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Memory and the Cult of Revolution in the 1871 Paris Commune Martin P. Johnson At the beginning of the civil war between the Paris Commune and the National Assembly in early April 1871, a crowd of women gathered on the Place de la Concorde for a march on the government at Versailles. "There were between seven and eight hundred women," one of the participants , Beatrix Excoffon, later recalled. "Some talked about explaining to Versailles what Paris wanted; others talked about how things were a hundred years ago, when the women of Paris had once before gone to Versailles to carry off the baker and the baker's wife and the baker's little boy, as they said then."1 This demonstration, the largest by women during the Commune, was founded upon a collective memory of the October Days of 1789, when revolutionary women and National Guards forced the royal family to return to Paris. It was only one of many instances in which the collective memory of the revolutionary tradition was expressed during the Commune; indeed, 1870-1871 witnessed a near obsession with the Great Revolution. Yet while men and women elaborated and acted upon the memory of the revolutionary past, the congruences and divergences in the ways they interpreted that tradition have not been sufficiently explored. This neglect mirrors a larger omission, for gender remains virtually invisible in the substantial body of scholarship created by ethnologists , historians, and sociologists in the last 10 years concerning collective memory, traditions, and commemorations.2 Where women do appear in such studies they are generally symbolic figures, such as the republican icon of "Marianne" in nineteenth-century France.3 Representations and images of women reveal much about the cultures that formed them, but the question of precisely how collective memory shapes historical action by both women and men requires greater attention. French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs initiated the modern study of collective memory with his insight that "social frameworks" shape memory and in turn memory shapes social behavior.4 There has been, however, profound disagreement about whether gender should be included in this analysis. Sylvie Vandecastle-Schweitzer and Daniele Voldman have argued that memory is not related to one's sex but to the "events of the individual's life," and warn against constructing a "feminine historical object" after having demolished a "masculinized historical object."5 While James Fentress and Chris Wickham do not deny the possibility of a "women's memory," they argue that the main barrier to identifying it is © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 40 Journal of Women's History Spring "hegemony." In other words, the language, commemorative occasions, and narrative process are so deeply dominated by male voices and actors as to render the discovery of an independent women's historical consciousness nearly impossible.6 Catherine R. Stimpson has evoked the same concept of hegemony, finding that "the powerful erase other groups" in their quest to forge the collective memory in their own likeness .7 Yet folklorists and ethnologists, who have generally preceded historians in exploring these issues, have often found clear differences in the ways men and women recount the past, implying that gender is a significant category of difference in regard to collective memory and traditions.8 Historians must do more to take up the point Natalie Zemon Davis and Randolf Starn make. "Whenever memory is invoked we should be asking ourselves: by whom, where, in which context, against what?"9 The Commune is an ideal vehicle for exploring the intersection of collective memory and gender difference because its origins and key features were shaped by the memory of the French revolutionary tradition and women were remarkably active in the movement.10 The very term "Commune" was derived from the Great Revolution; Communards read newspapers named after and imitating the popular press of the Revolution, and a Committee of Public Safety was instituted following the model of 1793. Against this background, women in 1871 fought on barricades, spoke in clubs, and worked to reshape society through producer cooperatives and other institutions in ways unprecedented even in 1793 and 1848.11 For these reasons the content and meaning of the historical memory has long...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 39-57
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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