Olympe de Gouges: the First French Feminist

This post is an excerpt from Justine’s award-winning article in Villanova’s interdisciplinary graduate school journal Concept. She will be continuing her research on this topic during the summer with funding from the university.

You can find the full article at: https://concept.journals.villanova.edu/article/view/2275

I first heard the name Olympe de Gouges in an undergrad French History class, when studying the French Revolution. In August 1789, when the recently formed National Assembly wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, comparable to the U.S.’ Declaration of Independence, its rights solely applied to men; women did not enjoy the benefits of the French Revolution’s ideas of freedom, democracy, and natural rights. It is in this context that Olympe de Gouges’ name and writings came up. Frustrated by the government’s refusal to acknowledge women’s rights, De Gouges wrote and published her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizenin 1791, modeled on the original declaration. In a later class I took about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, she was again mentioned very briefly. While I personally found the issue of women’s rights during the Revolution fascinating, it seemed to me that in my classes it was always overlooked to focus on other major events. It wasn’t until I took a graduate seminar about the French Revolution last fall semester, that De Gouges’ Declarationwas assigned to read and that the question of women’s rights was discussed. I decided to write my term research paper on her and I soon realized that besides her Declaration– her most famous text by far – De Gouges had written many texts prior to and during the Revolution to advance the cause of women’s rights and gender equality. Not only that, but she also supported marriage reform, the right to divorce, the abolition of slavery, the recognition of illegitimate children, and social projects such as medical clinics for women. While De Gouges’ revolutionary texts were written in the form of political pamphlets or posters, her texts written before 1789 were mostly plays.

I decided to do research on her plays as a means of advocating social reforms, and I faced some challenges. The first one was that Olympe de Gouges has for a long time been ignored or purposefully left out of the narrative of the French Revolution. While it is easy to find biographies of Louis XVI or Robespierre from as early as the 1800s, the earliest book I found about her dated from the 1980s. The reason for this is that during and after the Revolution, De Gouges was considered an extremist, not necessarily for her political ideas, but because she was an outspoken woman. She was absent from dictionaries and history books, her texts considered irrelevant, and not worthy of study from a literary standpoint. Therefore I couldn’t find literary analyses of her texts either, and her plays were only mentioned in more recent historical articles. As far as her actual plays are concerned, it was equally hard for me to find the complete texts. Unlike recognized great works of the French Revolution, they were harder to access, not available online or in the library. For some of the plays, I had to find the original publication manuscripts, published in 1788.

Once I had gathered and read a significant number of her plays, some themes in her writing became obvious, two among them which interested me the most were the reform of marriage and the right to divorce. After a close analysis of the plays in which these themes appear, I noticed two important things: first, how subtle and accessible her advocacy for reform is in her plays, contrary to her later texts; second, how the ideas put forth in her plays relate to her own life experience and fit in with her later Declaration.

In the six plays that I studied for this research paper, each of them features female characters who by the end of the play were either able to overcome the oppression they were a victim of, make their own life decisions, or significantly improve their living situations: in The Necessity of Divorce, wife and husband are reconciled, and the wife is the morally superior one in the relationship; in The Forced Vowsthe main character is able to marry the man she loves instead of being forced into a convent; in Black Slavery, the women of the plays assume the dominant role in their relationships and resolve a local government crisis; in Molière visits Ninon, the main character escapes a forced marriage and marries the man she loves; in The Unexpected Marriage of Chérubin, the main character, of modest background, also escapes a forced marriage, finds her parents, is recognized as an aristocrat, and marries a Marques; and finally in The Corrected Philosophe, the wife overcomes accusations of adultery and is reconciled with her husband. In these plays, De Gouges depicts strong and independent women, who are morally superior to men, as well as non-traditional relationships and gender roles, to advance the causes for egalitarian marriage as a social contract based on mutual feelings, and for the right to divorce. Not only are all these ideas reflected in De Gouges’ Declarationpublished a couple years later, but they are also based on her own life. As was common in Early Modern France, De Gouges was subjected to an arranged marriage when she was only fourteen to a man she despised and when she was widowed, she refused to remarry so she would never be subjected to a man again.

