- Reading Modern Women
Who was the “Modern Woman”? What made her modern? And, how and why did she become an enduring emblem of her age? Scholars working in a variety of disciplines have asked these questions about unconventional women who emerged en masse across the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars have been attentive to the lived experiences of embodied historical actors as well as to discursive constructions of the Modern Woman as a “heuristic device” and cultural typology. They have discovered that, in every context in which they appeared, modern women aroused suspicion by simultaneously evoking the possibilities and the perils of modern life. On the one hand, the Modern Woman’s provocative appearance—hair smartly bobbed, face embellished with brightly colored cosmetics, and body adorned with form-fitting fashions—signaled a decisive break with the past. On the other hand, her subversive behaviors—the pursuit of romantic love, demand for intellectual engagement, desire for sexual emancipation, assertion of economic agency, and participation in politics—upended social norms and fueled anxieties about an uncertain future.1
Given the Modern Woman’s preoccupation with cultivating an individual self, not only through rebellious activity, but also through stylized “techniques of appearing,” it is not surprising that scholars focused their [End Page 197] attention on her interactions with consumer society.2 The innovative work of the interdisciplinary Modern Girl Around the World Research Group recently demonstrated that a distinguishing feature of the Modern Woman (or Modern Girl, as they identify her) was her ability, desire, and capacity to consume.3 Scholars continue to privilege consumption as a defining characteristic of modern womanhood. As the four works under consideration here remind us, consumption involved not only the processes of buying and selling, but also daily practices like reading that could occur both within and outside of the commercial marketplace. Whether examining women’s magazines in France, women’s literature in Japan, media coverage of sensational court trials in England, or women’s expanding social and political roles in Burma, each monograph under review concerns itself in some way with reading modern women. Not only do these works explore how contemporaries and scholars read the Modern Woman, but they also question how particular readings of her influenced understandings of modernity and investigate how the act of reading, as both a social practice and form of consumption, made women modern.
In Having it all in the Belle Époque, Rachel Mesch reads the modern French woman through the lavishly illustrated pages of Femina and La Vie Heureuse. During the first decade of the twentieth century, these two popular women’s magazines “shaped a new model of womanhood, one that not only soldered the association between consumerism and femininity but also encouraged women to develop their own critical and creative voices” (6). At the same time that Femina and La Vie Heureuse functioned as important vehicles for the democratization of luxury, they also recognized “a new kind of reflective reader who was not only a consumer of goods but also of culture and literature” (33). Monthlies like these achieved this synergy through such calculated practices as addressing readers directly in the second person, speaking to them in their own idiom, and inviting them to participate in magazine sponsored contests. Blurring distinctions between reading (consuming) and writing (producing), Mesch suggests, these publications fostered female intellectual networks...