More than once in the last few years, I’ve stumbled across stories in old issues of the Chicago Tribune that caught my imagination even though they did not deal with my current project.
In recent weeks, this headline from May 13, 1945, grabbed my attention: “FRANCE HONORS JOAN OF ARC AS ‘FIRST PARTISAN’. “
The piece began “The French paid homage today to their national heroine of five centuries , Joan of Arc, who was hailed as the ‘first of the resisitants’ in military, religious and popular ceremonies.” The article when on to briefly describe the ceremonies and to point out that in prior years it had been French royalists who had celebrated the Maid of Orleans, not French republicans.
It seemed to me that with this recognition, the story of Joan of Arc had come full circle.
Over time, the phrase the “Joan of Arc of [fill in the blank]” has become shorthand for a (usually young) woman leading an army against an occupying foreign power. The term has been applied to the solidly historical Ani Pachen of Tibet and the semi-mythical Trieu Thi Trinh of third century Vietnam. The Women’s Era, a popular African American women’s newspaper founded in 1890, called Harriet Tubman “the Black Joan of Arc.” Novelist Henry Miller heard the story of Greek nationalist Laskarina Bouboulina and asked, “How is it we don’t hear more about Bouboulina? …She sounds like another Joan of Arc.” Even at the scale of a besieged city, we find a local heroine described as the “Joan of Arc of Braunschweig.” Each of these women embodied to some degree what Halina Filipowicz describes as the central element of the “Joan of Arc cult”: “a deeply felt need for a democratic hero of unflinching loyalty to a patriotic mission.”
Joan of Arc had long been the model against which other female resistance fighters where measured. Now it seemed the French government had turned the tables by dubbing Joan of Arc “the first of the resistants” rather than naming a woman resistance fighter “a twentieth century Joan of Arc.”*
*I almost typed “the Joan of Arc of France,” but for that doesn’t work for obvious reasons.