Dr. Rachel Mesch discusses three 19th century Parisian writers who transgressed against gender norms.
Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Rachel Mesch. She received her BA from Yale College, her M.A. from Columbia University and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. A specialist in 19th century French Literature, Dr. Mesch is the author of Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman and The Hysterics Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siecle. Today’s interview is about her new book, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, which has been shortlisted for the American Library in Paris annual book award and is about three writers raised as female but who identified as men and the incredible lives they led.
Gary: So, thank you very much for joining me on the podcast Dr. Mesch.
Dr. Mesch: It’s my pleasure.
Gary: So you have a very interesting book, a very unique book. Before Trans, Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France. At one point, you describe your book as biographies of three different people who were raised as female in 19th Century Fin de siècle France, but who defied gender norms by dressing like men and sometimes even identifying as male. How did you come upon this topic?
Dr Mesch: So, my field is late 19th century France and particularly French women writers. My previous two books really were about French women writers. And so, it’s sort of out of that, that this emerged. I was the my previous book was about women’s magazines in the early nineteen hundreds, the first photographic magazines. A kind of community of female intellectuals, women writers that grew out of that. And one of the people that I came across at that time was Jane Dieulafoy (1850-1916), who was one of the subjects of this book, Before Trans. She was the only one in these magazines which were pretty conservative and would depict the hyper feminine women who could balance both femininity and feminism. But that was not the case with Dieulafoy, who appears just as she does in the book, and by the way, I should just say at the outset, I use the female pronouns to refer to these figures, even though their gender identity is very much in question here in the subject of the book. We could talk about that at some point, but I didn’t feel that it was a choice for me to to make as a historian. So it kind of preserves the disjunction between their lived identities and the way in which language at the time allowed them to be known. But I also sort of invite people to think about it in their own way and use whatever pronouns feel right to them to talk about these three figures. So in any case, Dieulafoy I came across in these women’s magazines, in these beautifully tailored men’s suits, often alongside her husband, and it was very much out of intention with everything else that was in those magazines. And I sort of didn’t really deal with it in the realm of that book that I was writing, because it was really an anomaly. And I just promised myself I would look into it afterwards. And as I started to look into it, I realized that something very much different was at work with her in terms of her drives and motivations and what kinds of questions she was working out in her writing. And that sort of got me thinking. I was reading a lot about transgender identity at the time, just in modern times, in our current trans moment, as people have called it. Things started clicking. And it was because of my really sort of deep knowledge and experience with women writers and feminism of the time that I recognize that there were some figures for whom something else was clearly at work. And I really wanted to to figure out how gender identity played a role there. And so I started looking into Dieulafoy far more specifically. And that’s when these questions started forming. And I realized that Rachilde, to whom I had studied in my dissertation, in my first book, also was kind of in this broad category, working out some shared questions and eventually I came to Montifaud. But it wasn’t that I set out or knew that I was writing a book about trans identities in the 19th century from the outset. It was really driven by the desire to understand particular individuals and then realizing that these modern paradigms helped me to do that.
Gary: So that’s a very fascinating answer. Your book’s title is Before Trans, which I think is both an important distinction and a conundrum. All in one. There’s actually quite a controversy over whether or not we as historians should identify past peoples with sexual or gender identities. Just as an example, I got into an argument with Darah Vann Orr who said that even if a text said that a man in ancient Greece only had sex with other men, she would not call him gay because sexual identity at that time was so different. In ancient Greece, it was considered masculine to have sex with younger men or with fellow soldiers. In the Roman Republic it was perfectly acceptable to have sex with men as long as the person doing it was doing the penetrating. As you might know, some senators slandered Caesar for supposedly having an affair with the king of Bethania. And the scandal wasn’t that they had sex, but that some claimed Caesar was the one receiving. And then, of course, Pompey the Great was often made fun of because he loved his wife so much, which is considered to be unmanly at the time and which I find so funny. So likewise. Your book covers three individuals who sometimes identified as men. Would you call these people transgender?
