- Going Public against the Academy in 1784: Mme de Genlis Speaks Out on Gender Bias
Once a woman writer decided to publish any criticism of the patriarchal status quo in early modern France, she risked a humiliating backlash intended to force her to retreat into silence. As has been demonstrated in a number of excellent, recent studies exploring the gendered distinctions between the public and private spheres of ancien régime, femmes auteurs and salonnières alike felt pressured to adopt a self-effacing modesty that did not impinge on the established territory of masculine discourse. 1 A woman’s “natural” place, as argued by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, was in the domestic realm; her speech should likewise be confined to that area: “Let them [i.e., women] speak ill of others so long as they like, provided they do so only among themselves.” 2 Even the salon hostess, who played an important role in political discussion, often neutralized her own presence by acting only as a facilitator. Transgressing the boundaries of gender difference, even in patterns of discourse, frequently constituted an open invitation to controversy and attack, especially on one’s character and virtue.
Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis (1746–1830) certainly exemplified the general rule that an outspoken woman who challenged the dominant male intellectual establishment of the day could be simultaneously reviled and respected, according to the partisan beliefs of Parisian society. Regarded today as a political conservative who denounced the philosophes for their atheism, she is also frequently criticized for her contradictory feminist views. For example, she argued against Rousseau in her advocacy for female education, but at the same time claimed pragmatism in maintaining that a young girl’s destiny should be marriage, dependency on a husband, and motherhood. 3 Her consignment of women to a domestic life, where she thought their chances for happiness would be the greatest, was in opposition to her own role as a female intellectual maverick. We may well ask, did she think that the social penalties for independence and outspokenness were too severe for most women, despite her own willingness to withstand public attack?
Indeed, Genlis’s career was marked by contradiction and controversy. Her frankness in her speech was undoubtedly protected by a highly privileged status. From 1777 to the Revolution, she was employed by the Orléans branch of the royal family as their official governess, first to the royal princesses and subsequently to the young princes. She was also widely suspected of having had an affair with the Duc de Chartres, later known as Philippe-Egalité. Genlis seems to have used her position to publish whatever she wished. She was also intensely stubborn; her refusal to compromise and her tendency to lash out against those whom she felt were disloyal turned a number of former associates into enemies. 4
The early 1780s was an extraordinary period in Genlis’s life. In January 1782, after young Louis-Philippe’s eighth birthday, she was officially named royal gouverneur, with its masculinized title, to the young Orléans princes. The position of gouverneur was usually given to a military man; Genlis was the first woman to take such a role. Negative reaction came swiftly. Many of the tutors at the Palais-Royal resigned, although, as Gabriel de Broglie has demonstrated, the decision had not been sudden, having been planned in secrecy as early as 1775. 5 Slanderous poems appeared in the press, notably one entitled “L’Enigme” in Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, in which Genlis was likened to a hermaphrodite—a woman in the bedroom and a man in the salon. 6 As Mary Sheriff has demonstrated, the accusations of freakish gender confusion, as exemplified in this particular verse, were often leveled against women who transgressed acceptable boundaries of public behavior.
Also during January 1982 Genlis published one of her most famous pedagogical works, Adèle et Théodore, ou Lettres sur l’Education, contenant tous les principes relatifs aux trois différens plans d’Education des Princes, des jeunes Personnes & des Hommes. Throughout the text she expressed many reservations about the educational ideas of the philosophes, [End Page 376] especially the...