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Theatre Journal 54.4 (2002) 666-668

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Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theater Women From the Old Regime to the Fin-de-siècle. By Lenard R. Berlanstein. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001; pp. ix + 300. $45.00 cloth.

If Lenard R. Berlanstein's Daughters of Eve were a play, it would be comedy. After all, it sets out to describe how "theater women" (including actresses, dancers and singers) rose from the status of harlots unworthy of Christian burial to respectable, even admirable figures in French society.

The plot begins in the seventeenth century, when actresses first appear in roles previously played by cross-dressed men and quickly become the mistresses of choice to the high-born. Paradoxically, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment only makes matters worse, since Rousseau and like-minded republican philosophes castigate actresses as a threat to public morality and civic virtue. In the next twist [End Page 666] of the plot, the French Revolution, though venerating Rousseau, surprisingly inaugurates an age in which men feel confident enough in their ability to govern (both the state and women) to view actresses as capable of virtue. Yet this proves to be a false conclusion, as the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, with its culmination in the Second Empire under Napoleon III, provokes a new wave of hostility towards theatre women. For the next three decades French men, insecure about their sovereignty in the undemocratic regime, take out their aggression on an imaginary "pornocracy," or rule by harlots, emanating from the theatre. While novelists and social commentators openly fear the effects of actresses on otherwise respectable bourgeois men, officials deprive them of governance within the state-supported theatres. The crises of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune (1870-71) only fan the flames of hostility. Suddenly, however, the electoral successes of republicans around 1880 mark a surprising improvement in attitudes towards female performers. Now with their control over the state, the men of the Third Republic cease viewing public women as dangerous, and their wives even come to see them as models of achievement rather than a threat to domestic happiness. Daughters of Eve ends happily when Sarah Bernhardt, the quintessential public woman, is recognized for her achievements with the Legion of Honor ribbon in 1921, and the curtain closes on a society finally ready to accept independent women acting—in more ways than one—in the public sphere.

Berlanstein's story represents a significant departure from a scholarly tradition, now nearly two decades old, that has tended to plot the history of gender in France as tragedy rather than comedy. According to this usual view, a masculinist republican discourse, beginning with the philosophes and reinforced by Revolution, demonized public women (salonnières, court ladies, women authors, etc.) as unnatural and made bourgeois domesticity the only socially acceptable option for women. Moreover, gender historians working on the early Third Republic (1871-1914) have suggested that this tendency was at its worst during their period of investigation, when a combination of political, cultural, and economic factors induced men to police all the more scrupulously the socially sanctioned boundaries between public and private, male and female. Yet it is during this very period that Berlanstein finds actresses, the most obviously "public" of women, at the height of their social acceptability.

French gender historians will no doubt continue the debate about the extent to which men accepted public women during various regimes, as the case of theatre women does not negate the evidence of hostility to other forms of gender boundary crossing that previous historians have found. Still, Berlanstein has offered a compelling challenge to the picture of post-revolutionary French culture as unremittingly misogynistic, and in the future French gender historians will have to take his findings into account.

More problematic are the larger conclusions in Daughters of Eve. Berlanstein explains the fluctuations in attitudes towards actresses in terms of relative levels of "confidence in men's potential for self-government" (5). Thus French men are relatively indulgent...