In 2016, French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu published Les Culottées, a two-volume series that offered short biographical sketches of impactful women from around the world and throughout history. One year later, the world exploded with the #MeToo movement, as women everywhere exposed the sexual abuse and systemic mistreatment that they all experience, in ways large and small. It’s a different world in 2018, as Bagieu’s book — stories from both Les Culottées volumes compressed to a single English edition, titled Brazen: Rebel Women Who Rocked the World — makes its English-language debut from First Second Books.
Bagieu’s previous books, including Exquisite Corpse and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & The Papas, established her voice for complex characters, but Brazen also breaks new ground by digging directly into the complex societal pressures and biases that women confront throughout the world, all throughout history. From colonial Africa and 7th century China to suburban Long Island, crossing political and religious boundaries, Brazen offers up such a wealth of women and experiences that readers can’t help but identify with their struggles, dreams and accomplishments.
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Bagieu talked to CBR about the how #MeToo underscores the sorority of the women in Brazen, the difficulty of whittling down the number of profiles in the book, her objectivity toward her subjects,and her desire to take a break from reading biographies.
CBR: Pénélope, how did Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World come about? After spending an entire book exploring the life of Mama Cass, you decided you weren’t covering the lives of amazing women fast enough?
Pénélope Bagieu: Actually, that’s exactly what it was. I had, for years, this list of women I wanted to talk about — one of them was Cass Elliot. When I started thinking of the book to do after California Dreamin’, there was another woman I wanted to write about. I figured that if I went that way, I would do nothing but biographies all my life, so I decided that I could make 30 of them as short stories. If people want to know more about these women, they can look for more information. Most of these women are, I believe, unknown or very little known, so this was my way to introduce them.
As you say, many of them are not well known. How did you go about selecting these women? Even discovering them in the first place is kind of an accomplishment.
Actually, it’s not. They’re everywhere. You just don’t notice them because they’re not labeled as the hero of the story. Most of them are background characters in others’ biographies or in documentaries about someone else. Once you train your eye to see them, they’re suddenly everywhere. Initially, I had a hard time selecting only 30 of them, because I could have easily done a hundred.
Some of them I had known a really long time. At first I thought of making a book about Katia Krafft, the volcanologist, or Peggy Guggenheim. Then I started thinking about all these other woman I had heard about, and their amazing stories. Once I started opening that door, it seemed like a million of them just fell onto me. It wasn’t hard to find them. It was much harder to find books about them, because some of them were so little known. That was the hard part.
Narrowing the list down seems impossible. You wrote about Agnodice, who brought women’s healthcare to ancient Greece. Thousands of years later, access to quality women’s healthcare is still a problem all over the world.
As a disclaimer, she is the only woman about whom there is doubt about whether she existed or not.
Yes. These stories were prepublished in a French newspaper Le Monde every week, and I carefully read the comments there because sometimes they were very useful for making corrections before printing. I had a few historians say that there is a little gray zone around Agnodice’s existence. Or maybe her era wasn’t exactly right. I came to view it as a fable if it’s not totally true. I think it’s very enlightening that she knew there was something very unfair about women’s health, exactly like there is today. The risks she took for other women were pure generosity.
All of these women are role models to me for this reason. She said, “This is what I want to do with my life, to help other women even if it’s dangerous or illegal.” You’re right: centuries after there are still some places where you have to go illegally for women’s health and men are still passing laws to prevent women from access to healthcare. Even if we have the law against us, like Agnodice, you have to do it anyway.
While many of the women are relatively unknown, a few are actually very famous — particularly Josephine Baker and Heddy Lamarr. What’s most compelling about your portrait of them is how you spotlight their accomplishments outside their fame — Baker as a spy in occupied France during World War II, and Lamarr’s many patents for her inventions. Did you have specific ideas about what kinds of accomplishments you wanted to spotlight in Brazen?
The test that they had to pass to get into the book was very simple: I had to love telling their stories over and over again. That’s what I do with any book — can I still tell that story a hundred times and not get tired of myself? It’s true that, especially for Josephine Baker in France, where she’s still so famous, I wondered if there was too much material. One of the things I wanted to do was discover new places, but then I thought that it was OK as long as I was focusing on what people don’t know about her. Both Lamarr and Baker were really known for a part of their life that they didn’t choose — the beauty of one and being the exotic token for the other.
They are very little known for what really mattered to them. Josephine died in poverty and nobody really cared about what she had done for France. Hedy Lamarr’s obituary bragged of her beauty and that’s it. That’s very unfair, and maybe this way I can show people what really mattered to them. They were both very brave and bright women, so even though they are the two famous ones, they still have their place in the book.
The women you cover come from all over the globe and throughout history. That’s a tremendous tapestry of human history to touch on. Did you know right away that you wanted this book to go to so many times and places to spotlight these women?
It didn’t make sense to make this book and not talk about certain women. Usually when you have a list of accomplished people, there are only one or two women, and they are always white and either American or European. If this book is about women, let’s make it about all women and not forget, again, about women of color.
I also wanted a huge diversity of actions: one is a Nobel Prize winner and one saved the lighthouse. No matter what they did, it took so much courage to do it. No matter what adversity they faced, all of them found a way with the hand they were dealt. None of them were super educated or super rich. I wanted anyone who reads the book to find one that they identify with and say that, yes, those are the challenges that we face or the kind of background that I have. You don’t have to end up with a Nobel Prize. One of them just wanted to be buried with her husband. So it was not just a diversity of places or times, it was mostly the diversity of challenges.