Women and Revolution: A Horror Story

By Caroline Wigginton

Leonora Sansay’s epistolary novel Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808) is set during the final days of the Haitian Revolution. Her tale — based on Sansay’s own eyewitness accounts and focused on the experiences of an enclave of elite white residents in the town of Le Cap Français and the French soldiers sent by Napoleon to subdue Haitian rebels — entails horrors aplenty. But by the end, the secret history appears to be not about the revolution itself. Rather, the novel turns in the last letters to reveal a heretofore hidden, parallel narrative of domestic terror that concludes with the narrator’s sister turning the chaos of revolution into an opportunity to flee her brutal husband. For Sansay, the revolution’s military history coincides with the intensification and the exposure of violence against women.

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Mrs. General Washington, bestowing thirteen stripes on Britania, 1783. Print shows George Washington wearing a dress about to whip Britannia with 13 lashes as three men representing Spain, France, and Holland urge him on.

In this way, Secret History reminds us that for women in the Age of Revolutions, violence was the story. Indeed, the period’s visual ephemera often imagined revolution as a metaphorical assault upon women’s bodies. See, for example, the political cartoon Mrs. General Washington, Bestowing Thirteen Stripes in Britania (1783), from London’s The Rambler’s Magazine (383). George Washington in partial drag grasps Britannia by the hair, bends her over her ubiquitous shield, and flogs her while Washington’s male allies avidly cheer him on. For a more sympathetic visualization, there is Blood Hounds Attacking a Black Family in the Woods (391), found in Marcus Rainsford’s An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (London, 1805). Despite the title, the woman and baby, not the entire family, are the image’s central figures. The black woman’s impractical white dress, halo-like hat, and wide eyes staring directly at the viewer transform her particularity into a representation of saintly and persecuted motherhood. Thus the image argues that French efforts to quell the rebellion are a savage assault upon the source of virtue itself.

In the Age of Revolutions, women’s writing about war goes beyond such depictions of metaphorical and actual violence against women and represents them as participants. In her 1802 “Address, Delivered with Applause, at the Federal-Street Theatre, Boston,” Deborah Sampson Gannett related her experiences as a soldier in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. When her speech “leave[s] to your imaginations to pourtray the tragic deeds of war,” she asks us both to imagine the physically difficult deeds she had to do as a soldier and to feel relief that she escaped rape and other forms of assault in her male garb (343). Helen Maria Williams’s Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France (1795) includes an account of Charlotte Corday, who “imbibed a strong attachment to liberty” from her literary studies with her father. Worried for her father and his political associates during the French Revolution, she assassinated the “loathsome toad” Marat, who was using lies to denounce more moderate revolutionaries. For Sampson Gannett and Williams alike, wartime feeling overwhelms female modesty and leads to admirable, if perhaps misguided, expressions of violent and heroic patriotism.

Women’s writing about war can also depict women as instigators of, or complicit in, violence against women. Sansay, for example, tells of a “black chief and his wife,” who together doomed the white women “unfortunate enough to attract” the husband’s “notice”  (361-62). These women were “insulted by brutal passion of a negro” and then “perish[ed]” at the hands of his wife, whether they “resisted” or “complied” (362). In another moment, a French girl of fifteen is “sacrificed by her grandmother” to a sixty-year-old man with “the most disagreeable manner and forbidding features” (365). In Williams’ Letters, Corday is spared from the “insult[s]” of the “furies of the guillotine,” Parisian women anecdotally known for their bloodthirstiness, only because of her “heroism” and “demeanour” (317). War reveals men’s and women’s penchant for violence.

Moments like these suggest that the Age of Revolutions, in which women like Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were famously writing to demand a revolution in their experiences of oppression, was not an age that could yet imagine a world without violence against women. At best, or more accurately at worst, women could be co-participants, using military revolution to seize an opportunity to be equal to men as perpetrators of violence—even as women’s writing also made visible the intensification of women’s victimization at the hands of male soldiers, lovers, and rebels. And at the hands of women, too. Women authors expose violence even as they simultaneously and implicitly ask if what enables the imagination of radical change is the assumption that there will always be a vulnerable class upon which to enact fantasies of domination, brutality, and revenge. The men-on-men violence of military revolution is temporary, they suggest, but the violence of men-on-women is not. Yet perhaps, in also demonstrating that opportunism breeds brutality—at least in the case of women—these texts also implicitly ask us to imagine a new kind of revolution, one whose radicalism at last abandons women’s bodies as the eternal site of violence. 

Caroline Wigginton is assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi. She is the author of In the Neighborhood: Women’s Publication in Early America (Massachusetts 2016) and the co-editor of Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions (Oxford 2012). 

Title image: J. Barlow, Blood Hounds Attacking a Black Family in the Woods, 1805. 

All citations are to Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, edited by Lisa L. Moore, Joanna Brooks, and Caroline Wigginton (New York: Oxford, 2012)

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