La Belle Epoque – the era from about 1880 until the start of World War I in which Georges Feydeau lived and wrote – was a time of peace and prosperity in France. Technological advancements, such as electricity and automobiles, made life easier and facilitated comfortable travel. The growing middle class, which relied on domestic servants, found itself with leisure time to enjoy the theatre, music halls, and a new kind of entertainment: the cinema.
Modernization and fluidity among social institutions altered the fabric of daily life, especially among urban and middle-class women who became, according to historians Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr, “the newly mobile, individualized consumer of goods, fashions and literature that had to be designed to please her.”
In Paris, the center of the consumer revolution, potential buyers were courted with advertising posters showing fashionable women on bicycles, driving cars, skiing, drinking and dining out alone. Women could patronize cafes, where they could sit and read about Marie Curie’s co-discovery of radium in 1898 in La Fronde, the first newspaper produced entirely by women. Or they could attend the theatre to see Nora walk out on her husband in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, which was first performed in Paris in 1894.
Despite these apparent freedoms, however, French women did not enjoy the same legal status as men. Women could not vote. Husbands were the sole legal authority in the family. Rape and violence were legal in marriage. Married women’s earnings were their husband’s property. And women workers, who made up nearly 40 percent of the female population and more than a third of the country’s workforce by 1906, were automatically paid lower salaries.
This inequity led to the first wave of feminism, which was highly vocal and won a great deal of attention in the press. Eventually, women’s status improved, but in La Belle Epoque, as in the early days of the United States, women lived in a kind of domestic purgatory under a regime that glorified its founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, but denied them to half its population.
Gold, L. (1998) First Ladies of the Poster. New York, NY: Posters Please, Inc.
Holmes, D. and Tarr, C. (Eds.) (2006) A ‘Belle Epoque’? Women in French Society and Culture, 1890-1914. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
Rearick, C. (1985) Pleasures of the Belle Epoque. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.