The first female coach drivers in Paris in 1907

Mme Duffaut and 'badauds'

Mme Dufaut on the Boulevards: the gawkers outnumber the customers. Source: here

Recently I came upon a great set of photographs and postcards showing the first female coach drivers in Paris in the early 20th century. They were called les femmes cocher,  les femmes cochères or simply cochères. The French language was trying to come to terms with this new phenomenon. You can see many of the photos here. According to this website, the novelty of women drivers created a media sensation in Paris. The women drew more journalists, photographers and crowds than customers, and inspired a range of jokes, music-hall sketches, even a movie

I was of course curious to see what some of the newspapers were saying about these pioneers in 1907, the year when the first women passed the coach driving exams. So I did a little digging in BnF/Gallica’s newspaper archives. Rather predictably, the conservative and Catholic newspaper La Croix was anything but positive and saw these women as yet another threat to traditional gender roles, to the family, to society, and the universe. On 6 April 1907 satirical magazine Le Rire – never very subtle in its sense of humour – said the whole thing was funny at first, but now worried about the inevitable increase in deadly accidents with children. A woman would never be strong enough to control a horse. The magazine was joking, but only half-joking. It was not exactly known for its progressive views when it came to women, something the cover, entitled ‘what to do with our baby girls?‘, of that same issue on April the 6th illustrates. It wasn’t all doom and reactionary backlash in the papers though. Positive sounds in the press came from Le Radical, where the editorial simply states that Parisians should just get used to seeing women in different professions, since women in other countries as well as in the French countryside are doing all sorts of jobs and manual labour already. Le XIXe siècle considered women taxi drivers an inevitable development of modern society. The paper backs this opinion up by drawing from history, arguing that women were already driving carriages in Ancient Rome. So there. If it was good enough for the Romans. By 1909 the profession of cab driver seemed to have become accepted enough to be presented as a valid job choice in an official career guide for women, the Guide pour le choix dune profession à l’usage des jeunes filles et des dames, which you can find here on Gallica. choix d'une profession The guide lists the requirements for the job. You had to be over 18 and be a resident of Paris. Women had to register with the Préfecture de Police and have a thorough knowledge of all the streets in order to pass the theoretical exam set by the Préfecture. This was then followed by a practical exam. It is, the guide warns, a tough job, earning on average only 6 francs for long, 16-hour days. Also, beginners are often not hired by the larger companies. Honest advice, though not very encouraging.

Mme Charnier

Mme Charnier. Source: here

On 4 February 1907 Le XIXe siècle had already given an enthusiastic account of one of the first practical exams for women cab drivers. The first two women to pass the rigorous tests were Mme Charnier and Mme Dufaut, or Duffaut, who impressed the newspaper’s reporter. Other women would follow, though they would remain very much a minority over the years. XIXe siecle Mme Dufaut was not just met with curiosity from the public, but also with harassment it seems. Le XIXe siècle reported that a man pretending to be a customer had attempted to cut the leashes of Mme Dufaut’s horse as a sort of practical joke. Luckily Mme Dufaut had been unimpressed, informed the police and continued doing her job. The press meanwhile moved on to the next hype.

Mme Dufaut

Mme Dufaut. Source: here

Femme cocher en 1913

Here to stay: ‘femme cocher’ in Paris in 1913 (Agence Rol). Source: Gallica/BnF

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Mode et Beauté recommends: criminology, Madame Bovary, massage

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Mode et Beauté, December 1902, source: BnF/Gallica

On incomplete and failed hangings is the disturbing and strangely specific title of a book written by a certain Dr. Verse. Even stranger is that it is among a list of book titles recommended by fashion and women’s magazine Mode et Beauté in 1902. Find it here on BnF/Gallica.

I came across this list while doing research for a talk I gave a few months ago about Jean Lorrain’s newspaper articles. Now, Lorrain was infamous for his gossipy, decadent pieces and his fascination with death, sex, and crime. However I was a bit surprised to find a similar obsession in a magazine primarily devoted to fashion and beauty tips. In the December Christmas issue no less. Mothers killing their children, alcoholism, suicide, sexual assault: nothing better than a bit of light reading to get you through the holidays.

The magazine stressed that its heart was in the right place. As the editor explains: ‘We have created a bibliography for our readers, with works on philosophy, the occult, novels and – in these times of crime and murder – on criminology. We think it is good to share with our readers studies on these important issues. Knowing the causes of criminal development will serve to avoid the danger and help fight poverty, alcoholism and social degeneration.’

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The list of 107 titles for the library of Mode et Beauté’s readers, page 12.

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Detail from the list with a book on Oscar Wilde next to titles on child murders, vampires and failed hangings.

