Women’s Libération

Another revolutionary image from July

by Heather Thiessen

July marks the anniversary of the two history textbook “bourgeois revolutions,” the American and the French, as well as France’s Three Glorious Days (July 27 – July 29) of the July Revolution of 1830 (see Delacroix’s “La Liberté guidant le peuple,” or “Liberty Guiding the People,” left, painted to commemorate that event). So the Fourth of July and the Quatorze Juillet celebrate the enshrinement of the ideals that animated those then-radical revolutionary movements in their respective national histories. “All men are created equal.” The “. . . sacred Rights of Man.”Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!” (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood)

These anniversaries pose a complex challenge to the spirit of celebration from the Women’s Center’s vantage point. That challenge lingers beyond our participation in cherished familial and communal rituals of special meals, redwhiteandblue or bleublancetrouge decorations, fireworks displays and spirited singing of anthems to freedom and courage. These anniversaries are important for people, women included. But “the people” they were first held to be important for excluded women, even though women took part in the struggles that secured popular sovereignty. But the “man” that excluded women and other disenfranchised groups inspired a larger vision, and struggle, that stretched “the people” to include more and more actual people. But the abstract humanity, shorn of individual differences, that made it possible for those individual differences not to matter when it comes to rights, is not the actual humanity we have, and is probably not the humanity we want to have in the end. But who said freedom and justice had been achieved, or that courage was no longer called for?

The anniversaries are important
The anniversaries are important. They commemorate the articulation and establishment of principles of limited rather than absolute government, popular sovereignty, and the protection of free expression and the ultimate right of self-determination in national political life. The protections against tyranny and oppression won by the liberal democracies have inspired hope, and are valuable as well as valued. We sometimes take for granted their protections, like the freedom of speech and press that allows us to write or speak our minds, the separation of church and state that protects religious autonomy, the idea that leaders owe accountability to the citizenry, and the acknowledged right of the people to change their form of governance for cause. We celebrate these anniversaries with good reason. It would be a mistake to underestimate these frankly precious agreements because they still fall short of complete justice and freedom.

The “man” they freed excluded women – and most men
Nevertheless, they did fall short of that complete justice and freedom. The “man” whose inalienable, equal and sacred rights were secured by the governments of law and not of men and proclaimed in the Declarations of Independence and of the Rights of Man and Citizen excluded women, as well as most men. This exclusion was automatic, despite the fact that women participated in the struggles that brought about the success of these revolutions. (In every revolutionary conflict there were women who fought alongside men; “Molly Pitcher” became an American legend, the Women’s March on Versailles in October, 1789 was a pivotal event of the French Revolution, and Delacroix reportedly modeled the figure of Liberty in his painting on a woman he himself witnessed in July, 1830, who took up her fallen husband’s musket and fought on to her death.) Although much was made of the generic usage of the word “man” to mean “humanity” in the 1970s, when that usage was challenged in earnest and when the challenges stuck in the form of changed publishers’ style books and the standards of the broadcast media, people have always known that “man” meant men unless otherwise specified. The usage sprang from and perpetuated an unquestioned understanding of humanity as normally and normatively male, as exemplified by the men in power. In that understanding, women were an exceptional kind of human — human on as as-needed basis, except for all the times they didn’t count or could not participate. It is no coincidence that Delacroix’s “Liberty Guiding the People,” which depicted the spirit of the July Revolution of 1830, assigns femininity to the abstract ideal of liberty, and dresses all the people in trousers.*

    *Art historians identify the prone figure at Liberty’s feet struggling to rise as ambiguous, androgynous, maybe not male. Perhaps she is La France itself. But if so, she is not so explicitly feminine that a man would be unable to identify with the figure, who could as well be Everyman.

The extension of human rights to all categories of person, which would have amounted to a dismantling of the categorical exclusions represented by gender, race, class, and other “exceptional” circumstances, has been neither automatic, swift, nor even complete. People have had to fight, sometimes literally and at grave personal cost, to be recognized as people and citizens in the liberal democracies that have their anniversaries this month.

