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Portraits of a Lady

Women’s Words: Essay on French Singularity

by Mona Ozouf, translated by Jane Marie Todd
University of Chicago Press, 300 pp., $29.95

The “woman’s portrait” (“portrait de femme“) has tended, says the author of Women’s Words, to be a male genre. The genre has its great men—Sainte-Beuve, Michelet, the Goncourt brothers—and its own rules, chief among them being that the portrait should be done from the point of view of what Woman is and ought (or ought not) to be. This entails, further, an assumption that the subject, and indeed any woman, “is a nature before being a person.” By contrast, as Mona Ozouf rightly points out, “the author of a man’s portrait has no need for preliminary reflection on what a man is.” What she says is all too true, and Michelet’s Les femmes de la Révolution and Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits de femmes can make a reader cringe. A woman, according to Michelet, for example, is a “daughter of the sidereal world”!

But then, as Ozouf reminds us, women in the past have tended to internalize this condescending discourse. This might suggest that they have no real hope of escaping from it, and the only possible discourse about femininity is one invented by men. Moreover it may be true—Georg Simmel thought so1—that women are more preoccupied with their gender, less likely to forget it, than men are about theirs, which would make male hegemony all the more complete.

Is this a hopeless dilemma, or can there also be a woman’s discourse about femininity? Ozouf thinks there can. The thing to do, she says, is to listen with unprejudiced attention, abjuring totally the temptation to draw a “woman’s portrait,” to the words actually used by women, and especially by women writers. One also needs to resist the “violent prejudice” which holds that what women of the past have said has to be “explained,” or in other words explained away—i.e., referred back to the influences, the books, movements, historical events, or personal loves and hates that motivated them. If one attends in this uninterpreted way to “immediately original voices,” we shall, Mona Ozouf says, hear them speaking about “the woman in themselves and about women in general” in their own authentic tone, not just a male-prescribed one. Ozouf explores ten women’s “voices,” all French, as proof of this: those of the famous salonnière and wit Madame du Deffand, the novelist Isabelle de Charrière, the revolutionary Manon Roland, Germaine de Staël, the Napoleonic memoirist Claire de Rémusat, George Sand, the women’s suffragist Hubertine Auclert, Colette, Simone Weil, and Simone de Beauvoir.

I would like to halt at this point. For the only way of writing about this, in some ways impressive, book seems to be to state my own general theory as a feminist. (It is, actually, one that several of Ozouf’s women writers propose, only then they hedge and draw back from it.) The theory runs that men and women are not “equals,” but, humanly and intrinsically speaking, exactly the same. Each individual man and woman contains within himself or herself the whole varied potential of the human species. Thus gender, as opposed to sex, is entirely a cultural construction.

According to Lévi-Strauss, the passage from the state of Nature to the state of Culture is marked by humankind’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contrasts—duality, alternation, opposition, and symmetry. What more inevitable, then, if Culture requires such contrasts, than that it should seize on the male-female one? There is no great problem, further, in seeing how this tendency would lead to “essentialist” illusions, crediting men and women with separate and intrinsic qualities. Nevertheless—this is the important point—these qualities, these ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity,” will define the qualities of gender purely by their relation to each other. “Femininity” will be no more than the verso or complement of “masculinity,” and vice versa.2

If one accepts this view, a number of implications follow. It would mean, for instance that searching for a woman’s voice about femininity, as Ozouf aims to do, must be a wild-goose chase. For if the concepts of “femininity” and “masculinity” are purely relational (i.e., defined by relation to each other) they will constitute one thing, one discourse, not two (one half of it presupposing the other). There would be no “other” discourse; and in fact, as I shall go on to argue, this is the feeling that Ozouf’s studies of women writers actually leave us with.

Moreover, I cannot help feeling that one discourse is enough, if not too many. There are times when one tears one’s hair at the stupidity of the discourse comparing men to women. (It is even worse than the one about national characteristics.) Women are more carnal than men; they are more spiritual than men. Women are more romantic and sensitive than men; they have a more down-to-earth sense of reality than men. Women have achieved less than men; they have achieved just as much as men, but in a different sphere. So it has droned on. It is a mode of thought that, frankly, gets nowhere and is not worthy of intelligent people.

I am not, of course, suggesting that such discourse is all there is to gender, or that one could unwrite human prehistory and altogether get rid of gender, even if one wanted to. Nevertheless gender lore, much of it anyway, is available to conscious scrutiny; and where it is crippling and humanly damaging it can be un-thought. Indeed in certain directions it has been. (No longer would the greatly talented Isabelle de Charrière need to believe, in her heart, that women cannot really be intellectuals, or have any part to play in public life.3 ) But there is still a long way to go, and it can only be done by sticking faithfully and rigidly to anti-“essentialism.” It is not an issue on which one has the right to equivocate, asserting it at one moment, and denying it the next.

The temptation to do so is partly political. I am thinking of a remark in a very honest, lucid, but pessimistic essay by the feminist Christine Di Stefano. “In asking how basic gender differences are,” she writes, “we are also asking how basic we want them to be for particular purposes and ends. This is really what the feminist debate about gender these days is all about.”4 This is, for me, a strong argument for depoliticizing the whole subject.

