Obituary: Marcelle Segal

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The Independent Culture
THE ENGLISH term "agony aunt" is both discourteous and inexact. No one would ever have thought of applying it to Marcelle Segal. She was the editor of the "courrier du coeur" rubric of the magazine Elle, a designation that is more poetical and more precise. When one wanted to avoid the word "editor", then she was known as "la dame de courrier du coeur", the lady who looked after the letters written by women explaining their problems and seeking advice, often on emotional matters.

Segal had taken this responsibility from the foundation of the magazine in 1946 and had continued in this position for more than 40 years, retiring in 1987. She received, on average, some 20 letters a day, publishing only a very few of them but replying personally to them all. The total number must be staggering.

One of the great interests that surrounded her career concerns the changes that she lived through and which directly affected the position of women in French society. She witnessed nearly four decades in which a high-profile, militant feminism forced legislative reforms through successive governments and during which educational and social developments meant that, whilst the home and the family constituted part of a woman's life, they were no longer considered to provide her ultimate fulfilment.

Thus in its earliest years Elle, which aimed at the market of youngish, well-educated, middle-class women, was concerned with advising women on how to organise their domestic lives. Segal gave advice that would make women more efficient. When women went out to work there was the problem of what to wear; there she recommended the wearing of trousers and pointed out that the same dress could be worn at work and then, with a little adjustment such as adding a piece of jewellery, for going out in the evenings. By the time she retired some 70 per cent of women aged between 25 and 49 worked outside the home.

Segal always claimed that essentially the problems were the same. "My husband is deceiving me with our maid. What shall I do?" she was asked in the 1950s. "Sack the maid and see to it that the next one you appoint is totally unattractive" was the advice. "My husband is deceiving me with a woman in his office, at least, I think he is" was the querulous complaint. "You should go to his office and find out" was the reply. By the 1980s many women were working in offices. What if the woman was tempted to infidelity? The advice was what one would expect (what about the children?) but Segal also had a typical comment. "When a man has an affair, everyone knows about it. But when a woman has an affair, it can be kept secret."

Couples living together without being married were talked about as living in sin, living beneath a broomstick, living in the chimney, or having been married in the 21st Paris arrondissement (which does not exist) Then the terms describing them became very respectable, "l'union libre". Later, about the time that Marcelle Segal retired, people started to speak of "co-habitation".

She would remind her readers that such unions often led to marriage. And since, in all unions, whether legal or informal, the question of money arises, the woman complains that she does not know for sure how much the man earns. She was told that she should raise the matter with her man when in the presence of his male friends. He would not like his friends to think that he was earning less than he was. So the woman would learn the truth.

Radical feminist groups disliked Elle because it was too upmarket, giving space to the advertisement of expensive foods. And they particularly disliked Marcelle Segal's column with its emphasis on how to be a good mother and wife, and looking tolerantly on girls and young women who thought wistfully about wedding dresses. But Segal was not impressed with feminism. Women were simply shouting louder, she said.

Born in 1896, she had a diploma in mathematics which she never used. She married and was divorced in 1928. She worked as a secretary in a bank. In 1940 she was transferred to Lyons, but as she was Jewish the Vichy laws prevented her from going into journalism. She joined the Resistance.

Helene Lazereff was already a friend of hers when, after the Liberation, she joined "the Czarina" in the creation of the weekly Elle. All that she wanted, she said, was to be useful and to be read with pleasure.

Douglas Johnson

Marcelle Segal, journalist: born Paris 15 May 1896; died Paris 28 December 1998.