Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview

1

Introduction

The further one delves into the subject of gender and the French Revolution, the less one can validate François Furet's contention that "the French Revolution is over." 1 Our attempts to talk about the revolution, even at a distance of 200 years, are strangely haunted by its most famous patrimony—the institutionalization of the Universal Rights of Man. Implicit in this doctrine is the notion of "man" as ungendered and universal, on the one hand, but also gendered and exclusive of women, on the other. The liberal discourse of the rights of man thus institutionalized the implicit assumption of "woman" as particular, excluded from universality. Women had of course always been on the periphery of Western culture, but never before within the closed conceptual framework of universal rights to liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The liberal discourse of the rights of man places all writing by and about women in a double bind, from which even the subtitle of this work, Women and the French Revolution, cannot escape. A collection of essays that criticize and take us beyond the discursive category of "women" as inherited from the liberal discourse of the French Revolution, must by necessity name itself within that category. Its connotations of "women" as essentially tangential, excentric, supplementary, and incidental to the revolution reverberate in the subtitle even as the chapters herein dissect the historical and cultural processes that constructed these connotations. These chapters demonstrate that the critical study of women and gender does not exist in some remote no-man's-land, but impinges on all human understanding. It alters the basic terms through which we understand the revolution, or any historical and cultural phenomenon within the liberal tradition. Yet these chapters must speak in a language that denies the power of their critique by naming women as marginal. Where a subtitle like Men and the French Revolution (or worse still, The Role of Men in the French Revolution) would sound ridiculously redundant, our subtitle is both necessary to our endeavor and condemned to signify the very connotations it intends to refute.

Of course the asymmetry of gender that connotes man as central and primary, woman as peripheral and secondary predates the French Revolution by centuries if not millennia. So what changes with the French Revolution? It marks a new era that holds out to women the promise of inclusion in its universal community of equal human subjects only to snatch that promise away when women rise up to actively claim its fulfillment, as they have done ever since the first days of the 1789 upheavals. They have been, in the words of

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