I should need a Madame Roland as my reader.

That unpunished vice, reading.
—Valéry Larbaud

If anyone helps to overturn conventional notions about the role of women in politics in eighteenth-century France it is Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlipon, later Mme Roland (1754–1793). It was not simply the French Revolution of 1789 that inspired her concern with history, society, and the art of government. That interest was of long standing in a deeply studious young woman who loved reading, even works by the most difficult thinkers, and who read widely for self-instruction and self-knowledge as well as pleasure. Much cherished by her parents as the sole survivor of seven children, she was endowed with a strong sense of her own worth and capabilities.

In 1776, Manon, daughter of a well-established master engraver, tried to call...

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