While she stood out because she was a woman activist, De Gouges’ ideas were not groundbreaking since thinkers of the Enlightenment had been writing about marriage and divorce throughout the 18thcentury. In addition, De Gouges’ texts, both her plays and her later political texts, were not widely spread nor did they influence the decisions of the Nation Assembly regarding marriage reform. However, as historians Darline Gay Levy and Harriet B. Applewhite have argued, “the political language and the acts of women in the revolutionary capital [of Paris] – their political performances – cannot be dismissed simply because the implications of these words and deeds were not realized in French revolutionary politics…Rights claimed, once defined and defended, become imprinted in a political culture.” Even though De Gouges’ writings did not result in the passage of specific laws or of women’s citizenship, she participated in the creation of a liberal tradition in France.


Upcoming Event! The House in the Cemetery

On Wednesday, April 25, students of Prof. Whitney Martinko’s Spring 2018 class HIS 8703 – Public History Practicum will debut their podcast series, The House in the Cemetery. They will host a public event at The Woodlands that evening from 5:30-7:30.


Tucked away in West Philly and nestled in between the campus of UPenn, and the University of the Sciences, The Woodlands is historic and unique multi-purpose greenspace. Its modern mission is to serve as a hub of educational activities for all ages, in diverse fields including architecture, botany, urban development and of course history.  The Woodlands is accessible by public transportation from Villanova via Regional Rail to 30th St. and then trolley to the 40th St. portal.


Without giving too much away, The House in the Cemetery is a 7-part series on the history of the area starting April 18th. April 25th is your chance to learn about the research and recording experiences of the grad students that make the magic happen as well as celebrate their accomplishments!


More information on the event, as well as updates and details can be found here or by copying the following link address and pasting it in the url bar of your browser:


We hope to see you there!

Plica Polonica: A Mixture of Superstition, Scientific Inquiry, Racism and Folklore

Above: The engraving, possibly by Felicita Sartori (d. 1760 in Dresden), illustrated Thomas Salmon’s Lo stato presente di tutti paesi, e popoli del mondo, naturale, politico, e morale, published in volume 7 about the Commonwealth of Two Nations (1739), part of the 26 volumes printed in Venice in 1734-1766. Poland


For anyone who has read Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, this malady – also called the Polish Plait – promises to satisfy as much strange and macabre fascination for weird history as the backstory of the cat-mutilating printer’s apprentices.

Historically known as the Polish plait, this condition usually results when dirty, neglected, and uncombed hair becomes irreversibly tangled and forms a matted, malodorous, moist stiff mass of hair. Plica Polonica presents typically as an elongated firm to a hard mass of keratin permanently cemented together with crusted pus, blood, nits, and dirt.[1] Plica (or Plicas) may be associated with damage to sections of the cuticle (the hair-shaft’s tough protective outer layer) hereby exposing a moist sticky cortex to which other similarly affected hair shafts adhere. The condition is mildly odiferous and capable of causing adhesion and matting of hair-shafts.[2]

In the early 17th century, people began to believe plaits were an external symptom of an internal illness. A growing plait was supposed to take the illness “out” of the body; the fouler and infested the plait became, the more bad humors were drawn from the body into the hair, and therefore it was rarely cut off. It was believed that purging one’s body of this tangled and stinking pile of hair was extremely risky because it threatened blindness, deafness, confusion of the senses, bleeding, and even death from convulsions.  In addition, the belief that a cut-off plait could avenge itself and bring an even greater illness discouraged some from attacking it, and that casting a magic spell on someone could cause that person to develop a Polish plait.


Polish plait in the Museum of the Faculty of Medicine, Medical College, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

Initially, what was also called the “tangle” was not associated with lack of personal hygiene. The Polish name kołtun comes from kiełtanie się, i.e. the swinging motion of the tangled hair. It was believed that it arose spontaneously and was a symptom of rheumatism, which was a primary complaint in witches, especially Polish, which is confirmed by the Latin medical name of this ailment – polonica plague, and German – Weichselzopf because it was encountered most often in Poland, along with the banks of the Vistula.[3] Whether contracted by, filth, syphilis, or illness, it was also said that “Jews in taverns are to contribute much to its dissemination by giving vodka after dipping the tangle in it; whoever drinks such a vodka gets a tangle and at the same time becomes a drunk.”[4] The presence of a kołtun supposedly produced “inflammation of the bones, aversion to food, bad eyesight”, and sometimes even “vomiting”.  Few would risk the hazards of cutting off this malodorous bunch of hair that could result in blindness, deafness, insanity, bleeding and even death caused by convulsions.

