La Fronde: France’s first newspaper run entirely by women

In her series on the cultural histories of France, historian Julia Faiers shows how Belle Epoque actress Marguerite Durand took on the French press

7 February 2021
By Julia Faiers

Marguerite Durand (1864-1936) was the editor of France’s first feminist daily newspaper. She set out to show, in no uncertain terms, that the Belle Epoque* was only ‘belle’ for the male portion of the population, by founding on 9 December 1897 a four-page broadsheet daily newspaper called La Fronde, staffed and written entirely by women. The third issue declared its intentions with brilliant clarity:

“La Fronde. A major daily newspaper. Political and literary. Managed, administrated and compiled exclusively BY WOMEN. In the French population women are in the majority…Women pay taxes which they have no say in approving; their manual labour and intellectual work contribute to the wealth of the nation and they claim the right to be allowed to voice their opinion on all questions affecting society and humanity, of which they are members on a par with men.”

La Fronde – meaning ‘the catapult’ – was a clever choice of title

La Fronde – meaning ‘the catapult’ – was a clever choice of title. In nineteenth-century France it also referred to a period of revolt against Anne of Austria’s regency in the seventeenth century, during the minority of her son, Louis XIV. The verb fronder now means ‘to critique.’

In fin-de-siècle* France, fronder had more subversive undertones, implying attack on the establishment through mockery or satire. Durand’s title and editorial content therefore took aim at the patriarchy, using newspaper columns in place of stones to undermine its authority. La Fronde was one in the eye for the male establishments that routinely excluded women.

Marguerite Durand’s radical ideas and actions have frequently been underplayed by writers who focus on her beauty and charisma, attributes she later admitted she used to oil the wheels of the feminist cause, and which prompted commentators to call La Fronde ‘The Times in petticoats.’

Before moving into radical publishing, Durand was a talented and successful actress at the Comédie Française. Later she worked as a reporter at La Presse and Le Figaro, where she gained first-hand experience of the predominantly male world of newspaper publishing. This, and her theatrical background, helped her play to her audience – or readership – and kept her and her newspaper in the headlines. She gained even greater notoriety while on the campaign trail as a candidate for the elections in 1910. In a carefully choreographed publicity stunt Durand was photographed with her pet lioness, ‘Tiger.’

France’s first women-only daily made the news in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on 14 December 1897, the week after the first issue of La Fronde was published. The Manchester journalist declared that the publication was a step forward from the previously haphazard attempts by French women to fight for equality. He said: “until now the “feministe” cause has been chiefly in the hands of half a dozen ladies of a rather noisy and eccentric character.”

During an interview, when asked by the journalist what prompted her to found the newspaper, Durand replied, “the strike of the match girls!”* She said that she was “pained and grieved to see how the claims of these unfortunate girls who make matches were supported by the ‘masculine press.’ I made up my mind that a journal was absolutely necessary.”

So what did La Fronde discuss in its pages? One edition – from January 1, 1898 – covered the issue of working conditions for women in sewing workshops, and demanded their right to equal pay. The front page included ‘Notes from a Frondeuse,’ by regular contributor Séverine, the pen name of socialist journalist Caroline Rémy. Séverine published her column ‘Notes from a Frondeuse’ in an attempt to bridge the gap between Durand’s high-society lifestyle and the social depravation and gender inequality experienced by the majority of women in France at that time.

Despite being criticised for living the high life, Durand was a principled activist who got things done

With her own workforce she set up a women’s typesetter’s union, as women were excluded from the existing (male) one, and paid her staff the same wage as men.

Durand’s trailblazing was not rewarded with financial success and La Fronde ceased daily publication in 1903 due to cash flow problems. La Fronde had ruffled male feathers for six years, and in that time gave a platform to a generation of women hellbent on fighting for equality. And while Durand’s visionary publishing venture was short-lived, her legacy was not.

While working on the newspaper she established a library, housed initially in La Fronde’s premises in rue Saint-Georges, and which now resides in the thirteenth arrondissement and is called, fittingly, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand.

Glossary

*La Belle Epoque: roughly the period of the Third Republic, from 1871 to 1914.

*fin-de-siècle – this is a phrase suggesting decadence that refers particularly to the end of the 19th century, and not just in France.

*The matchgirls’ strike took place in 1888 at the Bryant & May factory in Bow, East London. Around 1400 women downed tools over the sacking of a worker, unfair pay and health and safety issues.

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