This book's bipartite title conceals the fact that Mona Ozouf appends to a series of ten portraits of notable French women from the 18th century to the present a substantial interpretative essay, devoted to what she identifies as a specifically French formulation of feminism and engaging with contemporary US orthodoxies.
The link between the two parts is not entirely smooth, either in substance (the more theoretical argument of the essay is only implicitly anticipated in the portraits) or style, moving from a tendency to novelistic impressionism to scholarly debate.
Ozouf begins by asserting that the literary portrait in France is predominantly a male genre before going on to remedy this absence by an elegant and diverse gallery of subtly drawn figures, incorporating where appropriate a corrective to their previous (male) representation. Each chapter is headed by a brief factual biography, and a not entirely felicitous allegorical pseudonym (thus "Isabelle, or Movement") before the subject's character is teased out of the evidence.
Ozouf is a sympathetic artist, ever anxious to assimilate all the contradictions with her subjects, and yet equally careful to avoid the bland synthesis. Mme du Deffand, a salon marquise and friend of the philosophes , affords a remarkable example of stoicism, contrasted with the near contemporary Mme de Charrière's mutability.
There follows a cameo of the more eventful life of the revolutionary Mme Roland, guillotined during the Reign of Terror; the novelist Mme de Sta l is portrayed as an advocate of richness and intensity at all costs; and Mme de Remusat is singled out for her pioneering essay on women's education. George Sand's portrait comes next (as with all the novelists she treats, Ozouf takes the fiction as a reliable guide to the biography), and invites the painter to consider the depiction of androgyny, before a contrasting tableau of Hubertine Auclert's radical if unfulfilled feminism.
Three 20th-century women complete the series: Colette, epitomising a conception of the feminine that admits nothing of the feminist; Simone Weil, pushing at the limits of self-abnegation, as of any defining quality whatsoever in the individual; and Simone de Beauvoir, complex and ferociously intelligent, and arguably the most fascinating portrait. As the chapters proceed, Ozouf engages more actively with her subjects as they come closer to the concerns that will be theorised in the essay.
In the essay, Ozouf traces the same diachronic trajectory, only now with a more ideological directive. The writings of Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville figure centrally in the earlier parts, as Ozouf persuasively charts the evolution of a specifically French feminist voice. Moving from pre-revolutionary France, Ozouf turns to a fascinating consideration of the effect of the revolution itself, countering the prevalent US view that it was misogynist in its outcome by the recognition of its potential for egalitarianism. She then looks critically at questions of education and suffrage, before defining French feminism as a movement of equality rather than of difference. This leads to her final consideration of the paradox, whereby the radical feminism of France is transformed from its intellectually opaque and socially exclusive French manifestation into a popularised, accessible US version. Ozouf is insistent in conclusion that the "women's words" of the title were written by women and about women, but that "they were not written for women".
The book is marked by its subtlety and circumspection, and although it is marketed as "controversial", it is never polemical; the absence of stridency that Ozouf sees as defining French feminism is well illustrated in her nuanced style. Unfortunately, Ozouf is not well served by her translation, which is often inelegant and at times inaccurate. And it seems a shame, given the concerns of the ten central chapters, that the text carries no illustrations.
Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.
Women's Words: Essay on Frency Singularity
Author - Mona Ozouf
ISBN - 0 226 64333 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 300