French Women Writers and the Revolution: Preliminary Thoughts
Catherine R. Montfort
Les femmes furent à l'avant-garde de notre révolution. Michelet, Les Femmes de la Révolution, 1854
When one considers the fate of French women writers throughout the ages, one notices that, until recently, most of them have been "outsiders" in some sense of the word. For example, in the Middle Ages, Christine de Pisan, though well adjusted to her times, a happy wife, and the mother of three children, was subjected to repeated attacks and innuendos when, after the death of her husband, she decided to write in order to become economically independent. Her life became a series of struggles when she not only defended women against medieval misogyny, in particular the misogynist attacks of Jean de Meung in Le Roman de la Rose, but also affirmed the intellectual capacity of the "feminin sexe." In spite of such writings as L'Epïtre au Dieu d'Amours, Le Trésor de la Cité des Dames, and Le Chemin de longue étude, the "querelle des femmes," as it was then called, went on unchanged after her death.
In the sixteenth century, Louise Labé only seemingly partook of the so-called Renaissance. 1 Although she was lucky enough to be educated, her relative independence after marriage gave birth to calumny: she was accused of publishing Maurice de Scève's works under her own name; she was also accused of being a courtesan. As for Mlle. de Gournay ( 1565-1645), she received only criticism, although Montaigne thought highly of her and called her his "fille d'alliance." Since she was an old maid and somewhat ugly, Mlle. de Gournay's virtue was not questioned like Louise Labé's, but her writings were never taken seriously. Her Equality of Men and Women, written in 1622, had no impact on the Grand Siècle (the seventeenth century).
In the seventeenth century, Mme. de Sévigné and Mme. de la Fayette were ladies of the salons and were well regarded in their lifetime, but neither was a professional writer. Mme. de Sévigné wrote only personal letters; Mme. de la Fayette's Zaïde was published under a friend's name, and her best novel, La Princesse de Clèves, appeared without the name of an author. The previous examples are far from being exhaustive but are enough for our purpose: in the centuries-old patriarchal system that regulated sexual roles