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This International Women's Day, Churchill Fellow, Professor Alison Finch celebrates the Swiss-French thinker Germaine de Staël. (1766–1817), who was at the heart of intellectual and literary life in revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
It’s fitting to celebrate the Swiss-French thinker Germaine de Staël on International Women’s Day, since Staël was famous for both her feminism and her cosmopolitanism. Indeed, during her lifetime she was the most famous woman in Europe, in particular because that feminism and cosmopolitanism brought her into conflict with Napoleon. He didn’t dare have her bumped off, but he sent her into exile and had her books banned and pulped. That didn’t stop her promulgating her liberal ideas across Europe, and it was said that in the end three things had brought about Napoleon’s downfall: England, Russia and Mme de Staël.
Staël published voluminously – history, cultural criticism, novels – and in all her writings she upheld principles of fair treatment for women and minorities, and respect for other cultures. She exposes the double standards that are still too apparent: the greater emphasis attached to women’s looks; the way society sidelines, even ignores, aging women; the denigration of women who depart from conventional sexual behaviour. She links these attitudes to other discriminatory ones – for example, towards disability. Indeed, her outspoken heroine Delphine says that in every country in the world one should live with the oppressed: with victims of slavery, imperialism, poverty. This global outlook was also apparent in her sheer intellectual curiosity: one reason she incurred Napoleon’s wrath was that, rather than promoting French literature (highly prestigious at the time), she urged her readers to appreciate the genius of other literatures as well.
Staël’s fame dwindled as the nineteenth century went on, even though she was still lauded as a model and an inspiration by women all over Europe and the United States – including George Eliot, whose Mill on the Floss is indebted to Staël. But in the last twenty years or so, more and more scholars have been highlighting her role in promoting feminist and internationalist principles, and her enormous social and intellectual impact. She has become famous again.
I participated in an In Our Time programme on Staël on 16 November 2017.The podcast of this episode is available to listen to online:
— Professor Alison Finch, Honorary Professor of French Literature at the University of Cambridge and Churchill Fellow)