Dr. Mesch: So, you’re right that it’s a complicated question and a conundrum. The way that I use the terminology is, I want to make sure that people are really using this lens to understand these figures without saying they were transgender, which has a very specific meaning and, of course, a very modern meaning and something that is of our current moment. But people have been questioning their gender identity and having complicated notions of their gender identity long before they were terminology which to identify with that. And so it’s similar in a way to the way that we use queer to talk about the past and the way that we used feminist or feminism to talk about the past. When we talk about the earlier time period and sort of recognize queer identities, it’s not necessarily even the word identityism is a modern construction right. But it allows us to see what was being worked out. And I’m not talking about ancient Greece necessarily, but the 19th century, which is a moment much closer to our own when a lot of these modern ideas are anthology and the science of it all, which takes these questions in a very problematic direction, but nonetheless is part of a cultural grappling. In terms of, for example, feminism. We can understand certain gestures as feminist in the 1890s, even if they were done by women who did not identify with the feminism of the time period. So it’s it’s kind of a similar vein. I want people to recognize the questions that are being worked out here and the lack of a language in which to work them out. And some people are more comfortable calling that trans or not. It sort of depends on if you’re a historian or a literary scholar who’s being very particular about a particular term versus a kind of gesturing in a more looser relationship with it. So it’s not that I’m using trans also in a very expansive way. You know, you can imagine a little asterisks next to it, which is sometimes meant to signal that expansiveness, that it can mean non binary and it’s multiple forms. And so it’s not necessarily we had a sort of more limited understanding at a certain point of what we used to call transsexualism or transgenderism when we would imagine it was really kind of a binary thing of someone being raised as female, assigned at birth, but actually identifying as male. And we know now that there’s just a huge spectrum. And so this is a book that or these these lives are about sort of understanding that spectrum has always existed and that if we look to figures from the past through a lens that allows for that, we can understand these figures a lot better. So that trans, that we know what it means now in kind of a much more subtle ways than ever before perhaps, for those of us who are cisgender as I am, and because there are so many more kind of conversations and narratives and media coverage stories that are shared access to the trans experience or to trans experiences, that signals, I’m sort of harnessing that in this book for us to understand the past better and to kind of keep that in mind as we are hearing about the subtleties of these lives. To understand that they were really struggling with and working out gender identity as opposed to simply being seen as subversive or rebellious or even feminist, so it’s about sort of expanding our way of understanding gender history.
Gary: All right, so now that we’ve gotten the theory out of the way, let’s get into the three people who you studied. Can you tell us about the exciting and adventurous life of Jane Dieulafoy.
Dr. Mesch: Sure, so Dieulafoy as I said, was sort of my first foray into this whole, all of these questions. She famously followed her husband to battle during the Franco Prussian war, which broke out just after they had gotten married. And she couldn’t be a soldier, but she could be a sharpshooter. So she kind of got in through that loophole. She didn’t want to be just a cantonnière, some women who would kind of bring food and water to the soldiers. She wanted to be an active participant. And that’s probably the first moment that she came to understand her comfort and affinity with masculinity. It was one of the happiest times of her life, even though happy is not probably not the right word for it, but it’s a it’s a moment that she comes back to again and again, relives through her writing. And then the other huge moment in her life and the one that makes her famous is that her husband, Marcel, was a civil engineer and an architecture enthusiast. And he got himself basically sent to the Middle East on this archaeological expedition, which their goal was to end up in Persia and to the ancient city of Susa. And she came along as she was supposed to be the photographer and sort of take notes and on the journey. And she ended up writing travelogues and taking hundreds and hundreds of photographs that were published in the Le Tour du Monde which was a new travel journal that was very popular because people couldn’t go to these exotic places, but they could read about them. And it was a fad and fascination with reading about them. So she goes along with the team and again sort of finds herself in this. And begins wearing men’s clothing again and passes easily for a man because in in the Middle East and in Persia, you couldn’t if you’re a woman, you had to be veiled when you were circulating in public. And so she would only be assumed to be a man the way that she was dressed alongside the other members of the team. It’s a very harrowing first mission and they end up coming back and getting very close to Suza, but not really making it. And they come back and they think that’s it. They’re never going to go back again. But they do end up making the second mission where they are wildly successful and they bring back parts of these ancient palaces that you can still see on display in the Louvre today. And this makes them absolute celebrities. It’s hard to to sort of fathom or to articulate, it’s hard to find the analogy in modern parlance for the level of celebrity that bringing finds from Persia would afford you in the late 19th century. But they were sort of above reproach, just absolutely admired. There was the Salle Dieulafoy that was open in the Louvre. They would lecture around town, be invited to the president’s home. And and she went on then to write novels and to be a kind of public intellectual and