The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes

The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes. By Juno Richards. Columbia University Press, 2020. 315 pages, $35.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Geneviève Brassard, University of Portland
Juno Richards’ capacious monograph The Fury Archives explores fruitful transatlantic resonances across racialized gendered identities and aesthetic experimentations within socio-political movements of the first half of the twentieth century. Historically grounded and exhaustively researched through archives in multiple languages, the book aims to “unsettle what counts as the basis of knowledge in wider narratives of women’s rights” (1) through assembling an “alternative conceptual vocabulary for rights claims” (2), one that privileges female citizenship as “constituted through ongoing practice and process, rather than a prior history of woundedness” (2). For Richards, the fact that “First-wave feminism and institutional human rights came of age at the same time as the Dadaist word salad and the surrealist dreamscape” acquires meaning through an examination of their intersecting strands (3). The book “ultimately locates, among women’s movements, socialist tendencies, and the avant-gardes, a radical alternative to liberal human rights discourses in formation at the same historical moment” (4). Richards proposes an alternative to usual histories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one that assembles a “counterarchive of rights practiced by female incendiaries, self-named terrorists, anti-colonial insurgents, witches, cross-dressers, lesbian criminals, and queer resistance cells” (4).

The book’s three parts unfold roughly chronologically, with the first of successive case studies centered on the pétroleuses (female communards or incendiaries) of the 1871 Paris Commune and the last on Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974). The content ranges geographically from Europe and Africa to the United States and Central America to achieve a truly comparative overview. Richards excavates obscure references and artefacts, draws unexpected connections across genres, and gleefully explodes traditional notions of literary scholarship to invite reconsiderations of what constitutes worthwhile subjects of study within and across disciplines. Collage, a preferred artistic technique among many of Richards’ subjects, arguably serves as structuring principle for the book’s at times dizzyingly diverse materials. This collage form allows Richards to examine moments when identity, rights, and art collide to yield potentially transformative power for history’s marginalized groups. Collectively, these analyses argue for the way communities impact art and vice-versa: “the strategies developed in collective social movements make their way as new forms or paradoxes into cultural objects, which then become sites to imagine personhood in ways not entirely constrained by force or necessity” (18).

The first chapter, about the short-lived Paris Commune and the central role played by women in this socialist uprising, focuses on the paradox at the core of the pétroleuses’ trial: “They were political actors but not citizens. They were human, but not subject to the ‘rights of man’” (33). The legal system could not accommodate militant women and reveals “the negative responses to the pétroleuse as a fearful, defensive, sometimes petty reaction to women who did not accord with the norms of traditional femininity” (37). Richards connects the treatment of French female communards to similar judicial experiences among female insurgents in a contemporaneous Martinique uprising; unlike their male counterparts, these women’s humanity was effectively put on trial. Central figures were defined as “vipers or Furies because their emotional reactions to the insurrection are the wrong reactions” (56), just as the pétroleuses were found lacking in proper femininity. The chapter ends with an analysis of Ina Césaire’s 1994 play about the uprising, Fire’s Daughters, in order to bring out “gendered histories left out of the colonial record” (60), histories where race and sexuality intersect.

The chapter on English militant suffrage examines diverse records to write a feminist history centered on fighting itself rather than on end results. This communal history focuses on the “daily experience of women acting and speaking together” (72) through suffrage autobiographies, timelines of actions in the Votes for Women weekly paper, and Rebecca West’s unfinished suffragette novel The Sentinel (written in 1911-13 and published in 2002). Richards reads the autobiographies as “anti-bildungsroman” (75), a genre that performs “an experiment in narrative chronology” (77), and she argues that the timelines visualize “a story about a revolution that is ongoing, one in which we do not yet know, with any certainty, the final consequence of any given political act” (85). West’s novel serves a related purpose, as it “imagines a narrative form to answer the question: How do you tell a story about a revolution that isn’t over yet?” (90), and the value of narratives such as West’s lies in their focus on the process of becoming over finality.

Part two foregrounds a transnational framework Richards dubs “The Reproductive Atlantic,” and the third chapter examines the German birth strike movement (1913) as a pivotal moment in the redefinition of human rights because it “likens industrial production and women’s reproduction” (111). Its socialist supporters “argued that the limitation of reproduction would deprive capitalism of workers and soldiers to exploit, eventually resulting in a world-wide revolution” (106). Richards compares this movement to American birth control manuals and the anarchist newsletter The Woman Rebel, as well as to The Crisis and Angelina Grimké’s works, to retrace debates around reproduction. Richards links The Crisis’s coverage of lynching with the 1951 United Nations document We Charge Genocide, a turning point about jurisdiction and the need to “reach beyond the forms of justice that can be remedied by national law” (139).

Chapter four, “Rhineland Bastards, Queer Species,” situates the work of “feminist activist, queer artist, and Dada outlier” Hannah Höch within the context of racist propaganda targeted at French African troops occupying the Rhineland after World War I. Commentators “aligned the sexual threat posed by African soldiers with the metaphorical ‘rape’ of Germany through punitive foreign policy” and extensive inquiry into supposed war crimes (145). Richards interprets Höch’s Weimar-era photomontages as inflected by the “rise of biological racism” (146) and views her magazine cutouts as investigating “forms of group identity, or the fact of a We, as a polity mired in questions of gender, race, and sexual identity” (147).

Part three, “Convergences in Institutional Human Rights,” centers wartime and postwar women of color and queer women in the transatlantic space, and the fifth chapter explores “the shifting boundaries of European citizenship alongside the surrealist imagination of chance” (189) through the life and works of photographer Claude Cahun as representative of “interwar lesbian cultures and what is today understood as transgender identity” (189). Richards situates Cahun within the context of criminalized lesbian identity and legal efforts to curb abortion and birth control due to demographic concerns: “Right-wing social thought associated maternity with greater productivity, national revival, and future success in war” (190). Richards highlights Cahun’s political and artistic partnership with her lover Marcel Moore (the artist Suzanne Malherbe) both in 1930s Paris and as part of the Resistance in occupied Jersey, where their pamphlet distributions and sabotage efforts represent a “continuation” of their earlier surrealist work (217).

Chapter six approaches the United Nations’ postwar development of human rights through Martinique’s Paulette Nandal, a UN employee and editor of the black feminist journal Woman in the City, and committee meeting records from the 1948 General Assembly in Paris to highlight the “process of making the document rather than the document itself” (232). Nandal’s journal (1945 to 1951), chronicled “grassroots mobility, primarily through the organization of local committees” (244), and documented the way these committees created public spaces for “political praxis, for unwaged women, mostly housewives, who had no access to union membership or a wider social network” (245).

The book’s epilogue reads Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974) as a kind of pivot “between a surrealist tradition based in Europe and a newly postcolonial literature; between an increasingly obsolete sense of what continental surrealists called the marvelous and a revived magical realism most closely associated with Latin America” (256). Carrington’s novel works as a “fairytale about kinship and reproductive labor” (258) and a companion piece to her painting Sanctuary for Furies (1974), which “looks like a tomb for the remains of an avant-garde imagination” (265). Curious readers will find much to learn and ponder in Juno Richards’ illuminating archival findings and provocative arguments. This study privileges the messiness of communal development and aesthetic exploration in history’s margins, and its case-study approach to obscured voices suggests fresh interdisciplinary ways of excavating and understanding the past.

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