Before Trans
Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France
Rachel Mesch

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INTRODUCTION

JANE DIEULAFOY MIGHT BE the most famous French person you have never heard of. In 1882, Dieulafoy and her husband, Marcel, a civil engineer and architecture enthusiast, left their comfortable home in the southern city of Toulouse to travel the unpaved roads and mountain paths of Baghdad and Turkey all the way to Persia, in what is modern-day Iran. They hoped to excavate the ancient city of Susa, which British explorer William K. Loftus had located decades earlier but failed to unearth. What they found exceeded their wildest expectations: extensive palaces buried underneath the sandy, rock-strewn hills, forgotten by time and nature. After two government-sponsored missions, the couple finally returned to France in 1886 with forty tons of artifacts from the royal homes of Darius and Artaxerxes. Resettled in Paris, they were celebrated with the opening of the Salle Dieulafoy at the Louvre, leading to record-breaking crowds for the museum’s new Department of Oriental Antiquities. Jane and Marcel Dieulafoy were a veritable fin-de-siècle power couple: they lectured about town, hosted an exclusive salon where they staged theatrical performances, hobnobbed with Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré, and were regularly invited to President Félix Faure’s receptions.

All the while, the staunchly Catholic Dieulafoy went about in the most stylish men’s suits.

Dieulafoy first appeared in men’s clothing when she fought alongside Marcel in the Franco-Prussian War, just months after they were married. She returned to this practice on the voyages to Persia a decade later, never to wear skirts again—this despite the fact that it was hardly fashionable for upper-class Parisians to do so, and certainly not in her socially conservative milieu, where feminism was something of a dirty word and corsets remained the unchallenged norm. Dieulafoy and her peers recognized the intellectual capabilities of women and supported their effort to take on increasingly visible roles. But within this social sphere, women were careful not to appear rebellious, in order to avoid comparison with the menacing figure of the feminist seeking emancipation—the “New Woman,” the Anglo-Saxon import who embraced professional roles and did not always choose marriage over independence.1 Both were perceived as a threat to French traditions and values. Instead, shifts in gender roles in Dieulafoy’s upper-bourgeois circles were contingent on balancing modernity with conventional notions of womanhood, career with domestic roles, and of remaining feminine in the process.2 Nonetheless, Dieulafoy had secured a “permission de travestissement”—a pants permit from the police—for it was illegal in the nineteenth century for Parisian women to circulate in men’s clothing without one. As of a city ordinance established in 1800, “any woman who wishes to dress as a man” was required to have the signature of a health official attesting to her medical need to do so. It is unclear how Dieulafoy qualified, as no record of her actual application remains.3 She was one of only a handful of women to take this measure.

Jane Dieulafoy found a way to express her gender in a way that, to all appearances, made her comfortable and confident. But there were signs that, as she lived this unconventional life, she puzzled over who she was. She kept a notebook filled with clippings containing any mention of gender-crossing or pants permits, from current events, social commentary, or fiction. When her own name appeared in these accounts, it was underlined with a blue pencil.

The name Rachilde may have also appeared in those pages, for she too had secured the pants permit at around the same time as Dieulafoy; born Marguerite Eymery, she had abandoned her rural home for Paris upon turning twenty-one in 1881. Taking the name of a Swedish nobleman whom she claimed to have channeled during a family séance, she found her way to the bohemian literary scene, eventually appearing at balls and cafés dressed in men’s clothing. She had cut off her hair, stopped powdering her face, and began wearing bigger shoes as well.

FIGURE 1. Jane Dieulafoy around 1900.
Source: Roger-Viollet. Reprinted with permission.

While Dieulafoy was digging up ruins in Persia, Rachilde released the decadent novel Monsieur Vénus with an enthusiastic Belgian publisher in 1884. The book earned her a hefty fine and a prison sentence in Brussels for pornography—which she avoided by staying in Paris—while also making her the sweetheart of the Parisian literary circuit. Unlike Dieulafoy, Rachilde seemed to embrace her identity as a rebel, even to cultivate it as a reputation, while steering clear of any identification with women writers or feminism. Her calling card read, “Rachilde, Man of Letters.”

