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In the Shadow of the Guillotine and in the Margins of History: English-Speaking Authors View Women in the French Revolution

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 1, Number 3, Winter 1990
pp. 244-260 | 10.1353/jowh.2010.0075

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Review In the Shadow of the Guillotine and in the Margins of History: English-Speaking Authors View Women in the French Revolution George Rude. TAf French Revolution. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1988. J. F. Bosher. The French Revolution. New York. W. W. Norton, 1988. Colin Lucas, ed. TAf Political Culture of the French Revolution, vol. 2. New York: Pergamon, 1988. Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chroniclevf the French Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1989. Susan P. Conner Nineteen eighty-nine was the year of the "impossible anniversary"; the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. It was a year of massive observances laced with politics, antiquarianism, and selective memory. Coins, stamps, jewelry, and even underwear sported the logo of the bicentennial, the French tourist office issued certificates to the hardy souls who braved Bastille Day in Paris, miniature guillotines sold for 390 francs each, and the United States loaned George Washington's key to the Bastille to France for the observance. An American in Paris could see or buy almost anything from the sublime to the tacky. In the United States, a scholar, student, or member of the general public could also read almost anything from the apocryphal to the archival. Nor surprisingly, as writers on the bicentennial exercised their obsession with remedying "cultural amnesia," they instead became mired in the very problematic relationship among memory, history, and theory; some of them even refused to admit that the relationship existed at all. In some ways, the bicentennial was like the revolution itself, as Simon Schama described it: "an imperfect union" of differing tempers— "rhetorical and rational, visceral and cerebral, sentimental and brutal."1 Although the vast array of bicentennial souvenirs was missing from the United States, Americans could find an abundance of exhibits, concerts, and televised specials. There were books, conferences, debates, journal articles, or special issues of scholarly publications to entertain and instruct as well.2 Book catalogues listing recent publications in French history proliferated , and university presses reissued classics like George Lefebvre's TAf Coming of the French Revolution, J. M. Thompson's TAf French Revolution, and, in translation, Richard Cobb's TAf People's Armies. Among the book catalogues, for example, Princeton listed thirty-eight books in its offerings in honor of © 1990 Journal of Women's History, Vol. ι No. 3 (Winter)__________________ 1990 Review: Susan P.Conner 245 the bicentennial, although some were originally published as early as the 1970s. Scholarly conferences were rescheduled to take advantage of interest in the bicentennial: for example, the multiple sponsorship of the meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies in May and two meetings in 1989 of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe.3 Encouraged by the wealth of lively academic debate on this side of the Atlantic and abroad, 1989 promised to be a year filled with impressive new scholarship, revisionism, and a more complete, potentially more nuanced interpretation of the French Revolution . To historians of women, feminism, and gender, the prospects were encouraging as well. As the year concluded, writing this review essay gave me the opportunity to consider what legacy the bicentennial had, in fact, bequeathed to women's history, the history of feminism, and gender studies. I wondered if Marianne had escaped from the shadow of the guillotine. This essay, of necessity, quickly became more than just a commentary on four major works published predominantly in English for an Anglo-American audience. Instead, I decided to divide the essay into three sections. In the first, I chose to describe briefly the context or scholarly environment in which new books on the French Revolution were written. In essence, what sources on women in the late eighteenth century were available to scholars prior to 1989? Then I laid out the criteria by which I measured the four books being reviewed. In the second section, I commented on each; and finally, after reviewing them, I provided some thoughts about the direction we are going as we move into the third century after the French Revolution. The Scholarly Environment: A View from the Past In the past two decades, there has been a steady stream of sound, scholarly work written in English placing French women in the context of the ancien régime...