Israel's Revolutionary Ideas (2014) uses the French Revolution to argue for his greater intellectual agenda which is to show the historical importance of the Enlightenment. Putting the radical ideals of the Enlightenment into practice, he argues, is what the French Revolution was mostly about. Certainly, he is not the only person to think so.
I picked the book hoping to find a narrative that I could use to develop my own understanding of the French Revolution, but also, because I was rather curious as to how he would refer to the women of the French Revolution. His previous books on the Enlightenment have been rather male heavy, with less discussion than one might have hoped, for instance, of Mary Wollstonecraft or Catharine Macaulay. Revolutionary Ideas is no exception: out of 167 names listed as the "Cast of Main Characters", only 8 are women. Some omissions are surprising: Pierre-Francois Robert is listed, but not Louise Keralio-Robert. In the book she is referred to as his collaborator on the Mercure National (p.123). It would be more accurate to say that he had been her collaborator, as it was Louise who started the journal (previously, Le Journal d'Etat et du Citoyen) and she was its editor-in-chief. Robert joined the journal later, and they eventually married.
While there are a number of references to both Grouchy and Gouges, they are not particularly enlightening or accurate. Grouchy is referred to as a 'leading exponent of women's rights' but we have no real evidence that she was even interested in women's rights. She did not write about it under her own name – that we know – nor is she reported to have discussed it with anyone. She did, however, contribute in writing and in editing Le Républicain to the leading ideas and arguments of the Revolution. Israel adds her names to various others, including most other women's names (they are rarely mentioned as individuals), also oddly, to Desmoulins's on p.206, and to a list of people who were released from prison after the Terror (she never went!) on p. 582. Olympe de Gouges is referred to as an ex-prostitute ('high class courtisane', p.123), which she certainly was not. She did, as far as we know, have a few lovers over the course of her lifetime, but by that criteria, it's likely that most of the characters listed by Israel were also prostitutes! She also gets the usual treatment of being described as an emotional creature – she is in turns fiery (123), angry (122) and disgusted (400). Gouges is also referred to, several time, as a leading feminist, which she was; but although her other political writings and activities are referred to, it seems that Israel only considers her notable for her feminism, which means that, like Grouchy, the greatest part of her contributions to the ideas that shaped the Revolution are forgotten.
Israel is a leading historian of ideas, and Revolutionary Ideas is a very recent book. The fact that it says so little about the women of the French Revolution shows that my project of writing about these women is a much-needed one.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.