Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Synopsis

At once deeply historical and surprisingly timely, Having it All in the Belle Epoque shows how the debates that continue to captivate high-achieving women in America and Europe can be traced back to the early 1900s in France. The first two photographic magazines aimed at women, Femina and La Vie Heureuse created a female role model who could balance age-old convention with new equalities. Often referred to simply as the "modern woman," this captivating figure embodied the hopes and dreams as well as the most pressing internal conflicts of large numbers of French women during what was a period of profound change. Full of never-before-studied images of the modern French woman in action, Having it All shows how these early magazines exploited new photographic technologies, artistic currents, and literary trends to create a powerful model of French femininity, one that has exerted a lasting influence on French expression.

This book introduces and explores the concept of Belle Epoque literary feminism, a product of the elite milieu from which the magazines emerged. Defined by its refusal of political engagement, this feminism was nevertheless preoccupied with expanding women's roles, as it worked to construct a collective fantasy of female achievement. Through an astute blend of historical research, literary criticism, and visual analysis, Mesch's study of women's magazines and the popular writers associated with them offers an original window onto a bygone era that can serve as a framework for ongoing debates about feminism, femininity, and work-life tensions.

Excerpt

In the inaugural issue of the wildly successful women’s photographic magazine La Vie Heureuse, the beloved countess and critically acclaimed poet Anna de Noailles is pictured in her beautifully appointed living room with her young son delicately set upon her lap (Fig. I.1). This image faces a slightly larger photograph of the countess in profile, her billowing skirt cradling not her baby this time, but her most recent book. Noailles’ graceful presence in this five-page photo spread diffused brewing tensions between feminism and femininity in the Belle Epoque through the precisely measured equilibrium of books and babies. Indeed, rather than books becoming substitutes for babies, and thus—as contemporary fears dictated—leading to infertility, depopulation and inevitably (or so the logic went) the collapse of French society, books and babies appeared side by side throughout, as the magazine consistently depicted women authors as devoted mothers. Just like its rival publication Femina, La Vie Heureuse celebrated achieving women in dazzling feature stories sandwiched between elaborate fashion plates and advertisements for beauty creams, corsets and high-end furniture. Regardless of the nature of their achievements—not just as writers, but as lawyers, doctors, actresses, explorers or athletes—their femininity remained fully and vividly intact.

This book argues that Femina and La Vie Heureuse, launched within a year of each other in 1901 and 1902, introduced a significant and often overlooked image of modern French femininity, in deliberately stark contrast to stereotypes of the feminist activist and the New Woman—the two figures that have been most closely associated with Belle Epoque challenges to gender norms. Thanks to their savvy exploitation of . . .

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