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.

By contrast, as Ozouf makes plain, Colette never tired of generalizing about women. But then, with her, it is still the same old and trite gender discourse, only—and engagingly—turned on its head. The “feminine good” for Colette is immodesty, brutality, realism, rapacity, and a spirit of decision, all of them qualities traditionally ascribed to men; and men, conversely, are characterized by vanity, a taste for ornament, a sickly fragility and cumbersome kindness, and, with luck, a “satiny” skin. Colette plays, also, an even more beautiful reversal game. The truth about women, she holds, is not to be found in their love life. “In the season of love, women are unrecognizable,” they are a shapeless blur, they embrace slavery. It is only when their love days are over that women regain their haughty self-sufficiency and innate distinctness from men. It is an endearing piece of mythology—stereotype for stereotype, much to be preferred to Rousseau’s—and if one were not pedantically pursuing truth, one might feel drawn to it.

This brings me to the second thesis of Ozouf’s book: that there is a “singularity” in the French attitude toward the woman question. French feminism, she argues, has—at least until the era of the new-style feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray—been notoriously moderate, even timid. France was one of the last European countries to accept full female suffrage (it only came in 1945), and there is still little drive in France to revise the lexicon, or rewrite the history of the arts and sciences, in a feminist sense. Why is this? Ozouf’s answer begins with the ancien régime, under which French women mingled with men, and lived on an easy intellectual and conversational equality with them, in a manner which amazed foreign visitors. This was an important French “singularity.”

Likewise, according to Ozouf, the French have a moral “singularity,” a gift for balance and discrimination, as for instance may be seen in Montesquieu. Montesquieu was a vehement advocate of democracy and scathing about the idleness and vice of an absolutist regime. Nevertheless the anthropologist in him made him hesitate to demand piecemeal reform. One cannot, he believed, change a piece of a social system without altering the whole thing. A legislator must follow the “spirit of the nation.” To give a spirit of pedantry to a nation naturally gay would gain the state nothing. It had better, Montesquieu thought, be left to “do frivolous things seriously and serious things frivolously.”5

History was to resolve Montesquieu’s dilemma, and during the Revolution French feminism took a “singular” turn indeed. But in fact it had taken one already, through the influence of Montesquieu’s great adversary Rousseau. For Rousseau, there was to be no judicious balancing of loss and gain, no tenderness for the easy camaraderie of the sexes of the salon. Women of the salon, according to Rousseau, were bad mothers and bad citizens, indeed were hardly women at all, “ceasing to be women so as not to be confused with other women.” The only way to put an end to this social evil, he held, was to keep the sexes apart—to which there would be the added advantage that separation of this kind is erotically exciting. Women, anyway, according to Rousseau, are not to be regarded as moral beings. From birth, almost, they are preoccupied with dress. They have no capacity for intellectual generalization; and their education has to be directly contrary to men’s, since defending their sexual “honor” is such an all-important part of it. Their place was at home, justifying their existence by nurturing infant Brutuses.

At the time of the Revolution, the Jacobins adopted Rousseau’s view, and it is well known what a dusty answer feminist women received soon afterward. For a year or two feminist ideas and women’s clubs flourished, but by the law of 4 Prairial, Year III, women were ordered back into their homes and warned that, if found in the streets in numbers greater than five, they would be dispersed by armed force. The “Rights of Man” were not to be the rights of women, and, in Ozouf’s words, “Men and women seemed to emerge from the Revolution much more separated than they had entered it.”

What is extremely significant, though, is that Rousseau had an even greater following among women after the Revolution than before it. Manon Roland saw him as a benefactor of humanity; Germaine de Staël’s first important publication was a panegyric of Rousseau;6 Claire de Rémusat said she would more willingly forgive Rousseau his errors than Voltaire his truths; and he was revered even by George Sand. The reason lay in Rousseau’s Julie, the noble and self-sacrificing heroine of La Nouvelle Héloise. These writers, to use Ozouf’s words, saw in her the “deification of their sex.” They drew from her the message that there was compensation for woman’s narrow lot in the shape of romantic love—especially the love of such a rare spirit as Rousseau’s fictional hero Saint-Preux.

