Media Women of the Belle Epoque

The Belle Epoque represents a crucial moment in French history, when gendre roles were steadily evolving beyond the rigid poles of the Napoleonic Code but had not yet fostered the kinds of freedoms witnessed later in the century.  The same period has also been designated the golden age of the mass press, due to the furious development of new publications and the technologies to support them.  This panel explores the implications of those two simultaneous cultural changes, through presentations on Belle Epoque women who used the media to explore the shifting parameters of female identity.   It is part of a larger effort to map out a new interdisciplinary field in literary and feminist studies, at the crossroads of literature, media studies and history.

Recent historical research has helped illuminate the role of gender in the Belle Epoque press, devoting particular attention to La Fronde (Roberts, Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin de Siècle France, 2002) and, more recently, the large format women’s illustrated magazine Femina (Berlanstein, 2006; Cosnier, 2009). Our panel builds upon that important research, while offering a literary and cultural studies perspective largely missing from the historical work: taking into account, then, issues of genre, representation, relationships between texts and contexts, the influence of visual culture, and, especially, the role of the woman writer as a key figure through which to consider these questions. In the process, the presentations will reveal the limits of the terms “New Woman” and “feminist,” the scholarly categories most often used to describe women challenging gender norms during this time period, demonstrating instead a much wider range of political and ideological engagement that defy these discrete terms.

Michèle Magnin will begin the session with a paper on Marguerite Durand, founder of La Fronde. A daily newspaper exclusively staffed by women, its journalists were often artists, scientists and writers, and most of them, like Durand, were politically engagées. From Durand’s voluminous personal notes, Professor Magnin, who spent a year transcribing these documents for the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand in Paris, will demonstrate how this former ingénue of the Comédie Française made use of her theatrical skills in her subsequent roles as a journalist, writer, businesswoman and educator in leading campaigns on behalf of women’s suffrage. Durand’s biographical eccentricities have been amply documented, but Magnin will draw on heretofore unpublished manuscripts, illustrating the journalist’s personal reflection upon her role as a woman entrepreneur of the Belle Epoque press.


Next, Kathryne Adair will explore the platform that Durand offered, discussing the journalist Séverine’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in La Fronde. Approaching journalism with a deep sensuality, relying heavily on her own body and its perceptions rather than stated facts, Séverine believed in being present at the scene to better absorb her surroundings, transforming and updating journalistic practices by incorporating emotions and first-hand experiences. Adair’s paper will demonstrate how Séverine’s reports renewed the journalistic genre of the judicial chronicle by offering an entirely new perspective from her place among the spectators, thus altering the way current events were understood. Séverine’s marginalized position enabled her to relate to the victims of social injustices by advocating fairness, becoming what Géraldine Muhlmann calls a “witness ambassador”: the representative of the people present at the event (Cambridge, 2008). One of only a few women reporting from Rennes, her emotional reporting was a call for understanding and social inclusion, as she encouraged her readers to become secondary witnesses through her “body by proxy.”


Although scholars of the Belle Epoque have long looked to La Fronde to explore shifts in gender roles, historians have also recently rediscovered the beautiful images of female achievement that filled the semi-glossy Femina, launched in 1901. Yet, as Rachel Mesch will argue, the astonishing resurrection of the woman writer within Femina’s pages has been all but forgotten. Rejecting both the nineteenth-century image of the dessicated blue-stocking and the more contemporary man-hating New Woman, Femina presented a femme de lettres for whom authorship could conjugate seamlessly with traditional feminine ideals. At the same time, Femina also featured less traditional women (Séverine, Durand and Colette, included). This paper focuses on one of those women, best-selling novelist and poet Lucie Delarue-Mardrus. Initially introduced in exotic photo spreads sent from far-off lands, Delarue-Mardrus was celebrated through an orientalized aesthetic made popular through actresses like Sarah Bernhardt. Later she became a columnist, charged with suggesting books for Femina’s readers. Mesch’s paper will explore Delarue-Mardrus’s shifting image in Femina, as she moves from object of the photographic gaze to an authorial voice in her own right, and the way that both of these positions were part of the magazine’s unexplored efforts to reinvent the French woman writer.


Finally, Marie-Eve Thérenty will reflect on the paradox of Colette as journalist. Focusing on Colette’s work for Le Matin beginning in 1910, Thérenty will demonstrate both the limits and advantages of what she calls Colette’s myopic journalism, which blurred objects in the distance while magnifying every detail in the foreground. Like Séverine, then, Colette experimented with her own journalistic style, drawing on the personal. Rather than going out into the field, Colette preferred various forms of observation: through a window, the lens of popular fiction, or a personal memory. Thérenty will argue that the work, if not overtly anachronistic, was slightly reactionary in its search for a complicit female readership. On the other hand, this myopic journalism would become an ideal tool for describing the chaos of the First World War, as well as the shifting gender lines that Colette recounted so incisively, even if she herself disapproved of them.