But at the same time as she was building a reputation for wild antics, Rachilde felt deeply vulnerable and struggled for stability. In 1889 she surprised those who had come to think of her as an eccentric rebel by marrying the writer Alfred Vallette, choosing intellectual affinity and friendship over romantic inclination. At that point, she put her pants away and began working with Vallette to revive the famed literary journal the Mercure de France, becoming one of the most influential critics of the time as its chief book reviewer. Still, Rachilde continued to rail against the confines of her sex in fiction and plays that pressed hard against gender norms and conventional sexual categories. In her writing, Rachilde imagined her avatars alternately as a monster, a hysteric, an animal, a werewolf, a man.4 She was never entirely sure what she was, but she had long been sure that the term “woman” did not describe her.5

In Dieulafoy’s notebook, another name appears next to her own with striking frequency: Marc de Montifaud, the name by which the writer christened Marie-Amélie Chartroule de Montifaud was best known. She, too, had received official permission to wear pants. Like Dieulafoy, she wore tailored men’s suits and a man’s haircut for much of her life. Rachilde had noticed her as well. In her short volume Why I Am Not a Feminist (1928), she mentions Montifaud—misspelling her name as Montifaut—alongside Dieulafoy as another of the “women on French soil who dressed in men’s clothing” like herself during the 1880s.6

Montifaud began her career as an art critic, and her work in that domain has recently been recognized for its “personal, materialist vision, one that distinguishes itself from the conventions of the academy.”7 But it was not Montifaud’s essays that made headlines in her day. She published dozens of anticlerical tales for which she was incessantly—and disproportionately—pursued by the French censors, some of whom were enraged that the writer they had assumed was a man was not. In 1877 Montifaud was charged with “offense to public decency” and sentenced to prison. (She would serve her time in an asylum instead.) The legal thrashing did not stop her from continuing to write. Despite repeated death threats, an attempted poisoning, and set-ups meant to prove her sexual impropriety, she continued to churn out controversial historical works, in addition to works of fiction that mocked the political forces out to get her. In some of these writings, Montifaud celebrated historical figures who had been persecuted for their difference or simply misunderstood, including the Abbé de Choisy, one of the gender-crossers of whom Dieulafoy had also written a historical account.

FIGURE 2. Rachilde on the cover of La Vie moderne, February 26, 1887.
Source: Médiathèque Pierre Fanlac, Périgueux. Reprinted with permission.

When Montifaud returned to Paris in 1882, after fleeing her latest prison sentence, she was no longer the awkward, veiled young woman described in the press accounts of her trials. She had taken to wearing men’s suits, as she would for the rest of her life. With her closely cropped hair framing her broad, square jaw, she easily passed for a man, and many of her friends and colleagues addressed her with masculine pronouns. Defiant to the core, Montifaud seemed perplexed that her behavior could be anyone’s business but her own. “I am myself,” she wrote in 1879, “myself alone. Which is certainly not enough, but ultimately, I am me.” It was a tacit acknowledgment that her life—like Dieulafoy’s and Rachilde’s—had no clear referent within the gender-stratified social structures of her time. This was nineteenth-century France, after all, where one of the Enlightenment’s most tenacious legacies was the importance of the difference between the sexes. At the same time that the struggle for equality was hard fought, this sense of sexual difference as a value in its own right has endured in France to this day.

Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud shared the expanding world of fin-de-siècle literary Paris, where publishing opportunities abounded thanks to a growing audience of readers and a thriving newspaper industry. In certain ways, though, these writers were worlds apart from one another. While Dieulafoy staged classical plays in her opulent living room in the wealthy Passy neighborhood, entertaining conservative politicians and academics (even while she and Marcel outfitted androgynous actors in purposefully gender-neutral clothing), Montifaud’s closest associations came from the world of art criticism and journalism. Rachilde circulated in a slightly different milieu of avant-garde writers such as Jean Lorrain, Paul Verlaine, and Catulle Mendès. Each was famous in her own way, but the three moved in different social circles connected to distinctly separate literary and social milieus. They were not united in any particular cause, beyond their personal rejection of gender norms, although none of them intended that her choice should serve as a model for women in general. Wearing men’s clothing was just one of the ways in which they expressed their incompatibility with the gender assigned to them at birth.

FIGURE 3. Marc de Montifaud around 1900.
Source: Eugène Pirou / Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand / Roger-Viollet. Reprinted with permission.

In the past several years, transgender identity has emerged as an expansive designation of the nearly limitless ways to express gender beyond the binary poles of male and female. It is a category, then, that is also a means of refusing categories entirely. Rather than defining a particular identity, trans can designate a departure from assumed gender more broadly.8 “Trans is not one thing,” critic Jacqueline Rose has recently remarked. “In addition to ‘transition’ (‘A to B’) and ‘transitional’ (‘between A and B’), trans can also mean ‘A as well as B’ or ‘neither A nor B’—that’s to say, ‘transcending,’ as in ‘above,’ or ‘in a different realm from,’ both.” The broad category of trans can include anyone who feels misaligned with the gender attributed to them, regardless of how they identify and how they choose to express themselves. This includes those who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, pangender, and gender fluid.

