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Vive le Féminisme! French Women in the Belle Époque

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(The following is a post by Erika Spencer, reference specialist, European Division.)

Today France celebrates its Independence Day, known as “Le Quatorze Juillet” or “La Fête nationale.” What better time to delve into some of the Library’s French collections! The Library of Congress possesses over one million French items, including rare books, photographs, manuscripts, maps, and legal documents. A guide to these collections may be found on the European Division’s webpage. Some of the most interesting and beautiful of these materials are the literary and photographic magazines from the Belle Époque (the “beautiful period,” especially in late 19th century France a period considered to be of artistic and cultural development), the most famous of which are “Femina” (woman), begun in 1901, and “La Vie heureuse” (The happy life), begun in 1902.

A young woman is shown “departing for fishing.” “La Vie heureuse.” August 1903. Library of Congress General Collections.
Queen Elena of Italy (1871-1952) is shown wearing a nurse’s uniform. She earned the nickname “Royal Ambulance” for her efforts to help the public after a horrific earthquake struck Messina, Italy, in 1908. “Femina.” February 1, 1909. Library of Congress General Collections.
These two publications represent the first women’s photographic magazines in France. As Rachel Mesch, associate professor of French at Yeshiva University, has argued in her recent study, “Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman,” these magazines offered a different version of feminism from the so-called New Woman (largely viewed as a British import) and suffragette—both of whom were seen as abandoning their femininity.

Instead, they present the “femme moderne” (modern woman) as able to forge her own independent life while retaining traditional aspects of femininity. These magazines did not demand reform of the French civil code or even push for women’s suffrage. Rather, they sought to expose women to literature, encourage writing and sports, and engender a sense of personal agency.

Contemporary scholars debate whether these publications were truly feminist, given their emphasis on traditional ideals of womanhood. However, the tremendous popularity of these magazines among women—many of whom would not have subscribed to more overtly feminist papers such as “La Fronde” The sling)—had a far-reaching impact.

One of the first aviatrices, Countess Lambert, is shown alongside Wilbur Wright in his plane. “Femina.” August 15, 1909. Library of Congress General Collections.
A woman is pictured jumping a show horse over a cross-country obstacle; photographed by Jean Delton, a French equestrian photographer. “Femina.” April 1, 1904. Library of Congress General Collections.
A young woman is photographed on the slopes, and described as an “intrepid skier.” “Femina.” January 1909. Library of Congress General Collections.

Some articles in these journals addressed previously taboo topics, such as divorce and work-life balance. Others were inspiring pieces on women driving, playing sports, and pursuing careers. Advertisements featured exercise equipment—not to lose weight, but to put an end to “anemic young women” and to promote strength and agility.

Prior to these publications, women writers were depicted as self-absorbed, neglectful, and even dangerous to societal institutions such as the family. Both “Femina” and “La Vie heureuse” strove to show that mothers and wives could aspire to more, while still deriving immense satisfaction from their families.

Jeanne Lapauze (Mme. Daniel Lesueur), a French author born in 1860, known for her poems and novels. A couple of her works, including a novel about the economic status of women called L’Évolution feminine, were given awards by the Académie française. “Femina.” October 15, 1905. Library of Congress General Collections.
Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, shown here riding a horse, was a French journalist, novelist, poet, sculptor, historian, and designer. In 1936, she was the first recipient of the Renée Vivien prize for women poets. “Femina.” July 1, 1912. Library of Congress General Collections.

From our vantage point in the 21st century, it all seems very tame, but the elegant fonts and pastel colors of these magazines belie their revolutionary message. Having women presented as capable individuals in a mainstream publication normalized the idea of women as intellectually equal to men in the public mind. This was, in turn, helpful for the more serious and unapologetic movements that did the heavy lifting in the crusade for women’s legal rights in France—including suffrage, which was not obtained until 1945—and for acceptance in higher cultural institutions, such as the election in 1980 of the first woman, Marguerite Yourcenar, to the centuries-old Académie française.

A painting by French artist René Lelong depicting French operatic singer Marthe Chenal driving a car; Chenal had an active singing career during the years 1905-23. “Femina.” August 1, 1919. Library of Congress General Collections.

It would be easy to dismiss publications that approached contentious issues in such a round-about way. However, they provide valuable insight for those interested in the evolution and complexities of how women balance feminism and femininity. Women are far from a monolithic group; experiences and views differ widely. Over a century after these magazines offered up a kind of “mainstream feminism,” we see today the varied ways that race, religion, gender identity, and socio-economic status can alter one’s relationship to, and role in, the feminist movement. Indeed, as we watch the expansion of the #metoo and #timesup movements, we see how important it is to have conversations about individual experiences while seeking to maintain solidarity. French women during the Belle Époque were just beginning to seek out personal achievements and separate identities. Similarly, women today still strive to obtain parity with men while retaining and expressing their identity as women of their own construction. Public discourse is instrumental in providing a forum where women can hold important conversations, as well as support and sometimes question each other. Let us be thankful that publications such as these inspired women over 100 years ago to examine their roles in society and to question the status quo.

Comments (12)

  1. Lovely article, gorgeous cover art, and such an exciting time in art and history. Thanks for posting!

  2. It’s fascinating to see how these publications document the changing times for women in turn of the century France. Thanks for a great article on this valuable resource.

  3. This is an extremely insightful and relevant blog post about the history of feminism and its modern legacies. History often paints events and eras as one sided, but as this post points out there is always more than one experience. Send my gratitude to the author for shedding light on such unique material!

  4. I thouroughly enjoyed this timeley and topical article! As the grandchild of a French immigrant grandmother who survived the German occupation during WWII to become a journalist and French language teacher after marrying my grandfather who served in the field service and moving to Washington DC. I benefited from growing up around many of my mothers side of the family who were also of French and American parentage. The intellectual, philosophical and political,cultural salon like atmosphere around the diner table made for a warmth and sophistication that even as a child was palpable in the still rather provincal washington suburbs at the time.

  5. Wonderful selection of covers!

  6. Enjoyed these beautifully arresting magazine covers, and the accompanying text, which places them quite thoughtfully into historical context.

    Thank you for the introduction to an appealing sample of what the LOC has to offer. Now I plan to explore the magazines further through the LOC European Division webpage.

  7. Interesting to look into the history of women’s liberation over the course of a century, especially in light of #metoo. Thanks for sharing.

  8. It’s very refreshing to see these beautiful images in print; and to especially see women in flight and on horseback. I appreciate the value that was brought forth for womanhood during an era where women were being perceived in a less than valued place in society. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Really enjoyed this glimpse into women’s lives in the Belle Epoque. The images show another time but it’s interesting to see the familiar struggle for women to “have it all” – to achieve parity with men and still carry out distinctly female roles. How easy it would be to miss the nuance of these carefully calibrated publications – thank you to the Library for introducing us to these works and their cultural contributions!

  10. This article was interesting and enlightening – I really enjoyed learning about how the modern French woman was portrayed in these literature pieces and the positive roles they encouraged women to take. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Artigo muito interessante e esclarecedor. As mulheres corajosas estão bem próximas e estiveram ao longo dos anos muito atenta as modificações, as adversidades e com coragem de se apresentarem ao mundo de forma marcante.

  12. So interesting to read about women’s efforts from 100 plus years ago to forge their lives looking to expand on and break with traditions that held them to a tight course of propriety and domesticity. I just saw the movie “Beatrice Potter”, who, in England, same times, managed to become an author and live on her own, in spite of social disapproval. These magazines gave women ideas and a vision of a larger place to be in the world. I enjoyed this blog! Thanks.

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