Men’s attire afforded Rachilde, George Sand, Rosa Bonheur, and Sarah Bernhardt unprecedented professional status and access to public space. Dressed as men, they entered stables, circuses, cafes and other modern spaces hitherto off-limits for women; they became skilled in cycling, juggling, horse-back riding and other pursuits judged unfit for ladies. Rachilde, controversial author of gender-bending novels, and Rosa Bonheur, renowned animal painter, submitted legal applications to the prefecture of police for permits to dress as men, arguing that only this would allow them to experience the unexceptional treatment that was essential to achieving their goals. This lecture examines the role of cross-dressing as a professional strategy for women in late nineteenth-century France, and argues that by unlocking the public sphere, female cross-dressers made it possible for future generations of women to imagine themselves as full participants in the spectacle of Modernity.
Johanna Ruth Epstein is an Assistant Professor at Hollins University. Her forthcoming book Dutch Courage: How Courbet, Millet and Van Gogh Listened to the Critics and Studied the Masters explores how perceptions of Dutch art in France helped lay the foundation for Modern Art. Her art reviews appear in ARTnews.