Les Mots des femmes: Essai sur la singularite francaise.Well known in this country for her incisive work on the culture and politics of the French Revolution (Festivals and the French Revolution, 1976, tr. 1988; Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, co-edited with Francois Furet, 1988; L'homme regenere, 1989), as well as on French education (La Republique des instituteurs, 1992), Mona Ozouf is treading here on brand new ground. Les Mots des femmes is a series of ten biographical essays on prominent French women of letters from the early eighteenth to the late twentieth century, followed by a provocative meditation on "French singularity" as it pertains to women. Of interest to a wide readership including scholars in women's history ''This article is about the history of women. For information on the field of historical study, see Gender history.
Women's history is the history of female human beings. Rights and equality
Women's rights refers to the social and human rights of women. , social history, and French literature and culture, this book may well generate heated controversy in the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. because of the allegedly "French" and defiantly anti-American brand of feminism that it prides itself on espousing.
Mona Ozouf starts in this book with an interesting paradox: from the ancien regime an·cien ré·gime
1. The political and social system that existed in France before the Revolution of 1789.
2. pl. an·ciens ré·gimes A sociopolitical or other system that no longer exists. to the present, France has been regarded by its neighbors and has viewed itself as a country distinguished by its cult of women, to which a long tradition of writers, starting with Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Hume, have attributed a profound civilizing influence. Yet, except in the realm of education, in which the French state was pathbreaking path·break·ing
Characterized by originality and innovation; pioneering. in according women a significant place in the Third Republic, this prominence did not translate into equality of rights until 1945. France lagged behind such nations as Turkey, India, and Italy in conferring voting and legal rights upon women. Though France was in the 1970s the cradle of feminist theory Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, or philosophical, ground. It encompasses work done in a broad variety of disciplines, prominently including the approaches to women's roles and lives and feminist politics in anthropology and sociology, economics, and of a vocal feminist movement, most of today's French women, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. Ozouf, who tends to generalize freely, experience gender difference without tension, resentment, or aggressivity. How can one explain, she asks, this tranquil, even "timid" brand of feminism that seems to be specifically French?
One might expect the historian Mona Ozouf to advance an historically based explanation, outlining the vicissitudes vicissitudes
changes in circumstance or fortune [Latin vicis change]
vicissitudes npl → vicisitudes fpl; peripecias fpl of women's history under diverse regimes, monarchist mon·ar·chism
1. The system or principles of monarchy.
2. Belief in or advocacy of monarchy.
mon , imperial, and republican. But she chooses a different tack, a biographical approach in the style of the literary portrait. The genre of the woman's portrait, and better yet, of the women's portrait gallery, traditionally, has been a male literary genre Noun 1. literary genre - a style of expressing yourself in writing
writing style, genre
drama - the literary genre of works intended for the theater
prose - ordinary writing as distinguished from verse , illustrated in France by such eminent writers as Stendhal, Sainte-Beuve, and the Goncourts. Mona Ozouf positions her book both within this literary tradition and against it. Within it: she calls on all the resources of a remarkable literary style, replete with original syntactic constructions, unexpected metaphors, and obsolescent ob·so·les·cent
1. Being in the process of passing out of use or usefulness; becoming obsolete.
2. Biology Gradually disappearing; imperfectly or only slightly developed. idioms. The result is an astonishing a·ston·ish
tr.v. as·ton·ished, as·ton·ish·ing, as·ton·ish·es
To fill with sudden wonder or amazement. See Synonyms at surprise. literary performance that holds its own with those of her literary forebears by presenting riveting portraits of her subjects. From the formidable, witty, quintessentially aristocratic Marquise du Deffand, the unconventional and independent Dutch-born Madame de Charriere, the passionately revolutionary Manon Roland, the peaceful Madame de Remusat, on to the women who defied society's anathema against women writers and righters in the 19th century, Germaine de Stael, George Sand, and the suffragette Hubertine Auclert, and, in a stark contrast, Colette, the apologist Apologist
Any of the Christian writers, primarily in the 2nd century, who attempted to provide a defense of Christianity against Greco-Roman culture. Many of their writings were addressed to Roman emperors and were submitted to government secretaries in order to defend of sensual pleasures, opposed to the self-sacrificial social and political activist Simone Weil, and, finally, the acclaimed feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir Noun 1. Simone de Beauvoir - French feminist and existentialist and novelist (1908-1986)
Beauvoir , Ozouf produces a rich array of characters, personalities and lives in which to track ways in which French women experienced, conceptualized, and problematized femininity over the centuries.
