Duelling Women: Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre

An intriguing news item on page 3 of Le Petit Parisien in 1886:

A duel between women has just taken place in Belgium, as evidenced by the following message we received: ‘Mme Astié de Valsayre, know for having published several books, has just been to Waterloo (Belgium) for a fencing duel with an American, Miss Shelby. During a debate on the superiority of French female doctors over American female doctors she had thrown her glove in the face of Miss Shelby. France was victorious. During the second engagement the American was lightly wounded on the arm. Witnesses have stated that everything happened according to the rules.’ (Le Petit Parisien, 27 March, 1886, source: Gallica BnF)

Duels were not uncommon in the nineteenth century and often highly publicised. It was the gentleman way of dealing with a dispute or an insult, rooted in a century-old code of honour and masculinity: a tradition from which women were excluded.

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Le Petit Parisien, Supplément littéraire illustré, 19/01/1893, source: Gallica/BnF

Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre had studied medicine and was a socialist, feminist, public speaker, and journalist. She sometimes published under the pseudonym Jehan des Etrivières, including the book Les Amazones du siècle (1882). She had also famously volunteered to be a guinea pig for Louis Pasteur so he could inoculate her. And she was a keen cyclist, which at the time was a feminist statement in itself as we have seen before.

In 1887 Astié de Valsayre asked parliament to grant women the right to wear trousers. This had been prohibited in Paris by Revolutionary law since 17 November 1799 unless the woman was ‘holding a bicycle, a horse, or had official police authorisation.’ Fun fact: this law was only officially abolished on 31 January 2013.

But Astié de Valsayre was particularly notorious in the media for being an accomplished fencer and duellist. Engaging in a duel as a woman was a provocative act and for many in the intellectual elite of Paris a step too far it seems. Fellow feminist and prominent journalist Séverine preferred to send her husband to duel for her instead. Astié de Valsayre then accused Séverine of not being able to stand up for herself. Séverine in turn distanced herself from feminists like Astié de Valsayre whose antics and demands for the right to wear trousers she deemed ridiculous and counter-productive.

In 1884 La Presse wrote that Astié de Valsayre was involved in a legal battle after someone had slandered her in the press. This had led to some sort of row en public and everyone being taken to a police station. In the article she is menacingly described as ‘armed with a whip and agitated’. Feminist troublemakers generally did not receive a warm welcome in the press. Even the Dictionnaire de pseudonyms (1887) described her as ‘too famous and eccentric’ (p. 144).

Catholic newspaper La Croix also reported her duel with Miss Shelby on its front page. It’s a small article, but it still manages to sneer at feminists, female doctors and Darwin’s theory of evolution:

Women have now completely barged through the doors of the Faculty of Medicine, and we have a legion of lady doctors who challenge the preconceptions of the restrained and modest sex. These female doctors are now getting women involved in the duel. A bluestocking, Mme Astié de Valsayre has…

Here the report follows that of Le Petit Parisien before it ends with a final editorial comment:

Very soon we will have no doubt another duel between two lady doctors to find out whether man or woman is descended from apes. (La Croix , 27 March,1886, source: Gallica/BnF)

The duel was not just reported in the French Press. The New York Times mentioned it as well, describing Astié de Valsayre as ‘prepared to go anywhere and do anything’ (New York Times, 20 April, 1886). The British tabloid Illustrated Police News  also provided a nice illustration of the event:

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Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886, source: here

I suspect the illustrator had no idea what the women actually looked like and just wanted to show voluptuous, half undressed women trying to kill each other. It is a a bit of a contrast with Le Petit Parisien’s portrait of a scholarly, serious-looking Astié de Valsayre.

Judging from a quick scan of newspapers, the press seemed to focus mainly on the more outrageous aspects of her personality. However Le Petit Parisien did report on her fight for women’s rights in their illustrated supplement in 1893, albeit tucked away on the last page. Astié de Valsayre and others had formed a committee to get women elected in parliament. This proved a difficult campaign with opposition from politicians, but also from other prominent women like Séverine, but Le Petit Parisien writes:

Despite that, Mme Astié de Valsayre and her friends continue their campaign with real courage and a very honourable energy. (Le Petit Parisien, 29 January, 1893, source : Gallica/BnF)

I think Astié de Valsayre would have approved of those qualifications.

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