Dr. Rachel Mesch Presents About Women Writers

Dr. Rachel Mesch, professor of English and French and chair of the English Department at Yeshiva College, presented at a conference from May 28-29, 2019, titled “Des Revues et des Femmes,” organized by the Sorbonne Université. The two-day colloquium explored the relationship between 20th-century women writers and the thriving literary press of that time. “The conference was an opportunity to reach French scholars who are only now beginning to consider gender studies in a serious way and who have in the past been less receptive to interdisciplinary work of the kind that I do, where I bring together visual and literary studies and historical approaches.”

Her presentation, drawn from her book, Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman, showed how two early 20th-century photographic women’s magazines, Femina and La Vie Heureuse, were influential in expanding women’s writing in the first decade of the twentieth century.

“These magazines appeared to be ‘women’s magazines’ in the pejorative sense of that expression, but in fact they modeled new forms of female achievement using all the technological innovations of the moment. For instance, they showed photographs of women doctors, lawyers, painters, actors, mountain climbers, explorers and, most of all, writers,” Dr. Mesch explained. “Women writers of the day were featured in glossy photo spreads and celebrated as role models. This resulted in an explosion of success for women writers, to the point that everyone was convinced that women were going to finally be allowed to become members of the Académie Française, the ultimate honor for a French writer. So even if these magazines weren’t part of what we normally think of as the ‘literary press’—academic journals that would review books primarily—these magazines created a different kind of literary press that should be recognized for its important work.”

The presentation focused on a series of columns run in 1909 in which a prominent male writer, Fernand Vandérem, went so far as to imagine which women writers would be nominated to the Academy first and to write fictional “reception” speeches welcoming them, as was the custom on the inauguration of a member of the Académie. “I explored the nature of this strange and telling phenomenon and how it reflected the work of these two magazines in imagining equalities for women and a world in which they could be celebrated for intellectual achievements, even if that did not quite reflect the actual circumstances beyond their demographic. It’s a bit like how a TV show can imagine a female president that feels completely normal, even if we have not yet had one.”

In the end, she pointed out, women were not accepted in the Academy until 1986. “And that’s why it’s easy to forget about this moment. But my paper argued that we can best understand a culture and moment by considering its hopes and dreams, even if those hopes and dreams were never realized.”

On another note, her book, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, is coming out in May 2020 from Stanford University Press.