chapter  8
30 Pages

Politics, Nation and Identity

On 5 October 1789, several thousand Parisian women marched on theroyal palace at Versailles to demand bread and the king. This was an important episode in the French Revolution. But it had a significance of its own. To the English philosopher Edmund Burke, the women’s march overturned the ‘natural’ gender order. In his influential pamphlet opposing the Revolution, he wrote disparagingly of ‘the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.’1

The man was not there. Yet, in his imagination he conjured a picture that equated women’s engagement in politics with the undermining of civilisation. Women contributed significantly to the great national and political revolutions of the nineteenth century, but they gained little in return. From the French Revolution of 1789 to the Russian Revolution of 1917, Europe witnessed the age of revolutions, the rise of nationalism and the heyday of the empire-building nation-state. There is no period in the historian’s calendar more crowded with momentous events. But, in all this drama, women have been customarily allotted only walk-on parts – as bread-rioters, mothers, writers and salon hostesses.