Cherchez la Femme

Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

by Gary Kates
Basic Books, 368 pp., $25.00

It had to happen. Now that gender studies reigns on many campuses as the queen of the social sciences and humanities, someone was sure to rehabilitate the chevalier/chevalière d’Eon, the man/woman who beginning in the 1770s led the diplomats of pre-revolutionary Europe on a merry chase through a series of intrigues that could have come out of The Marriage of Figaro. That Beaumarchais himself got caught in the subplots makes the story all the more interesting: a case of nature imitating art. Now it is available to the general reading public, packaged in a way that suits the times, as a heroic episode in the history of feminism.

Looking back across two decades, it seems that feminist history has passed through two phases: one empirical and triumphalist, an attempt to resurrect worthy women from oblivion; the other theoretical and expansionist, an attempt to map the shifting boundaries of gender.

The first feminist historians tried to create some room of their own within standard accounts of the past by concentrating on biography, especially in the field of early modern Europe. “Cherchez la femme,” they said; and they found her—exercising power, not merely on the throne (Elizabeth I in England) but also behind it (Mme. de Maintenon in France) and directing literature, not merely by perfecting the novel (Mme. de La Fayette, Jane Austen) but also by reviewing it (Mme. de Beaumer, Eliza Haywood). They discovered that Mme. d’Epinay wrote a great deal of the Correspondance littéraire attributed to Grimm and Diderot and that Mme. du Châtelet taught Voltaire to read Newton. They turned up enough women scientists—including feisty, forgotten heroines like Dorothea Erxleben, “Germany’s first woman M.D.” and Dorothea Schlözer, “Germany’s first woman Ph.D.”—to sustain the argument advanced by Poulain de la Barre in 1637 that “the mind has no sex.”1

In short, feminist history restored a great many women to their rightful places in the past. But in doing so, it raised questions about women’s places in general, and it sometimes undercut itself. For if the vindication of women depends on the discovery of an adequate supply of forgotten writers and power-brokers, what is to be done if the numbers turn out to be disappointing?

For my part, I have tried to identify all the women writers in eighteenth-century France. According to one source, a remarkably thorough survey by the police of every author they could locate in Paris from 1748 to 1753, women composed only 4 percent of the total. According to another, La France littéraire, a literary who’s who published at intervals throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, the proportion of women writers varied from 2 percent in 1757 to 3 percent in 1784. Whatever the bias built into the sources, however great the appeal of best-selling authors like Mme. Riccoboni, and with all due allowance for the genius of exceptional individual writers such as Mme. de Graffigny, one cannot avoid the conclusion that women contributed relatively little as writers to the Republic of…

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