Ready for Progress? Opinion Surveys on Women's Roles and Opportunities in Belle Epoque France
Berlanstein, Lenard R., French Politics, Culture and Society
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, letters, newspapers, and advice books to sustain her argument that the imperative of women living for and through their loved ones was virtually unshakable. Feminist visions of greater freedoms and, indeed, individuality, foundered on the view that women must be the sacrificing guardians of the household. Alternative ideas produced guilt and confusion, rarely commitment. Women accepted the duty to serve others as their purpose in life, and, therefore, progress toward an emancipated view of women occurred only on the margins. It is worth noting that the Belle Epoque novelists who, today, are often considered "feminists" agreed with Martin-Fugier. When they created heroines who needed to defy convention in order to make themselves happy, the novelists drew them full of self-doubt and placed them in situations that were anything but enviable. The novelists were attempting to be realistic. (9)
This essay will explore the debate by using the opinion surveys in the major women's magazine Femina, which started to appear as a bi-monthly publication in February 1901 with immediate success. By the end of its second year, it achieved a circulation of 100,000 and reached a high of 135,000 between 1905 and 1910. (10) This was nearly three times the sales of La Fronde at its most popular. Femina also outsold by quite a bit influential newspapers like Le Temps (36,000), Figaro (46,000) and L'Eclair (93,000). (11) Femina succeeded as a commercial enterprise even though it was expensive. Whereas the Parisian daily newspapers with the largest circulation sold Sunday illustrated supplements to the masses by charging five centimes an issue, Femina cost 50 centimes per issue. A subscription was 12 francs, roughly two days pay for a female school teacher. For this high price, readers received a copiously illustrated publication that was one of the earliest photographic magazines for women. (12)
The simple question, "What sort of content did Femina have?" does not have a simple answer. It was a hybrid that used a conservative format to circulate both conventional and unconventional ideas about gender. Fundamentally, Femina offered instruction to rich women on how to live worldly, stylish, and interesting lives. The latest fashions in posh resort towns, life at the chateau, and aristocratic weddings were topics of columns. So was advice on up-to-date styles for hats, gloves, and furs. The magazine covered the comings and goings of foreign royalty and French pretenders as politically neutral "female news" while steering clear of political royalism and ignoring Catholic women by giving so little coverage to matters of faith. The abundant advertising for luxury commodities, usually from merchants in the most exclusive shopping districts of the capital, confirms the expectation that women with lots of disposable income would peruse Femina. It is not at all surprising that the catalogue of France's premier center for feminist research describes the magazine as "a deluxe journal ... devoted especially to fashion and high-society life." (13)
However, this was not all that Femina was. For reasons that will never be entirely clear, the publisher and founder, Pierre Lafitte, known as a successful publishing magnate, a sportsman, and a conservative habitue of high society, gave this society magazine a progressive dimension that can properly be described as "feminist," at least in a cultural sense. (14) Lafitte dismissed that terra itself up to 1910, because he thought (or thought that his readers thought) that it denoted a dangerous effacement of sexual difference. Instead, the publisher claimed the honor of supporting "the feminine movement," which called on women to retain their femininity while expanding their roles and opportunities beyond the home. (15) Thus, along with articles on what duchesses would be wearing for the season at Deauville, readers learned about women who excelled in endeavors commonly thought to be unnatural for a true woman. The subscribers were urged to admire their accomplished sisters and, uitimately, emulate them. (16) Eventually, in 1910, the magazine even gave up resisting the dreaded term and reported positively on "feminism." (17)
Lafitte's enduring reputation for social and political conservatism obviously needs revision. (18) In any case, he assembled a staff for Femina that assisted him in contributing to "the feminine movement." It included many of the leading "feminist" writers of the day, including Marcelle Tinayre, Daniel Lesueur, Gabrielle Reval, Jane Catulle-Mendes, and Marcel Prevost (a male novelist). There was, in fact, much overlap between Femina's staff and that of the foremost feminist newspaper of the time, La Fronde. (19) Femina's editorial board developed campaigns for women's rights in the pages of a magazine that otherwise covered news of interest to the fashion conscious. The magazine expressed disappointment that talented women were excluded from honors like the Prix de Rome (for musicians and painters) or admission to the Academie francaise. (20) It celebrated instances of women winning national awards, entering the liberal professions, or competing at the championship level in sports, insisting that there was nothing unwomanly about these achievers. By contrast, the magazine all but ignored the daily activities of domestic life, the normative role for women. Femina also urged changes in the Civil Code to end some of women's legal disabilities and, after equivocating, came out in favor of women's suffrage. (21) At the core of the magazine's ideology was the concept of "modern femininity." The theme was that women of the day needed to be healthier, better educated, more energetic, and more engaged in life outside the home. Rejecting the veneration of traditional womanhood, columnists argued that women, the family, and the nation would be better off in wake of the modernization. Moreover, Femina assured women that they had the right to expand their horizons. Marcel Prevost, a novelist who wrote frequently for the magazine, told readers what had been implicit in much copy: "Neither marriage nor motherhood ought to make you forget that you are an individual [une personne]." (23)
Subscribers to this widely-read magazine thus received mixed messages: Fantasize about princesses; Regard high fashion as essential to womanliness; Be more achievement oriented; Think about yourself. These messages crossed ideological lines in unusual ways for the day. The hybridity makes it hard to predict a priori the political identity of the women who subscribed to Femina and what they derived …
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Publication information: Article title: Ready for Progress? Opinion Surveys on Women's Roles and Opportunities in Belle Epoque France. Contributors: Berlanstein, Lenard R. - Author. Journal title: French Politics, Culture and Society. Volume: 27. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 1+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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