The 15th August marks the date 188 years ago when the first feminist newspaper was published in Paris, France in 1832 under the title, La Femme Libre. Over the course of 31 issues under different editorships, the title and sub-titles changed several times (Tamboukou, 2016). In her monograph, Sewing, fighting and writing: Radical practices in work, politics and culture, Maria Tamboukou examines the women involved in the publication of La Femme Libre, along with other related publications. These included La Voix des Femmes (46 issues published in 1848), La Politique des Femmes (two issues published in 1848), L’Opinion des Femmes (7 issues published in 1848 and 1849) and L’Amanach des Femmes (three volumes published from 1852-1854).
Drawing on archival sources found in the Archives Nationales de France, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the Bibliothèque de L’Hôtel de Ville, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand and a range of digital sources, including those found in the Gallica collection, a digital project of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Tamboukou adeptly takes readers on a journey of discovery to learn about the seamstresses involved in the romantic socialist movements of the 19th Century (i.e., Saint-Simonianism and Fourierism), and the lines of flight from their work to the feminist movement internationally.
Tamboukou’s book, Sewing, fighting and writing: Radical practices in work, politics and culture, contributes to her ongoing project of writing feminist genealogies. As histories of the present, Tamboukou uses genealogies as way of drawing attention to the “conditions of possibility” (p. 2). Foucauldian genealogy, in Tamboukou’s view, “problematizes the multiple, complex and non-linear configurations of the sociopolitical and cultural formations of modernity.” (p. 21) Tamboukou asks:
What are the conditions of the possibility for needlework to emerge as the feminine labour problem par excellence, how has the seamstress been marginalized in the social and political movements in modernity and why is women’ work still a riddle even among feminist theorizations and debates? (p. 21)
Tamboukou argues that the terrible working conditions recorded by the seamstresses writing in the 1800s are still relevant for thinking about the contemporary globalization of the garment industry in which workers in the global east and south experience similar hardships (p. 2). For example, archival records show how the women worked into the early hours of the morning to complete tasks. Rather than aiming to “reconstruct the past”, or “trace the effects of past events in the present”, Tamboukou aims in her genealogies to “strip away the veils that cover people’s practices, by simply showing how they are, and where they come from, describing its complicated forms and explore its countless historical transformations” (p. 44).
The book is organized around the narrative personaes that Tamboukou constructs of key women involved in the feminist movement of mid-19th Century France: Désirée Véret-Gay (1810-c.1891), Marie-Reine Guindorf (1812-1837) and Jeanne Deroin (1805-1894). In another chapter, Tamboukou reviews the memoirs of Suzanne Voilquin (1801-1877) by drawing connections with Jeanne Bouvier’s Memoirs (first published in 1936) and Marguerite Audoux’s autobiographical novel, L’Atelier de Marie Claire (published in 1920).
The book draws on a profusion of theoretical concepts drawn from a range of scholars. Tamboukou draws on neo-materialist concepts of intra-action and entanglement from Karen Barad (2007), assemblage theory from Deleuze and Guattari (1987), process theory from Alfred North Whitehead, the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, and the rhythmanalysis of Henri Lefebvre (2004).
I appreciated the discussions concerning the process of doing archival research. Tamboukou explains the problems with working with translated data and the challenges of locating archival sources. She found that the archival records from the women whose work she was examining are dispersed across multiple collections, some of which have been re-named, re-organized, and are cited using different names. Ultimately, Tamboukou (2016) sees archival research as
a world enabling the flight of imaginative experience, giving form to ‘work to be done’, shaping new modes of thought and ultimately initiating creative processes in how we understand the documents we are working with… (p. 43).
The idea of “work to be done” re-occurs throughout the book. As Tamboukou artfully shows, the seamstresses who were involved in writing and publishing were passionate about “the work to be done. They continued to work in the face of critique and opposition, when their work was banned, while imprisoned, and in exile. One quotation vividly exemplifies their passion (Tamboukou, 2016 pp. 146-147):
TO THE WORK [A L’ŒUVRE]
No more uncertainties!
No more hesitations!
Let’s pose clearly this question!
What do we want?
We want our emancipation, total and complete.
That is: to be recognized equal to men in matters of intelligence.
So, let us boldly do the work.
Many of our sisters are afraid of this word:
They should not tremble.
They should recede.
Our work is pure.
Tamboukou’s archival research finds that the La Femme Libre was not a linear publication that represented any kind of “ism”. Rather, the “seamstresses’ newspaper carries the signs of what it means to write difference”; it is a “tangible trace of ideas and social movements in becoming.” (p. 99) By constructing a “chronicle” of the space/time events during the 19th century when these feminist newspapers were published, readers gain a deeper understanding of the name changes, the disruptions in the publications, and what was happening to the women involved as they pursued their cause. Tamboukou also visited the addresses of the seamstresses who edited the newspapers and maps these for readers in her “archive of the archive” that is available online at
The book provides an exemplar of how neo-materialist theories and process theory can be put to work in the conduct of archival research. As Tamboukou concludes (p. 200):
It is in the entanglement of macroscopic and microscopic events that the complexity, force and also contemporaneity of their movement powerfully emerges, as a feminist assemblage par excellence that surrounds and inheres in today’s problematics, ideas, politics and imaginaries.
As I was reading this book during the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the US and the world, I could not help but think of the genealogies yet to be written about the times in which we currently live. How will these yet-to-be-written genealogies describe the social activists and movements that are now in the process of becoming? What materials might we archive now? What work should we be doing as qualitative researchers?
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). University of Minnesota Press.
Lefebvre, H. (2004). Rhythmanalysis (S. Elden & G. Moore, Trans.). Continuum.
Tamboukou, M. (2016). Sewing, fighting and writing: Radical practices in work, politics and culture. Rowman & Littlefield