As LUP continues to celebrate its 120-year anniversary, this month we are focusing on the Eighteenth-Century. Siobhán McIlvanney’s Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758-1848 is the latest publication in our Eighteenth-Century Worlds series. The origins and early years of the French women’s press represent a pivotal period in the history of French women’s self-expression and their feminist and cultural consciousness. Through a range of insightful textual analyses, Figurations of the Feminine highlights the political significance of this critically neglected literary medium. We spoke to Siobhán McIlvanney about this recent publication.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about the latest addition to our Eighteenth-Century Worlds series, your book Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758–1848?
My book is the first comprehensive study in English to look at a range of diverse publications that make up the beginnings of the women’s press in France. It is divided into four different ‘content’ chapters that broadly examine four subsections of that press: the earliest substantial literary journal for women, Le Journal des dames; the fashion journal; the domestic journal; and the more explicitly political journal. My book sets out to reveal the richness of this medium in terms of what it can tell us about the lives of French women from 1758 until 1848, about their aspirations and inspirations. It also seeks to nuance the binarised separate spheres’ notion by demonstrating that the personal has been political for French women long before the twentieth-century feminist movement adopted the slogan.
I also think it is important to recognise the importance of representations of women’s everyday experiences and to study less academically esteemed modes of written expression in order to find out more about French women’s lives in the past. Journals were written by women for women and thus constitute a uniquely feminocentric mode of expression. There is a directness and ‘authenticity’ to their content that provide a privileged means of accessing women’s concerns. The very format of women’s periodicals – the regularity of publication; their openended, ongoing form; their predominant anchoring in the everyday; their written contributions from women of different social classes and backgrounds – make them a significant source of knowledge for us today. Which also makes their general critical neglect all the more frustrating.
What compelled you to focus your research in this area, and how does this work pave the way for future research around this topic?
I travelled a lot as a student and spent my year abroad in France where I devoured any French-language material I could get my hands on. In the mid-1980s, many of the French women’s magazines I read were surprisingly – to my inexperienced mind anyway – feminist in their content. This went against everything I had presumed about women’s magazines – that they were at best banal, at worst misogynous modes of indoctrinating naïve female readers into assuming ever more rigidly patriarchal gender roles. It made me think about their political potential, and the fact that many women who never read books, read magazines – they are often passed from reader to reader or the same copy is read by multiple different individuals. I had an intuition that this might be worth investigating further and began looking into their origins. I uncovered some fascinating content in a range of different subgenres, from the literary magazine to the domestic journal, and found that women journalists, even in more conservative subgenres such as the fashion journal, managed to find ways of expressing more contestatory ‘figurations of the feminine’. As I say in the book, I hope my study acts as a springboard for subsequent analyses of many of these early French women’s journals. There is an abundance of wonderful material waiting to be researched, which can tell us so much about the lives of both ordinary and extraordinary French women during this period.
Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press is the first work in English to assess the most significant publications from the beginnings of women’s press in France. Why do you think this area has been neglected in other work in this area?
The women’s press and women’s magazines have not been thought of as particularly significant manifestations of women’s lives from an academic perspective or particularly interesting sources of literary or historical inspiration. I sometimes feel that we are still having to fight for less privileged sites of literary production – privileged from a canonical, generic and and centralist perspective – to be taken seriously, despite the ongoing drive for ‘diversity and inclusion’ in the university environment. During the early years of the French women’s press, journals constituted a key dialogic conduit for French women, allowing them to converse with one another, to bridge their domestic isolation through writing, to forge a sense of female community with shared interests and goals. Despite – or perhaps because of – women’s relative isolation at the time, their content is often remarkably radical, promoting women’s right to the same education as men or to the right to divorce. I spent many years researching this book, and was often moved and humbled by the courage and resistance these female writers and readers expressed from within the confines of their own home. I find it remarkable that such a key source of information on French women’s personal and political evolution has been largely ignored. In the Bibliothèque nationale in the Rue de Richelieu, I would often find myself slicing open journal pages that no researcher had ever looked at before.
In your book you analyse a variety of outlets – literary journals, fashion magazines, and more politicised content. Why was it important to your study to focus on a range of reading materials, and could you tell us more about any of the content in these which particularly stood out to you?
Since my book is the first study in English of the origins of the French women’s press, I wanted to look at as representative a selection of journals as possible, while still providing detailed textual analysis of their content. It is the journalistic representations of women’s situation that interest me the most, so I did not want to focus on ‘biobibliographical’ histories in terms of pricing or editor fluctuations of multiple journals; it was important for me to keep the reader’s attention on the textual figurations of the feminine. By looking at different genres, I could also demonstrate my belief that political, and often ‘feminist’, content was, if not ubiquitous, certainly widespread across the generic subsections. For example, demanding the right to divorce appeared across the board in all types of journals, not simply the more radical ones. What struck me about these journals’ content was the ‘modernity’ of it. Here were women wanting to access greater professional opportunities, wanting to find personal happiness in their relationships and even wanting to experience the same sexual satisfaction as men. One particularly striking example is Le Courier de l’Hymen (1791) which provides an example of the first ‘problem page’, in that women readers are encouraged to write in – anonymously – if they feel unable to resolve their marital problems on their own. There is very much the sense that (female) unity is strength.
What are you planning on working on next?
I suppose if I were to find one common thread to my research, it is to give voice to topics or female writers who have been critically neglected. I am currently interested in representations of (women’s) ageing, which, I am pleased to say, is becoming more written about and researched – which may have something to do with the fact that many of the French women writers who wrote in the 1970s are now old(er) women themselves. I have also published on Franco-Algerian women’s writing, and that is an area I am keen to develop further.
For more information on Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758-1848, please visit our website.