- Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France
This collection of essays—all originally presented at the UCLA William Andrew Clark Library—addresses two major issues regarding Old Regime France: the nature of the public sphere and the status of women. While neither issue has suffered from scholarly neglect in recent years, it is the particular merit of this collection to consider each with regard to the other. [End Page 140] What did it involve, the authors ask, for early modern French women to go public, that is, to represent themselves or have themselves represented in the public sphere? In responding, the authors consider the cases not only of professional writers, but also those of women with many other backgrounds and training whose personal histories led to some form of “public-ation.” In conceptualizing the public sphere the authors explicitly proceed from the work of Jürgen Habermas, intending that their collection contribute to the growing literature exploring its implications. But they bind themselves to no orthodoxies, being as willing to redraw the boundaries of the public sphere as they are to reassess the position of women within it.
Given that these fourteen essays are authored by different scholars and deal with such different kinds of experience over the span of two centuries, it is not surprising that they arrive at somewhat different conclusions. Thus, for example, Nadine Bérenguier, in her article on mémoires judiciaires, finds that most of their authors did not, like those studied by Sarah Maza and Sarah Hanley, challenge prevailing social or political orthodoxies, but, on the contrary, paid respect to the authority of established misogynistic laws and procedures to advance the cases of their female clients. (On this basis she asserts that women remained victims of the legal system; but one wonders whether the winning of legal victories in this forum might not indicate instead that women and their advocates had learned to manipulate legal institutions and discourse to the benefit of women, even if they did not directly confront the misogynistic nature of prevailing practice.) In her essay on the gender implications of the quarrel of ancients and moderns, Joan DeJean also tends to focus upon victimization, contending that the quarrel resulted in the increasing exclusion of women writers from the official literary world. By contrast, Cynthia Truant finds in her study of pamphlets written on behalf of Parisian guildswomen strong challenges to contemporary institutions through their discourse of exploitation and demands that women receive the same treatment as men. Similarly, Kathryn Norberg, in exploring the pornographic work of Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse, demonstrates how this author used literary conventions for the unconventional and emancipating purpose of showing women that experiencing sexual pleasure did not mean having to “pay the price.”
What general picture emerges from this collection? As far as the status of women is concerned, these essays present a much more nuanced view than other scholarship that has focused either on the oppression of women or their achievements. The authors in this collection suggest that women did make their presence felt in and did exert considerable influence on the public sphere, but that their entry into it was eventually contested at almost every point. Of all the essays, Erica Harth’s contribution demonstrates this most clearly by showing how the rise of the salon during the seventeenth century allowed women to play a major authorial and critical role in literary production, but also how the politicization of the public sphere gradually led to the exclusion and self-exclusion of women authors in the age of lumières. (A very similar point is made by Dena Goodman in her essay on Suzanne Necker, but she makes it even more emphatically in her book, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment.) As for the definition of the public sphere, the essays come to somewhat murkier conclusions. If there is common argument in this regard it appears to be that the public sphere...