eventually be a part of these women’s magazines as well and was absolutely venerated. And she continued to wear men’s clothing and those beautifully tailored men’s suits that I mentioned earlier, as well as to keep her hair cropped short. And I think she sort of made a decision that she couldn’t go back to the life that she had briefly lived as a kind of his wife who was dressing as a woman in the interim between Persia and the Franco-Prussian war. And she was basically in this category by herself and accepted for that and lived a very happy and successful life. But there is still sort of another side to it that I was really interested in. In the book, which is in some of her novels and some of her other writings and in the travelogues themselves, you get this narrative of her process of coming to terms and trying to understand her gender identity and her affinity with masculinity. She sees herself as a kind of Joan of Arc figure and hero, and that heroism authorizes her pants wearing. So she’s wearing pants. The title of that section of the of the book is Masculinity for God and Country. And what I was so interested in, because actually my background is I was a literary scholar, not a historian. I kind of migrated to history because I found that the frameworks allowed me to do more, a different kind of literary analysis and to see some of these writings in a different context. But what really fascinated me in these writings was this repeated effort to make sense of herself and a kind of return to the same set of questions that so clearly resonate with her life story. And so there’s this there’s this tremendous optimism and confidence that she develops. But there’s the other side of it as a kind of vulnerability that she clearly feels and it comes through in her efforts to find her peers, to figure out who she identifies with. And she goes back. She’s not a modern woman. She sees herself as an ancient one. Right. And that what’s happened in society is that we’ve lost these kinds of women who could be like men. And so she comes to these narratives. But you also find in her archives there are unpublished biographies of gender crossers over time. And in that, I think you really see that the searching and the question and we don’t know why she worked on it with them, with her husband, Marcel. We don’t know why they were never published. We can imagine. But but there’s just pages and pages of them sort of painstakingly looking at the abbé de Choisy and others from earlier time periods. There’s one contemporary who is an opera singer known as Stuart who sings soprano. And there’s the repetition. You can really feel some of the yearning and the searching that was still going on.
Gary: One thing that I learned from your book is that women had to have a permit to wear pants. Do you want to explain that?
Dr Mesch: Oh, yes. So that’s the the famous permission de travestissement It was illegal in France, in Paris in particular, for women to wear pants without one. And that law was actually only stricken from the books in I think it was 2013 actually. A lot of us have been breaking it for a long time. They were only a handful of women who went through the trouble of procuring one. And we don’t have the records because they’re just the archives are incomplete there. But we do know that they needed one and and that these three had that in common. You were supposed to have a medical reason for it. But clearly, people with means had ways of sort of getting around that.
Gary: You are quite the rebel. So your next biography is of Marguerite Vallette-Eymery (1860-1953), who later took up the name Rachilde. It threw me off because he said he was a Swedish noble. So yeah, I didn’t I see as a Swede I assumed, like, if it were Swedish it would be like Russia today or something else.
Dr. Mesch: She probably wasn’t pronouncing it correctly.
Gary: OK, yes. Well anyway, took up this name, which you say much better than me after being possessed by a ghost, since I’ve spoiled it. Care to tell us the story?
Dr Mesch: Sure. So Rachidle grandparents were spiritist, which was kind of a thing, but a fad in the second half of the 19th century. But they were true believers and they believe that you could commune with other worlds. And when Rachilde was a teenager, she was exploring. She was writing. She was writing stories for the local paper and really avoiding being married off and discovering herself in various ways. And and so she basically staged a seance where she said that she was being possessed by the spirit of a Swedish nobleman who was speaking through her and whose name was Rachilde. And and so she begins telling stories this way and telling the story of Rachilde, how he’s looking for his lost lover. Her mother, it was her mother’s side, the Spiritist grandparents is fastidiously taking notes in a notebook that Rachilde claimed to have kept and which you retells the story. She refers to her mother’s notebook. And the family totally believe that this is what was going on. Rachilde later on explains or explains in her and her memoirs that this was her way of introducing her family to a voice that wasn’t the proper voice for a young woman of her time and place. So it was a kind of coming out. And she’s really known as Rachilde. Henceforth, answerability refer to her as such, and she’s known, she’s the most famous of the three that I write about. She’s she’s known to French literary scholars. When she tells her parents about a year later, she reveals to them, this was just sort of, this wasn’t real. The mothers says, well, how can you be sure, how can you be sure that you’re not actually being possessed by this man from another era? And so she had this strange thing where she was constantly declaring who she was and who she was not. She would also call herself a werewolf, a monster, a cat, all kinds of other avatars. And the people she would say this to would sort of laugh and say, oh, she’s being provocative, aha. That’s just who she is. And I think there was this kind of directness that she found she could have because people didn’t understand it. But for us, looking back as scholars want to sort of think about it through this paradigm and understand that this is what she was working out, there are actually many of these moments where she she tells us exactly how she wants us to understand her.
