Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Sexing Political Culture in the History of France

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Sexing Political Culture in the History of France

Article excerpt

Sexing Political Culture in the History of France, edited by Alison M. Moore. Amherst, New York, Cambria Press, 2012. viii, 372 pp. $119.99 US (cloth).

"To invoke gender or sexual desire, perversion, or difference, is to suggest something of one's bodily experience, of one's intimate relationships ... and of one's inner longings," writes Alison M. Moore in the introduction to Sexing Political Culture, and such experiences, relationships, and longings are embedded and imagined in particular social, cultural, and political contexts. To this end, Moore has put together an impressive overview of the most recent work in the field of gender and sexuality in French history. In order to situate these essays, Moore reminds us that, "[f]emale bodies have stood as perpetually redeployable symbols of the French republic throughout its history," whether as the feminized incarnation of the nation or in the ways political discourses tied together ideals and norms of masculinity, race, and citizenship (p. 2). Each essay highlights the ways over time, in which in different shapes and forms, gender and sexuality have functioned as political categories of meaning. Building upon the exemplary body of scholarship beyond French history (on German Nazism, British imperialism), the collection demonstrates how and why "gendered and sexual metaphors" have not just been the stuff of language but resided at the "center of ... political culture" (p. 6). The object of these thirteen essays is thus to explore political culture writ large. Refreshingly, that methodological commitment means the collection eschews focusing on events or traditional political narratives, and instead explores the circulation, permutation, reproduction, and subversion of ideas, practices, and norms.

Sexing Political Culture offers a series of fascinating vignettes on different historical instantiations of gender and sexuality across time. The essays fall into three broad categories: examining female historical actors and female cultural figures, the policing of gender norms in law, political culture, and representations, and the central role of gender in political discourse. We learn from Christine Bard about the ways trousers were always a contested object and how they were appropriated by women over time (Chapter Four). Clothing also had symbolic meaning for those exceptional "female flyers" in overalls who, as Guillaume de Syon demonstrates, challenged the norms of a masculine profession even if their presence had little larger socio-political impact (Chapter Nine). The actress Sarah Bernhardt was another exceptional figure: her performance of the iconic patriotic figure of Jeanne d'Arc crystallized "both the limits and the fluidity of fin-de-siecle gender ideals" at a time of emerging mass and print culture, virulent anti-Semitism, and nationalist Catholicism (Chapter Five, p. 114). Debates also abounded in the Renaissance, according to Katherine Crawford, as French writers came across the Italian figure of the "androgyne" and translated that image to fit notions of French gender and sexual norms, though in often contradictory ways (Chapter Three).

Gender and sex mattered no less when it came to defining how people should behave. This is the focus of Marie-Paule Ha's analysis of what she terms the "colonial feminine mystique," a discourse explicitly focused on French women, who were instructed to act as proper colonial wives and mothers, and contributed to the performance and transmission of French ideals in racialized colonial worlds (Chapter Six). The interplay of race and gender has similarly been at work in contemporary postcolonial France as "beurettes" challenged French politics and the "hijab" became an obsessive object of concern for leaders and critics anxious about multicultural France (Chapter Fourteen). How to reconcile lived realities and ideals concerned Early Modern demonologists whose vision of witchcraft often contradicted accused men and women's explanations of their gendered and sexual transgressions (Chapter Two). …

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