Stewart focuses on women reporters

February 09, 2006, vol. 35, no. 3
By Roberta Staley

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It is perhaps not surprising that even during wartime, fashion-conscious French women, including the country's female journalists, endeavoured to be as chic, elegant and feminine as extreme privations allowed.

During the First World War, as well as in the ensuing years, French women journalists showed this melding of tradition and modernity. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, who were quick to adopt pants à la Kathryn Hepburn, women war reporters continued to wear skirts, albeit without the cumbersome trains, says Mary Lynn Stewart, professor of women's studies.

Stewart, a prize-winning author, historian and soon-to-be women's studies chair, is embarking upon her latest project: women journalists in France, focusing on the decades between the two World Wars, from 1919 to 1939.

Stewart received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) exploratory grant to assess the viability of embarking late this year upon a rigorous, three-year research project that would culminate in a collective biography featuring a dozen women reporters. “I want to understand how the women got into reporting, and what the costs and difficulties were,” Stewart says.

With so many of the country's young men fighting German troops, the First World War may have opened up opportunities for women to write for literary journals and newspapers that had previously excluded them, Stewart hypothesizes.

Some of the other areas of study Stewart plans to pursue include: what impact the war had on the number of women in journalism, whether these women stayed in journalism after the war, and how they were treated by male colleagues.

The exploratory grant will fund a June trip to Paris, where Stewart will unearth, in library and newspaper archives, some of the published writings, books, journals, diaries and obituaries of up to 15 women.

Stewart plans to apply for another SSHRC grant to further her research and write the biography, if this vein proves as rich as she believes it will.

Women were not new to reportage in pre-First World War France. Before the conflict, many wrote for women's magazines, which focused mainly on advances in housekeeping and fashion and improving the quality of, and access to, education for women from grade school to university.

The feminist press was also strong before the First World War, although, ironically, many publications took an anti-suffragette stance, fearing that French women would obediently vote as commanded by Catholic priests, Stewart says.

French women were advanced in other areas as well. Many mothers and wives were already ensconced in the workforce and the magazines of the day featured stories on how to prepare daughters for gainful employment.

Stewart is well known for her many books and scholarly papers on French women and fashion, especially during the Edwardian period. Currently, she is completing revision of a book-length manuscript entitled Democratizing Haute Couture; Dressing Modern Frenchwomen, based upon six years of SSHRC-supported research.

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