The best biographies of remarkable French women

Karen Offen Author Of Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920
By Karen Offen

Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by France and things French. In graduate school, no women’s history was on our required reading lists. As a young woman, though, entering a professional field in which women were few on the ground, much less studied, I became an avid reader of biographies of achieving women – partly to learn how they were able to surmount (or not) the obstacles that confronted them in a male-dominated world. The five stellar biographies of French women I present here are products of the newer work in retrieving women’s histories. They are deeply researched and engagingly written. They confirm the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

I wrote...

Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920

By Karen Offen,

Book cover of Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920

What is my book about?

“No one has done more over the past forty years to establish women’s history in the scholarship of the French Third Republic than Karen Offen. Now, in Debating the Woman Question, we have her chef d’oeuvre. It was worth the wait: a deeply thought-out analysis of many sides of the 'woman question' from maternity through education to religion and economics. It is a must-read for anyone interested in modern France.”

- Steven C. Hause, Professor Emeritus, Washington University, St. Louis and the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of Marquise Du Châtelet

Why did I love this book?

This splendid biography traces the life and times of the Marquise Du Châtelet, born in Paris in December 1706, who became one of the most erudite women of her époque. For fifteen years she was the companion to Voltaire, the best-known of the French philosophes. She mastered calculus and translated Newton’s Principia, in addition to carrying on an active social life and raising several children. She died at the age of 42, following the birth of a daughter conceived with another lover. The author explains her subject’s life course as “from a life of frivolity to a life of the mind.” It’s a great read.

By Judith Zinsser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked La Dame d'Esprit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Documents the life of the French Enlightenment-era intellectual, from her aristocratic youth and controversial choice to become the mistress of Voltaire to her mathematical and scientific achievements and work as a translator of Newton.

Book cover of The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame Du Coudray

Why did I love this book?

Too many babies were dying at birth (or shortly thereafter) and French authorities had become obsessed with increasing the country’s population. Who would have thought, though, that King Louis XV of France would decide to sponsor and finance (for over 20 years) a remarkable Paris-trained midwife to tour France on behalf of the re-education of peasant midwives? As the King’s envoy, Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray (born c. 1715) toured France from 1760 to 1783 carrying out her mission in some 40 cities and large towns.

Her important textbook on obstetrics, first published in 1759 (5 editions by 1785) and her invention of an obstetrical cloth female mannequin (she called it her “machine”) facilitated her revolutionary hands-on method of teaching the craft of delivering babies. Du Coudray was an imposing presence and a remarkable exception amidst the ongoing illiteracy and superstition that plagued peasant women. Nina Gelbart’s biography, the result of painstaking research -- and reading between the lines -- tells the breathtaking tale of this extraordinary woman.

By Nina Rattner Gelbart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The King's Midwife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This unorthodox biography explores the life of an extraordinary Enlightenment woman who, by sheer force of character, parlayed a skill in midwifery into a national institution. In 1759, in an effort to end infant mortality, Louis XV commissioned Madame Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray to travel throughout France teaching the art of childbirth to illiterate peasant women. For the next thirty years, this royal emissary taught in nearly forty cities and reached an estimated ten thousand students. She wrote a textbook and invented a life-sized obstetrical mannequin for her demonstrations. She contributed significantly to France's demographic upswing after 1760.…

Book cover of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

Why did I love this book?

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (1777- 1866) became an unlikely but very gutsy entrepreneur. Widowed at age 27, she took over the small family wine business and turned it into an enormously profitable and ultimately world-famous commercial enterprise. Defying Napoleon’s naval barricades in the 1800s, she daringly smuggled her champagne out by ship to St. Petersburg - and made a financial killing in the Russian market. In the space of ten years, she became possibly the richest woman in France. “For nearly a century,” the author writes, “the champagne business was a woman’s world.” Today, we still sip her champagne to celebrate very special occasions. What a life!

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Widow Clicquot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Veuve Clicquot champagne epitomizes glamour and style, with tribute paid everywhere from Lord Byron to Casablanca. But who was this young widow - the 'Veuve' - Clicquot, whose champagne sparkled at the courts of France, Britain, and Russia, and how did she rise to celebrity and fortune? Newly widowed, she assumed the reins of the fledgling wine business she and her husband started, steering it through huge political and financial reversals to succeed as a single woman in a man's world. Visitors flocked to see this cultural icon and taste the vintages she imbued with magic.

Book cover of Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

Why did I love this book?

Before Trans is a triple biography of three very remarkable French women writers, all of whom preferred men’s clothing and behaved in unladylike ways. The three are Jane Dieulafoy (1850 - 1916), explorer and archeologist; the novelist Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery,1860-1953); and the erotic writer Marc de Montifaud (Marie-Amélie Charteroule de Montifaud,1845-1912). The distinctive feature of this provocative book is the author’s effort to understand these women who chose to defy the boundaries of femininity but lived in a world that was “before trans” – before what we understand today as transgender, where one’s sex and one’s gender self-understanding do not line up. It is a brilliant book, which one reviewer describes (and I agree) as “exceedingly well-written, layered, and compelling.”  Mesch’s pioneering triple biography is not to be missed.

By Rachel Mesch,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Before Trans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of three individuals in fin-de-siecle France who pushed the boundaries of gender identity.

Before the term "transgender" existed, there were those who experienced their gender in complex ways. Before Trans examines the lives and writings of Jane Dieulafoy (1850-1916), Rachilde (1860-1953), and Marc de Montifaud (1845-1912), three French writers whose gender expression did not conform to nineteenth-century notions of femininity.

Dieulafoy fought alongside her husband in the Franco-Prussian War and traveled with him to the Middle East; later she wrote novels about girls becoming boys and enjoyed being photographed in her signature men's suits. Rachilde became famous…

Book cover of Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

Why did I love this book?

How does an American biographer write about a French philosopher and public intellectual who published copious memoirs of her own life, from girlhood to old age? The multi-talented Deirdre Bair succeeded in gaining access to the extraordinary Simone de Beauvoir and, supplemented by lengthy interviews over a five-year period and research in Beauvoir’s unpublished papers, produced a biography for the ages. In contrast to the biographies recommended above, the author had almost too much material to sift through, plus the challenge of writing about a living person. This is necessarily a fat book but one that is a “must-read.”

By Deirdre Bair,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Simone de Beauvoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, as a philosopher, feminist, novelist and author of the landmark work The Second Sex. Yet as Deirdre Bair shows in this definitive biography, de Beauvoir's remarkable life was dominated at every stage by another intellectual giant - Jean-Paul Sartre. Born into the French Catholic aristocracy, de Beauvoir became "the most notorious woman in France". Her scandalously unconventional relationship with Sartre and her dedication to his theories and his work is one of the most intriguing and contradictory aspects of her life. The two became, in de…

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