Revolutionary women

So, a while ago on the Coode St podcast, Jonathan and Gary wondered what it would be like if you tried to write a history of sf through the female writers. I think this is a most interesting idea, and relates to my desire to find women writing space opera.

Which relates to a book I’ve just finished reading called Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore. I was expecting it to be a book essentially looking at six women, all very different, and their experiences in the French Revolution. However, what I got was so much more than that. Alongside the bios – and they were really interesting women, all of them – I got a full history of the Revolution itself, almost entirely from the point of view of women. And the really, really cool thing is that it totally, totally worked.

Women were involved at every level of the Revolution. It was working-class women who marched on the palace in 1789 and scared the king and queen terribly. Women were involved in planning and suggesting policy in the convention’s various incarnations, and getting it passed too, thanks to both direct action on the streets and more indirect action in the various salons. Women were directly impacted, of course, by changes made to the laws – although they were not accorded citizenship rights under the great Declaration – and, perhaps more interestingly, perhaps stereotypically, but nonetheless dramatically, fashion was also of huge importance. Especially in the streets of Paris, what you wore was an immediate sign of your allegiances. In a world where there were laws about how could wear what, having women on the street insisting that everyone wear the revolutionary cockade was pretty influential. As was when aristocratic women, formerly the paragons of incredibly expensive haute couture, wore clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on a sans coulotte.

The women under investigation were Germaine de Stael, Pauline Leon, Theroigne de Mericourt, Theresia de Fontenay, Manon Roland and Juliette Recamier (all names missing accents, since I can’t figure out how to add them in). Leon is perhaps the most interesting, in some ways, because she was the most definitely working-class. I had come across her (and Mme Roland) in Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light – daughter of a chocolate maker, active on the streets and probably in violence. Mericourt had probably been a courtesan, and was also immensely visible on the streets. The other four were all basically aristocrats, on various levels and with differing views on politics – what they wanted to get out of politics, and how they went about doing it.

Each chapter is based around one woman, but Moore weaves so skilfully that she keeps the larger story of the Revolution moving, and brings in the narratives of the other women as well. It’s a marvellously well-written book, which I thoroughly enjoyed – even though I was reading it for school! – and it’s now covered in (appropriately pink!!) comments in the margins. Hugely recommended to anyone interested in the French Revolution or women in history more generally.

4 responses

  1. I love the idea of this. Might have to put the book on my list.

    1. I’d offer you mine, but I’ll be using it 😀

      It’s really accessible, I think, even if you don’t have a good background knowledge of the period. Which is why it’s so remarkable, really; it would have been easy to write a “there was a revolution, and then there were women” book, but instead she makes it clear how involved women were in the whole process.

  2. […] plays this up in sexualised and demeaning ways that were occasionally outright offensive. Having recently read Liberty, about the contribution of women to the Revolution – including Roland – this got my […]

  3. […] plays this up in sexualised and demeaning ways that were occasionally outright offensive. Having recently read Liberty, about the contribution of women to the Revolution – including Roland – this got my […]

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