Femme studies continue. The French are famous for femme, which is their word. Theirs is the femme fatale and the belle a suicider, chic, courtesan, the institutionalization of polyamory through the establishment of royal mistresses – Pompadours. Ladies, start your backcombs.
In pursuit of this I have read three books, one called How French Women Do It, one called Almost French, and the most recent authoritative biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette.
Fatale: How French Women Do It
Fatale: How French Women Do It is a bad book, wildly padded, with a few snippets of history for whose accuracy I can’t vouch, and with precisely one interview with an actual French woman. The one thing I brought away from it is that the institution of the royal mistress was completely public in France, with a separate court growing up around the favorite. She makes the point that mistresses in France are financially established by their lover. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. If it is true, it’s a great system for women who do not wish to bear children, or who wish to have time to themselves for whatever purpose. Show me the money.
The effect of this monetized French polyamory on women’s daily lives is touched upon in Almost French, an excellent autobiography by Sarah Turnbull, an Australian TV journalist, who falls in love with a Frenchman in Bucharest, and follows him home to Paris. Once there, she is completely ostracized by his friends and family, who literally look through her when she turns up, as his fiancee, and then as his wife, at friendly dinner parties and family occasions. One of the women is so rude to her it changes Turnbull’s life. At one such dinner party, she tries to make polite conversation in French with this woman throughout the entire meal. The Frenchwoman answers desultorily, without making eye contact. Finally, when there is a lull in the conversation — it is a table of 20 people — the Frenchwoman yells down the table to Turnbull’s fiance,“So, how’s your little girlfriend’s French coming along?”
She works hard for two years to make some French girlfriends. At another dinner party — she is now a wife — the wives of the other guests are “stony-faced.” They resent her. She asks her husband afterwards if they were weird. He says yes. She says, what am I doing wrong. He says, “In France, that’s how it is between women.”
She discusses this with all the other expat girls, women from all over the world. They agree. Frenchwomen treat them all the same.
Finally, she gets to know the French wife of an Australian well enough to ask her what the fuck is up. Sophie tells her Parisiennes do not see other women as potential friends. They see them as rivals. Rivals in looks, intelligence, interest to men. Foreign women are threatening because they are exotic. There is no sisterhood in France, and professional Frenchwomen pride themselves on telling Turnbull that there is no Anglo-Saxon feminism in France. And moreover, “Your Anglo-Saxon style feminism doesn’t belong here.” This is the late 1990s we’re talking.
Turnbull reveals herself as a radical ditto, by the way, by drinking more than a half a glass of champagne at a dinner party. And having beer as an aperitif.
There is no revolution in France for women, she writes. There has been no women’s movement. Frenchwomen did not get the vote until 1944, and until the 1960s were required to get their husbands’ permission to get a passport or open a bank account.
France had fewer women in government, in the late 1990s, than Kazakstan. French women, it is argued, haven’t had to fight for their rights, according to socialist Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, because there is harmony between the sexes in France, and women have traditionally been treated with respect.
Turnbull presses her French girlfriend on the topic of the French women’s rivalry. Why? “Because,” says Sophie, “they don’t feel good in their shoes.”
I would go further and say they don’t feel secure. And this insecurity has to come from somewhere….Take this country’s cult of beauty, for example, which means women’s appearances…are subject to intense scrutiny. The French are very free with advice and criticism and it’s quite okay to admonish a girlfriend for putting on weight….Add to that the incredible emphasis on la seduction, which encourages women to define themselves in relation to men. Then there’s the great Gallic myth of extramarital affairs — I say ‘myth’ because a recent study revealed that adultery is only fractionally more common in France than in the supposedly puritannical United States….les francaises, more than their husbands or boyfriends, seem to live with a deep-seated fear of their partners being unfaithful.
At another dinner party, two Frenchwomen — one a lawyer and the other a psychiatrist — agree that they never tell jokes or try to be funny in the presence of their husbands, for fear the husbands would think it was trop mec — too blokey. When they travel abroad, they look at the hated Anglo Saxons as pas tres sexe — appallingly masculine.
Three more reasons Turnbull is looked through at family gatherings — xenophobia. The patriarch of her husband’s extended family, in the middle of a huge picnic, looks at her and shouts that the Australians are shitty. It is the first time he has addressed any word of any kind to her, and it is a comment on Australia’s protest of French nuclear tests on a nearby South Seas island — after the French secret service blew up a Greenpeace boat anchored in Australian harbor which was about to sail to the island to protest the tests. Her husband’s longtime friends ignore her at their parties, because, they say, when she presses them later, French people grow up together, attend the same schools, and already have enough friends. Finally, one must be commanding with servitors. There’s a term for that too, and it’s called rapport de force. Linked to old ideas of power and class, underdogs must be rude to prove they are not inferior. France is still a hierarchical society, and women, while doing half the work and paying half the rent, are doing all the housework. Except pouring the wine. They’re not allowed to do that, and when Turnbull did, in the late 1990s, the appalled thirtysomethings cringed back from her as if she had done something blasphemous.
Obviously these are middle-class married women. The mistresses, the femmes fatale, the belles a suicider, are not the people Turnbull would be meeting. But it is clear — for example, given the interview Madame Claude, the premier post-war procurer, would give her A-list courtesans — that for French whores of the well-brought-up class, the standards are the same if not even more rigid.