Recent scholarship has begun to consider the ways in which the trans framework can be used to shine a light on earlier figures who resisted gender norms—to explore what “trans before trans” might mean and the implications of casting back in history with a new set of critical tools.9 “What is at stake in imagining and recovering trans experiences and identities before the modern concepts and terminology?” asks Robert Mills in his contribution to a special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly devoted to “Trans* Historicities.”10 “Under what circumstances, historically, has gender’s multiplicity and transformability been rendered visible?”11 The lives of Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud offer one set of answers to that question.

In applying the associations of the modern trans framework, I do not mean to claim that Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud were trans, or that this term, which is the product of a more recent and specialized history, now supplies a definitive answer to the questions around gender posed by their lives. Instead, I want to suggest that the modern notion allows us to view the stakes of those questions more clearly: it helps us to recognize the kinds of issues they were working out.12 It’s a careful line that I am drawing but one that we are already accustomed to in other realms: for example, we think about various behaviors in the past through the lens of feminism, long before the movement existed; we speak of queerness even with the knowledge that people in earlier centuries did not think of themselves as gay or straight.13 I am suggesting a parallel framing with trans, in order to recover a more complex history of gender identity.

Such a concept—gender identity in a historical context—is in itself anachronistic. As a result, as much as this book is about “trans before trans,” it is also about “gender before gender,” because gender did not exist in nineteenth-century France as a phenomenon separate from biology. Or at least, it did not exist in language: there was no way to name the difference between the body’s physical markers and the cultural and social expectations of that body. English-speakers started doing this in the 1950s, the point at which “gender” moved beyond simply designating grammatical categories of masculine and feminine.14 The shift took place much more recently in France, where an expanded meaning of the word genre has only come into use in the past several years. (Acknowledging that difference as a field of study is even newer in France than it is in the United States: les études de genre constitute a relatively marginal area of focus in the French academy compared to here.)

But as the following biographies make clear, even before there were complex ways of thinking about the relationship between bodies and gender, there were those who experienced their gender in complex ways. Without the nonbiological notion of gender, however, it was much more difficult to talk about any difference between the gender assigned to you and who you might otherwise know yourself to be. In many non-Western cultures, notions of multiple or nonbinary genders have existed for centuries, with built-in terminology, such as the Two Spirit in certain Native American tribes or the Kathoey in Thailand; perhaps those born into such cultures do not experience nonbinary gender as a problem to be solved but rather as simply a way of being.15 Language in many ways determines our experience of the world. But in French, as in English, language has been organized in binary terms until only very recently. French is even more gendered than English, lacking our gender-neutral pronoun they in favor of the gendered ils or elles.16 As a result, those who experience gender variance in these cultures have traditionally found themselves outside of language. Contemporary trans writer Riki Wilchins remembers that “language had always felt like a poor tool, one that didn’t even begin to capture the ways I felt about the world or the things in my head.” She was perpetually puzzled by “the million things I felt and thought that I could never say, which knowledge and categories and meaning didn’t begin to capture.”17 The proliferation of new terminologies in our current culture is not a resolution of this difficulty but rather a symptom of it: a reminder of the ways in which gender variance is infinitely individual and does not readily fit into general terms. In fact, one thing that links past with present is the difficulty of finding the right linguistic vessels through which to identify oneself when the available terms feel inadequate.

In what follows, I suggest that for Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud, stories were a way to work around the linguistic challenge of nineteenth-century gender variance. Where language works toward precision, narrative allows for depth and complexity. Indeed, stories are a way to use language to express that which exceeds language. This book attempts to piece together the story of those stories: the paths by which Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud worked to understand themselves.

With no ready terms with which to account for gender nonconformity in the nineteenth century, contemporary commentators puzzled over the unusual presentations of Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud as “bizarreries” or as elusive forms of hysteria—that catchall disease plaguing bourgeois women of the time. More recently, scholars have tended to see them as eccentric rebels, each one unique, sui generis, not fully explicable or comparable to anyone else. Studies of all three always mention their difference, their “eccentricity,” or their unconventional behaviors (in particular their choice of clothing) as features of their identity—character traits, as it were. Yet few of these studies ever interrogate their choices as anything more than that: as not quite a choice at all but rather as an expression of self. What’s more, up until this point, they have been considered rebellious women, proto-feminists challenging patriarchal structures in original ways. I propose that in order to truly understand them, we should stop thinking about them exclusively as women but rather as individuals pushing against that very identity, for whom the appropriate gender designation remains an open question.

