The Invention of the Modern Frenchwoman
Friday, December 11, 2020
9:30 am Pacific / 10:30am Mountain / 11:30am Central / 12:30pm Eastern
Federation of Alliances Françaises USA
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, French women’s magazines began portraying a new kind of ideal, “la femme moderne.” She wore elegant, form-fitting clothes, but she also played sports, read books, and even wrote them.
Critics were apoplectic about this new model of femininity, claiming that writing would make women sexually depraved. But Frenchwomen began to write and publish in record numbers. Some rejected the model of la femme moderne entirely, dressing in men’s clothing, and adopting an early form of transgender identity.
What was it like to be a fin-de-siècle feminist? What’s a “pants permit”? Rachel Mesch, who teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University, has written three books on writers of this era, most recently Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France. She says anxiety about female and trans writers masked a deeper fear: that women were capable of intellectual equality with men.
Mesch is also the author of Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman; and The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet and Lilith, and she blogs about nineteenth-century France at Bric-a-brac-o-mania. She lives in New York.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of five books including the forthcoming Paris by Phone, a rhyming picture book for kids.
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