Madam Claude, the Immortal French Pimp, and Monetized French Polyamory: Commercialized Femme
Here in its entirety is a November 8, 1987 interview by James Fox, of the Chicago Tribune, of French madam Fernande Grudet, entitled Madame Claude’s Call-Girl Service Was Almost an Extension of the French State
Fernande Grudet, better known as Madame Claude, France's premiere pimp
Candidates would go up for examination in her office in the Rue de Marignan behind the Champs Elysees, where Madame Claude would sit behind a desk. She would ask first about their education. “Often they would lie,” said Madame Claude. So she had some nasty trick questions up her sleeve, like who was the wife of Louis XIV, what is the chemical formula for water, and which is the longest river in Europe. Having humiliated and rattled the candidate so far, Madame Claude would ask her to pass her handbag across the desk. She would turn this upside down and take out its contents-the shortcut to a character reference. “Ah, this question of the handbag,” said Madame Claude. “You would be amazed by how much dust accumulates. Or how often women’s shoe heels are scuffed.” She examined their teeth, according to one Claude girl, and finally she would make them undress.
“That was a difficult moment,” said Madame Claude. “When they arrived they were very shy, a bit frightened. At the beginning, when I take a look, it’s a question of seeing if the silhouette and gestures are pretty. Then there was a disagreeable moment. I said, ‘I’m sorry about this unpleasantness, but I have to ask you to get undressed, because I can’t talk about you unless I see you.’ Believe me, I was embarrassed, just as they were, but it had to be done, not out of voyeurism, not at all. Sometimes it can be deceptive, you know, you see a pretty girl, a pretty face, all elegant and slim, well dressed, and when you see her naked it is a catastrophe.”
They called her Tantine-Auntie. She would arrange for cosmetic operations, against their future earnings. She would inspect their flats and sometimes move them. She would send them to a shop called Rety in the Rue St. Honore, which specializes in clothes for aspiring “Dynasty” wives.
She sent them to the coiffeur for their hair. One of the girls insisted that she was obliged to change her color three times in one day. The girls would be sent to the same doctor each week for medical inspections. There was, as Madame Claude said, so much to be done.
The “new girls” in Madame Claude’s exclusive finishing school would be tried out by a select group of “essayeurs”-men she knew and trusted. “I could judge their physical qualities,” she said. “I could judge if she was pretty, intelligent and cultivated, but I didn’t know how she was in bed. So I had some boys, good friends, who told me exactly. I would dig them up and say, ‘There’s a new one.’ And afterward they’d ring back and say, ‘Not bad,’ ‘Could be better,’ or ‘Nulle.’ Or, on the contrary, ‘She’s perfect.’ ” “A pleasant assignment,” I said. “Oh they paid,” replied Madame Claude.
And there was some problem. “Often at the beginning they had an ami de coeur, in other words, oh, a journalist, a photographer, a type like that, someone in the cinema, an actor, not very well known. As time went by it became difficult because they didn’t have a lot of time for him. The fact of physically changing, becoming prettier, changing mentally to live with milliardaires, produced a certain imbalance between them and the little boyfriend who had not evolved and had stayed in his milieu. At the end of a certain time she would say, ‘I’m so much better than him. Why am I with this boy?’ And they would break up by themselves.”
It was widely believed, and in Paris still is believed in retrospect, that for the right price, and through the offices of Claude, a secret liaison could be arranged with almost anybody, however famous and beautiful. The names of several French actresses were attached to this idea at this time.
Marie-France said, “It is true that if there was someone prepared to pay $10,000, we could find someone for him, once and for all and exclusively.” But many of the girls did it for sheer pleasure. “Remember,” she said, “this was instant elevation.
For most of them it was a dream existence, provided they liked the sex, and those that didn’t never lasted long. A lot of the clients were young and didn’t treat them like tarts but like someone from their own class. They would buy you presents, take you on trips.”
— James Fox, 11/8/87, Chicago Tribune, “Madame Claude’s Call-Girl Service Was Almost an Extension of the French State”
Colette’s Left Breast: Femme Performance
I live in a spiritual world, and an epoch, which sprang full blown from the forehead of a Frenchman, Descartes. I live in a country whose revolutionary values were formed by Rousseau and the Enlightenment, and in Washington, D.C., an Utopian city planned by a Frenchman. As I pace the grid and diagonals and through the circles, I think about French painters. I think about their way of seeing nearly every day. Today I am wearing my favorite color combination, which comes straight out of Bonnard: orange and purple.
I read Flaubert as a teenager and was repelled by the same over-analyzed and obsessively parsed amorality, a kind of tortoise-like, unblinking, limbic, motiveless, pulling-the-wings-off-flies brutality I see in Colette. Fitzgerald is our French master: flawless perfection in technique, architecture, form, and atrocious at heart. Since Flaubert and his colleagues and forebears are the primers from which the French learn French, without knowing anything more about French literature one could argue that this atheistic, stoically-dissected, recipe for sensuality is a literary mannerism.
I don’t think so. Or if it is, literary mannerism is the way the French fight for their lives. In the concentration camps, writes Kogon, the Austrian survivor of Buchenwald and “official” chronicler of the camps, the underground did not trust the French because they never stopped arguing with each other. They never stopped talking and never turned outward from their barracks — where inmates were ghettoized according to nationality. The French never made an attempt to penetrate the only possible resistance movement the camps offered. They were famous for this, Kogon writes, in all the camps. Kogon says the French “suffered more from the hardships of camp life than other groups.” They were individualistic, sickly, intellectual, and created “avoidable difficulties” with other prisoners. This deprived them of connections others enjoyed. The French were politically impossible to unite “in order to make them more capable of resistance, to increase their value to the prisoners….Only the minority group of the French Communists had close contact with the camp underground at Buchenwald. Like their German comrades, they never mustered the strength to purge their ranks of politically camouflaged criminals….The preponderant majority of the Frenchmen in the camps were helplessly exposed to every hardship….”
