Emily M. Keeler is the Vice President of PEN Canada. In 2012, she founded Little Brother, an award winning literary magazine featuring the best of a new generation of writing and art. Formerly the books editor of Canada’s National Post, Emily is now the series editor for Exploded Views, a punchy line of short and smart nonfiction books from Coach House Books. Her writing has appeared in the LA Times, Toronto Life, Maisonneuve, The Globe and Mail, the New Inquiry, and the Guardian.
Even though she lived her life amidst a series of bloody revolutions, Barbe-Nicole Cliqout Ponsardin spun gold from grapes. Born the daughter of a bourgeois industrialist and married into a family where she would become the wife of a bourgeois industrialist, Ponsardin was never destined to leave her indelible mark on the world, and yet tonight her legacy, if not her name, will be on the lips of the thirsty and grateful the world over.
As Tilar J. Mazzeo writes in her comprehensive biography of the woman who gave us the iconic orange bottle of bubbly, The Widow Cliquot (2001), Ponsardin’s life was shaped by her privileged upbringing, but equally by so many instances of personal brilliance, as well as plain good luck. As a ten-year-old girl in 1789, the golden-headed daughter of the wealthiest business man in Reims, Champagne, managed to walk through the streets at the same moment as the working poor and serfs were rising up against a system of inequality. Beginning her life alongside the French Revolution, Ponsardin learned from the shrewd political maneuvering of her father when to keep her head down, lest she lose it forever.
Almost a decade later she would marry François Clicqout, a man chosen in part because of the way his family’s businesses would complement those of Ponsardin’s father. The Clicquot family would also be able to keep the Ponsardin secret undercover. Nicolas Ponsardin, Barbe-Nicole’s father, weathered the Revolution by appearing to support the revolutionaries, by becoming a vocal revolutionary himself and swearing off the aristocratic classes (this despite having spent so much of his life trying to effectively buy himself a title). In reality, the Ponsardin’s continued to have aristocratic aspirations. Nicolas managed to grow his textile profits by singing a fashionably radical song in public.
The young newlyweds were an industrial power couple, with François poised to eventually helm an emerging industrial empire. Instead, he died of typhoid in 1805. After seven years of marriage, he left Barbe-Nicole with a daughter and a struggling vineyard. Ponsardin became the widow the crisp and plucky champagne is named for just before she radically altered the business of selling fine sparkling wine.
In the years following her husband’s death, Ponsardin built the vineyard into the most recognizable champagne provider in the world. She did this through technical innovation, creating a method that ensured the dazzling clarity of Champagne today, and through originating a labeling process that ensured her product would be known for the special thing it is the world over. She made smart hires to help run the business and make the wine, and she dared to conquer the Russian market at the coldest peak of the Franco-Russian war. She was, without a doubt, a trailblazer, standardizing her wines and creating a stable company during one of the most tumultuous times in history.
As Mazzeo points out, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, coming of age at a moment of significant social rupture, was a new kind of woman. “For a thousand years, the social fabric of France had remained essentially the same,” she writes.
People thought of themselves as part of an extensive network of relationships that stretched back over generations. They were defined by the social roles they had inherited, roles they accepted as absolute.
For this new postrevoloutionary generation, which grew to adulthood after 1789, that network unraveled. What the Revolution taught them was that the world could change in the most radical ways.
The world after the Revolution began to look a bit more like the one we live in, and Ponsardin’s early success as the doyenne of fine Champagne helped establish myths we’ve been holding onto since; work hard and move up, commodities can replace culture, the accumulation of personal wealth is moral and right.
In creating a managerial system, and in growing the House of the Widow Cliquot into an internationally distributed product, into quite possibly the first Champagne you think of, Ponsardin played her part in building a system of extreme inequity. Heading the company during its tumultuous beginning and building it up, despite the danger and possible ruin she faced, was brave, and there are lessons to be learned from this dangerous woman. Stalwart and wise, she took the right risks. Heaven knows, the world would be a little worse off without the delicate mousse of Veuve Clicquot to tickle one’s palate.
But tonight, after the cork is popped, I intend to think for an extra minute on the nature of the dangerous woman; celebrating the ingenious entrepreneurial spirit of the widow Clicquot as if her success has made the work women have to do any easier would be a mistake. In creating one of the world’s best known wines, Ponsardin played a part in building a global society of individual wealth, of economic disparity. After the Revolution, the accompanying industrialization and the creation of a social order rooted in capital created this world we live in, one where women in every country earn on average less than their male counterparts. Celebrating the achievements of a single woman does little to raise the status of women as a class, and it’s a trap that’s all too easy to fall into. Especially after a glass or two of champagne.
This year, I’m committed to recognizing the danger in thinking one prominently-positioned woman’s success, or failure, benefits or harms the status of women as a whole. Ponsardin’s story is inspiring: a woman breaking through a glass ceiling right at the birth of the commodities market. But her story, like those of the Marissa Meyers, Sheryl Sandbergs, and Hillary Clintons of the world, can only tell us so much. Looking for examples of individual victories dangerous women have won (or nearly won) reinforces the idea the empowered woman is out to get what’s hers. Because if it’s a system of female-oppression and degradation we’re hoping to weaken, to break, wouldn’t it be more dangerous to start building up, like so many tiny bubbles, rather than looking for top shelf examples and hoping they might trickle down?
Author photo by Daniel Alexander.
Image on left: Portrait of Madame Clicquot and her great-granddaughter Anne de Rochechouart-Mortemart from Wikipedia, in the public domain.