During the epoch of baroque and the Enlightenment increases in the cases of Polish plait brought about the emergence of competing theses to explain the causes and treatment of the malady, representing a clash of two mentalities, religious and scientific.[5] This misery was considered by many a disease which did not respond to conventional treatments and called for healing by miraculous transformation. Any human attempt to get rid of the tangle was shown as detrimental and causing even more complications such as that suffered by Zofija Mroskowczanka, an unmarried woman. She “cut off a huge Polish plait formed on her head, and for this reason suffered great pain in her bones and eyes, [But] as soon as she devoted herself to a miraculous painting, she was immediately relieved of all her pains.”[6] Even at the beginning of the 19th century, Polish doctors believed that pregnant women had a predisposition to the tangle, and young “tangled” men were released from serving in the tsarist army.

One of the most influential publications of the Age of Enlightenment to include Polish plait in its field of attention was Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. The significance of this insertion called into question the societal belief that Polish plait was a punishment from God, a material manifestation of a disease or evil.  Diderot’s classification eliminated “the secret of a symbol and turned it into an obvious, visible, material object,” separating the manifestation of the disease from sacral symbolism.[7]

Diderot’s classification of Polish plait was also one small entry into “the order and concatenation* of human knowledge,” as was illustrated by the tree of knowledge.[8] By classifying PlicaPolonicaa under the section of pathologies, a subgroup of medicine, under Natural Sciences, Robert Darnton said that the classifications in the Encyclopédie “expressed an attempt to raise a boundary between the known and the unknowable in such a way as to eliminate most of what men held to be sacred from their world of learning.”[9] Whether Diderot or D’Alembert, the author of the entry took a polemic position against any religious manifestation of this disease:

Some authors emphasized even funnier fantastic causes, which were enlarged by fear, spread by deep-seated foolish faith in miracles, and maintained by ignorant credulity. Some common ignoramus, any number of whom can be found in all countries, believed it, and some even more stupid authors wrote about it, although being educated, they should know better than that; according to these authors, Polish plait is caused by magic, magical actions, and can be healed exclusively by supernatural means. According to other authors, the entanglement of hair is brought upon by dead unbaptized infants who perform this work at night. This nonsense was perpetuated by giving it a German name wichteln zoepffe; in Old German wichteln means ‘heathen’, and zoepffe, ‘knot’, ‘entanglement’. Some authors write that only incubi come to suck upon and entangle hair; others argue that incubi appear in the shape of a Jewess, and this popular delusion is registered by the name of juden-zoepffe, etc.[10]

Historian Larry Wolff wrote about plica polonica asan example of eighteenth-century western European prejudice against Eastern Europeans in his book, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Wolff relates the story and attitudes of William Coxe, who had made his Grand Tour, and published his findings in the multi-volume Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark (1784). Coxe relates this malady with the disease and barbarism of the Polish, linking their illness with backwardness, and critically describing, first, the “Polish air, which is rendered insalubrious by numerous woods and morasses;” second, the water, which the common people chose to drink was “taken indiscriminately from rivers, lakes, and stagnant pools;” and third, “the gross inattention of the natives to cleanliness.”[11]


Koltun of an elegant lady in the shape of a wig, 18th century. Jurand Pawłowski, http://www.e-replika.pl

Plica was already known in pagan times, as indicated by the old name of the disease: wieszczyca, kołtki, skrzot, or skrzat, taken from pagan mythology. From the earliest times, it was believed that the perpetrators of the tangle were evil spirits and demons tormenting vulnerable people. So how did the people get rid of the ‘tangle,’? Piotr Łabędź relates some of the steps taken:

[I]t was necessary to check whether the tangle “wants to collapse”. For this purpose, one had to cut a strand of hair from the four sides of the head and wear them in a bag on the “heart hole”. If, after some time, the hair curled up, it indicated that you need to grow a tangled hair. For this purpose, it was necessary to pour the hair with the herbal decoction of borsch, Giant wall, periwinkle or burdock and rub it with wax from the paschal candle. The safest, however, as the tangled was the devil’s work, was to get rid of him in holy places, such as Częstochowa, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska or, finally, the St. Mary’s Church, famous for this type of “healing.” To remove the tangle, the following words had to be uttered three times: “Saint Benonie, go away with the tangle.” It was then possible to cut the tangle with scissors, symbolically placing it under the church. [Or] you could eat a boiled hedgehog……[12]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were doctors who treated tangled as an infectious disease much like leprosy, and even suggested to establish hospitals so that the sick would be separated from the rest of society. Fortunately, there were some brave medical doctors that did not fear to tackle the kołtun. William Dawson (c. 1593-1669), Scottish physician, chemist, botanist, and court musician of Jan Kazimierz Vasa and his wife, Ludwika Maria Gonzaga, proved extremely progressive for the times, by fearlessly cutting kołtuns off and advising combing and frequent washing of the hair. Professor Józef Dietl (1804-1878), rector of the Jagiellonian University, and known today in the practice of urology for discovering and describing the crisis attributable to a kink in the renal vessels or ureter when the kidney dropped as a “Dietl’s crisis,” finally put an end to the kołtun in 1862 by proving its origin and the lack of any connections between cutting it off and illnesses.[13]


