Women and the French Revolution

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  • Gender & Hisfory ISSN 0953-5233 Joan B. Landes, Women and the French Revolution, Gender & Hisfory, Vo1.6 No.2 August 1994, pp. 281-291

    Women and the French Revolution

    JOAN B. LANDES

    Suzanne Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolufionary France (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990), pp. xviii + 263, $33.50. ISBN 0 8014 2404 6.

    Christine Faurk, Democracy Without Women; Feminism and the Rise of Liberal individualism in France, tr. Clauda Gorbman and john Berks (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991), pp. viii + 197, $23.96. ISBN 0 253 32155 7.

    Olwen Hufton, Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolu- tion: The Donald G. Creighton Lectures 7989 (University of Toronto Press, 1992), pp. xxvi + 201, $35.00 and $16.95. ISBN 0 8020 5898 1 (hb) and 0 8020 6837 5 (pb).

    Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992), pp. xvi + 214, $20.00 and $12.00. ISBN 0 520 07741 5 (hb) and 0 520 08270 2 (pb).

    Elisabeth Roudinesco, ThProigne de Mkricourt: A Melancholic Woman during the French Revolution, tr. Martin Thom (Verso, London, 1991), pp. xi + 284, f39.95/$34.95; in paperback as Madness and Revolu- tion: The Lives and Legends of Theroigne de M6ricoufl (1992), f 12.95/$18.95. ISBN 0 86091 324 4 (hb) and 0 86091 597 2 (pb).

    The bicentenary of the French Revolution has occasioned an ardent revival of interest in the role of women during the Revolution. Whereas women figured prominently in the narrative histories of the nineteenth century, they are nearly absent from the more scientific, analytical, even discursive histories of the twentieth century (Marxist and revisionist, Annales and post- Annales). It i s almost as if these historians, like the revolutionaries them- selves, were seeking to secure their own legitimacy by repudiating the feminine aura of their predecessors work. In contrast, scholars who came of age in the womens movement of the last few decades have begun to retell the stories of female actors-the Queen, Theroigne de Mericourt, Charlotte Corday, Olympe de Gouges, Madame Roland, market women, women of the sans-culottes, and religious women-within a more complex investiga- tion of gender as a central category of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary 0 Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1994, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 I J F , UK and 238 Main Street, Cambridge MA 02142, USA

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    politics. Insofar as the Revolution has been regarded as the founding event of modern politics, each of these books contributes to an ongoing explora- tion of the place of gender equality in modern, liberal democratic regimes. Likewise, they raise the question of how religion and womens presumed attachment to traditional religious hierarchies and practices intersect with the gendered organization of a secular, non-traditional society. These works are written by sociologists and psychoanalysts, as well as social historians and theoretically inclined new cultural historians, and therefore vary in their methods and conclusions. The deviations among them mark the contours of the emerging scholarship on culture, politics, ideas and gender in modern France.

    Of this group, Christine Faure is least interested in the Revolution as an event. Her account of French arguments for womens rights concludes, rather than begins, with the Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Faure takes a somewhat surprising approach to her subject, emphasizing the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries instead of the recent past. Democracy Without Women is best appreciated, first, as a strong brief on behalf of liberalisms contribution to the rise and vitality of feminism in France; second, at least in the AngleAmerican context, as an attempt to disrupt the ahistorical impression of French feminism readers may derive from literary, philosophical or psychoanalytically-inclined authors such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Michele Montrelay, and Monique Wittig. Despite French liberalisms general political lapses, and concerning women in particular, Faure argues that feminism is best understood as the product of philosophical liberalism, not socialism. She attacks socialism for its re- ductive critique of liberalism (p. 10) and aims to sever socialisms connec- tion with a philosophy of rights and human liberties. Originally published in 1985, this book contributes to ongoing efforts by post-Marxist, former dix-huitards to displace Marxist discourse in France. Perhaps most contro- versially, Faure opposes the (socialist-like) internationalist convictions of humanist and Enlightenment philosophy, defending liberalisms role in the project of nation-state building and advocating a national culture approach to feminist study. Without fully confronting the difficulties this poses for a feminist philosophy of rights, she acknowledges that feminism was not just a secular republican movement or a pacifist one; it was also patriotic and religious (p. 11).

