Adding French editors and their periodicals to the WeChangEd database, I spent hours reading about the lives of women editors and looking up information on the periodicals they edited. Sometimes, finding information was easy as many periodicals have been digitized recently. At other times, I had to dig hard to find any relevant document that could provide me with some details of a long-forgotten magazine. One of these magazines was L’Athénée des Dames, which was edited in 1808 by Anne Marie de Beaufort d’Hautpoul (1763-1837), Sophie de Renneville (1772-1822) and Constance de Salm (1767-1845). A search in the online catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France taught me that the full title of the magazine was L’Athénée des Dames: ouvrage d’agrément et d’instruction, uniquement réservé aux femmes, et rédigé par une société de Dames françaises. Interestingly, the subtitle emphasized the periodical’s insistence on the authorization (agrément) and the instruction (instruction) of women. This early sense of feminism immediately caught my attention[1] as the periodical was published under the reign of Napoleon who declared in his Civil Code (1804) that women were inferior to men and that they should behave as ‘Angels in the House.’[2] I wondered what this periodical was about, whether it was as controversial as the title suggested and, even more important, why Napoleon accepted its publication while his regime was known for its severe censorship and suppression of journals that did not suit his ideology.[3]

Finding a number of L’Athénée des Dames turned out to be more challenging than I had hoped. Earlier, Evelyne Sullerot, in writing her history of the feminine press in France, had been searching for numbers of the periodical as well and found only two of them in the archive of the BnF. [4] In her chapter on L’Athénée, Sullerot wonders if there had been more issues of the magazine, since Napoleon prohibited its publication after some time. Continuing my online search, I found that Napoleon indeed prohibited its publication but not until 1809[5] which means that – taking into account the publication frequency of two numbers a month[6] – there must have been more than the two issues Sullerot found. A reviewer for Mercure de France confirms my suspicion as he refers in March 1808 to the existence of four numbers.[7] Since very few of the periodical’s numbers seem to have been preserved and none of them seem to have been digitized, I would have had to visit the archive of the BnF if I wished to study the content of the magazine. Unfortunately, I could not visit the archive during my internship and I had to find another way in order to learn more about the content of L’Athénée des Dames. Therefore, I turned to two elaborate reviews of the magazine published in respectively Mercure de France (March 1808)[8] and Le Spectateur français (16 January 1809).[9]

La Liberté guide nos pas [estampe] / dessiné et gravé par Quéverdo, 1793-4. Gallica.

Mr Amaury-Duval begins his review of L’Athénée des Dames for Mercure de France by referring to one of its main features: its restricted target audience. The magazine of Comtesse Beaufort d’Hautpoul, Mme de Renneville and Mme de Salm was solely written by and intended for women in order to educate them and make them stand up for their rights. According to the editors, one must make an end of the tyranny of men and all human beings should be considered equal. This they already made clear in the prospectus of L’Athénée which both Mr Amaury-Duval and Mr B***, the reviewer for Le Spectateur français, considered a declaration of war. Not only the prospectus but also the motto of the magazine was very explicit about the way men should treat women; “Tombe aux pieds de ce sexe à qui tu dois ta mère”, a quote from Legouvé’s poem Mérite des Femmes, states that men should treat women with respect.

The editors not only hoped to change the behaviour of men towards women but also the way women perceived themselves. Because their female readers had to become aware of the gender inequality that marked those days, the editors asked them in every number a couple of questions on inter alia the intelligence or the position of women in society. They asked them, for instance, whether happiness was most likely to be found in marriage or in celibacy.[10] The explicit interaction between editors and readers that stemmed from these questions sparked the gender debate. What’s more, the editors hoped these questions would eventually help their readers to shape their own identity and to find again their dignity.[11] It thus seems as if the main purpose of L’Athénée was to raise awareness of gender inequality, on the one hand, and to call for action, on the other.

Olympe de Gouges, Les droits de la femme, 1791. Gallica.