Ozouf also claims to position herself against the tradition of male women's portraiture, opposing Diderot's advice to writers on the female sex to "dip their pen in the rainbow and cast on the line they trace the dust of butterfly wings." She claims to eschew essentializing male constructions of femininity and instead to restore to these women's lives the tone of their own voices. She interrogates their personal writings (memoirs, correspondences, diaries) in regard to the perennial "women questions:" attitudes towards the self, education, marriage, motherhood, sex, society, nation, work, and equality of rights, as well as the dilemma of writing in a world hostile to female authorship. It would, however, be an error to believe that, writing as a woman, Ozouf is more sympathetic to the cause of these women than her male predecessors. One of the main objections her book may encounter is that her portraits are just as slanted as theirs. For example, she dwells with almost perverse pleasure on the proud and old Marquise du Deffand's girlish girl·ish
Characteristic of or befitting a girl: girlish charm.
girlish·ly adv. , self-demeaning subjugation Subjugation
king to whom God sold Israelites. [O.T.: Judges 3:8]
consigned to servitude in retribution for trickery. [O.T.: Joshua 9:22–27]
curses him and progeny to servitude. [O. to the whims and self-interest of Horace Walpole. She conducts a scathing critique of Beauvoir on many fronts, highlighting in this "future apologist of engagement"(p. 313) a shocking indifference to the war, comparing Beauvoir's writing to Henry James's, "minus the genius," unmasking numerous instances of Beauvoir's "bad faith" and "hypocrisy." Instead of focusing on Beauvoir's pioneering contribution to feminine identity and equality, Ozouf goes back to misogynist mi·sog·y·nist
One who hates women.
Of or characterized by a hatred of women.
Noun 1. misogynist - a misanthrope who dislikes women in particular
woman hater cliches, exposing the asymmetry of her lifelong liaison with Sartre, her servile ser·vile
1. Abjectly submissive; slavish.
a. Of or suitable to a slave or servant.
b. Of or relating to servitude or forced labor. subservience to Sartre's work, projects, timetable, and mistresses. At the same time, Ozouf blames Beauvoir for taking an "oblique vengeance" (p. 320) by exposing Sartre's physical degradation in stark and crude details in La Ceremonie des adieux. In such instances, the reader identifies with surprise distant echoes of so much conventional literature on women that she wonders what difference it makes that the portraitist is an enlightened woman. By privileging intimate details over public life without searching for the connections between the two, Ozouf furthermore can be accused of perpetuating the kind of "small lens history" that men often associate with women and that she herself censures in Pierre Bourdieu's statement: "what essentially constitutes women's vision, the small aspect of history ... reflected history, the public seen from the private, the domestic realm." (p. 397)
By giving each of her women a timeless, human, rather than feminine, attribute in the title of each essay ("Simone or Asceticism asceticism (əsĕt`ĭsĭzəm), rejection of bodily pleasures through sustained self-denial and self-mortification, with the objective of strengthening spiritual life. " for Simone Weil, contrasted with "Simone or Greed" for Simone de Beauvoir, just as Moliere entitled his play Alceste ou Le Misanthrope), Ozouf means to insist on the universal import of their life stories. She insists that her women's "words," written by women and about women, were not written for women, but for everyone, men and women, "in the hope of exchange, the certitude cer·ti·tude