Notes

1. The French feminist movement was far less focused on suffrage than the British, and suffrage for French women would not be achieved until 1945. On the particular demands of late nineteenth-century French feminism, see Offen, “Depopulation, Nationalism, and Feminism in Fin-de-Siècle France.” On the French version of the New Woman and the perceived threats from her, see Roberts, Disruptive Acts; and Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France.

2. For more on this new female figure known as the politically neutral “femme moderne,” see Mesch, Having It All.

3. Bard, “Le ‘DB58’ aux Archives,” 1.

4. See, e.g., Rachilde, Quand j’étais jeune; Le parc du mystère; preface to A mort, and her correspondence with Catulle Mendès.

5. Rachilde, Le parc, 207–208; Rachilde, Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe, 84.

6. Rachilde, Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe, 69.

7. Guentner, “Translating,” 127.

8. Stryker defines transgender as “people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender” (Transgender History, 36).

9. DeVun and Tortorici, “Trans, Time, and History,” 524.

10. Mills, “Visibly Trans?,” 542. The asterisk attached to trans* is a way of signaling the expansiveness of the category, not limited to the notion of being assigned the wrong gender at birth and including other departures from binary notions of gender. Some have objected to the asterisk as creating too much expansiveness. “Historicities” rather than “History” reminds of the impossibility of knowing the past and “rejects the imposition of any single narrative of events” (DeVun and Tortorici, “Trans, Time, and History,” 535).

11. Agarwal, “What Is Trans History?” As Agarwal notes, the field of trans history is only now emerging, building on earlier work by Meyerowitz (How Sex Changed) and Stryker (Transgender Studies Reader 1 (with Stephen Whittle) and Transgender Studies Reader 2 (with Aren Z. Aizura); see also Stryker’s more recent Transgender History. Emily Skidmore’s True Sex and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides are two recent examples from the new field. Others can be found in part 6, “Timely Matters,” in Stryker and Aizura, Transgender Studies Reader 2, 317–400.

12. My method is indebted to Jack Halberstam’s notion of “perverse presentism,” which he defines as a “presentist model of historical analysis . . . that avoids the trap of simply projecting contemporary understandings back in time, but one that can apply insights from the present to conundrums of the past” (Female Masculinity, 52). In How to Do the History of Homosexuality, David Halperin describes an approach that “foregrounds historical differences, that attempts to acknowledge the alterity of the past as well as the irreducible cultural and historical specificities of the present” (17). My work, while acknowledging these historical differences, is based on a belief that certain modern critical frameworks can illuminate what was not fully articulated in the past, lessening that alterity.

13. In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that the notion of homosexuality and heterosexuality as distinct identities is a modern construction and that sexual identity is a product of specific social and discursive conditions. The same can be said for gender identity, and it is precisely the project of this book to chart the ways in which Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud worked out their gender in relationship to their society and its various discourses (literary, political, sociological, medical, etc.).

14. Throughout this book, I use the term “sex” when I wish to refer to physical and biological markers of identity, and the term “gender” to refer to a sense of self as well as a recognized social category. I also use the term “sex” when translating nineteenth-century terminology (le sexe) and referring to the category of women as a whole. However, the terms are not always totally distinct. Generally speaking, sex refers to a person’s biological makeup, usually tied to the reproductive system, while gender is the social role one takes on in reference (or not) to that biological designation. The notion of gender as separate from sex has allowed scholars to comment upon the way in which gender roles are socially constructed rather than biologically determined, and enabled individuals to identify the ways in which their sense of self does not line up with their bodily traits. However, more recent science, along with writings on transgender identity, have clouded any simple distinction between sex and gender, demonstrating that one’s sense of one’s own gender can also be a function of biology; that the biological distinctions between male and female are not always clear; and that sex and gender are likely both culturally and physiologically determined. One’s sense of self as masculine or feminine or neither or both is thus not entirely socially constructed; the distinction between sex as biological identity and gender as social identity is no longer as clear as it once was thought to be. And yet, the difference in connotations between the two terms can still be helpful.

15. As Stryker notes, “historically and cross-culturally, there have been many different social systems of organizing people into genders. Some cultures, including many Native American cultures, have had three or more social genders” (Transgender History, 15). For an important contextualization of how Two Spirits are often deployed in discussions about trans identity, see Pyle, “Naming and Claiming.”

16. Some are now using the new pronoun iel in French to reflect trans and nonbinary identities.

17. Wilchins, Queer Theory, Gender Theory, 4.