Stories of Women's Comeuppance Expose Cruelty at Heart of Modern SocietyRoundup
tags: feminism, popular culture, womens history, television, Elizabeth Holmes
Sarah Horowitz is professor of history at W&L University and the author of The Red Widow: The Scandal that Shook Paris—and the Woman Behind it All (Sourcebooks).
Lately it appears we have been eager for stories about women who are up to no good. Witness the streaming series “Inventing Anna,” about scammer Anna Delvey who allegedly swindled many by posing as a German heiress, and “The Dropout,” which explores biotech fraudster Elizabeth Holmes. Both shows are popular and nominated for multiple Emmys.
These are women from the recent past, but by looking further back in time we may see why we find tales about bad women, especially ones who circulate among the rich and powerful, so appealing. A century ago, Marguerite Steinheil was one such figure. Like Delvey and Holmes, she was at the center of a criminal case that became a media frenzy. Then, as now, such a public story about a dramatic fall from grace resonated because it exposed the fraud and cruelty at the heart of modern society.
If Steinheil’s life was the subject of a Netflix series, it might start in 1890, when she was 21, married to a mediocre Parisian artist who was successful enough to enjoy middle class privileges. But Steinheil wanted more. Determined to enter high society, she engaged in lucrative affairs with prominent men. Promising sex, she persuaded many powerful officials and politicians to use taxpayer funds to pay top dollar for her husband’s paintings.
As a result of her sexual transactions, Steinheil came to hold great sway within France’s powerful civil service and arranged for favors for friends and family members. In an era when women could not vote or hold office, Steinheil carved out a role for herself in public life through her liaisons with powerful men.
By the early 1900s, Steinheil cemented her status as a member of the French upper echelon. This was a milieu shot through with paradoxes. The elite held themselves up as moral exemplars, but gave themselves license to misbehave in private. While they held a near-monopoly on political power in a country riven by deepening economic inequality, the government preached the values of liberty and equality. Steinheil embodied these contradictions. She maintained a facade of propriety while using sex to bolster her status. Her maneuverings also revealed that the system was designed to favor the rich and well-connected and that opportunities for social and economic mobility were limited.
In May 1908, Steinheil’s husband and mother were found killed in their home. The sole survivor and witness to the attack, Steinheil proceeded to tell an improbable and shifting set of untruths about what she had seen. At various times she blamed poor Parisians, Jews, Brazilians and North Africans for the crime.
Despite her evident falsehoods, the authorities repeatedly declared that she was innocent of any involvement in the murders and that the perpetrators were undoubtedly common criminals. Their support for her was probably due to her many connections with powerful government officials. Indeed, the chief investigator in the double murder may have been one of her lovers. It also stemmed from a common police practice: protecting the reputations of elites by cleaning up their messes.
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