 England: Mobile Matted Hair Detangler Tech

Today we see many hair styles that mimic the kołtun, but never fear, they are not infectious, possessed, or a curse; they simply beg to be cut off.

[1] Keratin is the structural protein making up hair, finger nails, horns, claws, hooves, and the outer layer of human skin. Keratin is also the protein that protects epithelial (skin) cells from damage or stress.

[2] The Trichological Society, Orthodox Hair-sciences & Hair-specialisms – Worldwide (1999-2018) http://www.hairscientists.org/hair-and-scalp-conditions/plica-polonica (Accessed April 7, 2018).

[3] Hanna Widacka, Silva Rerum. “Plica polonica, or the Polish kołtun,” Hanna Widacka. Passage to Knowledge; Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanow. http://www.wilanow-palac.pl/plica_polonica_or_the_polish_koltun.html

[4] F. Wereńko, Contribution to folk medicine, Anthropological and archeological and ethnographic materials, ed. Anthropological Commission of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Krakow, vol. 1, Kraków 1886, pp. 208-210.

[5] Vaiva Klajumaitė (Vilnius University Museum, Lithuania). “The Phenomenon of Plica Polonica in Lithuania: A Clash of Religious and Scientific Mentalities,” Acta Baltica Historiae et Philosophiae Scientiarum. 2013;1(2 (Autumn 2013)):53-66 DOI 10.11590/abhps.2013.2.05

[6] Register of the Miracles in Ostrovna (1655–1658), [Unpublished manuscript], VUL inv 4 f 342, Vilnius: Vilnius University Library; in Klajumaitė, “The Phenomenon of Plica Polonica in Lithuania: A Clash of Religious and Scientific Mentalities.” 56-57.

[7] Klajumaitė, 59.

[8] Diderot, Denis. “Encyclopedia.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Philip Stewart. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.004 (accessed April 7, 2018). Originally published as “Encyclopédie,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, I, i. (Paris, 1755).

*a series of interconnected things or events

[9] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, and Other Episodes in French History, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985). 194.

[10] Diderot, pp. 767–768.

[11] Larry Wolff. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994) 29-30.

[12] Piotr Łabędź, “Kołtun Plica polonica zwany,” Inne Oblicza Historii. (2011) http://ioh.pl/artykuly/pokaz/kotun-plica-polonica-zwany,1087 (Accessed April 7, 2018)

[13] Thaddaeus Zajaczkowski. “Joseph Dietl (1804-1878). Innovator of medicine and his credit for urology,” Central European Journal of Urology (February 2010) 62. http://ceju.online/baza/tmp/man/man_954/ceju_954.pdf (Accessed April 7, 2018)

Upcoming Event! 1968: Philly and the World

In 1968, Philadelphia and the world were rocked by war, protest, and social unrest. Fifty years later, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest are convening a group of scholars to examine the legacy, resonance, and lasting impact of that tumultuous year.

1968: Philly and the World will take place on Friday, April 20, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Panels of historians and journalists will explore four key themes—music, sports, war, and protest—with short talks and roundtable conversations. Join us, HSP, and the Lepage Center for this day-long program and (re)visit 1968 through the discourse and debate.


The event is free and open to the public; advance registration is requested. More information is available at https://philly1968.eventbrite.com.


