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  • Editorial Note:Individual Lives: Windows on Women's History
  • Jean Quataert and Leigh Ann Wheeler

The Journal of Women's History regularly receives submissions of biographical accounts; often we reject these outright. Why? After all, the reading public loves biographies—a lot more than it loves historical monographs, if sales are any indication. Moreover, a women's history journal seems an especially likely venue for the publication of biographies. Not only have such works helped build the field, often by introducing influential new conceptual categories and interpretations such as women's political culture or transnational networks, but biographies are also uniquely suited to furthering the classic feminist task of making the personal political. As explained by the historian Susan Ware—featured in our last issue—feminist biography can do this by showing "how personal lives intersect with public accomplishments" and how private experiences "factor into events beyond the household."1 From our editorial perspective, biographical work that treats individual life stories as if they were historically significant all by themselves—work that stares at its subject rather than "see[ing] through" it, to use the historian Alice Kessler-Harris's apt phrase—does not sufficiently advance the scholarly goals of the Journal. While each article featured in this issue centers on the life of an individual woman, each treats the life experience, again in Kessler-Harris's words, "not as a subject to be studied for its own sake," but as a window on "larger cultural and social and even political processes."2 Thus, each article in this issue investigates individual women's lives in ways that illuminate a wide range of issues central to the most innovative scholarship in the field, including agency and voice, methodology and self-representation, political challenges and identity, transnationalism and power, as well as separatism and accommodation in politics. They bring life stories, historical contexts, and research methods into revealing new relationships.

We begin with Sonja Boon's methodologically innovative article, "Recuperative Autobiography and the Politics of Life Writing: Lineage, Inheritance, and Legacy in the Writings of the Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault." In her creative reading, Boon uncovers how the marquise employed a "politics of recuperative biography" to develop a matrilineal legacy and reroute her kinship line away from blood ties and toward constructed "bonds of intimacy, affection, and moral justice." As a wealthy widow without siblings or heirs, the marquise experienced greater opportunities to exercise agency than most women in eighteenth-century France. One of her strategies was [End Page 7] to adopt various promising young women as her protégées, with hopes of passing down through them her values or "moral legacy" and her own story. Boon uses the autobiographical letter or, in her words, "epistolary testament," written by the marquise to one of her protégées, to understand her subject's legal strategy. She shows how a document that seems, on its face, unexceptional, actually presents the marquise's reconstruction of her own lineage. In other words, as Boon explains, "the marquise writes not only herself, but also her chosen 'family,' into being," directing "the master's tools" of law and inheritance toward the purpose of destroying and reconstructing her "family landscape." Of course, the "master's tools" alone would not have been sufficient to produce the legacy that the marquise desired. Her achievements in this regard can be credited to the relationships she developed with and the loyalty she inspired in other women as well as to the patriarchal legal system's flexibility. The marquise remained within the law's limits to privilege one part of her family over the other. Nevertheless, Boon's pioneering interpretation reveals the necessity of combining private records like correspondence with public documents like wills to understand the range of possibilities for women's agency and also to appreciate the clever ways that individual women could negotiate new realities within patriarchal institutions.

Lindsay A. H. Parker reorients us toward war and politics in "Family and Feminism in the French Revolution: The Case of Rosalie Ducrollay Jullien." Like Boon, Parker relies heavily on one woman's private letters to examine larger historical developments, in her case, the "challenges and changes that middle-class...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 7-12
Launched on MUSE
2012-09-06
Open Access
No
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