Gary: Thank you very much for that. So finally, there is Marie-Amelie Chartreuse de Montifaud (1845-1912), later better known as Marc De Montifaud. Can you tell us about Marc’s exciting life running from the police?
Dr. Mesch: Sure. So, Marc De Montifaud, she starts signing her name Marc, as when she works as an art critic, which is to her first writing gig, basically. And she’s quite successful at it. And art historians know that name and don’t necessarily know the details of who is behind that moniker. But her art criticism still sort of stands historically as relevant as she reviewed people like Manet and the salons. She sort of gains her reputation. She starts writing these sort of Christian histories. Rewriting of a folklore and with a kind of sexy twist. And people do not like this. And I think that part of why the law kind of comes after her, because her writings weren’t really… this is in the 1870s, certainly around 1876. And the writings weren’t particularly audacious. There are lots of other people writing who got away with that. And she would complain about this all the time, by the way. But I think that probably what happened is that someone figured out, because really it’s not one of those cases where sort of everyone knew immediately who was behind the signature. People really thought that Marc De Montifaud was an art critic. And I have a feeling that she was dressing like a man sort of secretly and passing this way at art exhibits long before she takes this on as a public identity. And I think that they probably at some point people figured it out and and were angry about it and troubled by it and unsettled in ways that they didn’t understand. And so they really come after her. She’s writing these histories. She’s very erudite. And she just loves to go to the librarian and find these old editions of things and do these new versions of them, of the Vestal Virgins and Mary Magdalene and such things was very interested in the sexual aspects. And so she is publishing these and she keeps getting censored and brought to court to get in front of the law. Right. Indicted and sentenced to prison. And each time she protests and eventually is able to secure a term in the asylum, sort of the mental hospital instead of going to the prison. And then she’s outraged if she’s being sent to a women’s prison as opposed to the artist’s prison because she sees herself as an artist, gender is not important. Why isn’t she getting sent to the same place that people who get through who otherwise have written pornographic works. So she’s outraged by this, but she will not stop. And so she just continues to publish and publish. And everyone at first it’s in the press. At a certain point, people are just sort of irritated by it. And they said, well, why don’t you just stop. You know what you have to do to stop getting sent to jail. But but she’s insisted and this is very much a part of who she is. She really just wants the right to write about what she wants and to be herself. And I think this is part of the way that she’s working out her gender identity. Unlike the others, she doesn’t really write about it specifically. She doesn’t it really explore gender identity in her writing. The photographs we have of her kind of document dramatically the transition that she went to through and coming into her own masculine identity. And in her writing, she writes through male characters, and that’s sort of part of how she lives as a man in addition to signing Marc De Montifaud for which she took a lot of pleasure in. And eventually she takes on a second male pseudonym, Paul Érasme and I think it may be because people already knew who Marc was or she needed a new one to sort of really inhabit that male identity. And people routinely contact her. There are many letters to her as Paul Érasme fully assume her masculine identity. You can see that she really enjoys that. She doesn’t want them to actually meet her or to know who she is. And so there’s a kind of, there’s a kind of range that runs through Montifaud’s writing that I found really interesting. The rage was a way of expressing what she didn’t have the words to express otherwise. So she’s often saying, well, why can’t you just, why can’t I just be me? Isn’t that enough? That’s the title of that section. I am me. I don’t want to have to explain who I am. I’m simply me. And I came to really understand that those are the acts of rebellion, seeming rebellion and anger and rage and getting sent to jail was about, was a form of expression ultimately. And it’s similar in some ways. Rachilde did some similar kinds of things in her writing and in her behavior where she was seen as really audacious and acting out. And I think that is just the wrong framework through which to understand them. It’s relying on a very particular idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And it’s actually relying on gender norms and hetero-normative, patriarchal gender norms, when in fact, that’s not the terms by which they were operating. And so these are actually kind of expressions of self more than they should be seen as just rebellion’s or acting out.