Before the publication of L’Athénée in 1808, there had already been various attempts by both female and male editors to publish innovative periodicals in which the so-called inferior nature of women was to be criticized.[12] Think of the famous Journal des Dames (1759-1777) which was edited by Mme de Beaumer, Mme de Maisonneuve and Mme de Montanclos. Not only was it dedicated to the literary works of women but it also published the stories of illustrious women such as Jeanne d’Arc or Christina, Queen of Sweden.[13] On top of that, in eighteenth-century France, women wrote novels and essays on the gender question of which Olympe de Gouge’s Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (1791) is a well-known example. In general, the years before and after the French Revolution were marked by – unsuccessful – attempts to change the stereotypical image of the inferior woman.

One of the main reasons why these attempts were largely unsuccessful is because men were not yet ready to accept women’s emancipation. This can be noted in the reception of L’Athénée des Dames, since Mr Amaury-Duval and Mr B*** were very critical of the editors’ intentions to elucidate gender inequality. In fact, the latter’s review for Le Spectateur français was also a declaration of war as it incited to the suppression of women by the ‘nobler sex’. According to Mr B***, men should defend their rights; they must not lose their superior rank in the order of thinking beings nor must they be put on a par with the dogs that lie at the feet of their women. Moreover, these women, the enemy as Mr B*** called them, should not be dissatisfied with their position in society because they already were independent and free human beings, whereas in other regions of the world women were still enslaved.

Mr B*** believed women should be thankful for the way men treated them. Thousands of poems had been written about their elegance and virtue, a hundred of times men had picked up their fallen gloves… In fact, men made miracles happen but women wouldn’t find them miraculous; they didn’t want to be admired for their physical appearance but for their intellect instead. As they wished, men would praise their novels even though they were “ennuyeux et pleins de choses extravagantes et monstreueuses”[14]. Women’s incapability to write interestingly and faultlessly was also discussed by Mr Amaury-Duval. The reviewer for Mercure de France did not focus on the work of women writers in general, as did Mr B***, but on the articles of the women editors themselves. Although he encouraged women to publish their own periodicals, he blamed the editors of L’Athénée for having written dull articles full of spelling mistakes. What’s more, he implied that women should not discuss such a controversial topic but should publish fashion magazines instead.[15] In general, Mr Amaury-Duval accepted the emancipation of women, yet he still believed men and women had different but complementary qualities. Mr B***, on the other hand, was not positive about their emancipation at all and firmly stated the superiority of men in various fields could not be denied.

Not only men but also women responded negatively to the publication of the progressive Athénée des Dames. In one of the first issues, the editors published a letter of a female reader who stated that one should not question the superiority of men.[16] Moreover, she believed women confirmed their inferiority by fighting this reality as rebellion was a sign of weakness. It thus seems as if neither men nor women accepted the controversial periodical and hence the self-development of women under the reign of Napoleon. However, Mr Amaury-Duval, in referring to this letter, judged the truthfulness of the reader’s response. He thought one of the editors, conscious about the impact of the ‘declaration of war’, wrote the letter herself as a means to restore peace. Or perhaps – if the letter had indeed been written by an editor – its publication was an editorial strategy to spark the debate?

Although it is difficult to tell how women responded to the magazine when it first came out – since no other responses or reviews written by women have been found – it is easy to assume that Napoleon was not in favour of its publication. During his reign, journals were subject to severe censorship. Before a number was sent to press, an agent of the government checked its contents. Then, the published issue had to be revised by agents of the Police and the chief judge among others. Finally, the Emperor himself read every number in order to make sure it suited his ideology.[17] Since L’Athénée des Dames went against the Civil Code, it would not have been a surprise had it been suppressed from the beginning.[18] Nonetheless, letters have been found in which the agents of the Police consented to the publication of L’Athénée on ground of its second and more neutral subtitle that claimed the content of the periodical would not go against the laws, the moral standards or the government of the Empire.[19] Remarkably, the censors did not attach importance to the first subtitle of the magazine – ouvrage d’agrément et d’instruction, […] –, which underlined the periodical’s insistence on the authorization and the instruction of women.

Liberté de la presse [estampe], ca. 1797. French Revolution Digital Archive.

Eventually, Napoleon prohibited L’Athénée des Dames in 1809. The question arises why Napoleon did not prohibit the magazine before. Did Napoleon wish to see how people responded to its publication, with the risk of stirring rebellion? Or perhaps the Emperor did not believe there already was a reading public for such progressive magazines and so he might have thought the journal would soon cease publication due to a lack of income? Or maybe Napoleon foresaw this negative reception since men still perceived themselves as superior and hence would not allow this early spread of feminism? If the latter were true, why then did he prohibit the magazine’s publication after all? As there are very few sources on L’Athénée des Dames, questions as to why Napoleon allowed the magazine’s publication in the first place and only prohibited it after a year of publication remain unanswered.