    Faures effort to restore faith in liberal feminism involves nothing less than the invention of a durable liberal past in France. This project may not reson- ate as strongly in an AngleAmerican context, given our own strong liberal heritage. Faures method is that of a sociologically oriented history of ideas. The books dense early chapters, laden with unfamiliar references to primary texts, authors, and historical debates, may pose a further difficulty for English- language readers. However, the book has the merit of introducing an English- language audience to the early modern continental discussions of womens place, and to the French intellectual, religious, and political contexts for E Basil Blackwell Ltd 1994

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    these debates: absolutism, neo-platon ism, classicism, reformation and counter- reformation Christianity, humanism and enlightenment philosophy. By far the most successful chapters are those on the Enlightenment and the Revolu- tion where Faure summarizes the contradictory legacy of liberal democratic theory and practice on the topic of female equality. By demonstrating the failures of modern legal structures, philosophical liberalism, and democracy, Faure adds an appreciation of the tension between equality and difference in modernity. Rather than offering solutions, however, she merely exhorts the increasing number of women in Frances political structure . . . to resolve these contradictions (p. 135). Like so many other French and post- modern theorists, Faure registers a strong ambivalence to reason, without explaining how that can be reconciled with a liberal philosophy or politics: Once the vehicle to which women attached their hopes for political equality during the struggle against power and the authority of tradition, it later became the principle on which their exclusion was based (p. 131).

    In The Family Romance of the French Revolution, the distinguished historian, Lynn Hunt, invites her readers to a bold journey beyond the more familiar territories of revolutionary historiography into the psychosymbolics of the Revolution. In her previous book, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, Hunt introduced linguistic approaches to the study of revolutionary politics. Here, she probes further the cultural and psycho- logical dimensions of politics. From Freud and Rene Girard, Hunt fashions a concept of the family romance to explore the psychosexual meaning of fraternity in revolutionary symbolics (p. 13). What counts are all manner of creative efforts to re-imagine the political world unhinged from the old patriarchal authority after the revolutionary brothers kill the fathedking and then return to shape a powerful new social organization: the revolutionary fraternity in which men were restrained from incest with mothers and sisters. Hunts sources are wide-ranging: novels of a pornographic, sentimental or romantic persuasion; plays; paintings; engravings; family laws; and the press. Hunt aims to chart the operations of power, and the ways in which the imagination shapes and is in turn shaped by political and social pro- cesses (p. 8). She offers a probing analysis of the relations between parents and children, men and women, brothers and sisters. By way of a methodo- logically bold and theoretically innovative investigation, Hunt moves gender -in its deepest manifestations-to center stage in revolutionary histori- ography. She views art and politics as activities animated by common, not separable, imaginative processes.

    Hunt writes convincingly of the manner in which eighteenth-century French novelists and painters helped to undermine the authority of the patriarchal regime, and articulated a deeply experienced anxiety about the relationship between family and state obligations. She reads cultural artifacts through the lens of Northrop Fryes literary genres, as depicting initially the comedic movement to a new society, next the degradation of the comic image of the good political father of 1789-92, and later the romantic dream

    0 Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1994.

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    of heroic fraternity among forever-youthful brothers. Hunt argues that radical iconography between 1792 and mid-1794 instantiated a new family rom- ance of fraternity wherein brothers and sisters- mothers rarely, and fathers almost never-held sway. In this context, she offers a compelling analysis of the trial and execution of the king, focusing on the tensions which revolutionaries experienced between forgetting and commemorating (the death of the father), feeling and rejecting guilt (in the context of the Terror), and implementing democratic equality through popular sovereignty and practicing a cult of dead heroes (in the radical republic). In an absorbing chapter on the Queen, she rel