I first encountered Jane Dieulafoy, one of the three subjects of Before Trans, when I was working on my previous book, Having It All in the Belle Epoque. In that project, I studied the ways in which two innovative women’s magazines, Femina and La Vie Heureuse, constructed a new model of “modern woman” who could balance femininity with a certain kind of feminism. The pages of these gorgeous Belle Epoque publications were filled with hyper-feminine female achievers–from doctors and writers to mountain climbers–demonstrating with elegance and grace their ability to maintain work-life balance. In fact, so enamored was I with these images that I started this blog to showcase “delightful tidbits” that hadn’t made it into the book.
Jane Dieulafoy didn’t fit the paradigm of hyper feminine role model, though. Rather than dripping with pearls or cuddling small children, she was pictured in a well tailored men’s suit. In one image from Femina that accompanied a piece she* had authored, Dieulafoy sits austerely in the shadow of a “monumental fireplace” in her well-appointed living room, which was, the caption also noted, “truly a marvel.” Little did I know when I included this image in Having It All (p. 60) that I would one day stand in that living room, taking in the striking mantel in its full, colorful glory. But that’s another story (see the conclusion to Before Trans.)
In the magazines, Dieulafoy was often pictured next to her husband, and the publications celebrated her devotion to marriage bonds, ignoring her clothing choices. While I didn’t have time to dig deeper for the purposes of Having It All, I bookmarked the pages. I wanted to understand how Dieulafoy fit into the complex landscape of early French feminism. How did Dieulafoy manage to escape criticism in her men’s clothing, as the women writers around her worked to showcase their femininity so as not to be associated with the denigrated figure of the man-hating New Woman? I was fascinated by what seemed like troubling contradictions.
When I finally embarked on my research, I noticed that everything that I read about Dieulafoy—both from the nineteenth-century and later scholarship—acknowledged the apparent dissonance of her lifestyle: she was “the woman who dressed like a man” but was embraced by conservative and Catholic institutions. And yet, no one had thought to look into the dissonance directly, to explore the fascinating ways in which Dieulafoy understood her difference and sought out others like her. Many described her as exceptional, an eccentric, an early feminist; some had assumed that she was a lesbian, and one astute critic indeed suggested that she was transgender. But these arguments were offered as a way to understand the contradictions of Dieulafoy’s writing and ideas, and to situate her into French women’s history according to recognizable frameworks. No one had considered Dieulafoy’s gender expression as an object of study in its own right, and a potential window into the history of gender variance.
I might not have lingered on Dieulafoy’s gender explorations either, had I not been reading multiple transgender writings as I made my way through Dieulafoy’s oeuvre. I had recently come to the conclusion that my gender education (BA, MA, PhD) had left out gender variance, and I was catching up. Reading a broad array of first-person accounts, I was moved by the enormity of what it means to navigate the world from a place of gender instability, and by the fact that I’d never been pushed to consider that enormity in my own scholarship. If being a woman in nineteenth-century France was all-determining in ways that my work had long sought to expose, being gender variant added a complex layer that I had entirely overlooked. When I stumbled upon two Dieulafoy novels in which girls transform into boys, I had already begun to think about my subject in different ways—ways that eventually led me to two other writers from that time in French history who similarly “refused categorization” — Rachilde and Marc de Montifaud.
The result is Before Trans, a book that challenges the assumption that any act of rebellion in 19th-century France should be chalked up to feminism alone. The three gender stories I tell in this triple biography demonstrate that long before people had complex ways to talk about gender, they could experience their gender in complex ways. The modern trans framework helps us to recognize the particular stakes for Jane Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud, whose bold explorations are misunderstood when assumed to be part of a quest for women’s rights. To find out more, I hope you’ll read the book.
*Note: I use female pronouns when referring to these figures, to maintain historical accuracy and to avoid making such a personal decision on their behalf. I discuss this further in the introduction to the book, as well as in this blog post.