Corbin on Thérenty (2019)

Thérenty, Marie-Ève. Femmes de presse, femmes de lettres: de Delphine de Girardin à Florence Aubenas. CNRS, 2019, pp. 400, ISBN: 2271117925

Femmes de presse, femmes de lettres: de Delphine de Girardin à Florence Aubenas is a compelling new book by Marie-Ève Thérenty that brings to light the lives and works of women writing in the mainstream French press from 1830 until just after the Second World War, the period historians refer to as the “Civilization of the newspaper.” Thérenty is the reference point for literary, cultural, and historical studies of journalism in France since the nineteenth century, with dozens of critical works published in recent years. Femmes de presse builds upon Thérenty’s earlier articles and complements recent work by Rachel Mesch and Mary Lynn Stewart, for example, by weaving a rich and detailed tapestry of women journalists across a century of journalistic innovation. Thérenty places the writers in their social and historical context, so that we might envision the overlap and evolution of their work in light of changes in technology, social order, and the profession, which led to the invention of new journalistic forms and practices.

The avant-propos presents the methods and structure of the work, whose objective is to complement traditional histories of journalism by exploring their blind spots (18). The author is clear, however, that this is not an effort to question or define a feminine way of writing (10). Because journalism is a social activity on many levels, one’s gender will affect their field positioning or conditions of and right to access; gender becomes a factor of one’s point of view (13). Thérenty argues that there is no universal feminine voice in journalism: “Il existe une infinité de façons d’être femme journaliste” (18). Anticipating potential rebukes of her “regroupement artificiel selon le sexe,” Thérenty notes the importance of proceeding both synchronously and diachronously, yet insists on her deliberate methodology that revives the names, works, and histories of forgotten women writers (360). (This book’s publication precedes the recent shift by historians toward a use of they/them pronouns to designate gender ambiguity in a historical context, as in the case of Jane Dieulafoy). Thérenty limits her investigation to the “grande presse” and weekly informational reviews, excluding specialized feminine or feminist periodicals. The book is divided into six mostly chronological chapters, each based on a legendary fictional or mythological female figure of great strength and guile embodying the style of journalist under consideration.

Chapter one introduces Penelope as the “traditionnelle gardienne du foyer” (22) and explores the invention of the “chronique”—in which women contributed to the discussion of politics and current events, often under pseudonyms—from the innovative work of Delphine de Girardin in La Presse (1836–48) through its mutations during the Belle Époque, concluding with the scandalous ideological interventions of Gyp. The Cassandras of chapter two present a lyrical journalism, characterized as inaudible against the masculine rhetoric of the premier-Paris (105). Even the most loyal dix-neuvièmiste will find it thrilling to (re)read about Sand, a “hapax journalistique” (77), for the critical presentation and punchy quotes Thérenty brings to her role in the evolution of journalism. Thérenty’s discussion of Marie d’Agoult offers an important appreciation: “[elle] accordera toujours grammaticalement au féminine et surtout elle fera abondamment état de son expérience de femme, de mère, de grand-mère, pour légitimer sa prise de parole” (101). D’Agoult would also be the first to reason that women’s force comes from their exclusion from power, rendering them more lucid and objective (104).

In chapter three, Bradamante, disguised battlefield-bound heroine of Ariosto’s 1532 Roland furieux, becomes the Frondeuse: journalist for Marguerite Durand’s La Fronde (1897–1905). This chapter highlights Séverine, the first woman reporter to earn a living solely from her work as a journalist. Thérenty also presents women’s journalistic participation during the war of 1914–18 as often patriotic and empathic, but yet realistic. “Les aventurières ou les Amazones,” chapter four, showcases the mobile (or in some cases ethnographic) journalist, who penned a travel narrative organized around the feminine body that immerged in societies considered primitive. Thérenty offers examples of these journalists traveling mostly alone, rarely with a male companion (from Dieulafoy to Andrée Viollis). “L’aventurière” transgresses via an expedition that is also an escape, thanks to cameras, cars, and planes in more basic areas; they are athletic and encounter danger, and their relationship to their body is at the center of their writing (179).

Chapter five, primarily focused on the interwar period, introduces the Sappho figure: a “femme de lettres” with an ephemeral celebrity, even notoriety, for the defiance of traditional family values and sexuality, and a more liberal comportment with the body. Yet this bodily closeness allows for their practice of “journalisme d’immersion” or “reportage d’identification” to flourish as a new form of journalistic expression. This chapter fills a gap in literary and journalism history with its solid list of names of and statistics for women in the profession, most of whomwith the exception of Colettehave been forgotten. Thérenty explains, in the sixth chapter (Dalias), that while one can still discern postures and practices favored by women, “la différenciation commence à être moins nette et les critères générationnels, sociaux, politiques, personnels prennent aussi une grande importance pour définir des identités et pratiques différentes du terrain” (292). This chapter details the appearance of the “grande reporter” with three case studies: Titaÿna, Simone Téry, and Andrée Viollis. It concludes by questioning the “grand reportage au féminin” and offering a “grammaire” of gendered reportage.

A significant addition to this critical text is the inclusion of nearly twenty images of journalists, beaming from the cockpit of an airplane or the hood of a car, dressed in a suit with a cane and derby, or draped in foulards, or in a miner’s headlamp. While Thérenty lends them each an almost mythological status, the images remind us they are also real people from our recent, tangible history whose daring work and incredible stories merit our attention.

In her conclusion, Thérenty reflects on the current state of gender and hierarchy in the press with three brief studies on contemporary women journalists. She reiterates the importance of the invention of poetic forms as they allowed these journalists to skirt the norms and thus propose a universal journalism founded on engagement in public spaceno matter the risk (359). Thérenty’s detailed depictions grant access, often for the first time, to a breadth of writing from literature to journalism, offering a fresh and fascinating account of writing from the margins of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her research is meticulous and original in thought, as is the work’s presentation. The style is concise and easy to read and follow; indeed, Thérenty is as compelling a storyteller as her subjects.

Kathryne Adair Corbin
Haverford College