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Ozouf uses the woman's portrait, traditionally a male genre, to portray ten French women of letters whose lives span the period from the eve of the French Revolution to the resurgence of the feminist movement in the late twentieth century. She studies the letters and memoirs of Mme du Deffand, Mme de Charrière, Mme Roland, Mme de Staël, Mme de Rémusat, George Sand, Hubertine Auclert, Colette, Simone Weil, and Simone de Beauvoir. Rejecting the male constructions of femininity typical of this genre, Ozouf restores these women's voices in order to study their own often-conflicted attitudes toward education, marriage, motherhood, sex, and work, as well as the dilemma of writing in a literary world that did not support women's work.
Ozouf claims that a uniquely French feminism informed these women's lives, one that stems from the great egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution and is more tolerant of difference than its American counterparts. She argues that as a result, modern French culture has not isolated women from men in the same ways as American and British cultures have done.