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June 17, 2007

What's a flâneuse?


This blog used to be called "Une flâneuse," which led many people to ask, "What's a flâneuse?"

You may be familiar with the flâneur, a nineteenth century French character depicted by writers such as Balzac and Baudelaire. The flâneur was top-hatted and carried a long cane; he was a dashing young gentleman whose literary prowess allowed him to describe and analyze social customs, art, commerce,and politics in the modernizing city.

Historians of nineteenth century France typically portray the flâneur as an exclusively male identity. Meanwhile, textbooks reduce nineteenth century femininity to a choice between being a housewife -- the "angel in the home" -- or a whore. Nineteenth century urban working women are assumed to have been passive, objectified, and exploited, certainly not willing, active participants in the burgeoning capitalist marketplace.

For my senior history thesis at Brown, I used a rare collection of French popular literature and journalism to show that during the 1830s and 1840s, French gender ideologies were much more fluid and complex than has been previously assumed. Women writers of the period used the genre of panorama -- a cross between travel guides, coffee table books, and the nineteenth century version of "the hipster handbook" -- to portray women who actively sought economic independence, sexual satisfaction, political ambition, and gender experimentation. I call these women writers and the characters they created--shop girls, bluestockings, and salon hosts--flâneuses, because they embody a female, feminist alternative to the highly privileged male identify of "flâneur." My favorite flâneuses of the period are George Sand (pictured above) and Frances Trollope.