On Colette

So I’m reading Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, and already in the introduction I’m coming across all kinds of fascinating information. I’m particularly interested in what Thurman says about Colette and feminism; compared to actresses and courtesans Colette knew, Thurman says:

The feminists had less to attract her. By 1900, the women’s-rights movement in France had a solid history, a daily newspaper, and a distinguished following. But the combination of utopianism and Puritanism which marked so much feminist theory – and the denunciation of women who “collaborated” sexually with their oppressors – deterred many women otherwise eager for liberation from joining the cause. Colette’s antipathy to feminism was, in her youth, outspoken. In 1910, an interviewer asked if she were a feminist, and she looked at him, incredulous. “Me, a feminist? You’re kidding. The suffragettes disgust me. And if any Frenchwomen take it into their heads to imitate them, I hope they’ll be made to understand that such behavior isn’t tolerated in France. You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

And yet it seems to me that Colette did something to advance the cause – or a cause – of feminism through her independence, her sexual adventurousness, and her experimentation with gender roles. I suppose the feminism of the day wasn’t ready for Colette; in its earliest stages, there may not have been room for Colette’s complicated, fierce, and courageous self. When feminism’s focus is on gaining the vote for women, Colette’s subversiveness might have seemed more troublesome than exciting:

What is so subversive about Colette’s first novels is their suggestion that gender, too, is subjective. She perceived instinctively that the child of either sex has desires classified too strictly as masculine or feminine: urges to penetrate, devour, and possess; to be cherished, dominated, and contained.

This strikes me as a fine feminist statement, although not necessarily one that would have advanced the feminist goals of the time. For some reason I find myself interested in women whom I would call feminist, but who rejected the label. Another one from a different time period is Mary McCarthy, who is such a model of strong, independent womanhood and who wrote in powerful ways about women, but who also rejected feminism. I’m not sure what to think about this – are these women failing to understand feminism broadly enough to see that they do, in fact, embody feminism and write in a way that could be called feminist? Or is it a failing of feminism to define itself broadly enough to include these difficult, complicated, powerful women?

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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