This vision of “man” was inspiring
But if the liberty and justice for all was fictitious, that fiction was an inspiring one. The “man” that excluded most people inspired in the excluded a vision of “the people” that did guide action, and that energized a struggle for those envisioned rights that expanded the practical meaning of “people.” In the course of that long struggle, women acquired “legal personality,” becoming persons for the purpose of owning property, making contracts, and gaining custody of minor children upon divorce. Women obtained the right to vote as citizens – by 1971, even women in Switzerland could do it. Women made their way into education, and then into the full range of occupations that required qualities like energy, intelligence, and imagination as well as love. Women of all races, classes, sexual orientations, and various marginal conditions have struggled for more perfect manifestations of justice, openness, and power over the conditions of their lives.

In the process, as we also know, women everywhere have been increasingly absorbed into the liberal democratic political economies that liberate each individual from his or her traditional relationships, setting each individual at liberty to sell his or her labor power or physical person as she or he chooses, or can only choose. And, women have produced searching feminist and womanist critiques of patriarchy and kyriarchy. From those critiques, we have learned that there is a limit to the envisioned ideal of the liberal democratic political economies. Those challenges have pointed out how an oppressive absorption into a dominated labor pool, an isolation as individuals, and a reduction to participation in an abstract humanity does not deliver the substance of freedom or justice.

Rights for abstract humanity point beyond themselves
The “humanity” that underwrote the ideal of the July revolutions was always a universal, homogeneous figment of the cultural imagination. We know that there are limits to the ideals embodied in the liberal democracies. We know that their economies produce poverty as well as affluence, that they enshrine particular forms of injustice, and even laud these forms of injustice as virtues. We know that they use nature’s bounty as if it were nothing but raw material, with abandon. We know that there is more to life than a liberty that consists of being able to be left alone to do as one pleases with all the stuff one can amass in a lifetime of economic activity, or if there isn’t, there should be.

But the ideal of the free human being, possessed of an individual self, educated, situated so as to be able to bring forth from her or his person the best version of that self, for the express purpose of contributing that best to a collective best effort, continues to resonate with us. For good reason. It remains sometihing that captures a genuine good, one that we would be loath to relinquish. Of course, every person should be entitled, in principle, to treatment as a valued and valuable human being. Each person should receive an education, and be placed in a position to make key decisions about how they want to live. That ideal continues to be worth celebrating, even as it calls for extension, critique, and revision. We cannot want to return to a time before the articulation and defense of human rights. Rather, people now want to enhance the discourse around rights by acknowledging people’s necessary and desirable inter-relatedness, encouraging participation by individuals whose histories are linked to those of others, setting limits on a rugged individualism that lacks connection to others while still protecting individual dissent and the marginal prophetic voice, and properly appreciating diversity.

This people that includes women of all conditions and descriptions, along with the men and children and the individuals who challenge these familiar male/female binaries, are not abstractions, but a diverse crew of particular individuals. Their various differences matter, not least to the people who love and cherish them, and to the God who made and loves and cherishes them. They call for a different and more adequate understanding of community, one that can organize peace and freedom without abstracting from individual particularities, or pretending that vital differences don’t matter and don’t need to be recognized and responded to in ways that extend concrete and meaningful freedom and equity to all.

Conversion takes place in history
The historic birth of the liberal democracies did not end “the people’s” cry for freedom, justice, and peace. But they did mark the beginning of a vital conversion and transformation of our historic collective life. Conversion rarely happens all at once. Rather, it is a process of turning and learning, and of repeated turnings that complete the first, or that continue it. In this process, the life of the political community and the life of the community that is the church are inevitably intertwined, regardless of the specific form the church’s relationship to the larger political community takes. Intertwined because the church, as a body made up of Christians, variously models, sanctions, approves, tolerates, demands, denounces, the larger political community’s practices of decision making, representation, and patterns of power and authority. If the nation states have been slow to realize their liberating potential, it is in part because the church has often been even slower to live out its own liberating mission.

The final shape of the communal conversion begun in this or that July long ago remains hidden. Christians would even say it is likely to remain hidden until the advent of the reign of heaven, with its revelation of “what we will be.” (1 John 3:2) Beginnings are beginnings, not destinations. But we celebrate these beginnings rightly. The celebration of such beginnings reminds us of their promise and hope, and spurs us on to renewed energy in raising that promise and hope to the fullness of life.


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