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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Judith Zinsser,

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

Why 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.

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

By Nina Rattner Gelbart,

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

Why 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.

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

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

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

Why 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!

Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

By Rachel Mesch,

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

Why 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.

Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

By Deirdre Bair,

Book cover of Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

Why 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.”

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