1. The state of being certain; complete assurance; confidence.
2. Sureness of occurrence or result; inevitability.
3. of a shared language and a shared consciousness." To these voices Ozouf adds her own, but it is a voice from the ancien regime of gender difference, one in which women either felt at ease in or were eager to collaborate with the structures of power rather than analyze or subvert them. Her position is rooted, paradoxically, both in a nostalgia for the urbane mixed-gender sociability of ancien regime salons (where, however, only a few prominent women held sway) and, at the same time, in the belief in universal values which is a legacy of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution looms large in this book, as is natural, considering both the author's expertise in this period and its crucial importance as a turning point in French women's history. Here, however, Ozouf passionately opposes the theory, propounded recently in Anglophone scholarship, which views the Revolution as the origin of the long-lasting exclusion of women from the public sphere. In her 1988 pathbreaking study, Women and the Public Sphere (curiously never cited by Ozouf), Joan Landes generated an important scholarly debate in this country by maintaining that the Revolution was not simply "contingently" but "essentially masculinist." Ozouf, on the contrary, is out to vindicate the Revolution, its forebears and its agents (for example, Rousseau in Emile, or even the revolutionaries Amar and Chaumette) from this tarnishing accusation. Passing lightly over the systematic executions of prominent women in 1793 and the subsequent confinement of women to the role of spouses and mothers for the following two centuries, she fervently maintains that the universal democratic principles forged by the Revolution always included the promise of women's equality, what she calls the "little music of 'there will come a day ...'." (p. 352) I doubt that this new revision of revisionist re·vi·sion·ism
1. Advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements.
2. Revolutionary history, which takes us backwards by nearly ten years and brushes aside the important work of scholars such as Madelyn Gutwirth, Lynn Hunt, Joan Landes, Sarah Maza, Dorinda Outram, Carole Pateman, and Joan Scott, will find much resonance in feminist academic circles in the U.S.
Ozouf's book, then, is not just a book about French literary women's "words," but a 'livre a these," a book with an axe to grind Axe to grind
Used in context of general equities. Involvement in a security, whether through a position, order, or inquiry. . This axe, a particularly anti-American one, is given prominence in the book's closing "Essay on French Singularity." Arguing that French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, whom she curtly dismisses as "feminist fundamentalists" ("ces integristes du feminin," p. 384), have cut themselves off from the larger constituency of French women by their "opaque language," but spawned an especially virulent offshoot in America. Ozouf maintains that French women have always preferred, and will continue to subordinate feminist claims to, a shared belief in the equality and freedom of the sexes: "with such a conviction, [women] can experience sexual difference without resentment, cultivate it with felicity and irony, and refuse to essentialize es·sen·tial·ize
tr.v. es·sen·tial·ized, es·sen·tial·iz·ing, es·sen·tial·izes
To express or extract the essential form of. it." (p. 383) By contrast, she turns the American scene into a caricature, arguing that American feminists tend to regard all men as potential rapists and all women as potential victims. Noting with surprise the wide inroads inroads
make inroads into to start affecting or reducing: my gambling has made great inroads into my savings
inroads npl to make inroads into [+ made by feminism in nearly every aspect of public life in the U.S., education, legislation, politics, work ethics, etc., she enumerates ironically all the aberrations that French women will, in her mind, never want to adopt: they will not, like their American colleagues, give in to excesses of language and call a seminar an ovular ovular /ovu·lar/ (ov´u-lar)
1. pertaining to an ovule.
2. pertaining to an oocyte.
pertaining to an ovule or an ovum. (p. 391, but who does?), or read Montaigne and Racine as representatives of male white ideology, or want to owe their positions to sexual quotas.
It is hard to say how Ozouf's book, with its claim to speak for all French women while in fact paying little attention to current trends of French feminist scholarship (such as Genevieve Fraisse's Reason's Muse), will be received in France. It is true that feminism is less widespread and less woven into the fabric of daily life in France, especially in academe, than in the U.S. In this country, Ozouf's universalist thesis may well seem strangely outdated, not to say reactionary, especially coming from so astute an interpreter of cultural phenomena. Les Mots des Femmes will certainly ruffle a great many feathers. It will be of value, however, if it generates a sustained comparative inquiry into the profound national differences that subsist sub·sist
v. sub·sist·ed, sub·sist·ing, sub·sists
a. To exist; be.
b. To remain or continue in existence.
2. between France and the United States in regard to the history, representation, and interpretation of sexual difference across time.
Bernadette Fort Northwestern University