PhD defence Clara Vlessing: Why some historical lives are remembered, while others are not

Foto's van Louise Michel, Emma Goldman en Sylvia Pankhurst.
Louise Michel, Emma Goldman and Sylvia Pankhurst

On 5 June, Clara Vlessing will defend her PhD thesis ‘Revolutionaire vrouwen herinnerd: Het culturele voortleven van Louise Michel, Emma Goldman en Sylvia Pankhurst’ (‘Revolutionary Women Remembered: The Cultural Legacy of Louise Michel, Emma Goldman and Sylvia Pankhurst’). Vlessing argues that while historical individuals seem to come down the years fully formed, the opposite is true. An accumulation of reappraisals and new narratives determines how we ‘remember’ public figures from the past.

The memory remains

There are undeniable parallels in the lives of Louise Michel (1830-1905), Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). All three of these revolutionary women were all active in overlapping periods, settings and concerns, united by their energetic pursuit of many causes over an extended time. Vlessing analyses their lives and the contemporary cultural memory of the three women: how are Michel, Goldman, and Pankhurst remembered and how have their stories been shaped over the centuries?

Because cultural presence persists despite the opposition they have faced on the grounds of their gender and their radicalism. In her thesis, Vlessing elaborates on the three factors she believes contributed to this: the availability of sources from their lifetimes, the committed work of artists, activists, and historians, and the appeal of these three icons to later social movements.

Louise Michel as a symbol

One of the women Vlessing studies is French revolutionary anarchist Louise Michel. In August 2020, over a century after her death, she made headlines around the world. A ship rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean had been renamed M.V. Louise Michel. Michel’s name referred to emancipatory politics and radical political upheaval.

But why exactly did Michel serve as a symbol for this? What did she mean to the graffiti artist Banksy, who financed the operation, and to the ship’s crew? And how has her significance developed over time? It is questions like these that Vlessing answers in her thesis.

Start date and time
End date and time
Hybrid: online (click here) and at the Utrecht University Hall
PhD candidate
C.L. Vlessing
Revolutionaire vrouwen herinnerd: Het culturele voortleven van Louise Michel, Emma Goldman en Sylvia Pankhurst’
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. A. Rigney
Dr S.C. Knittel