In the seventeenth century, the popular novelist Madeleine de Scudéry lamented the fate of women writers: "Among the infinite number of beautiful women who doubtless lived during the centuries preceding our own, we have barely heard of only two or three: and during those same centuries, we can see the glory of men solidly established by the written works they have left us." 1 More than three hundred years later, Scudéry's descendants are reclaiming women writers from obscurity. The Feminist Encyclopedia of French Literature, together with other recent reference works, brings to public attention the works and world of French women writers, past and present.
Our current state of historical knowledge allows us to state with some degree of certainty that the earliest known literary productions by women living in Europe were by French women. As far back as the twelfth century, women troubadours in the south of France were writing poems in Occitan, a gallo-roman language. French women continued writing through the ages, their number increasing as education became more available to women of all classes. And yet, of the great numbers of works by women writers who preceded the current feminist movement, very few survived. My own education in French literature, first as an undergraduate at a women's college that can be fairly qualified as "feminist," and later in graduate school, included but a small number of women writers. A few had been "canonized": Marie de France, Marguerite de Navarre, Madeleine de Scudéry, Mme de Lafayette, Mme de Sévigné, Mme de Staël, George Sand, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, and Marguerite Duras. Critics, mostly male, had judged the works of only these few women writers worthy of recognition.
As part of the feminist move to reclaim women writers and to rethink literary history, scholars in French literature began to take a new look at women writers who had been popular during their lifetime but who had not been admitted into