- Disruptive Acts. The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France
Mary Louise Roberts' rich and insightful recent study of the New Woman in fin-de-siècle France offers a fresh perspective on a figure whose significance for the history of feminist activism has until now been troublingly elusive. The New Woman was largely a product of France's thriving mass print culture, which provided endless images of this larger-than-life, dangerously spunky, rebellious and independent woman. As Roberts argues, in her caricatured form, the New Woman manifests a profound socio-cultural anxiety surrounding changing gender roles at the turn-of-the-century. The flipside of this anxiety is that the New Woman provided an alternative way for women of the Belle Epoque to imagine their own futures. Roberts distinguishes the distorted cultural image of the "New Woman," who became a stock figure in the public imagination in the early 1900s, from the "new women" who comprise her study. These actual figures include Marguerite Durand, founder of the entirely female-run newspaper La Fronde, Séverine, the first female reporter, Gyp, right-wing novelist and fervent anti-semite, and the beloved, world-renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. These women have been traditionally remembered by historians and literary critics as eccentric exceptions, rather than as taking part in any kind of shared resistance to gender norms. By acknowledging the political import of what she calls "disruptive acts," Roberts widens the lens through which we can recognize subversion of patriarchal structures during this period. In this vein, she posits "resistance in women's lives as a diverse language, in which feminism is simply one, albeit very important dialect" (9).
The New Woman's resistance to gender norms often began with her rejection of the traditional domestic path as wife and mother. This, argues Roberts, largely assured her split from turn-of-the-century feminists, who frequently used their domestic contributions as a platform from which to justify political demands. At the same time, the New Woman and the feminist were often conflated in the French imagination. In part because of the rift between new women and feminist activists, feminist historians have failed to recognize the political significance of the kinds of disruptive acts highlighted in this study. These [End Page 148] acts took place most often in the worlds of theater and journalism, the shared trajectories of which Roberts brings vividly to life. Each of these venues, of dubious repute, was a product of the new urbanism of the Belle Epoque, and offered numerous opportunities for new women to reinvent just what it meant to be female at the fin de siècle.
Roberts begins her study with an analysis of the theatricality of the New Woman and the ways in which the theater served as a stage for playing with female identity. She then considers Marguerite Durand's "theatrics of self," demonstrating how this notoriously beautiful and charismatic woman manipulated the power both of her reputation and of the mass press in order to promote new women's roles. In the third chapter, Roberts turns to the frondeuses, who demonstrated their rights as public citizens by reporting on the ostensibly virile domains of politics, sports and the economy, while at the same time placing emphasis on traditionally feminine roles. In chapter four, Roberts examines the fascinating interplay of stereotypes and associations between the New Woman and the Jew by comparing the reporting of Dreyfusard Séverine and anti-Dreyfusard Gyp. Chapter six considers the extent to which the fantastical mystique of Sarah Bernhardt posed a challenge to gender norms. The final chapter then situates Bernhardt and Durand in the context of the newly commodified fin-de-siècle culture. Using Maupassant's Bel-Ami as a reference for cabotinage, Roberts considers how Parisian boulevard culture facilitated the exploration of gender identity.
Disruptive Acts finally provides the terms with which to speak of the New Woman in the context of feminism, linking this figure up to her successor, the Modern Woman, and to Roberts...