To return to Ozouf’s book, she wants to enable us to hear the “immediately original voices” of her ten subjects. Now, to find one’s own voice is a great and not too common achievement, and it is one in which all her ten women have magnificently succeeded. I do not mean their voices about femininity or masculinity, but their voices simply as persons. But Ozouf also wants us to hear their words about “the woman in themselves and about women in general,” and she has to admit that, in the letters of Madame du Deffand, the first of her subjects, there are hardly any such words to be found. “We are astonished by the little place devoted to the fact of being a woman.” “The very occurrence of the word ‘woman’ is extremely rare in her texts.” As a result, Ozouf concentrates not on what Deffand said (her “voice”), but on what she did, which was—blind and in her seventies—to fall in love with Horace Walpole. (“A bright late-season sun had just risen on that suspicious soul.”)

Critics, as Ozouf says, were contemptuous or jubilant at the news, “enchanted to see Mme du Deffand finally behaving like a woman”; but in a sense this seems to be Ozouf’s reaction too. “The austere marquise was behaving like a lovestruck maiden,” she writes. She is perhaps using here the style indirect libre, in which someone else’s thoughts and style may be evoked, a mode of which Ozouf is fond; but it is not clear just whose style, whose attitudes, she is evoking. The effect is oddly prejudiced, almost jeering.

By contrast her account of Madame Roland, a leading figure in the Girondin party, guillotined during the Terror, is sympathetic as well as vivid. As she rightly points out, a great fuss was made about her status as a Woman (“Did [she] truly act as a woman? As a woman can? As a woman should?”) not only by her critics but by her admirers. “There is a woman at the origin of all great things, so there had to be one at the root of the Revolution.” Thus bombinates Lamartine, while Proudhon complains of the “affected virility” she displayed on the scaffold. What these descriptions ignore, says Ozouf, is Roland’s own many responses to the question “What does it mean exactly to be a woman?” Roland said it took “a great deal of patience or vanity to hear with cool head, from men’s own mouths, the value they attach to their superiority over us.” Nevertheless she sometimes felt like “putting on trousers and a hat” in order to seek out intelligent companions. She studied geometry only in secret, out of respect for public opinion, and held that women were lacking in energy and incoherent in their ideas—this from the future policymaker of the Girondins!

In short, she thought different things about women at different times, as any intelligent person might. (It was, after all, not her life’s ambition to solve the problem of gender.) Ozouf speaks of her “duality” over gender questions, but also of a “principle of unity” in her life, in the shape of a belief that, “though there were a thousand destinies possible for women, they could all be lived in the boundless exercise of free thought.” This is to find more pattern in Roland’s attitudes than is, I think, really present. Indeed Ozouf’s ten “brief lives,” colorfully written as they are—with much style indirect libre—hardly seem to compose themselves into any overall pattern. Maybe we are not asked to think that they do.

But further, Mme. du Deffand is not the only one of Ozouf’s chosen subjects to have little or nothing to say about “the woman in themselves and about women in general.” Simone Weil, as Ozouf admits, made only “fleeting” observations about women. It was not a topic which interested her much or on which she had anything systematic to say. Thus, Ozouf is forced to reconstruct Weil’s response to being a woman from external signs—from the fact, for instance, that when she took a factory job during the 1930s, she was rude about her female workmates, or would sign her letters to her mother “your respectful son.” “Must we conclude,” asks Ozouf, “that she haughtily and deliberately rejected her femininity?”

The question, one cannot help feeling, has a whiff of Michelet or Sainte-Beuve, invoking ideas of what a woman is or ought to be. We hear little of Weil’s voice in this chapter and much about her “paradoxes”: for instance that she starved herself during the war, though she held that hunger was the ultimate misfortune. Ozouf even seems half inclined to say that there was something definitely wrong with Simone Weil. She allegedly remained obsessed, even in her adult years, by childhood envy of her brother. It is “possible to maintain,” Ozouf writes, that the submission she preached was actually sexual. “Kneeling down before someone in an attitude of supplication was no doubt offering one’s head to the blade, but it was also approaching the source of life in the one implored (quite obviously a man).” Of her language about God “deposit[ing] a seed in our soul” she writes: “It is only too easy to read these images and words as the return of the repressed.” With more truth, she goes on to say that what horrified Weil was not femininity or Jewishness but “everything that defined, determined, or enclosed being.” Nevertheless Weil is presented to us in this chapter not through her “words,” but from outside and in terms of a gender discourse she would have held in contempt.

  1. 1

    Ozouf cites Simmel’s Vom Wesen der Moderne (Hamburg: Junius, 1990).

  2. 2

    Simone de Beauvoir is illuminating about this in The Second Sex (Gallimard, 1949).

  3. 3

    See “A Finished Woman” by this reviewer in The New York Review, January 15, 1998.

  4. 4

    Christine di Stefano, “Dilemmas of Difference,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda J. Nicholson (Routledge, 1990), p. 66. Italics in original.

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