I have since reading Madame Bovary, a profoundly sexist, sadistic, and misogynist manifesto, tried to get a toehold in French literature and failed. The discovery of a bondage fetish in the land of the free — Degas’ voyeurism, Gauguin’s pedophilia — was one of the fundamental nauseas of my youth. Sardou, the Belle Epoque playwright and author of the story of Tosca, was asked what to do when the attention of his jaded audience wandered. “Torture the women,” he replied. Hitchcock and Spielberg have both built careers on this Flaubertian sleight of hand.
To make up for it, I read about France and the French. I read the Larousse Gastronomique because, like the French, I love dictionaries and all the beady-eyed adjudication they entail. Knowing that foie gras was invented in the stone-hearted land of the Cathars, barricaded against the pope high atop their mountain redoubt, the fortress of solitude, in the Languedoc, speaks volumes to me. Larousse Gastronomique is as meticulous with the location of every peasant specialty in France, complete with maps for each region, as it is with the true story of Vatel, who killed himself because le grande conde’s sole was not delivered a la minute. High/low culture? You could call it post-modern, but that would be wrong. It’s revolutionary.
Right now my reading about the French is about how Cambodia — and other places — sprang full-blown from the forehead of oh let’s say Henri Parmentier, the architect whose team excavated Angkor Wat, which Parmentier bogarted from the possession of Thailand for the purpose, for the Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient.
Colette, 1907, appearing in La Chair, exposes her left breast on stage
What now remains is to place Colette in this context for all French women of unrelenting poverty and unrelenting war, a pressure of French republican and communist history against women and feminism so unrelenting that women — from Marie Antoinette to Marie Curie – while being educated at the expense of the “egalitarian” state to bear more babies (Howard), simply do not appear in the most recent “authoritative” history of the French nation (Jones). It remains to join Kristeva in placing Colette at the forefront of 20th century writers (Wilson) – Claudine’s prose is the foremother of Proust’s in A la recherché des temps perdu (Harman) — and to define her definitively masterful and definitively French version of Femme.
Neither Colette, nor her mother, Sido, had dowries. Sido, an orphan, was sold by her brothers to an old, wealthy, promiscuous, homicidal and hallucinatory alcoholic whose relatives were conspiring to keep him from being declared insane. Sido was married in 1857, the same week Flaubert went on trial for not condemning the adultery of his heroine, Madame Bovary (Thurman). Sido was 22. “When a young girl is without fortune or profession,” writes Colette, “…what can she do but hold her tongue, accept what is offered, and thank God for it?”(Ibid..)
This husband soon died. Before he did, Sido took two lovers. Colette’s father was the second lover and last. He was a Zouave captain who had lost his leg in an an 1859 battle mounted by Napoleon III to help rid Italy of Austrians.
French zouaves of the Italian campaign, 1859
By the time Colette was marriageable, her parents were poor. Colette too had to marry someone for whom a dowry was not important. She loved Willy; whether or not he raped her is a matter of controversy. What is certain is that his mistress had committed suicide, leaving him with a toddler son who needed caring for. His prosperous parents did not attend the wedding and, because Colette was the daughter of penniless provincials, fired their son from his job in the family company and reduced his financial interest to 100,000 francs’ worth of non-voting stock (Ibid.,). Colette and Willy were married in 1893. Colette was 20, and wore a white satin headband “a la Vigee-LeBrun” – Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter.
Vigee-Lebrun, self-portrait with daughter
Colette and Willy spent their wedding night in Sido’s house. When the bride came down early the next morning, she found her mother – “le personnage principal de toute ma vie” – still dressed in her black party dress. She was making the morning chocolate with a look of silent, near animal, sadness on her face (Ibid.,).
Colette at 20 resembled, in Willy’s imperialistic impresario phrase, “la Tahitienne avant l’arrivee du missionaire”. She might possibly, as she claimed, have had a black ancestor from her family’s sojourn as spice traders in Martinique. This “natural,” Edenic, tropical island, Tahitian state of sexuality previous to the arrival of the serpent or religion was much on the minds of the French. Gauguin had famously reject French society in 1891, two years before Colette’s marriage, for a life of painting and underage girls in Tahiti. This Tahitian state of sexaulity was the foundation stone of the reputation on which Colette, the dowerless bride, made a living for nearly two-thirds of a century. She wrote 80 books over the next sixty years, exploiting the same lust for exotic flesh which found its counterpart in French colonial activities from Tahiti to Angkor Wat to Mozambique and Algeria. She prided herself on her anti-feminist, natural feminine voice – feminism being, as we shall see, as loathsomely unFrench as Jews themselves. When the French do not excoriate feminism as Anglo-Saxon, it is called Jewish, and the “feminist” reporters of Colette’s youth, at the heart of Decadent fin-de-siecle Paris, were the first to do it.
But Colette always likened her task as a writer to that of a French peasant. A writer’s task, Colette wrote – quite possibly as a riposte to her exquisite friend and rival Proust – is to milk the cows as the armies of Vercingetorix and Jeanne d’Arc come and go. Or to meet them as an heroic unruffled bourgeoise much like her mother, single-handedly facing down the Boche invasion of the village she was born in, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Colette’s father, Captain Colette, by then a tax-collector, hobbled out on his crutches to meet the Germans. He made a heroic speech, Sido recalled, which might have prevented them from pillaging the town. Sido herself encountered one armed soldier. “I went home,” she told Colette, “and buried the good wine, not without pride. The wine that dated from my first husband. Chateau larose, chateau lafite, some chambertin, chateau d’Yquem….” (Ibid.. ).
