularly kind to her, through a series of misadventures including being hired as a governess and then ditched at a tavern, young Anne-Josèphe found herself in the employ of a woman named Madame Colbert. Madame Colbert hired Anne-Josèphe to be the governess of her children, and took the sixteen year old peasant girl on a tour of the European capitals, where she studied opera. In London, she hooked up with, or was abducted by (accounts differ), a young English nobleman, who taught her an appreciation of the good life. Eventually, they parted ways in Paris after he left her with 200,000 livres. That is a lot for such a short time, but we’re not even getting warmed up yet.
After a string of relationships with older, wealthy men, Anne-Josèphe found herself back in Paris after living in Rome learning and performing opera under the teaching direction of a famous castrato. By now it was 1789, and revolution was in the air. Anne-Josèphe was inspired by the ideals of the Revolution and after the death of her child felt called to fight for the rights of the underclass. Once back in Paris, she was said to have fought at the Bastille and led the women’s march on Versailles called the October Days wearing a man’s scarlet riding habit with a black feather. However, this is thought to be a myth.
Anne-Josèphe was in Versailles during the summer of 1789, but she was attending political debates not leading marches. This included a National Assembly meeting on August 4, 1789 advocating for revolution. In October, she moved back to Paris so she could be on the spot to help with any revolutionary activities. She was already speaking at the democratic club des Cordeliers, which met on the terraces outside the National Assembly. She was an advocate for controversial mixed sex political clubs along with Olympe de Gouges, the Dutch activist Etta Palm d’Aelders and the Marquis de Condorcet. Anne-Josèphe was making a name for herself as she was very comfortable with performance from her opera days and had a good rapport with the poissardes (market women, also slang for a vulgar woman) of Les Halles food market. In 1790, she and Gilbert Romme founded the Société des amis de la loi (“Society of Friends of the Law”). This was a club aimed at generating support for the revolution in the provinces. Despite its failure, the club had her rubbing elbows with leaders in the revolutionary set. Journalist Camille Desmoulins described her as having a “pretty, thought-filled head”.
The thoughts filling her head were leaning towards feminism, much to the chagrin of some of her fellow radicals. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in 1789, but it was very clear that those rights were specifically geared towards men not women. She argued “[women] have the same natural rights as men, so that, as a consequence, it is supremely unjust that we have not the same rights in society.” It was around this time that she dropped her feminine sounding name and started going by Théroigne de Méricourt. Her feminist rhetoric did not sit well with both revolutionaries and royalists alike.
The royalist press was especially vicious to her, calling her the “patriots’ whore”. They went back to her scandalous past where she worked as a courtesan under the pseudonym, Mademoiselle Campinado. This is where the rumor of her storming the Bastille and leading the October Days March began along with accusations that “every representative [of the National Assembly] may fairly claim to be the father of her child.” The Parisian tabloids claimed she was funding the revolution by prostitution, saying she had 100 lovers a day who each paid 100 sous in contributions to the Revolution “gained by the sweat of my body”. They even attributed the authorship of a sex manual called “A Whore’s Catechism” to her. Her enemies painted her as the antithesis of “positive” femininity such that her cries for equal rights could be thrown out as the complaints of a “whore”.
In May 1790, Théroigne returned home to Méricourt and then traveled to Liege, where she was arrested by Austrian authorities under suspicion of spreading revolutionary ideas across the border. She was taken to the Kufstein Fortress and tortured by three captors. The Austrians had been reading the Parisian press and believed all the stories about Théroigne. They were sure they had the harlot who corrupted the soldiers and tempted them into revolution against their will and threatened the royal family, one of which was an Austrian (Marie Antoinette was the sister of the Austrian Emperor). After a month of intense interrogation, the chief interrogator determined that Théroigne knew nothing useful and released her.
Théroigne returned to Paris a hero in January 1792. She was lauded by the Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality, more commonly known as the Jacobin Club, as “one of the first Amazons of liberty.” and “La belle Liégoise”. This experience did not “cure” Théroigne of her feminist views, in fact it only pushed them further. She spent February 1792 campaigning for the rights of women to bear arms saying, “Frenchwomen … let us raise ourselves to the height of our destinies; let us break our chains! At last the time is ripe for women to emerge from their shameful nullity, where the ignorance, pride and injustice of men had kept them enslaved for so long …!” She attempted unsuccessfully to create a female battalion for the war with Austria. However, she was awarded the civic crown for her actions regarding the death of royalist prisoners at Place Vendôme. Rumors went round that she personally lynched royalist propogandist, François-Louis Suleau, but this is considered false.
However, the propaganda coming from the other side about how she was an “unnatural woman” was taking its toll. Théroigne consistently dressed in a man’s riding habit in either red or white and carried a saber, which did not win her any fans with other women. She broke with the Jacobins and began supporting the Girondins, a more conservative faction who split from the Jacobins. Paris was a solidly Jacobin city, so this was political suicide. Her pamphlet urging the election of women with “the glorious ministry of uniting the citizens and of inculcating in them the respect for freedom of opinions” fell on deaf ears.
On May 15, 1793, Théroigne was giving a speech in the Jardin des Tuileries when she was attacked by a group of Jacobin women. They stripped her naked and beat her severely with their bare hands and whips. She only escaped through the help of Jean-Paul Marat, a Jacobin icon. However, the beating was so severe that Théroigne never fully recovered. She had previously suffered from depression and insomnia, but after the attack her behavior grew more erratic. On September 20, 1794, Théroigne was declared insane and put into an asylum. The treatment for mental health at that time was barbaric and unsurprisingly, she did not improve. Ultimately, Théroigne was moved to the infamous Pitiè-Salpêtrière Mental Hospital. She went and out of lucidity, but only spoke of the revolution.
It became popular for people to visit the Salpêtrière to watch the institutionalized, like animals in a zoo but more horrible. One woman who visited was the actress Charlotte Vanhove. While exploring the cells of the “female lunatics”, she claimed she was assaulted by one who bit her on the arm. Vanhove made much of the attack claiming the “cannibal” had left white marks on her “shapely arm”. She was given a standing ovation at her next performance for surviving the ordeal. The fashionable set of Paris flocked to Salpêtrière to see the woman who tried to drink the blood of the famous actress, but instead were greeted with a middle aged woman with polite manners. They realized this was the famous Théroigne, who had been the darling of the revolution. This was rather boring, so stories went round that keepers kept her in a cage and threw her raw meat.
Théroigne died many years on June 9, 1817 later after living in appalling conditions of what was recorded as “double pneumonia”. A cast was taken of her skull and face, and her body was thrown in the ditch of the hospital cemetery. Because her only lucid moments were discussing the revolution, the “alienist” Étienne Esquirol used her as a case-study of the mental illness caused by revolutionary “excess”.