I am pleased to introduce my colleague at Sewanee: The University of the South, Andrea Mansker, Associate Professor of History, who has agreed to be a contributor for this blog.
Andrea’s recently published book, Sex, Honor and Citizenship in Early Third Republic France (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) describes and analyzes a variety of fascinating case studies of women using resources available in the male-oriented honor system of early twentieth-century France to rectify the inequalities of a gender system that excluded women from various forms of professional and legal agency and protection.
One especially interesting case is that of the feminist journalist Arria Ly, who in the decade before the Great War published critiques of the traditional requirement that honorable women marry as the sole means of gaining social recognition. In defending female singularity, Ly butted heads with conservative critics, including Prudent Massatt, who in writing accused Ly of being a lesbian. Responding to this criticism/insult, Ly used the duelist’s resort in demanding satisfaction in the name of all women. (I leave out the fascinating details of her use of the duelist’s rituals, which I encourage you to read in the text itself.)
In the course of analyzing the background and impact of this and other interesting cases, Andrea offers an analysis of the character and function of the system of honor that made possible this encounter, and Ly and other women’s unprecedented use of various honor-related masculine privileges. She argues that during this period, the honor system functioned as an unstable field of contestation, “whose meaning was reassessed by men and women in their daily interactions.” This feature of the system allowed women to successfully redefine their own relation to honor based on their own, often courageous, actions, some of which exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of men who opposed them. They were able to use this feature of the honor system even to subvert the ideology of male superiority, which traditionalists took as the foundation of the honor system. Andrea’s analysis implies that central to this system of honor were the various forms of ritual of shaming and honoring that made it possible for women, who appropriated those rituals, to achieve a modification of their own social status and the honor system itself. If the fin-de-siecle honor system she has examined is paradigmatic for honor systems generally, that might suggest that a successful honor system needs enough flexibility for its adherents to be able to use its ritual devices to correct its own ideologically-driven injustices.
My short introduction to her book pales in comparison to the richness of detail and insight she brings to this subject. I am grateful to Andrea for her work on this topic. I look forward to her posts. Please join me in welcoming her to this blog.