Are you a grad student interested in volunteering? Contact Lepage Center History Communication Fellow Maggie Strolle MA ’18 for details

Robert F. Kennedy’s Two Speeches

      Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Around the same time, Robert F. Kennedy — U.S. senator, former attorney general, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy, and presidential candidate – was on his way to a campaign event in Indianapolis, Indiana when he received word of King’s assassination. Kennedy’s relations with the Civil Rights Movement and the black community in general had moved from frustratingly bad in 1963 to unprecedentedly good in 1968, based in large part on Kennedy’s willingness to listen to what black activists and leaders were telling him along with his use of federal resources against white supremacists in the South. By 1968 despite all his limitations in being able to fully understand African-American experiences, Civil Rights leaders and black Americans were largely confident that Bobby Kennedy really wanted to help them in their struggle for equality. As such, after arriving in Indianapolis Kennedy was warned by the chief of police that it would be too dangerous for him to proceed to an outdoor rally he had planned in a predominately black inner-city neighborhood. Kennedy disagreed and went anyway, speaking extemporaneously for a few minutes to a crowd of about one thousand people.

RFK Photo #1Robert Kennedy speaking in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968

      Tensions were understandably high all over the United States with riots breaking out in dozens of cities over the country, but Kennedy stressed that it was a mistake to answer senseless violence with more anger and hate. In a particularly poignant moment, Kennedy addressed publicly for the first time his brother’s assassination five years earlier, remarking that “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.” Earlier in his speech Kennedy further stated that “we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.” In response to his speech, Indianapolis saw no riots in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination.

      Kennedy suspended his campaign until King could be buried but decided to continue on to Cleveland, Ohio to keep one of his planned appearances – this time to the affluent, white members of the Cleveland City Club on April 5. His remarks were brief, lasting about ten minutes, and his speech was mostly overlooked at the time, but in it he gives insights that are just as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

RFK Photo #2Kennedy speaking to Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968

    Kennedy began by saying that “This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” For him, the assassination of Martin Luther King was yet another incident in the division and suffering in the United States that had started with his brother’s murder in 1963 and had only increased in the following years. Kennedy proclaimed that “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.” He continued that “we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike… We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.” Furthermore, he concluded these initial reflections with his view that “Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others,” and that “Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”

    Kennedy’s remarks up to this point in his speech commented on the physical violence that was plaguing the United States, but he continued by addressing something that few white politicians ever had. He told his audience that “there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors.” He further explained that “This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all… When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.”

    Kennedy acknowledged that this intuitional and societal racism was morally untenable, but that there were no quick or easy solutions. He realized that the “question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence” and warned that “We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” Finally, he affirmed that “Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land” and that “we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.” For Kennedy, “Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

    Kennedy’s two speeches, given on subsequent days in April of 1968 to two quite different groups – the first to black Americans who were reeling from the loss of one of their greatest leaders, the second to white campaign donors who paid to hear him talk about why he should be president – offer a glimpse into a unique man’s ability to relate to a wide range of people. His work as attorney general in support of Civil Rights activists and the personal tragedy he went through when his brother was assassinated helped him to achieve a level of trust among black Americans unheard of among other white politicians, and his family connections and privileged upbringing cemented his credentials among America’s wealthy, white elite. Kennedy found a way to talk to and with both groups as he helped black Americans to see that their cause was not lost among white Americans, even in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and as he reminded white Americans that their fates were intertwined with those of their fellow Americans, regardless of skin color, and that the United States’ current system of institutionalized racism and exploitation was detrimental to all in the long run, no matter how much it might have benefitted them in the short term. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968 and thus never lived to further promote his views of tolerance and social reform, but his two speeches from fifty years unfortunately continue to be relevant to us today while racism — both individual and systemic — are still problems, when gun violence still ends the lives of people whose full potential will never be known, and when some individuals would continue to espouse fear and cruelty to preserve a system that benefits them to the harm of so many others. Kennedy was far from a perfect man or politician, but he saw that what harms any of us, harms all of us and that we must all work together for peace or continue to suffer in our divisions.


Larry Tye, “The Most Trusted White Man in Black America,” Politico, July 7, 2016. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/robert-f-kennedy-race-relations-martin-luther-king-assassination-214021

Robert F. Kennedy, “Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Statement-on-the-Assassination-of-Martin-Luther-King.aspx

Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

Reviewed: Women of the Right Spirit

One hundred years ago, the British Parliament passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act granting single and married property-owning women over the age of thirty the right to vote. Even though the Act did not include all women, it was the first victory in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom that thousands of British women devoted their lives to. One women’s suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), gained notoriety for their militant tactics, such as smashing windows and bombing vacant buildings. However, less is known about how the WSPU functioned behind the scenes. Krista Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 fills in those gaps and returns agency to the everyday workers of the WSPU.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, Women of the Right Spirit is a reminder that women from all walks of life make history and deserve to have their stories told.




Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 delivers a fresh take on one of the most exciting moments in women’s history: the British women’s suffrage movement. The work of the WSPU, especially, gains much attention from historians, writers, and filmmakers. While the militant aspect of the WSPU’s campaign is enticing, Krista Cowman dials the excitement back to the mundane moments and members of the organization. She credits the diligent, paid organizers, especially those on the local levels, with the success of the WSPU’s national campaign. By focusing on the women employed by the WSPU, Cowman argues that the Union provided an arena for women to be included into politics at local and national levels, and reciprocally, the paid organizers of the WSPU legitimated the Union as a political organization. Even more strongly, Krista Cowman asserts the female employees of the WSPU’s local chapters rather than the national leaders were the accurate representation of the WSPU because of their elaborate planning for campaigns and their accessibility to Britain’s women.

Cowman’s work in Women of the Right Spirit significantly contributes to the historiography of the WSPU and the British women’s suffrage movement because of its novel focus on the women who worked as paid employees of the WSPU, especially as interest in the subject has waned among researchers within the last decade. While major campaign activities such as window-smashing, arsons, arrests, and forced-feedings have been well-covered by historians, Cowman provides a new look at the WSPU as a political organization that recruited members, set up regulations for membership, and organized the day-to-day details of activism. The WSPU’s deployment of militancy also often took center-stage in its histories, and Cowman fairly addresses it in her study without it overshadowing her concentration on the organizers themselves and the importance of their local activities. Women of the Right Spirit synthesizes some of the newer approaches to the history of the WSPU with the inclusion of local studies in conjunction with the national campaign, and by researching local chapters, Cowman returns the agency to the one hundred fifty paid employees of the WSPU.

Descriptions of the WSPU’s paid organizers’ backgrounds, campaign activities in each district and at the national level, militant actions, and dissension about the course of the Union are the main themes covered within the first six chapters of the book spanning the years 1905-1914. Even though the national chapter of the WSPU gained most of the attention in the press because of its showy demonstrations, Cowman succeeds in presenting the organizational skills of district members as just important to the Union’s efficiency as a whole. As spontaneous as the WSPU’s protests seemed, Cowman provides many examples of the intense planning that the paid organizers executed. Without these women booking rooms, training members, and scheduling protests, the WSPU could not have existed as a proper political organization as Cowman confirms throughout this monograph. She even thoroughly discusses the loneliness many district organizers felt because of their intensity toward their work leaving time for little else in their lives. Cowman describes the disconnect between the national and local levels of the organization further proving the importance of the local chapter and its workers to campaign success because of the local chapter’s availability to members; Cowman labels the district organizer as the “accessible face of the WSPU” (pp. 65). In her chapter on district organizers, she argues that “their [district organizers] collective role in progressing the campaign throughout Britain was thus arguably greater than that of the national leaders” (pp. 86). These organizers lost their influential positions once World War I broke out, but Cowman traces their lives during the war to fully explain the WSPU’s impact on these women. The last chapter discusses the start of World War I in 1914, and its impact on the WSPU as a political suffrage organization as it splintered into smaller factions that continued the suffrage cause while the WSPU suspended its campaign. Cowman continues her attention to the organizers as she follows their lives after women won the right to vote, and she notes how many of these women in political roles credited their experience with the WSPU with helping them gain their positions.

Krista Cowman knows such intimate information about these women because of the numerous new sources she consulted. Many histories of the WSPU include the archival evidence from the Suffragette Fellowship Collection as does this one, but Cowman wanted to analyze these women on a deeper level. She dove into autobiographies, the WSPU’s publications Votes for Women and the Suffragette, national and local newspapers, and personal papers of local organizers. Her connection to the organizers she discusses and her passion for the subject is apparent throughout the book.

While contributing new and essential figures to the historiography of the WSPU with Women of the Right Spirit, Cowman’s argument is emphasizing the local workers sometimes wavers throughout the book. Her choice to highlight local organizers is commendable and worthwhile, but she sometimes loses sight of their importance with her inclusion of the national headquarters, militant campaigns in London, and the dissension among members on the national level. Cowman’s sixth chapter about dissenters is the least engaging and seems misplaced within this book and her broader argument that stresses the unity and success of the WSPU because of its local members. Overall, Cowman’s book proves a compelling read for those interested in the WSPU wishing to learn about the Union as a political organization, and Women of the Right Spirit succeeds in highlighting the local members who maintained the national campaign.

