Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


French Studies

Document Type



Critics often focus on how ambitious French women who were “exceptions to the rule of gender” disrupted egalitarian political structures that appeared after 1789. Geneviève Fraisse, for instance, theorizes that exceptional women in egalitarian systems such as democracies/republics pose a threat to patriarchal social order. In theory, all women in political circumstances such as these have the “right” to imitate the exceptional woman. The fear in “egalitarian” patriarchal societies is that all women might emulate the ambitious women who aspire to cultural echelons usually reserved for men. In a hierarchical regime, such as the ancien régime, exceptions are a normal, and at times celebrated, part of society. However, this does not imply that ancien régime women did not face adversity like ambitious women who appeared later in history. Indeed, the significance of the exceptional ancien régime woman has been largely ignored. My analysis fills this void by examining the early French woman writer’s importance as an exception to the rule of gender. Detailed analyses of ancien régime women’s texts reveal that exceptional women were indeed problematic in this era. Additionally, the personal experience of each writer, as evidenced through her works, illustrates that exceptional ancien régime women deftly negotiated social and political obstacles by writing publicly. This study focuses on the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries and examines the lives and writings of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572), and Marie Catherine Desjardins, also known as Madame de Villedieu (1640-1679. Comparing their life experiences reveals that in the case of these women, destabilized family structures ultimately led to an opportunity for public engagement through writing. Left on their own as widows, Pizan, Albret, and Villedieu wrote to maintain their autonomy. They subtly challenged social structures that limited women, while recasting their own images in writing. Ultimately, their choice to write allowed them to achieve subjectivity in their lives and works.



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Committee Chair

Katharine A. Jensen