As a result, the story of the mysterious Athénée des Dames continues to be fragmentary. Questions on editorial choices or on the reception of the magazine are left unanswered and we can only speculate about the breadth of the magazine’s impact. However, what we do know for sure is that the publication of L’Athénée caused a sensation in times of severe oppression of women. Since the periodical of Comtesse Beaufort d’Hautpoul, Mme de Renneville and Mme de Salm explicitly went against the dominant beliefs and called for action, a debate between editors and readers was sparked. Moreover, the editors’ purpose was to educate women readers and therefore, the periodical was part of a process of meaning-making.[20] Unfortunately, as can be noted in the reviews published under Napoleon’s reign, the magazine did not alter beliefs immediately. Nevertheless, its publication led to the emergence of other progressive journals and one hundred years after its publication date it continued to inspire modern feminists.[21] To put it briefly, what now almost has been forgotten was once a controversial and influential magazine.

Amélie Jaques


[1] In those days the magazine would not have been defined as ‘feminist’, since this term only became popular near the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, scholars such as Sullerot or Bertaud refer nowadays to L’Athénée as one of the first feminist magazines in France. Therefore, L’Athénée can be considered a precursor of the well-known late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminist periodicals such as La Fronde (1897-1930) or L’Action féministe (1908-1926).

[2] Schirmacher, K. 1912. The modern woman’s rights movement. A historical survey. New York: The Macmillan Company. p. 179

[3] Bertaud, J-P. 2000. La presse et le pouvoir de Louis XIII à Napoléon Ier. France: Perrin. p. 87

[4] Sullerot, E. 1966. Histoire de la Presse Féminine en France, des origines à 1848. Paris: Librairie Armand Colin.

[5] Bonvoisin, S-M. and Maignien, M. 1996. La Presse féminine. Paris: Presses universitaires de France. p. 11

[6] Sullerot p. 116

[7] Amaury-Duval. 1808. “Athénée des Dames ; ouvrage d’agrément et d’instruction, uniquement réservé aux femmes, et rédigé par une Société de Dames françaises, avec cette épigraphe […]”. Mercure de France 31. p. 542.

[8] Amaury-Duval. 1808. “Athénée des Dames ; ouvrage d’agrément et d’instruction, uniquement réservé aux femmes, et rédigé par une Société de Dames françaises, avec cette épigraphe […]”. Mercure de France 31. p. 537-543.

[9] B. 1809. “Athénée des Dames”. Le Spectateur français 7. p. 118-124.

[10] “Dans lequel des états, mariage ou célibat, la femme peut-elle trouver la plus grande somme, ou portion de bonheur ?” (Sullerot p. 120)

[11] Bertaud p. 242

[12] Ibid. p. 228

[13] Ibid. p. 232

[14] B. 1809. “Athénée des Dames”. Le Spectateur français 7. p. 121

[15] In his review Mr Amaury-Duval stressed a discussion of fashion was perfectly appropriate in a periodical by and for women : “[…] des articles sur les modes (ce qui est bien à sa place dans un ouvrage fait par des Dames et pour les Dames)” (Amaury-Duval p. 542).

[16] The letter can be found in Sullerot’s Histoire de la Presse féminine (p. 123).

[17] Bertaud p. 87

[18] Remember that Napoleon declared in his Civil Code that women were inferior to men; he believed they had no other rights than the right to be beautiful and the right to be submissive (Ibid. p. 241).

[19] In 1808 the editors added the following subtitle to L’Athénée : “Cet ouvrage respectera les lois, les mœurs, le gouvernement et ne s’occupera nullement de nouvelles politiques” (Sullerot p. 115-6).

[20] On periodicals and the process of meaning-making, see Beetham, M. 1990. “Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre”. Investigating Victorian Journalism. Brake, L., Jones, A. and Madden, L. 22. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[21] See “Le Féminisme historique”. L’Action Féministe 50. 1917. n.p.