Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from 19th Century France

Professor Rachel Mesch guides us through three compelling lives and careers in 19th-century France. The lives of French writers, Jane Dieulafoy (1850–1916), Rachilde (1860–1953), and Marc de Montifaud (1845–1912), did not conform to nineteenth-century notions of femininity. In their work, they contested the conventional norms, and refused to be categorized by traditional gender standards. These three lives tell us much more about late 19th-century France than we previously knew. Episode 554.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Rachel Mesch, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France 

“This thoughtful academic treatise . . . explores the lives of three famous gender nonconformists in fin-de-siècle Paris.” —Publishers Weekly

Before the term “transgender” existed, there were those who experienced their gender in complex ways. Before Trans examines the lives and writings of Jane Dieulafoy (1850–1916), Rachilde (1860–1953), and Marc de Montifaud (1845–1912), three French writers whose gender expression did not conform to nineteenth-century notions of femininity. Dieulafoy fought alongside her husband in the Franco-Prussian War; later she wrote novels about girls becoming boys and enjoyed being photographed in her signature men’s suits. Rachilde became famous in the 1880s for her controversial gender-bending novel Monsieur Vénus, published around the same time that she started using a calling card that read “Rachilde, Man of Letters.” Montifaud turned to erotic writings, for which she was repeatedly charged with “offense to public decency”; she wore tailored men’s suits and a short haircut and went by masculine pronouns among certain friends. Dieulafoy, Rachilde, and Montifaud established themselves as fixtures in the literary world of fin-de-siècle Paris at the same time as French writers, scientists, and doctors were becoming fascinated with sexuality and sexual difference. Even so, the concept of gender identity as separate from sexual identity did not yet exist. Before Trans explores these three figures’ efforts to articulate a sense of selfhood that did not align with the conventional gender roles of their day. Their personal stories provide vital historical context for our own efforts to understand the nature of gender identity.

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