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…

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