Tahitienne or French resistance heroine? Both were poses, part of her Femme performance.
One is not born a Tahitienne, one becomes one. Just how that process naturalized a woman born in 1873 in the still center of backwater France, unchanged since the 14th century (Tindall), is the subject of new scholarship. The definitive 1998 biography, Colette – with new information and insights from French scholars Francis and Gontier – emphasizes how Colette’s “femininity” and “naturalism” were not the products of her Edenic upbringing. She wrote in detail of her mother’s beloved garden at Saint-Sauveur, of plants and flowers, and it has often been noted how she is a naturalist or a Darwinian categorizer of pleasure. “She could identify the plants, insects and scents of a Breton August with the same precision,” writes one critic, that “she used to delineate nine types of “perverse” love in her 1932 book The Pure and the Impure” (Emck).
Hers was not an unlettered sauvage childhood spent topless in a garland of pandanus leaves. Her mother viewed Colette’s beauty and vitality as her own; she continually noted how much alike they were, and washed the baby’s magnificent golden-auburn hair – “my masterpiece” — in rum and yolk of egg (Thurman). Colette learned to read by the age of three, according to Sido’s standards, and she learned the alphabet, the scales, and how to embroider as well. She learned Sido’s encyclopedic knowledge of botany, housekeeping, and her atheistic credo of natural and untrammeled passion, based on a 19th century theoretician of Utopian socialism and pleasure, Charles Fourier. The study of Fourier may have been Sido’s rebellion against her fate as marriage chattel; the influence of Fourier on Colette while acknowledged has yet to be fully traced.
This Fourier doctrine – the “femininity” and “naturalism” of Colette’s — flowered in city soil as it had in Sido’s provincial life. The Paris social circle to which Colette came as a bride was the heart of the Decadent movement. Francis and Gontier argue persuasively that the Aesthetics’ belief – Mallarme and Wilde’s – that art had nothing to do with morality, politics, or finance, was at least as influential in forming Colette’s personna as a writer as any peasant upbringing. Art was to be erotic and iconoclastic (Emck). This dovetailed neatly with Sido’s advanced Utopian teachings of free love and gastrosophie — eat what you want and nothing else — far more than actual peasant pieties, which tend to be Catholic, communist, or both (Ibid..).
Far from being a simple country girl in the big city, the 20-year-old had married the leading Decadent critic of his age. Willy was the editor-in-chief of the house organ of the Decadents, at the center of the Parisian avant-garde, and introduced his Tahitian child bride to a society which included everyone from Debussy to Oscar Wilde. While Willy pursued the infidelities which were his right, the child bride was taken around Paris brothels and opium dens by a walker — the richest reporter in town, the celebrity journalist Jean Lorrain.
Jean Lorrain, reporter
A homosexual friend of the richest and rowdiest courtesans of the Belle Epoque, Lorrain taught Colette how to dress (Ibid..), how to get out of what she called “those dresses worthy of their village.” Curiously, Lorrain and most of the Decadents were anti-Dreyfusards; the ineradicable pairing of racism and sexism with sexual liberte needs always to be kept in mind when speaking of the French.
Lorrain wore powder and kohl – Colette used it to enhance her grey-green eyes — and served ether with his tea cakes (Thurman). He died of an overdose in 1905.
Years later, writing of her apprenticeship, Colette said Lorrain was “the figure of a real man. Never, even at the end, did Jean Lorrain renounce the right and the desire to be a warrior and even a brawler…..[He] gave me pleasure.”(Ibid.,168).
Colette’s Anti-Feminism, Anti-Semitism and Nazi Collaboration
Her pose as the wild Tahitian girl of Saint-Sauveur – which matured into the earth mother over the next 60 years – was perhaps not so calculated as her pose as French resistance heroine, along the fatalistic and quixotic lines Sido suggests. It was feminism, and not the Nazis, she resisted, the one French political position at least as traditional, bourgeois, and commercial as the other.
One recent anti-feminist, Mona Ozouf, was received in 1996 with the adulation public intellectuals in France bask in. She ennobles her position by tracing it back to revolutionary street credibility — Rousseau’s Julie. Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, published in 1761, was perhaps more influential with the proletariat than his 1762 Social Contract, because it is a love story written colloquially. Two centuries later, Ozouf claims Julie as her role model, and that of her non-feminist heroines, because, like the French peasant in the national imagination, Julie is fatalistic. Like Sido and Colette, Julie holds her tongue, accepts what is offered, thanks God, milks the cows as Genghis Khan passes through, and grows where she is planted (M. Higonnet).
Every French person likes to believe he is natural, a peasant, and Colette – though she never lived in Saint-Sauveur again – exploited this connection to la France profonde in her work. Aside from the clarion modernity of the prose which may well have inspired Proust to copy it, the four novels in the Claudine series were traditional. They looked back half a century to Madame Bovary, a naturalist’s account of sexual life in the provinces. To epater the bourgeois and the church, while also institutionalizing the bourgeois, nationalist love of the country – hot teen country girls — was an irresistible combination. In 1900 Claudine at School was one of the first best-sellers of the 20th century.
If Colette became a Tahitienne rather than being born one, her gifts as a heroine of French resistance are more deeply ingrained. She resisted feminism, as the French have done since they guillotined the author of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges, in 1793. The Napoleonic Code banished what women’s rights the Revolution had emplaced. “Madame,” Napoleon told Sophie de Condorcet, “I do not like women to busy themselves with politics.” Replied the immortal Sophie, “General, you are right. But in a country where women have their heads cut off, it is natural that they should wish to know why” (Kobak). While the conqueror of Europe had silenced French women for two centuries, the question remains.