Reviewed: History of the Mafia by Salvatore Lupo

Review of History of the Mafia

Lupo, Salvatore. Translated by Anthony Shugaar. History of the Mafia. New York: Columbia University, 2009 (Donzelli Editore: 1996).

Salvatore Lupo’s argument in History of the Mafia explores other established perspectives in the field of Italian Mafia history, while contending that the truth of the Mafia is more complex than is sometimes reduced by other scholars. Lupo agrees with Italian-American scholar Giovanni Schiavo that the American Mafia is a unique enterprise that has been influenced by, but was never subject to, its Italian counterpart. Like journalist Gaia Servadio, Lupo also explores the use of “Mafia,” “maffia,” “mafioso,” and “mafiosi” as defining a set of Sicilian cultural mores. He takes issue with Pino Arlacchi’s perhaps-reductive insistence that the Mafia is a primarily-economic venture, exploring also the implications of the cultural linguistic connotation of these terms. Like Raimondo Catanzaro, Lupo explores the history of the Mafia intertwined with the legitimate political institutitions of Italy. He defines the Mafia as a combination of these things, but gives preeminence to an interpretation of the Mafia as a violent criminal organization which manipulates politics for money and power, and which considers its self-perpetuation its own end. In his own words from the first chapter, “The history of the Mafia cannot be reduced to a single scheme, applicable in all situations and all periods.” (17)

Lupo defines the origins of the Mafia in Italy as between 1860 and 1866, originating as an alternative power base to the government, existing as a secret society which perpetuates itself through extortion and insurance, as well as political muscle. While it is true that Sicily was a starting point for the Mafia, it was not and is not the only power base. Even on that culturally-autonomous island, there developed a division of practice and purpose – in the east the Mafia became “common” criminals and in the west of the island they were an “order-keeping” force (113).

Lupo’s book takes its time through the 19th and 20th century. It is an easy book to get lost in, not because of narrative storybook qualities but because it is constantly referencing earlier passages and chapters and it seems to assume some modicum of prior knowledge. Nonetheless, that Lupo starts so far back in the past gives him an opportunity for a clean slate defining Mafia action and philosophy. One of his most compelling explanations is of omerta, the code of silence and Freemason-derived initiation ritual of the Mafia (27). Lupo posits that it is an unrealized ideal (137) and that turning coat is as much a Mafia tradition as taking the oath because the self-interest of individual mafiosi and the cutthroat nature of their business engenders a culture of betrayal (251). In Italy, the triangular alliance between police, bandits, and politicians is as old as the 1860s (30) and the phenomenon of peniti (informants) is nearly as long (ix).

Though the book does not explore the history of the American Mafia as thoroughly, Lupo nonetheless clears up some colloquial misunderstandings. He posits that it was in Louisiana, rather than New York, that the Mafia first began to gain notoriety in the United States (142), and that the triangular system developed spontaneously in the U.S. just as it once did in Italy, because of the existing corrupt political nature of this country (143). Lupo explains that the Black Hand phenomenon – extortion letters signed with black ink handprints – was more of an importation from the Italian Camorra than the Mafia (145).

The Mafia was moreover linked to processes of democratization in both America and Sicily in a larger context of social mobility and historical transformation (149). Fascist Italy, for instance, was exemplary at snuffing the Mafia’s flames because of their bend against any individuals with independent power centers alternative to the government (176). Therefore, they were able appear as the people’s champions against these organized bandits. Partially as a result, the infamous Lucky Luciano – mentor to Al Capone, and associate of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel – was able to trick the U.S. government into assisting the restoration to power of Mafia bosses in the post-Mussolini power vacum (187).

History of the Mafia does not detail the rise or fall of individuals or families as such, instead weaving whole or parts of their narratives into a broader historical examination of the evolution of the Mafia organization phenomenon. It is perhaps most instructive of the attitudes of legal and political apparati in dealing with this organization. Salvatore Lupo, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Palermo in Sicily, is able to clearly and confidently assert the plurality and reality of the organization. The book’s dense nature – and it is very dense to clock under 300 pages of main body – indicates that it probably requires multiple reads to extract every fiber. Translator Anthony Shugaar makes useful, but not cluttersome, notes throughout the book. All in all, a comprehensive sort of Italian Mafia history, but this reviewer would recommend supplementing with more microfocused Mafia histories.