04/20/2012 08:00 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

How France Shaped Three Powerful American Women

Long before French women became the marketing phenomenon they are today, American women of all stripes quietly made their way to France and were shaped on a deep level by their experiences abroad. They returned to America imbued with, as Alice Kaplan put it, "a kind of confidence in themselves that they might not have gotten at home."

Kaplan is a professor of French at Yale University and the author of several books, including the recently released Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. In this brilliantly written and well-researched book, Kaplan explores the lives of three radically different, influential American women who had an enduring bond with France -- and vice-versa.

I recently spoke with Kaplan about these women and the land that continues to captivate.

One thing that stands out in your book is the extent to which Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy loved the French and was beloved by them.

Her French experience and her French identity both came together almost as a place in her imagination. I like to imagine her on the campaign trail reading Proust and Saint-Simon and using those writers from long ago to understand American politics and jealousies. She used the wisdom she got from France to advise Kennedy. I also imagine her using her French identity to shore herself up against the overwhelming Irish-American clan that she had entered. But she didn't abandon her French clothes for khakis and touch football.

Although during her White House years, she faced the constant challenge of staying connected to the French things she loved without appearing, as you write, "to have abandoned American designer garment workers." In fact, she had to field accusations of being "too French," which seems to have become a common political refrain in this country.

These were real political issues for her. She needed to buy American clothes and support the American fashion industry. That was basic. The United States was assuming its role as a world power in the early 60s. There was less assurance about what it meant to be an American then.

Bouvier also had an ancestral connection to the French.

Yes, she did. Her great-grandfather, who was one of Napoleon's foot soldiers, immigrated to Philadelphia and became a cabinet maker for Joseph Bonaparte. Then her grandfather, Major Bouvier, constructed a fake genealogy and told his children that they were descended from royalty. So she had this myth of French aristocracy. In fact, she herself became so royal to the French. She did better on her grandfather's false story. She did him much better.

Susan Sontag, unlike Bouvier, was utterly bohemian. You write that her intellectual mission coincided with her sexual awakenings in France. She bloomed in France in ways she could not back in the U.S.

She was very uneasy about her love for women. She did a few wheels and turns. She had an exciting gay life with her friend Harriet in San Francisco. She was a graduate student at Harvard with a grant that allowed her to go to Oxford. After a few months at Oxford, she went over to Paris and lived with Harriet there. Then she surprised everybody, including herself, by marrying a sociology instructor named Philip Rieff. Then, after her return to the U.S., when her son was a baby, she left husband and son. She was something of a runaway.

In some ways, she never looked back. Paris gave her a chance to figure out who she really was both intellectually and sexually. She tied the two together in Paris. She also realized that in Paris she could have an intellectual life that wasn't strictly in the university. She saw women like Simone de Beauvoir who were intellectuals but who were also passionate in love and free. There were so many models for her in Paris of women who were both sensual and intellectual. This is something France gives many women, the idea that you can be both. I hate to make those kinds of generalizations, but in the case of Sontag, it's true.

I think certain generalizations prevail because they're true. That said, your book describes a different era, when people took more time to read and savor the process of language.

The problem now is that we don't accept boredom. That's why there are all these slow movements, many of which are linked to French life.

Angela Davis was another academic who, like Sontag, had a significant intellectual connection to France. And yet she is very different from Sontag and Bouvier.

Yes, and this is where my book does a wheel-and-turn. France is very attached to Angela Davis and what she represented. The Afro-American experience in France is almost mythic. Davis was a little girl when she went into that shoe store in Birmingham and she and her sister pretended that they were from Martinique so they could be served in the front of the store instead of the back. Then they took off their linguistic masks and said, "Ha ha, we're from here! Ha, ha we fooled you!"

I love that story because it encapsulated all the aspirations of African-Americans and the way they looked to France as a zone of freedom. First, as imaginary freedom; then as real freedom. So many African-American writers went to live in Paris. And, of course, what Davis discovered when she got to Paris that very first summer was that there was a lot of racism in France against Algerians. She used it to strengthen her knowledge of racism as an international phenomenon, not just one that was confined to the South. I think Angela Davis herself might have said this -- that the civil rights movement and even black nationalism needed an international perspective and benefited from it.

That's underscored when you write about Davis discovering in French a language through which she could make her demands heard. Would you say her experience in France was a prelude to taking up her own voice as a philosopher and a political leader in the U.S.?

Yes. It was her political education in many ways. She was always making analogies. She saw the police with their water hoses trying to stop demonstrators and she thought about what had been going on in Birmingham. She had the horror of reading from afar about her own childhood friends killed in the bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham. It made me really understand what study abroad brings to American students: It gives them the chance to read the news of their own country through someone else's perspective. It teaches you perspective.

How has the American experience in France changed since these three women were 'dreaming in French'?

I think we used to go abroad to learn things from other countries. Now I'm afraid that we're trying to export our own language and have lost that desire to learn other languages. Also, with cell phone and ATM machines and the Internet, it's very hard for young people to go somewhere where they're away. In the 1950s and the 1960s, when students went away they were out of touch. And being out of touch, kind of like being bored, or having hours on end in a café, can be a really productive state. My students have crazy schedules. They're on from morning til night. When they go abroad, it's the one time they can slow down and look up at the sky.

(Check out the slideshow for images of the three women profiled in the book as well as video of Jackie and John Kennedy in France and Alice Kaplan discussing Angela Davis.)

Dreaming In French