Colette was strongly influenced by anti-semitic feminist reporters of the Decadents era. And she stoutly wrote throughout the Nazi occupation for publications so pro-Nazi their editors were imprisoned as traitors afterwards. She wrote Gigi, her most famous fiction, for the Vichy journal Present. This may have been because her then husband was Jewish.
And it may not have been. While Colette’s upstairs neighbor, a young shop assistant, stepped up to the plate and offered to hide this Jew in her tiny apartment, Colette continued to write for the Vichy and Occupation press. Her anti-semitism was, a close friend noted, “native” (Thurman). Her reputation as a sell-out to the Nazis is one of the imponderable questions of the sphinx-like nature of which she was so proud, and upon which she capitalized in her music hall career. She prided herself on never smiling for a camera. “I was born,” she wrote, in “Bella-Vista,” in which the narrator witnesses crimes she doesn’t stop, “under the crime of passivity.” To a friend during the Occupation, she wrote “Save your aggression for your work. For the rest of your day-to-day life, passivity suffices” (Thurman).
For this, at the end of the war, in 1945, when all her old editors and music hall friends were going to prison or having their heads shaved for collaborating with the Nazis, Colette was elected to the Academie Goncourt. It was the most prestigious literary prize in France; the terms under which it was endowed were that neither women nor Jews were eligible. Colette would be the exception.
Her resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois mainstream of French history.
Colette As Lodestar of Femme Nation
As her position as a master of 20th century prose now consolidates, Colette’s place as avatar of the hegemony of French anti-feminism must be made crystal clear. More than French, Colette is the lodestar of Femme nation, the inventor of the language of female pleasure. She wrote the book. And her fatalistic tolerance for anti-semitism and sexism, whether ingrained or learned as part of Femme performance, took her straight to the top of sexist and racist French publishing society and placed her in its sexist and racist Pantheon of intellectual immortals. It has kept her there for more than a century, as French society today expresses itself in no uncertain racist and sexist terms. She is politically correct.
Whether this success in racist and sexist publishing society is political agency or the rejection of political agency, whether it is the assumption of the Aesthete’s apolitical mantel as political strategy, or social climbing, or Femme performance, or traditional Femme passivity and secession from political life, may perhaps be unanswerable. But it is the question: Should Femme nation have political agency? Be feminist? Stand up for Dreyfus the Jew? Resist the Nazis? Colette’s answer, throughout a long life in interesting times, repeatedly, was a resounding non. And her influence is incalculable.
Colette’s resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois Republican mainstream of French history. I’d like to survey recent literature on this venerable French prejudice, and tie in the particular expression which most influenced Colette.
Winegarten, in Accursed Politics: Some French women writers and political life, 1715-1850, writes about the only political agency available to French women, who were in 1944,as we have seen, the last women in Europe to get the vote. There were no female politicians; their scarcity in French parliaments today is still exceptional. The political agency of women, Winegarten decides, was as mistress to the great. In her 2003 book, she profiles six politically and sexually dextrous women from Alexandrine de Tencin, mistress of an abbot she helped become prime minister, to Claire de Duras, who slept with and invented the writer-politician Chateaubriand. Each of the six ran a salon, and set herself up as the gate-keeper of information while serving a political apprenticeship. When challenged, they were shamed by political rivals and fell to lying. De Tencin was exiled on a sea of disingenuous prose, Manon Roland beheaded in mid-polemic against the sins of women writers, and de Stael, who alone had her own immense fortune, wrote, “It is right that women should be excluded from public and civic affairs….For a woman, fame itself could only prove to be a shattering bereavement of happiness.” (Kobak).
This idea, that the Femme tradition of salons gives French women their political agency, is a touchstone of the idea that the French don’t need feminism. Elisabeth Guigou, one of the 1997 socialist ministers, was appointed justice minister a few months after she wrote, “The very specific history of France, which excludes women from a political role while granting them a well-recognized place in society…has created a unique situation between the sexes. If women have not felt totally inferior, it is because their right to speak out has been consistently recognized, bring them a certain role and power.” (Turnbull)
Elisabeth Guigou, French socialist minister, anti-feminist
One can see, in Colette’s mother Sido, and in Mme. de Sevigne – another famously possessive French mother, whose salon helped mould the modern spoken language, and whose letters are even better than Sido’s – this trope of pouring all one’s intellect and ambition into one’s lover, or one’s child.
The New Woman, Femme Performance and Anti-Semitic Anti-Feminists
Colette and her “whips”, aged 15, c. 1888
Colette arrived in Paris just as the “New Woman” – invented in 1894 by a British woman reporter — made her appearance in France. Roberts, in Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in fin-de-siecle France, argues that “personal beauty is the distinctive feature of French feminism. Beauty was a political act” (Tunstall). The French instinctively believed the New Woman to be Anglo Saxon, lesbian and Jewish. She smoked, rode bicycles and was, in a word, ugly. Pas tres sexe. Not very sexy.
Most Americans have become Americans, and built America, by walking north from Guatemala City or riding a raft up the Mississippi or driving the freeway at night. The French became French and built France by staying in the same place since 950,000 B.C.
