Sexuality, Desire, and Disruption
Women aren’t made for that…They are made for submitting to a man’s passion out of affection for him, out of a recognition of his tenderness, and especially out of the emotional anticipation of motherhood. From the moment that the senses are awakened in a woman, she becomes a monster.

– Camille Pert, Le bonheur conjugal (1905, cited in Mesch, 2009, 81).

In the 1880s and 1890s, the French adopted the term “fin-de-siècle” to describe their era. The expression carried connotations of endings, decay, and even degeneration, pointing to the palpable sense of concern over the changing social landscape. Women’s role in society was central to these anxieties and her sexuality was considered especially threatening. Prostitution had long been a concern in nineteenth-century Paris, with the figures of the lorette and the grisette. Numerous single women were often forced to supplement their meager income by working as insoumises (clandestine prostitutes). Although regulated, prostitution was on the rise in the Belle Époque, both on the streets and in the theatres. Yet it was the era’s nouvelle femme that particularly disrupted traditional bourgeois mores.

As Karen Offen (1984) has revealed, debates over feminism, nationalism, and depopulation were intricately connected. The family was generally considered the core unit of the nation: for many on the far right, women’s most important contribution was to bear children. Thus the ideal bourgeois woman was a demure wife who fulfilled her “natural” role as mother. Etiquette books instructed the respectable young woman to remain chaste, whereas her male counterpart possessed sexual freedom. Women in domestic service were particularly vulnerable to the sexual double standard, with bourgeois men turning to them for pre- or extra-marital sex. The nouvelle femme’s danger lay in her challenge to conventional gender norms: she chose to remain single, entered into nontraditional marriages, engaged in homosexual relationships, and expressed her sexual desire.

Women’s sexuality was addressed in a variety of media, from the daily press and novels to the theatre, opera, and chansons. Although women often remained sexual objects for the male gaze, glimpses of female desire begin to be seen on the stage. Popular cultural production in Belle Époque France, Sarah Gutche-Miller (2015) observes, both condemned and condoned women’s sexual autonomy: women were at once depicted as sexualized objects whose independence threatened social order, and as capable modern individuals.

Further Reading

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