(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.