It is hard to imagine how ugly the French think strangers are. In the Berry, George Sand country, when the railroad surveyers came in the 1840s, the people thought they were necromancers. It was a countryside where the residents of Chassignoles objected to the widening of the footpath which had been, for 10,000 years, the only way to get into town. Oxcart tracks, like roads and railroads, brought people to town who ate your food. The peasants feared everything – the legacy of unrelenting poverty. Writes Tindall, in her enchanting book, Celestine: Voices From a French Village:
That ‘something’ [to fear] , conceived of as the visitation of a spirit or a neighbour’s evil spell, was in reality famine, sickness, absolute want, recurrent realities for those who still worked the soil. Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, most of those who dwelt in the countryside were on the perpetual edge of poverty, entirely vulnerable to a bad harvest, an extra-cold winter, a chance stroke of personal misfortune.
They could remember bad years when serfs ate frozen grass. They themselves often had nothing to eat in a lean winter but chestnuts.
There were fairies and spirits. Le Grande Bissetre was an ogre who hovered over ponds. Itinerant strangers – whether the charcoal burner of the great forests or the peddler, with a printed farmers’ almanac which contained spells for the beasts and crops – could easily be in league with the wolves who still emerged from le grand Villemort, in the misty dawn, to bear off lambs. The shepherds – girls and boys who worked alone – were unable to stop them. The Berrichon were not literate, since the Catholic church did not insist they read their Bibles. They still spoke a Latin-based Roman soldier French called the langue d’oil. They were barely Christian, and celebrated saints’ days by decorating the rich peoples’ oxen and dancing around a bonfire. There were no schools. There was no piped water until 1962. So the lifetime of a woman like Celestine Chaumette, born in Chassignoles in 1844, died 20 miles away in 1933, telescoped six centuries of progress – from eating frozen grass to listening to her grandchildren dance to the tune of a gramophone in the medieval village square (Tindall).
So with the ugly New Woman when news of her arrived in Paris in 1894. Roberts’ important book, published in 2003, traces the process by which this feminist figure was given an extreme makeover, notably in the all-girl newspaper La Fronde (circ. 50,000). She profiles its publisher, Marguerite Durand, as an essential French Femme, who declared, “Feminism owes a great deal to my blonde hair. I know it thinks the contrary, but it is wrong” (Tunstall). Durand employed female typesetters who earned the same wage as men, and championed single motherhood. Roberts calls her “condescending and narcissistic”.
Publisher Femme Marguerite Durand and her young lion, Tigre
French anti-semitism was linked to the New Woman in the Femme performance of three of the great woman journalists of the day, Durand, Severine and Gyp. All three were New Women; Durand and Severine were Dreyfusards. But the fascinating and talented Gyp (Comtesse de Martel de Janville) made her name excoriating Dreyfus as well as other rootless cosmopolitan and unFrench ideas. A correlary pejorative, the feminization of Jews, as opposed to the Judification of feminists, has been noted elsewhere (Doneson in Loshitzky).
This national raising of consciousness took place in the heyday of Sarah Bernhardt, Femme performance master and Jew, who travelled with 250 pairs of shoes and was the toast of pansexual Paris. Roberts writes carefully about Femme performance and mimicry, and argues persuasively that Bernhardt’s vaunted eccentricities were parodies of conventional femininity – love of animals, Manolos. Theatricality is the key concept in Roberts’ book – she reportedly hews to the post-modern party line that performance “had a liberating potential for women who discovered they could put on a performance of femininity and thus expose it as a role, a choice rather than an essence or an ineluctable destiny” (Tunstall).
Thus, arguably, did Durand’s blondeness become a political act. Roberts’ examination of Durand’s buccaneer anti-feminism explores the frontier where Femme performance clears the way for political agency — real sabotage of the patriarchy. In the case of Gyp, at least, the price was anti-semitism. How market viability — that is, selling your newspaper or yourself as a reporter — cut the ladies’ conscience to the fashion of the day is an unavoidable question for women everywhere, whose poverty and marginality, as well as the illness or starvation of their children, is always nearer to hand than men’s.
While this may have been the Femme performance at the end of 19th century, little seems to have changed in France since. A cartoon in the French dailies a few years ago shows a woman taking off her glasses, undoing her bun and shaking her hair loose. The caption: “My God, Miss Kristeva, you’re…intellectual!” There are two ways of seeing it. In the first, Kristeva seduces the male establishment into believing she’s an intellectual. In the second, Kristeva has only been performing femininity to succeed, and now that she’s powerful she may broadcast her real feminist message. Either way, if Kristeva were unattractive, it wouldn’t work (Tunstall). How much feminism owes to the black eyelashes of Kristeva, the Bulgarian rose — or indeed the black eyelashes of Bernard-Henri Levy, who is even prettier and not anti-semitic — is a question I think can be set aside with some assurance.*
Pomo Femme Kristeva
Colette and Willy
It is far too easy to find anti-semitism and its corollary in racism, anti-feminism, flourishing at every level of French society, and to make these the crushing dialectic of too linear a French history. It should be emphasized that it was the revolution, the Napoleonic Code, and the Republics which are anti-feminist. One 18th century revolutionary argued that popular prejudice against women necessitated that they not be extended civil rights. The success of the revolution depended on excluding women.
Joan Wallach Scott argues, in her 1997 book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French feminists and the rights of man, that the 1789 Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man
… deliberately ignored the existence of deep economic, social and religious differences within nations and political communities. As Karl Marx argued in his essay On the Jewish Question of 1843, the paradox implicit in the notion of citizenship set forth by the Constitution of 1791 was that it turned into a universal ideal what was in fact a particular human type: the egoistic bourgeois individual of capitalist society.(Fontana on Scott)
It declared the rights of capitalists, in a word, who are self-evidently male. Science had proved men were the human template, and women’s anatomy, which had just recently acquired names for its parts, was a variation of men’s. Scott explains
… while Enlightenment culture offered rather diversified views on women’s political potential, the line that prevailed among French legislators sanctioned the identification of the citizen with the male individual: The political individual was taken to be both universal and male; the female was not an individual, both because she was nonidentical with the human prototype and because she was the other who confirmed the (male) individual’s individuality. (Ibid..)
