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Women's Memory, Women's History, Women's Political Action: The French Revolution in Retrospect, Ί789-Ί889-Ί989* Karen Offen In April 1989, over five hundred scholars and women's movement activists gathered in France, at the Le Mirail campus of the University of Toulouse, to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution by insisting on the historical role of women, the issue of their rights, and the importance of gender in the politics of the revolutionary era. Nearly two hundred papers were presented. Most—though by no means all—of them were the work of women scholars with graduate degrees in history, law, literature, political science, and art history. These scholars came not only from France, both Germanies, neighboring Belgium and Switzerland, and the Netherlands, but also from Tunisia, Canada, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan. The Toulouse congress had several official and several unofficial justifications . The organizers' stated objectives included highlighting the participation of women as active subjects in the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary movements, thereby encouraging critical reflection on the issues of equality, citizenship, natural law, and universalism. Other objectives were to arrive at a deeper understanding of the social construction of the sexes, and its historical operations during the revolutionary period, and to encourage an interdisciplinary enrichment of methods of historical research.1 Participants shared what they had learned from exhuming and reexamining the historical memory of French women's participation in the revolution. They reevaluated its varied aspects in accordance with the rigorous evidential standards of contemporary historical analysis, and often in the light of theoretical concerns generated by contemporary feminism. Some of those present also deemed it important to remind present-day women's movement activists and the world at large of the important tradition of French women's political activism, the difficulties of their struggle, and the obstacles they faced, and to celebrate the vital legacy of French revolutionary principles for contemporary women—and men.2 Activists ©1990 Journal of Women's History. Vol. ι No. 3 (Winter)_________________ *This is an expanded version of a paper presented at the International Colloquium "Les Femmes et Ia Révolution Française," April 12-13,1989, in Toulouse, France, and at the May 1989 International Congress on the History of the French Revolution in Washington, D.C. I am particularly indebted to the provocative reflections on memory and feminist history by Laurence Klejman & Florence Rochefort, "Féminisme -Histoire-Mémoire," Penelope no. 12 (Spring 1985): 129-38, and Michèle RiotSarcey , "Mémoire et oubli," ibid. : 139-48.1 would also like to thank Patrick Hutton and Bonnie Smith for their counsel. 212 Journal of Women's History Winter used the Toulouse conference as an occasion to found a national French feminist studies organization, within the framework of a pan-European Community women's studies initiative.3 The Toulouse Congress and the French Revolutionary Bicentennial raise important questions about the intertwined relationship between memory, history, and political action, and the role that gender may play in this relationship. In this article, I will address three questions concerning this relationship that refer particularly to women's history in the revolutionary period: first, what have women (especially those who are politically active) known about this history; second, from what sources do they know it (that is, how have they found out); and, third, what relationship can be said to exist between such historical knowledge and women's subsequent political action, and how should we understand it? It is paradoxical, for example, that although many women and men are intrinsically interested in women's history, and that there is clearly an audience for the plethora of scholarly and popular works now being published, a significant number of activists in the contemporary women's movement have only a cursory or highly selective historical memory. Some, including a surprising number of highly educated women and men, are skeptical about the utility of historical knowledge except as a form of entertainment. How, then, are we to understand the historical legacy of the French Revolution as it concerns women? Of what use is this particular "historical memory," so much discussed at Toulouse, for contemporary women?4 The legacy itself has three staple...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 211-230
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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