This essay uses readers' opinion surveys in Femina, a unique, high-circulation fashion magazine that championed women's rights, to study the reception of feminist ideas. The readers were fashion-conscious and well-off provincial bourgeoises, a group that might have had conservative attitudes on gender roles. Yet, the many thousands of responses reveal a profound desire to expand women's identities beyond domesticity. About a third of the readers were even indignant that women lacked the freedoms of men. Most others looked forward to a future when society would offer women more opportunities to utilize their talents while reaffirming the satisfactions of familial roles. The surveys show that Frenchwomen were redefining femininity in a more individualistic direction though national emergencies as 1914 approached would make them hesitant about pressing their cause.
Keywords: women's roles, opinion surveys, Belle Epoque, women's magazines, feminism
Production versus Reception of Progressive Ideas
A recent and an important contribution to the study of French feminism of the Belle Epoque is Mary Louise Robert's Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siecle France. (2) It is a provocative examination of forces that were liberating women in the decade or so before World War I. Roberts claims that the principal figures associated with the path breaking daily newspaper produced completely by women, La Fronde (1897-1903)--the founder Marguerite Durand, the journalist Severine, the novelist Gyp, and the theatrical star, Sarah Bernhardt--had a profound impact on public understandings of women's proper place. The author contends that these highly visible women discarded the script for orthodox gender roles by mimicking masculine behavior. Their "tendency to play with gender by embracing both conventional and unconventional roles," the disruptive acts of the title, exposed once and for all the artificiality of gender norms. As a result, Frenchwomen learned that "conventional femininity was a choice, not a destiny." (3)
This lean synopsis hardly does justice to the richness of the presentation; but one of the evident limitations is the inability to test what Frenchwomen were actually thinking when confronted with the disruptive acts of a Durand, Bernhardt, Gyp, or Severine. To be sure, Roberts can comfortably presume that thousands, perhaps millions, were exposed to their gender-bending behavior via the increasingly intrusive press. Yet, she cannot know with certainty how the public interpreted them. This is a general problem with studies on the state of feminism in the Belle Epoque. Most research concerns the production of texts, but the conclusions focus in on the reception. It invokes the power of the media to reach the masses but cannot readily determine the impact of the ideas or images. (4) It is the purpose of this essay to make a foray into the use of opinion surveys from a high-circulation women's magazine to explore how readers were conceptualizing women's place in society. Research on such a fundamental question is surprisingly rare. (5)
An investigation of female identity is all the more desirable in that it cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion that Frenchwomen were demanding more rights and expanded roles before 1914. This is a proposition that has to be tested as far as possible. Recent scholarship tends to emphasize the progress in diffusing feminist ideas. (6) However, not many years ago, historians were preoccupied with a profound masculine backlash that seemed to pose a formidable challenge to progressive thinking on women's rights. (7) Even before that, Anne Martin-Fugier's thoroughly researched study of bourgeois women at the turn of the century presented much food for thought for historians who would blithely assume that a comer had been turned and that women had enlarged expectations by 1914. (8) Martin-Fugier produced a wealth of citations from memoirs, …