Two French feminisms developed, one of difference and one of equality, which now, even in France, have been declared out dated.**
Women were denied the vote in France, and a wage equal to men’s, until 1945, allegedly because the generals and social-climbing shopkeepers who led the Republics feared women would vote for right-wing Catholic candidates (Fontana).
At the same time, systems of unsurpassed education, universal health care, subsidies for stay-at-home mothers higher than the state-suppressed “female wage”, and state-supported child care, polished French women to a standard never equalled elsewhere while keeping them at home.
Birthrates in France fell throughout the 19th century as they burgeoned in England and Germany, a trend which much concerned the losers at Waterloo, the landlords of Europe’s most blood-soaked real estate. One feature of this egalite in education, unsurpassed state-sponsored women’s literacy, was unrelenting “health” education emphasizing patriotism — the maternal feminist duty to reproduce for the Republic (Mary Lynn Stewart, For Health and Beauty: Physical culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s, 2001). This “maternal feminism” is widely seen in France.
Colette’s time was framed by these strictures. Her marriage to Willy and the Dreyfus affair occupied the same decade, during which she became the toast of Decadent Paris. The venue in which she did this was the salon system, which for Colette was, in fact, as such Femme historians as Ozouf claim, the safe space in which women could address men as equals and exert what political agency the Republic denied them. Hannah Arendt has argued Jews – and every other outsider — assimilated in the salons of the Belle Epoque (Thurman). This is a delusion, that cultural agency is assimilation, or even that the paying of taxes for 800 years obliges your country to protect you. Unfortunately, this liberte of the living room was not enough to prevent a reported 90,000 French Jews from being exterminated by the Nazis fifty years later, and an estimated 10- to 15,000 European homosexuals.***
Femme Historian of Mistresses and Salons, Mona Ozouf
In this delusory free space did Colette, arguably, find herself, and her work itself can be seen as a salon — a recreation of a place where no winds of war blow. In addition, her remarkable music hall and commercial career — imagine if Toni Morrison showed her tits on MTV, followed when she grew too old to do so by ads for Mattress Discounter, Virginia Slims, and Irish Spring — marked Colette as the very social-climbing capitalist the revolution was launched to empower. Her career as a consumer — of attention, sex, food, money — was launched in the same era department stores opened, French patriarchs of sociology like Taine began to worry about controlling the appetites of the crowds of shopping women (Parsons), and the Art Nouveau image of woman as half-locust, half bare-breasted Gibson girl expressed precisely her appetites.
Femme Pestilence: Lalique Hat Pin chosen as Icon of Art Nouveau Exhibition
The issue of the salon, a place of cultural agency in which a democracy forbidden in politics flourishes, goes to the heart of Femme and punk politics. What are the advantages, and disadvantages, of secession from political agency?
Or was Colette’s power as a capitalist — a shill for Lucky Strikes — and as a self made woman, an icon of French culture — a chevaliere of the Legion of Honor — precisely that which prevented the Nazis from coming after her, and her Jewish husband? What was it that made some 7,000 people — mostly women, nearly silent — show up to leave flowers at her coffin? Was it that in the salons she found the story she wanted to write — of Eden? And the sadness of exile?
It is said that while the coarse, the unshaven, the Birkenstock-wearing, the appalling MacKinnons and Dworkins were establishing the existence of sexual harassment in the Supreme Court, French feminists were far too intelligent to soil themselves with mere political agency. They were deconstructing the idea of woman — good salon conversation, the product of 200 years of education for women. They enjoy complete cultural and consumer agency, without the civil right to guardianship of their own children. Revolutionary indeed:
As Nancy Miller was later to put it, if American feminists of the period were presumed to wear the boots of pragmatism, then French feminists were the wearers of the high heels of theory. (Fallaize)
So the mail has brought me my Colette Studies care package. There’s My Mother’s House and Sido, with an introduction by her coarse American biographer, Thurman, the anthology of girl zine work, the granddaughters of Colette’s erotic femme language, and Women’s Words: Essay on French Singularity by the distinguished French Uncle Tom, Mona Ozouf, with her stiff silver bouffant and silk blouse, her long career as an historian and literary journalist, her position as director of research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.
This might be the place to point out that the majority of the French people, millions of them, collaborated with the Nazis. One review of recent books on the resistance notes there are
… three major views on collaboration: that which saw it as a means of strengthening France; that which accepted it as inevitable; and that which, with some suspicion, saw it as an expedient, something which could be useful in the short term. Thus we have a population that veers between hope, scepticism and resignation. But whatever the attitude, the fact was that millions of French people went along with the Government’s policy of collaboration. Several hundred thousand worked for the occupiers or sought work.
(Johnson on Cremieux-Brillhac and Burrin).
It is well to keep in mind that it was not the Republicans who formed the backbone of the French resistance, but Communists and Catholic aristocrats, and that 50,000 children of German soldiers were born to French women (an admittedly anomalous statistic).