Gary: So there are quite a few important themes that run through each of thesestories. One is language and literature. You talk about how the language of the time didn’t have words to describe these people’s feelings and identities. Moreover, French is a bi-gender language as opposed to English where words are neutral. Yet each of these three were writers and when words failed them, they express themselves through stories. Can you explain this process?
Dr. Mesch: Sure. So the subtitle of my book is Three Gender Stories from 19th Century France. And that idea of the gender story is crucial. Right. And that goes back to your question about trans and how we use that word. The idea is that they didn’t have a way to identify themselves. And and so when you don’t have a term, you often turn to narrative. I mean, that’s how our all of our identities work. We tell stories about ourselves constantly, whether we say them out loud or not. We have certain narratives about why we are the way we are, and that allows us to deal with the complexity of our lives. And those stories can shift. And so what I was interested in was the way, the extent to which these writers were working through their gender stories and that we can sort of understand who they are through the stories that they told about themselves. And they’re not always direct. That was part of the kind of biographical approach that I had. It was really being deeply immersed in their biographies and the writings of all sorts in their photographs that they took, the ones that were taken of them that allowed me to pick up on these resonances in different parts of their lives and to see, for example, when Dieulafoy had characters who were at war, in battle, that those were the same images that she used to describe herself in more personal writings. I was really taken with the way in which they were working through and making sense of themselves through their writing. And that being a writer in the stories that they told really were certainly life affirming and perhaps even life saving. Rachilde struggled with depression throughout her life, and especially in the early part of her life. And you can see with these figures that they settle into their identities through being able to render them in writing and in stories. And so, for example, for Dieulafoy, this idea of masculinity for God and country, as I said before, you sort of watch her come into this through her, through the travelogues and her recognition of her own heroism and her own strength, both in the Franco-Prussian war, but then in her abilities to be part of the team in Persia. And then there are these novels that she writes actually about gender transition, about girls who thought they were girls and then sort of become boys and young men in the second part of their lives, through their heroism and through their service to God and country, and you see how that really echoed with her own life. So that was the first one that really clued me in to the way that she was using her writing in this way. And that made me think about Rachilde in a different way, who I encountered before, and to realize that she was doing something similar. And there are a few characters in her fiction, particularly in her novel Monsieur Vénus which has a character named Raul who shared a female character who fenced and who dressed in men’s clothing and sort of switched around with pronouns, actually. And that’s a story where the inability to fit into language is actually painfully on display, even though it’s a decadent novel and it’s not usually seen as being particularly sentimental. It gives expression indirectly to this vulnerability that makes sense in this other context. And so the gender story, Rachilde, she is incredibly prolific. She lives into her nineties. She keeps writing up until the bitter end. And when you recognize some of the ways some of her avatars and her writing and the ways in which she’s thinking about gender, you start to see some of the repetitions and this reworking, reworking, reworking of the gender story. Montifaud was a little bit different, as I said, because she doesn’t describe it directly. But all three of them wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And I think it was a sort of therapeutic writing, sometimes a frustrated writing through their writings and through this, their creative expression, we really gain understanding to something that they did not have. They couldn’t supply the ready terms that we might now be able to supply. If you write a book and fill it under a trans memoir. Right. We know what you’re talking about and what you’re exploring. And so I really wanted to, by putting them together in this way reframe the way that we think about figures from the past and in light of our kind of concern about anachronism and presentism and not wanting to impose our modern narratives, I think there’s a way that we can still use our our modern frameworks to hear what they were saying more clearly.
Gary: Another major theme is the Franco-Prussian war, Dieulafoy fought in it, Rachilde’s father was traumatized by it, and Marc de Montifaud published their first novel, The History of Mary Magdalene in 1870. How did the war impact these three people?