Because of the eccentric personalities for which these Belle Epoque media women were known, scholars have most often treated them individually. In addition to demonstrating the crucial role of the press as a vehicle for women’s written experimentation, the panel will also bring to light the neglected critical relationships between these figures, which become visible through their contributions to the mass press. To the extent relevant, the panelists will invoke these relationships in their presentations, and will be encouraged to elaborate upon them in the discussion.



This session will feature scholars from both sides of the Atlantic with expertise on the intersections of gender studies, French literature and the press during the Belle Epoque. Each presentation draws on work very close to the central area of the presenter’s current research.

Michèle Magnin is professor of French at the University of San Diego where she has been teaching for over twenty years. She is the head of the French section of the Languages and Literatures Department and has taught a course on French women writers since 1992. Her last sabbatical project (Fall 2010) was devoted to a transcription of Marguerite Durand's manuscripts - over a thousand pages of handwritten notes for speeches, conferences and classes - previously unavailable to scholars except within the walls of the Marguerite Durand Library. This transcription will soon be published online. Professor Magnin has worked closely on this project with French scholars for two years, primarily with Annie Metz, curator of the collection. Over the past fifteen years, she has lectured and led workshops all over the world, from Europe to Asia.

Kathryne Adair is a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and will defend her dissertation, “The Poetics of Women's Reporting in the Daily Press: Séverine, Colette and Andrée Viollis (France, 1880-1940)” in 2012. This project focuses on prominent women journalists and writers whose little-explored work for the mass media enhances our understanding of women’s engagement in cultural and social modernity. Kathryne is currently conducting research on this topic in the archived materials the National Library of France thanks to a Chateaubriand Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Relevant publications include “Prométhéa moderne. Création, rébellion et pouvoir dans le roman féminin,” an essay co-authored with Catherine Nesci for a special edition on women and power for the Canadian revue Tangences, as well as “Jean Guéhenno et Andrée Viollis: voix collaboratrices, voix contradictoires,” a solicited article for the Cahiers Jean Guéhenno, set for publication in 2012. Kathryne recently presented her current research on Andrée Violiis at the biannual colloquium of the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones d'Amérique at Fordham University in October 2010 in a presentation entitled “Indochine S.O.S. The ‘naked testimony’ and grand reportage of Andrée Viollis.”

Assistant Professor of French literature and Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures at Yeshiva College, Rachel Mesch is the author of The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle and numerous articles on women writers of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On research leave during 2010-2011, she is at work on a book manuscript entitled Having it All in the Belle Epoque: Women's Magazines and the Invention of the Modern French Woman. This interdisciplinary study draws from the fields of literature, history and visual studies to demonstrate the role of the new, large format women’s photographic magazines Femina and La Vie Heureuse in fostering women’s authorship in the Belle Epoque. The study aims to challenge traditional views of Belle Epoque feminism by focusing on efforts to reconcile femininity and feminism in these magazines.


Marie-Eve Thérenty is professor of French literature at the University of Montpelier III, a member of the Institut Universitaire de France, and director of the RIRRA 21 research center. Considered a leading expert on the relationship between literature and the press, she is the author of three books: La Littérature au quotidien: Poétiques journalistiques au dix-neuvième siècle (Seuil, 2007); Mosaiques: Etre écrivain entre presse et roman (1829-1836) (Champion, 2003) ; and 1836, L'an I de l'ère médiatique, analyse littéraire et historique de La Presse de Girardin, (with Alain Vaillant, Editions du nouveau monde, 2001). She is the editor of numerous edited volumes, including La Civilisation du journal. Histoire culturelle et littéraire de la presse au XIXe siècle with Dominique Kalifa, Philippe Régnier and Alain Vaillant, forthcoming in September 2011; Presse, chanson et culture orale au XIXe siècle. La parole vive au défi de l’ère médiatique, forthcoming in 2011; George Sand journaliste, forthcoming in 2011; Presse, nations et mondialisation au dix-neuvième siècle, with Alain Vaillant, forthcoming in 2010. She has also edited several special journal issues on literature and the press. She is currently completing an essay on editorial poetics as well as a study of women journalists from Delphine de Girardin to Andrée Viollis.