This sleeping with the enemy is what Femme Nation is most often accused of, of collaborating in some way with the patriarchy, if only to rip it off, in tropes well-established enough to be sanctioned and regulated by religion and the state in the contract of marriage. It is the confrontation with the collaboration issue that has earned Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon completely undeserved obloquy from third wave feminists. In this confrontation with men, sex, and slavery did Colette spend her long writing life, as ferocious and contemptuous of men, sex, and slavery as Dworkin herself. Colette’s denial of political agency is delusory — and a national pledge of Femme allegiance — to a degree which calls into question her — and France’s — entire authenticity. As a revolutionary society, an egalitarian, a libertine, a democratic.
Colette was aware of this; she thought of herself a “a mental hermaphrodite” (Thurman in My Mother’s House intro, Farrar Straus, 2001). This is as good a description as any of what the rigorous French education system does to women. They are granted cultural agency — paid maternity leave, free medical care and day care — no other women possess. They are forbidden political agency, and continue to insist, like the talented, powerful, appalling Ozouf — if they want to keep that job as research director, and literary critic of the Nouvelle Observateur — that French women do not need it and do not want it.
If the French think feminists are lesbian man-hating Jews, Colette qualifies. She found her freedom from Willy, his expropriation of the byline and the royalties of the Claudines, with a lesbian lover in lesbian society. (This lesbian society was, not coincidentally, wealthy, aristocratic, pacifist and politically active. Colette was, above all, like the Republican shop keepers for whom the Revolution was fought, for sale.) Colette was eloquently contemptuous of men and sex. She did not quite know what to do with the fact that her grandfather — “the ginger-colored gorilla” – was apparently black. She was at her happiest married to a Jew. More than this, her nausea on the subject of sex is positively Dworkinesque. Break of Day is not about the dawn of sex, but that free-at-last feeling you get when it is over. Her lesbian friend and mentor Natalie Barney noted, “Torn between the desires of her two contrary natures, to have a master and not to have one, she always opted for the first solution.”(Ibid..)
And that, arguably, is the problem of existence for the Femme feminist. One is a slave. Is it better to act like one, or not to?
Colette, with Dworkin, is one of the foremost feminists of the 20th century. Her adventures as a reporter alone (her second husband was like the first an influential editor) show her confronting matters of justice and injustice for women, degrading jobs, brutal marriages. The journalism alone belies her Femme camouflage. It is the French way to deny loudly that one is doing what one is doing. “Me, a feminist?” she said, in 1910. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.”
As Thurman is not too coarse to note, Virginia Woolf was enacting her ascetic Quaker heritage when she opined that what it took to be a feminist was only 500 pounds a year and one small room of one’s own. What it takes is thousands, a country home, three husbands and lesbian lovers, weighing 180 pounds, and whether you earn it on your back, showing your tits at the Folies Bergere, or collaborating with the Nazis, no one shall stand between the natural force that is Woman and her elegant, cream-laid, blue writing paper.
Slave, Femme, Nazi Collaborator: Colette in Old Age
In the safe space Colette bought with such relentless and amoral gallantry, she wrote of the nausea. Her most optimistic and famous work, Gigi, celebrates old age and the end of sex, the deep peace it brings, the obscene transaction entailed in preparing a spirited and independent young girl for submission, her erotic fate, and – nearly without precedent in Colette’s enormous ouevre — the intervention of a happy marriage.
This Colette wrote at the height of the Nazi occupation. She sold it to a Nazi magazine. And I take it as the message in the bottle: Secede. The Femme world – one’s vegetable garden, one’s writing table, one’s dressing table, the bedside lamp shaded with the blue writing paper, the jewelry an old whore shows her protégé — this is what we fight for. It is what the equally fierce Anglo Saxon, Jew-loving, lesbian Virginia Woolf called for in Three Guineas, her anti-fascist polemic — an outsiders’ society. Get off the grid. As Hitler approached the coast of Sussex, in 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide. Colette too seceded. In this world, she wrote, and the next, that is all there is.
When she was old and paralyzed and dying, the manager of the restaurant she lived over in the Palais Royale sent a lark pie up to her apartment (Thurman). Larks sing. They’re also all there is to eat, besides the frozen grass, in the lean winters in the heart of paleolithic France (Tindall).
*Kristeva’s tenuous collegial connection to the notorious anti-semitic post-modernist, Paul DeMan, as well as her own work in Powers of Horror, (1982)have been branded anti-semitic. “That book looks like an apology for Celine’s anti-Semitism,” says Juliet MacCannell, UC Irvine professor emerita of literature, who reviewed the book in the journal Semiotica. Kristeva’s study “is very anti-Semitic itself. A chapter of Kristeva’s is titled ‘Ours to Jew or Die’; in it, the author repeats Celine’s anti-Semitic discourse in detail: that the Jew is ‘a fecalized, feminized, passivated rot.’ De Man singled out these sections of the book for praise, calling them ‘indispensable readings’ and ‘illuminating and of general interest.'”
**In their stead, non-gendered philosophy has been posited by such materialist feminists as Michele Le Doeuff, ( Hipparchia’s Choice, 1991), Christine Delphy (editor of the journal Nouvelles Questions Feministes), and Colette Guillaumin, who works in the congruent problems of racism and sexism. Samples of this thinking were collected in 2002 in Kelly Oliver’s French Feminist Reader. The French still deny French feminism exists (Fallaize).
***Though no statistics on the number of homosexuals killed were kept, the French government rounded up their Jewish and homosexual citoyens and deported them to the extermination camps. Recent histories on French women during World War One (Margaret H. Darrow, 2001) and in the Resistance (Margaret Collins Weitz, 1996) have emphasized the ruthlessness with which their contribution has been excised from the official histories. As we have seen, Du Plessix Grey reports official Gaullist school book histories of World War Two simply did not mention that the Americans had any role at all in the liberation of France.
Originally posted 2004. (c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.