Dr. Mesch: I’m really glad you asked that. Something I sort of started thinking about late in the project. And it’s very interesting, actually, that for Dieulafoy and Montifaud, I saw a connection there that they both, Dieulafoy succeeds in being a part of the war. And I think really that’s such a pivotal part of herself understanding and plays a role. And she has a novel called Volontaire (Volunteer), which is about someone joining the army during the French Revolution. And it’s so clearly about her own role in the Franco Prussian war. And there’s so much feeling in it, so, so much feeling in it. And it has to do with the the most important scene, really, is when she puts on the uniform, the volunteer uniform, and that’s when she kind of becomes a man and there’s a kind of transformation. And I was struck that in Montifaud’s novel that deals with this, which is I translated as are petty officers in French, which is a minor novel that no one ever read besides me, as far as I can tell, and if maybe a few hundred people at the time. But it’s about the aftermath and it’s about going back to Alsace and she sort of found this common enemy in Germany that she can direct her rage towards. It’s a stand-in for her own in betweenness I argue. In her own sense of gender exile, as I put it. But what was striking to me is I realized that novel was published around 1900, but she had published some stuff earlier. And in the 1870’s where you really see that patriotism, which I totally had and people don’t remember that about Montifaud at all. And she had a similar kind of relationship to the Franco-Prussian War but not realized where she clearly admired, was perhaps envious of the men who got to put on the uniform and became sort of men through this experience. And there’s a scene like that in her novel where one of the male characters puts on a uniform. And I was struck because it just dwells on the experience of the clothing in a way that was so similar to a similar passage in Dieulafoy’s Volunteer novel. And it made me realize that these figures who identified so strongly with masculinity felt particularly excluded in these moments when men were being called up and asked to perform their patriotism and women didn’t have the same way to express it. And so to feel that you were a man but couldn’t be recognized as such would be a very intense source of feeling. And I don’t think, I have a sort of alternate version of this book, which is sort of the HBO slash Netflix version. And I would do a lot with that. There’s not that much that they told us about it. But I think it’s really, there’s so much to think about there. There’s so much feeling there that hasn’t really been explored. And it’s just a really interesting angle into their psychology and their identities. it was different that her father was this sort of defeated war general who comes back and is kind of emasculated and angry and brutal. And so for her, it’s associated with a very brutal form of masculinity. And in her novels, you see sort of different kinds of interactions with different forms of masculinity that she once identifies with and is a little even repulsed by. You might even say. So you’re absolutely right that it’s something that is is running through, even though it’s not front and center. It’s a really interesting thread that runs through.
Gary: Another important theme is marriage, as it might surprise someone picking up this book and seeing that there are three people who are contesting, who are figuring out their identity, that all of them eventually married. What struggles did marriage bring and how did it impact them? Were there any positive impacts from it?
Dr. Mesch: Sure. And then another great question. In fact, this book started out it wasn’t quite this book, but I thought I was writing a book about marriage. And I was interested, as I mentioned, that Dieulafoy was frequently seen alongside her husband in those magazines. And so I was interested in some of these kind of power couples where the wife had these was very intelligent and was appreciated for her intelligence. It wasn’t that she had to sort of express that intention with her marriage. And that can be said for all three of these marriages. They were married to men that very much appreciated their brilliance. They didn’t necessarily appreciate the men back in the same ways, although they’re different. Dieulafoy and Montifaud and her husband were very much a power couple. They were best friends. You could sort of wonder about his sexuality and how he fits into this. I talk a little bit about that in the book. Together they are often in, when people see modern photographs of them now, they look like they’ve been described as two gay men. Actually a picture of them that appears in Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, which is a kind of history of trans people who she puts in that category over time. And she has this picture of Dieulafoy and she doesn’t really know who they are, but she says, who is, what is this, a gay male couple from the 19th century. So, that’s sort of interesting, if anachronistic. But there is something there in that they sort of dress alike and are this very happy pair for the most part. So she married someone who was very much someone who understood her. Rachilde marries, she describes her marriage as a kind of suicide. She marries because she is struggling. She needs stability. She needs a place to live. She needs to be able to write. And her husband, who ran the journal in the Cœur de la France which she worked at as well and was actually very, very prominent. I mean, she should be a lot better now. And she was the literary editor there and had the power to really make or break people’s careers and from about 1900 to 1930. So the marriage worked for her in the sense that it was stabilizing, but there was no love there on her part and it was painful. Her husband was boring and she was not. And and so there letters from her that really speak to that. And he figures in her in her novels sometimes sort of obliquely as this dull, somewhat domineering, controlling figure. But it wasn’t like he was violent or anything like that. And he dies long before her. So, you know, it’s tragic in the sense that she doesn’t have a true love. And Montifaud is mysterious that way. Her novels are quite sexual. And she’s definitely was attracted to women. But she also there’s a lot of heterosexual sex in there. And so it’s hard to sort of imagine that she didn’t have a lot of experience beyond that of her husband based on her novels. But who knows, she maybe just read a lot and but her husband was older and there’s a letter from her where she’s telling La Fronde where she worked, the feminist newspaper where she worked for a few years saying, sorry, my husband died yesterday, I won’t be in until two days from now, which she didn’t need a lot of time off after that happened. And I think part of what was interesting to me about the marriages is that I’m not sure that these figures, had they been born twenty years later, whether they would have married, but at the time it was sort of the only way to continue. It was dangerous to be single and dangerous for a number of reasons. And when Rachilde applies for the pants permit she says, I need this so that people will address me as a journalist, and it was sort of a means of protection for her to be able to wear pants. So I think we have to remember how vulnerable to appear feminine, not that they really necessarily did. Rachilde did at various points, but they certainly felt vulnerable out and about in Paris without that protection.
