By Marlene Schiffman
On Monday, April 19, 2021, Dr. Rachel Mesch, professor of English and French and chair of the English department at Yeshiva College, spoke about her new book, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France with Liesl Schwabe, Lecturer in English and Writing Program Director.
She shared her research on evolving notions of gender roles in 19th-century Paris, when the proliferation of photographs and newspapers transformed mass culture. These media tended to portray women as stereotypically feminine and exclusively family oriented. They limited the domains of literature and writing to one sex only: Men were writers; women were not. Women who wrote would have to suppress their gender. Yet some women, in writing, acknowledged their transgender status.
The author defined “trans” as referring to someone who has moved away from the gender assigned at birth, often toward a nonbinary gender identity. Dr. Mesch used this framework to understand three literary figures. These writers experienced their gender in ways that did not fit into 19th-century categories. At that time, there was no term for “trans” as a medical or social category and no study of gender identity as a science.
How did these three people express their struggles with their sexual identities? They wrote stories. Dr. Mesch examined both their novels and stories as well as their extensive personal letters and journals. She gained empathy and compassion for them as people who wanted, despite great pressures to conform, to express their true identities in a society that would not allow that.
The three writers she researched all started out being addressed with feminine pronouns, but they identified with masculine or nonbinary gender expressions. Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916) wore men’s suits and short hair and had official permission to wear trousers. She promoted women’s participation in society and professions. She and her husband participated in archaeological excavations in Persia and filled a room in the Louvre Museum with ancient artifacts. Her celebrity allowed her to transcend comments about and criticisms of her nonconforming attire. Tellingly, in a novel, she wrote about a character like the biblical Joseph: He was torn away from his family but wanted to return and be accepted both as the same person who left but also as a changed person. She also saw herself as Joan of Arc, the “transvestite saint.”
Rachilde (1860-1953), whose photographs over the years reveal a woman changing gradually into a nonbinary identity, adopted the werewolf as her symbol. She specialized in writing tales of decadence full of eroticism, mood-altering drugs and bold experiences that were meant to shock the reader. Her writing exhibits self-loathing and vulnerability. She embraced a bohemian status and so was able to neutralize criticism partially.
Marc de Montifaud (1845-1912) was the most persecuted of the three, spending time in jail for writing scandalous novels. There was no talk about gender in them, but in a less direct way, the author defended people who were nonconforming.
Men who displayed feminine attributes were considered merely “eccentric,” and they expressed their identities in more private ways, such as in the clothing they wore at home or by home decoration. For commercial success, it behooved them to maintain their male identities in public to sell their novels. Some women writers, even though they were not transgender, also adopted male pseudonyms to increase sales of their books.
With this study, we see that gender nonconformity was expressed in different ways, and one significant method was through literature.
Dr. Mesch said that her research allowed her to connect on a new level with these authors that let their full humanity shine through. While they were treated disparagingly or were even mocked, what drove them inspires empathy. In the past, we have expected every person to be heterosexual and gender normative. Dr. Mesch observed that we understand an important dimension of human personality by listening to these three authors’ expressions of this aspect of their deeply rooted identities.