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France: Women in the Revolution

Germaine de Staël

Ernst Hader, artist; Sophus Williams, photographer. Madame de Staël, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Germaine de Staël was born on April 22, 1766 in Paris and died there on July 14, 1817. Her full name was Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, and after her marriage to the Swedish ambassador, Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, she became Baroness de Staël-Holstein. Her byname remains Madame de Staël. Her parents had a strong influence on her life growing up. Her father, Jacques Necker became the finance minister to King Louis XVI, and while he was unpopular at court (among the royalists) his reforms and efforts for debt reduction made him something of a popular hero. Germaine admired her father immensely and felt pride at being his daughter. Her mother, Suzanne Curchod, ran an extremely well-regarded salon in Paris, entertaining such luminaries as Voltaire and Diderot. The experiences that Germaine had growing up in this extraordinary environment solidified her natural intellectual ability and encouraged her emotional intensity. She lived her life with a wholehearted enthusiasm that is apparent from the observations of those around her who consistently describe her as singularly engaging- despite her purported lack of beauty. Like her mother she became a popular salonnière and captivated a wide array of foreign dignitaries, liberals, nobles, wives, and mistresses. The small dinners at her hôtel on the Rive Gauche included such personages as Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and Gouverneur Morris (American envoy to Paris). Her correspondences with Gouverneur Morris are housed in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, and his book (see Primary Sources Bibliography) contains interesting observations from this time period including his time spent at Mme de Staël's home. The conversations at these soirées on the fashionable rue de Bac influenced popular sentiment and shifted political opinion. De Staël herself was a centrist politically, and ultimately her more moderate opinions would endanger her during the more radical phase of the Revolution. Her importance as a writer and literary figure is undisputed. She wrote numerous political pieces as well as novels, plays and literary criticism. Her voluminous correspondences are mostly published and she also wrote autobiographical memoirs. De Staël's interest in German Romanticism and her travels to Italy were influential in many of her publications, and her affinities were interpreted by Napoleon as unpatriotic. Reputedly, the two never saw eye to eye but the mere fact that de Staël felt empowered enough to openly disagree with Napoleon gives one a strong sense of her character, and the power she possessed. Sadly, after travels in Europe and England she returned to Paris only to die in disillusionment.

For an overview of French women in history and the evolution of the French feminist movement, please see the research guide Feminism & French Women in History.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Staël, Madame de (Anne-Louise-Germaine), 1766-1817. (Name Heading; returns works by Madame de Staël)

Staël, Madame de (Anne-Louise-Germaine), 1766-1817. (Subject Heading; returns works about Madame de Staël)

Selected Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

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