Public women and public opinion

As written in a previous post about prostitutes, they were despised by public opinion for their immorality and kept-women were ignored. It was though a bit more complicated than that.

After the austerity of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the Regency saw the rise of libertinism, which lasted until the Revolution. However, libertinism was only (even though privately) allowed for elites. Women from lower class could be imprisoned with the common prostitutes if they were denounced or caught as libertine: there was no difference during the Eighteenth century between paid sex with a prostitute and free sex with an easy girl. Moreover, at the end of the century, public women had been the object of debates in the public opinion because of the sexual trade they were doing and its immorality.

Beyond the focus on prostitutes by contemporaries, there was a strong one on women performers, and especially actresses.  In the Eighteenth century society, performers’s behavior was considered as more shocking than men. Not that they did more or worse, but as women they were not authorized to act like that. Actresses were physically described and judged; actors were described with their acting ability and the comments about them were less acrid. Actresses were expected to be behind intrigues by the public. Because actresses, their lovers and their behaviour (like the long standing quarrel between the Vestris and the Saint-Val sisters) were more publicized than actors, contemporaries attributed to them in particular the “intrigues if the wings” which made the Comédie-Française a veritable snake pit.

What was more disturbing the contemporaries, was not the “casting couch” practices (extorting sex for career advancement) but much more the fact that actresses could be mistresses of powerful men. ‘Instead of focusing on a director’s priapic demands, the interest was in what influential protectors could do for their lovers.’[1] And this possible influence of actress on powerful men merged with the general feeling in the eighteenth century that politics had fallen under the influence of women, and as expressed by numerous writers, women did not have a good influence. The idea started in 1721 with the Lettres persanes of Montesquieu and had been developed throughout the Eighteenth century. The real influence of women such as the Marquise de Pompadour or Madame du Barry reinforced it and most of these women had a reputation of perfidy. All of those women represented for their contemporaries the abuses of the Old Regime. ‘Writers came to think about the consequences of women having authority partly through the prism of actresses.’[2]

Every woman evolving in the public sphere was likely to be criticized, for, the place of a woman was, for the time, in the private sphere; therefore, only unworthy women would want to be involved in the public one. Prostitutes, courtesans and actresses for their obvious sexual displays and corruption of mores; female writers for their corruption of morals; noble women and women involved in politics for the bad decisions they encouraged men to take.

[1] L. Berlanstein, Daughters of Eve : a cultural history of French theater women from the Old Regime to the Fin de siècle. P.26.

[2] Berlanstein, “Women and Power in Eighteenth-Century France.” in Feminist Studies. P.478.