Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman

Rachel Mesch

Both deeply historical and surprisingly timely, Having it All in the Belle Epoque shows how the debates that continue to captivate achieving women in America and Europe can be traced back to the early 1900s in France. The first two photographic magazines aimed at women, Femina and La Vie Heureuse created a new female role model who—unlike the fear-inducing New Woman—could balance age-old feminine convention with new equalities. Often referred to simply as the femme moderne, the feminine role model promoted in Femina and La Vie Heureuse was a bundle of decidedly new contradictions, as she embraced a newfound sense of equality without completely abandoning conventional gender roles. Full of never before studied images of the modern French woman in action—from the adorably adventurous mountain climber, literally reaching new heights, to the multiple dazzling incarnations of the woman writer herself, gracefully balancing work and family, Having it All in the Belle Epoque shows how these early magazines exploited new photographic technologies, artistic currents and literary trends to offer a powerful new model of French femininity—one that has exerted a lasting, if rarely recognized, influence on French expression. The book introduces the concept of “Belle Epoque literary feminism,” a product of the elite literary and artistic milieu from which the magazines emerged. Defined by its refusal of political engagement, Belle Epoque literary feminism was nonetheless preoccupied with expanding women’s roles through the imaginative powers of journalism and fiction. Having it All in the Belle Epoque is the first in-depth study of these magazines’ elaborate construction of a shared fantasy of female achievement; the book also considers the way in which this fantasy was refracted through popular women’s fiction of the time, and explores the limits this alternative feminism faced beyond the devoted readership of the women’s press. Mixing historical research and literary criticism with visual analysis, Having it All in the Belle Epoque presents an original lens onto the cultural history of this time period, while offering a new framework through which to consider ongoing debates about feminism, femininity and the possibility of having it all