Presentation of the "Savoirs des femmes" Postcard Project

This collection of postcard was developed by Virginie A. Duzer, Associate Professor of French at Pomona College, in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. And it was curated by Tiffany Mi (PO, 2019 with a double major in Anthropology and French).

Historical and cultural publications having to do with modern femininity in France at the turn of the nineteenth century are abundant. However, the young woman herself is often neglected, and there are few publications that deal with the way in which young girls learned to become women.

Virginie A. Duzer developed an interest in the topic back in 2009, after having considered several pictorial and literary occurrences of young fatal women. In January of 2011, in Los Angeles, she hence organized and participated into a MLA special session dedicated to the young side of the femme fatale. Because they did not submit to pre-existing categories of thoughts, young women had the tendency to be seen as dangerous, and as a result, the literature, the paintings and the photographs were very keen on portraying them as fatal virgins. Sociologically defined only by the negative, young women are indeed not yet women, and are no longer girls – they remain lost in the interstice. They obviously constitute the polar opposite (and the “repulsive” ideal) of the literary bachelors, and since they are not yet fully established in their gender, they embody ambiguity.

The dancer Salomé, for instance (depicted above by Toudouze), was often depicted in poems and in texts as a clueless young woman, easily manipulated by her mother Hérodiade and unable to understand the power of her very own words. Indeed, asking for the Baptist’s head would mean – to her surprise – receiving it on a tray. And as this myth directly influenced the representation of young women in the years 1880-1920, many of the younger female characters were presented with a fatal aura. Of course, knowledge had, biblically, always been dangerous for women. But the danger that suddenly translated into the books was actually grounded in a historical development: women did not directly leave the convent to get married, and could experience a time when they were disconnected from their fathers but were not yet under the spell of their future husbands.

In 2012-2015, Virginie A. Duzer participated as an Associate Researcher in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council “Savoirs des Femmes” Université de Montréal-based research group, directed by Michel Pierssens and dedicated to women’s knowledge. In 2013, she worked on a special issue of Romantisme, which was published in 2014, and is now entirely available online via Cairn. Finally, in November 2014, during the 12th Annual PAMLA Conference that took place at Riverside, Virginie A. Duzer organized and chaired a session entitled “Familiarizing the « jeune filles »”.

In short, the research, the publications, the conference papers on the topic came way before this Digital Humanities creation. At the same time, everything that came before the Postcard Collection was less concrete, and focusing on literature and art rather than on the real women of the past. And since the historian Agnès Thiercé has shown that “adolescence” is a social and cultural construct of the Third Republic, considering postcards of the years 1870-1920 is in fact a very good way to try to analyze what young women considered as good references and models. 

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