Rediscovering France’s Early Female Playwrights

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Before the French Revolution, most female playwrights were upper-class single women who needed to earn a living. In the 19th century, their numbers kept growing: Scholars have found at least 350 women who were paid for their writing, from the revolutionary activist Olympe de Gouges to Delphine de Girardin, both of whom had plays in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française. Many of them hosted literary salons, starting with Germaine de Staël; some, like George Sand, also wrote under a pseudonym to get around gender-based prejudice.

Yet not a single one of these women has a meaningful presence on the French stage today. Until the late 2000s, even feminist writers knew nothing of their work. The first volume of a French anthology of prerevolutionary female playwrights (edited by Dr. Evain, Gethner and the New York University professor Henriette Goldwyn) wasn’t released until 2007.

When Thibaut, who is now at the helm of a National Dramatic Center in the city of Montluçon, first heard Dr. Evain speak at a conference two years later, the notion of matrimoine came as a revelation. “I fell apart. I started crying,” she said. “She taught me that instead of being at the dawn of a feminist awakening, we were part of a cycle, which sees women emerge and then be erased.”

That historical insight coincided with a renewed focus on gender inequality in French theater, in the wake of two government audits. Until 2006, none of the five national French theaters had ever had a female director. There has been some progress since: While only 7 percent of national and regional dramatic centers, the next tier of public institutions, were led by women in 2006, the proportion was 27 percent in 2019. Still, in March, an open letter published in the French newspaper Libération complained about the lack of women being appointed to top theater jobs since the start of the pandemic.

From 2009 onward, Thibaut, Dr. Evain and other activists joined forces through an association, known as HF, to push for change, and matrimoine became one of their rallying calls. In 2013, Dr. Evain launched the annual “Days of the Matrimoine,” a festival that runs alongside the “Days of the Patrimoine,” a national celebration of France’s cultural heritage.

That visibility is now affecting younger generations of scholars and artists, like Julie Rossello Rochet, a playwright who completed a doctoral dissertation last year on her 19th-century predecessors. In a phone interview, she said that studying their work had helped her process the unease she felt as a young writer: “I kept hearing, ‘Oh, it’s so rare, a woman who writes for the stage.’ Actually, it isn’t.”

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