Gary: A final theme I noticed is the theme of feminism. Feminism wasn’t as strong
in France as in England, but there was still a feminist movement during the Third
Republic. How did each person respond to the challenges of feminism?
Dr. Mesch: So that’s a great question. We know about these figures in part because of feminist history and women’s history and all the great work that’s been done. And so that’s how you come across these names and scholarship. And what’s been frustrating to me is that there hasn’t been enough room to understand these kinds of, embodying of difference and the kinds of behaviors that this kind of resistance to gender norm, shall we say. Beyond the realm or beyond the framework of feminism. But as I said at the beginning, there’s something different going on here that also share something. Right? So they were raised as women and they were treated for the most part, for a big part of their lives as women. And so they faced many of the obstacles that feminism sought to address. They were certainly, you know, they grew up and had to face a patriarchal society. So there is a way in which feminism is relevant to understanding them, but we don’t really have a way of thinking about people who were treated like women and face the obstacles that women faced but might not have identified as women. We don’t really have a framework for that. And in terms of their individual affiliations with it, you can see that, there is feminism in France at the time. It is complicated and it’s not necessarily called feminism. There’s kind of a political feminism. It hasn’t even really focused much on suffrage until a little bit later. It’s focusing on sort of laws around marriage, around children and child welfare, on poverty, on making conditions better for women, on working women and and things like that. And so these weren’t necessarily the causes that these writers who were kind of more a part of the intellectual milieu were were caught up in. Dieulafoy becomes part of this feminist intellectual community of writers. But her main feminist cause is that women should be able to participate in combat with a very niche feminism. And she supports this group of women writers. But her feminism, when she writes what she calls feminist theories later on, and you can see this is again, like one of these topics that she’s working and reworking, reworking. That’s where she works out the sort of ancient woman thing and the thing that she describes as her ideal woman. And she sort of chastises modern women for not being this This sounds a lot like a certain kind of man. And so she’s using that term in a way that no one else in her time period is using. Rachilde is incredibly frustrated because everyone sees her as a feminist when feminism is sort of coming into view in the 1880s and 1890s. And she describes, there’s a letter in her archives where she’s responding to someone saying you’re like the tenth person who’s asked me to comment on this. Why does everyone ask me about feminism? She is so clearly irked, which we see much later on in her pamphlet from the 1920’s called Pourqoui je ne suis pas feministe, Why I’m Not a Feminist, she couldn’t have stated more clearly. Again, we all, people continue to think that’s just being provocative because by modern terms it looks like what she’s doing is a feminist gesture. But really what she’s saying there is I’m not a feminist people because I’m not a woman. She says that rather clearly. Like, I don’t identify with femininity. I’m not, I don’t think of myself as female. I’m kind of more neutral. And and so the feminism, because it doesn’t, it really doesn’t identify them. And they’re angry about it to a certain degree because it’s a kind of miss gendering, really. I think we might think about it in that way, that kind of chafing at it that you feel, especially from the Rachilde, is don’t put me in that category. That’s not what I’m doing. At the same time, my book is trying to, I think that feminist scholars have a lot to offer that analysis of these kinds of figures. And because the terms didn’t exist, because these categories are fluid and present themselves in different ways, there’s going to be some intermingling with what looks like feminism. And so I’m really hoping for a kind of working together of trans history and feminist history that works out that the relationship between them and formulates it so that when we look at these figures in the past, we can we can articulate them better. I mean, I have been writing about these figures for a few years, and I get frustrated when people read it and acknowledge it and seem fascinated by it and then go on to write about these figures, sort of just not factoring in the paradigm shift that I’m proposing. And so I think that it really requires a much more nuanced idea of feminism. We can’t just think of any gender rebellion that is by someone who appears to be a woman or has been known as a woman or was raised a woman or something, not birth to necessarily be feminist. That’s a very reductive view of feminism. And it doesn’t tell us very much if we really want to understand these figures and understand the extent and the depth and the complexity of resistance to gender norms for coming from various directions at the time. We have to think about gender identity and sexual identity for that matter, and really do more, at least in the field of French history, that I’m working in to allow for that to exist and to reckon with that and and add some more depth to the field that way.