The list of 107 titles is truly fascinating, in particular because fiction is mentioned alongside non-fiction and scholarly literature. Most notable is Madame Bovary. The editors seem to suggest that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Willy and Colette’s Claudine en ménage, Rachilde’s L’Heure sexuelle are on equal footing with ‘scientific’ studies such as Vampirisme, nécrophile, nécrosadisme, nécrophagie. It shows how at the time novels were still very much judged on their morals and their didactic value. And so were literary authors. Hence also the mention of Oscar Wilde whose life and the ‘affair’ are held up as a cautionary tale.

I used this list in my talk to illustrate the extent to which Decadent literature was intertwined in the press with contemporary medical theories and discourse on crime and sexuality. Scientific ideas were being popularised through literature and magazines like this influencing public opinion and perceptions on crime, class, gender and sexuality. Judging from some of these books titles tattoos for example were a clear sign of bad behaviour. 

For the respectable lady readers of Mode et Beauté these titles constituted dangerous reading. Yes, they are must-reads, ladies, but they must only be read as a warning to help you recognise and fight ‘social degradation’ Otherwise who knows. You might end up like Emma Bovary. Or Oscar Wilde. Or a vampire

Fortunately for the readers of Mode et Beauté this December issue wasn’t all doom and gloom. To make sure its female audience would not have the most depressing Christmas and New Year ever, the magazine also recommended this wonderful electric massage tool on page 7, made especially for ladies and their lady parts. Happy holidays indeed!

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According to Mode et Beauté the possibilities of this massage tool are endless.

Want to start your own literary salon? Don’t be too beautiful says Le Figaro

Ladies, if you are thinking of starting a literary salon, make sure you are not too beautiful. This is the sound advice of ‘un indiscret’ (an indiscrete one) in Le Figaro from 9 October 1901. A woman who is too pretty will only be the unwanted centre of attention, because all the other women will be jealous of your beauty and all the men will be attracted to you. Even worse, the level of conversation will drop to an unacceptable standard.

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Une chanson de Gibert dans le salon de madame Madeleine Lemaire (1891) by Pierre-George Jeanniot -Source: Wikimedia Commons

After these wise words, our indiscreet columnist then lists some of the most notable salons in Paris 1901. This includes that of Madeleine Lemaire, painter and society hostess extraordinaire, who launched the career of many artists including that of Marcel Proust and who famously served as one of the models for Mme Verdurin in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The anonymous columnist in Le Figaro calls her salon ‘the most pittoresk’, because ‘every segment of society is represented there’. People are reciting verses by M. de Montesquiou or Marcel Proust, ‘women are singing songs by Raynaldo (sic) Hahn’, ‘Sarah Bernhardt recites poetry’. ‘Right and left, high finance and aristocracy, society ladies and great artists all mingle here.’ Read the article in French on Gallica here.

Madeleine Lemaire would have no doubt been pleased to read on the front page of Le Figaro that it must have been her mediocre looks that made her salon so successful.

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Madeleine Lemaire is not amused (photographed by Nadar in 1891)

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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.

Women cyclists: if you can’t beat them, sell them cocaine

tonicwine

Cycling was all the rage in fin de siècle Paris. Bold women ventured out in the streets scaring pedestrians with their provocative cycling costumes. Predictably this provoked fears about the end of womankind.
Going through Le Journal I came across a society column of the Comtesse de Tramar. The Comtesse, author of forgotten self-help books and self-appointed police of female propriety and femininity, expresses her horror at seeing the red, puffy faces of these women cyclists, let alone their legs. ‘With her clothing’, she writes, ‘a woman must preserve her grace, her chastity, all of which make up her poetry and elegance, and this is jeopardized by the habit of showing one’s legs during the day and one’s shoulders in the evening’(Le Journal, 3 October 1895).
Le Journal catered to a bourgeois audience so the paper generally preferred to uphold convention. But money seemed to have trumped moral concerns and some of Le Journal‘s advertisements completely contradict the reactionary outrage of its columns. The bicycle was a symbol of (sexual) liberation and even then advertisers knew how to exploit this. The lack of femininity deplored by the Comtesse de Tramar had been used as a marketing strategy to sell products to the new pédaleuses. One advert published in Le Journal several months earlier offered female cyclists the magical tonic wine Mariani, a wine laced with cocaine and one of the first performance enhancing drugs. This drink would give female cyclists a ‘virile firmness, endurance and vigour’ (Le Journal, 27 July 1895). And yes, that sounds as sexually suggestive in translation as it does in the original French.
Just imagine these hordes of gender bending women cyclists on cocaine roaming the streets of Paris. No wonder the Comtesse was so horrified.