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Insights: Culture—Women Behind the Throne

Today's female politicians can learn a lot from the women of the eighteenth-century French court
Camille Paglia
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Although 80 years have passed since the 19th Amendment granted voting rights to women, remarkably few women occupy top positions outside the Cabinet. We have only a handful of female senators and governors, and the ultimate prize of the White House still seems tantalizingly out of reach. It's startling that in this age of feminist activism, 16 years have passed since a woman (Geraldine Ferraro) appeared for the first and only time on a national ticket. And how depressing that, in the historical record of the two-term Clinton administration, the appointment of the first female secretary of state will be overshadowed by the stormy dramatics surrounding an ambitious first lady and an indiscreet young mistress.  

Our first female president, who may still be in diapers, will need to study all the achievements and missteps of prominent women from Hat-shep-sut and Cleopatra to Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton, all of whom have lurched from pothole to pothole on the rocky road to high office.  

A peculiarity of the Clinton years is that the most feminist first lady in American history arrived hand in glove with the most reckless presidential philanderer, a man who in aping the debonair John F. Kennedy's Don Juanism managed to screw up big. Washington, D.C., is a fishbowl thanks to today's relentless media, and Bill Clinton has never enjoyed the privileged privacy of the Duke of Edinburgh or Prince of Wales, whose amours are shrouded by an aristocratic Mafia.  

European politicians, such as the late French president François Mitterand, know how to manage the precarious balance between honored wife and official mistress, invoking a sophisticated sexual duality that has never been tolerated in the United States, with its Puritan heritage. The mistress as overt political player has a long history in France: the escapades of the ancien régime make the Clinton scandals look like chopped liver.  

By the time he died at the age of 64 in 1774, Louis XV, the indecisive, pleasure-loving successor to the great Sun King, Louis XIV, had enjoyed a fantastic array of mistresses and one-night stands. As a teenager on his wedding night, he reportedly had sex seven times with his bride, a Polish princess. He fathered 10 children by the time he was 27. When his pious, conventional wife began to refuse sexual relations, Louis relentlessly pursued extramarital adventures. Courtesans kept on call in a hostelry called the Parc aux Cerfs supplemented his first conquests, three highborn sisters.  

Near death from a fever at age 34, Louis was strong-armed by the bishops into making a public confession of his adulteries in order to win absolution. Against his wishes, his statement was printed and distributed throughout the country, where it became the subject of thundering sermons. This invasion of the king's privacy, combined with the lurid burst of titillating publicity, shocked many people in much the way the Starr report, when posted on the Internet in 1998, fascinated and repelled the world with its explicit details of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.  

Louis recovered, however, and went on to find his most celebrated mistress, a lively middle-class girl named Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who became Madame de Pompadour, a patron of intellectuals and, for two decades, the formidable arbiter of taste and style in France. An amateur actress who painted, read widely, sang and played the clavichord, Madame de Pompadour caught the king's eye on a hunt as she expertly drove her phaeton through the woods.  

The king assigned two courtiers to teach her the rituals of court life; and, since royal mistresses had to be aristocrats, he endowed her with an estate and the rank of marquise. She redesigned the hothouses of the royal gardens, acquired and redecorated 17 estates and houses, commissioned an enormous amount of first-rate art, and founded the famous china factory at Sèvres. She also starred in lavish theatricals at Versailles, where she staged 61 plays, operas and ballets.  

Though she remained his witty confidante, Pompadour was the king's mistress for only five years: she was apparently frigid and had to resort to herbal remedies to improve her sexual performance. Her extravagance made her increasingly unpopular among the citizenry, particularly when she began to interfere in political matters. She engineered appointments and urged Louis into the Austrian alliance that began the disastrous Seven Years War with Prussia, which shattered the French economy. Depressed by the troubles she had inflicted on the king, she died at 43, a year after the war ended in 1763.  

At 60, Louis was sexually depleted, but a young mistress renewed his energies, and became his sole focus and most gratifying romance. The newly minted Comtesse Du Barry had been a working-class girl with a shady past named Marie Jeanne Bécu. She had such power over the king that she was allowed to write out personal drafts on the French treasury to finance her projects or whims. Du Barry spent huge sums redecorating rooms, buying jewels and commissioning dresses from couturiers. Each month, dolls made in her image and dressed in her newest designs were sent out to major European cities.

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