Gary: Since you touched on this, I want to ask, are there any other ways that you want to see the field of historical LGBTQ studies expand?
Dr. Mesch: I think it just has a lot of room for expansion. And I mean, I would say so specifically, I would like it to expand in a way that makes it really comfortable and inviting for LGBTQ individuals to feel like they have a voice in it. And I think that that’s something that happens with scholarship. We don’t realize how much the parameters of our field determine who takes part in the field. And because, of course, on some level, we all we have to see ourselves and what we do. I would really hope that it widens the field and that there are more people who are actually, who feel they are stakeholders in a different way. Come and feel like they can do this work and that’s meaningful to them. So that’s one way. But I think that it’s been generally quite absent and quite siloed. So I would like to see these things integrated. I would like to see it not be something that you have to do separately, but that these sets of questions that everyone is considering in their historical work and not feeling like, oh, gosh, that looks like trans or queer history, and that’s not what I do. So I kind of can’t really touch that. I think that people have anxiety about overstepping and moving in these kinds of different directions. And so just as with, I want trans history to become more intermingled with feminist history, that’s sort of my vision more broadly, because I would love for this to be a conversation that, you know, there’s a whole field participating in. And I think for this period in France, there aren’t a lot of people doing this work. And I mean, if they are and I and I don’t know about you, I’m sorry, please reach out to me. I want to, I would love to have these conversations and and to really be able to develop it further.
Gary: So a final question is that I imagine that this was a controversial and difficult topic to write about from many different angles. What challenges did you face when writing the book?
Dr. Mesch: So it hasn’t yet been controversial. It’s you know, I think it’s I can see why one would assume that it would be. The challenge to me is that, I as I said, I didn’t set out to write a book about trans history, but that is sort of where my research took me. And then at a certain point, I was very deep in it and very passionate about it, because you become very attached to your subject. And I became very attached to these figures. But at a certain point I realized this is what I was doing. And as a CIS gender woman, I am a heterosexual woman for that matter. I felt, you know, I felt nervous about it. Whether I had the right to do it. I didn’t want to overstep. I didn’t want to be, you know, telling someone else’s story for all the reasons that you can imagine. On the other hand, I came to it, as I said also from this kind of deep knowledge of the time period and from and from a hole that I saw that I really felt I was equipped based on I had a scholarship to really address. And I just did as much work as I could to hear from as many people as possible, to listen to as many first person voices on this. It’s not really a work of trans theory you may have noticed. I read many trans memoirs of various sorts and and really just tried to immerse myself in as many trans voices, because it’s certainly not a monolithic category by any means. And I just wanted to be sensitive overall, I just wanted to be sensitive. So I really sought out trans scholars and as many people as I could to read and to engage with who helped me profoundly to nuance my arguments. The challenge has been, as I said, because the field is limited. You want to have interlocutors who can sort of push back on these things and who know the field as well. And it’s so hard to do that work. And it was hard to find people who are French historians or French literary scholars who felt really that they knew trans studies enough to speak to these issues. So that was, you know, in some ways that was the challenge of it. But for the most part, people have been tremendously receptive. And and in this field, which is really pretty hetero normative, it’s those scholars are very, very appreciative of this work. And feminist scholars have been very appreciative of it as well. So, well, it might look like it would be something that might cause controversy, it thus far has not. You know, the reviews are still out there, I guess. And I think that it’s a field that really welcomes this kind of work. So I hope that encourages other people to to take what might seem like a kind of risk to write something like this, but really to, you know, to follow where the thinking or the scholarship takes you. Because generally I found people are, J.K. Rowling a side, that scholars are receptive to this work.
Gary: I was wondering if she would come up at any point during the discussion. Well, thank you very much. It was definitely a unique book and something which I had never read anything like it. I want to thank you again for joining us on the podcast, Dr. Mesch.
Dr. Mesch: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
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