Rachel MeschHaving It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Stanford University Press, 2013

by Roxanne Panchasi on December 2, 2014

Rachel Mesch

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[Cross-posted from New Books in French StudiesRachel Mesch‘s new book, Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman (Stanford University Press, 2013), is a fascinating study of Femina and La Vie Heureuse, the first French magazines to use photography to depict and appeal to women readers and consumers. Divided into two parts focused on “Readers and Writers” and “Texts and Contexts,” the book examines the multiple ways these magazines represented and shaped women’s lives in the years prior to the First World War.  Wide-ranging and rich in textual evidence and illustration, Mesch’s account reveals much about how ideas and ideals about French women and femininity in these magazines engaged and interrogated both modernity and tradition. The book explores a series of questions raised in and by the pages of these publications: How should women balance work and home? What did marriage mean, and what were the keys its success? What was feminism in France, and how did this compare to other national feminisms? What impact did key female (literary and other) celebrities in France have on broader societal attitudes about women’s roles and possibilities as consumers and producers of culture?

Asking the question “Did women have a Belle Epoque?” Having It All… is a study that explores some of the early twentieth-century  history of concerns and debates that remain extremely relevant to women’s lives into the twenty-first century. Readers will find in this book a rich archive that illuminates the history of women readers and writers before World War I while offering a longer-term perspective on the ways we think about the complexities of femininity and feminism (and their relationships to one another) up to the present day. Along these lines, the author has shared her research more widely in publications such as Slateand on her blog Plus ça change.

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