One blinks with amazement at Rousseau’s attitude toward women, his perverse, infinitely paradoxical blending of brutal contempt with mystical flattery. At the time, only Mary Wollstonecraft seems not to have been seduced by it. “To speak disrespectfully of love,” she writes drily, “is, I know, high treason against sentiment and fine feelings.”7 Nevertheless, she risks it, declaring that “Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!”8 As for Rousseau’s theories about women’s innate addiction to dolls and dress, they are, she says, “so puerile as not to merit a serious refutation.”9 This sounds like good sense. To “deify” one’s own sex, or have it deified for one, can hardly be a good thing. One only has to think of the dire effect of “heroinism” on the nineteenth-century novel, even to some extent harming the work of George Eliot. Dorothea in Middlemarch, as Ellen Moers has remarked, makes too many “Corinne-like entrances,” evokes too many compliments. (“What a voice! It was like the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp.”)10

Thus I find Ozouf’s attitude on these matters strange. She wants to defend the views of both Rousseau and the Jacobins on the woman question. Did not the Revolution reform the laws of inheritance, thereby reducing male privilege; did it not, if only briefly, legalize divorce? Did not Rousseau see women, in their motherly role, as holding the entire future of the race in their hands?

But more important, Ozouf has a novel explanation for the repressiveness of the Jacobins toward women. They “obscurely sensed,” she says, “that the movement they had initiated would lead to indifferentiation” (i.e. homogenization, a universal reduction to sameness). They were afraid that political equality, if one took it so far as to include women, might lead to “a world without qualities, of an inhuman and gray abstraction.”

For myself, I have always regarded the segregationism of the Jacobins as pure male chauvinism, indeed as a rich example of it, and Ozouf’s theory does little to shake me. One seems to have met it in other writers before (perhaps in Tocqueville), this vision of a gray universe of sameness (“sameness” in the sense of monotonous similarity). Usually, as here, it is presented as the grim future to which democracy ultimately tends, and I am inclined to think it more or less a complete fallacy. Ozouf would have us believe that it is what Montesquieu had in mind when he wrote of the dangers of “extreme democracy”;11 but what he was envisaging was not social “indifferentiation” but anarchy—quite a different matter.12 The twentieth century has, of course, seen much by way of social homogenization, but as the result of universal literacy, broadcasting, and travel by road, rail, and air. It is not to be blamed on democracy. The point will be plain to any novel reader. For it was just after the first Reform Act of 1832, a triumph for democracy, that Dickens—discarding the meager repertory of types of the old-style novel—showed the amazing range of human experience you might find if you actually took a look at industrial England: a scene of quite prodigious and fantastic differentiation. (Balzac, writing under the July Monarchy, reported much the same discovery.)

Ozouf pursues French “singularity” through the nineteenth century, pointing out that, under the Third Republic, between 1870 and 1940, women gained access to the male world, not through suffrage agitation, but through teacher training. The school, she says, became “the privileged site for a certain feminist movement, where the specific interests of women were organized around the rigorous [sexual] equality of training.” She also makes the intelligent suggestion that women writers in France may have suffered less feeling of exclusion because French was, or thought itself to be, a “universal” language.

She is clear, however, that, a century or more after the Revolution, it was still Jacobinism that, for good or evil, was clogging the progress of French feminism.Ironically, she says, “it is the radicalism of French concepts, not their timidity, that explains the delay in granting female suffrage.” France excluded women from the polling booth for so long, she argues, precisely because it took such a theoretical and Jacobinical view of the vote, as being the pure and abstract right of the individual. The French, she says, were “loath to conceive freedom as the product of some group identity,” and for this reason would not consent to women being granted even a watered-down version of the vote, thus delaying suffrage. Here she quotes Pierre Rosanvallon, in his Le Sacre du citoyen. If Great Britain and the United States were more willing to grant the vote to women, says Rosanvallon, it was because, in their pragmatic way, they called women to the polls “as women and not as individuals.”13 But I do not see why he says this, or in what sense, when women were given the vote in Britain in 1918, it was not as “abstract individuals.”14

We can perhaps allow Ozouf the idea of “French singularity” and a “French tone” when it comes to the status of women, but not on her terms, for they land her in too many paradoxes. Against the ferocious sex-war feminism of Cixous, Irigaray, and some American feminists, she appeals to the “long tradition of exchanges between the sexes” among the French, “the old dream of an ideal abbey of Thélème, where men and women converse in ‘honest company.”‘15 Frenchwomen, she says, have been “sheltered” by the conviction that “they are free and equal individuals,” and thus “can experience sexual difference without resentment, can cultivate it with joy and irony.” They have been sheltered, this would seem to be saying, by the very right that the Jacobins have so long, and so implacably, persisted in denying them. But she seems also to imply that the Jacobins were clearsighted not only in 1794 but later; and, alas, we have now entered that drab “universe of sameness” of which they were afraid. “We tolerate natural determinations (illness, sterility, infirmity, death, sex) less and less, endeavor more and more to master and nullify them.” By these words Ozouf has classed being a woman among the great calamities of human existence! Her book, with its strained logic, is another example, if one were needed, of the bewildering labyrinth one is led into by supposing that gender is innate.

This Issue

March 5, 1998