Historians generally agree that anticlerical republicans deliberately stymied women’s acceptance as full citizens, refusing to sacrifice what they felt was their tenuous hold on power to women who they believed would give their vote to the Catholic Church or to royalists. While feminists were considered unnatural women and disloyal citizens, women on the whole were deemed sheepishly conservative and overly religious. The fight for influence over women produced fruitful, albeit contradictory, results. For example, while republican statesmen such as Jules Ferry and Camille See advanced equal or at least secular public education and teacher training for girls in the 1880s, the church, not wanting to be outdone, responded by including Latin in its school curriculum to prove that it could sufficiently educate girls to pass the baccalaureat. State schools were compelled to follow suit, with the result that increasing numbers of girls entered the university. The battle between the church and republicans led to the identification of motherhood as “a crucial battleground in the struggle,” in the words of James McMillan.


The state’s commitment to repopulation caused it to promote a definition of women’s rights and restrictions in society that emphasized their maternal capacity. Thus, even women’s educational achievements and economic participation during the early twentieth century did not lead directly to political enfranchisement. Not until after World War II, when the loyalty of men themselves came under suspicion and when women had, for the second time since 1914, proved that they could be counted on to rally to the defense of the country in crisis, was the issue of women’s citizenship finally put to rest.^° From the Third Republic to 1968, the women’s cause in France seemed to hibernate, sometimes emerging quietly at the margins of the Parti Communiste Frangaise and the Section Frangaise de llntemationale Ouvriere (which became the Socialist Party), sometimes expanding to protect women’s civil rights. Much feminist work happened outside the political arena. Researchers analyzed and even criticized women’s status but did not necessarily work to form an independent movement. Those feminists who were active during this period, which sparmed three republics and the French collaborationist state of Vichy, adopted a moderate and conciliatory approach in order to get their demands met. It was over women’s issues that both sides of the political spectrum often found agreement, and feminists were faced with a united front against their claims to an equal place in society. By the 1950s and 1960s the numbers of feminists were increasing but, self-identified or not, the vast majority believed they could achieve social change only through patient reform, single-issue campaigns and, above aU, compromise.


Advocates for women’s rights understood the political climate: no group, left or right, had much interest in making women’s issues the focus of a political agenda. The left dismissed feminism as narrowly focused and “bourgeois,” and many of its intellectuals shunned it as overly reformist. The right attacked feminists, claiming that they were unnatural women, that their pro-contraceptive stance was eugenicist, and that they would be the death of France. Frequently women’s organizations—left, right, or moderate— only spoke out about issues concerning the family.” Despite this virtual political exile, women’s advocacy organizations of the postwar period, especially those with more radical leanings, functioned indirectly as seedbeds for the later feminist movement. In the 1950 and 60s, the group Jeunes Femmes, for example, discussed such taboo subjects as psychoanalysis, sex, and birth control at its regular meetings.


Its Protestant alliances (the group was founded by progressive Protestants) gave it respectability and a degree of cultural distance that allowed it to criticize women’s position in religion and the Roman Catholic Church. 12 The Ligue pour le Droit des Femmes, which was formed in 1869, saw itself as an international standard bearer for “women’s promotion” and for defending women against aU types of discrimination. The Mouvement Frangais pour le Planning Familial, founded in 1956 as Matemite Heureuse, began publicly to articulate an argument for women’s liberation based on the assertion that women were autonomous individuals whose sexual independence had to be respected. The family planning advocate Dr. Marie-Andree Lagroua-Weill-HaHe, a restrained moderate, succeeded in making significant changes in French society and law as well as large headlines in the French press. Arguments for women’s freedom, and the growing visibility of women such as Dr. Lagroua and the sociologist Evelyne SuUerot, who publicly discussed women’s position in society, glamorized the image of women’s advocates and helped build a broader base for feminism. The popular historical belief of feminist timidity nonetheless illuminates the specific features of feminism ia France.

“Perhaps more than in any other major country in the world,” the historian Karen Offen writes, “French women have regularly been accorded recognition by men as being vastly powerful and influential, even as they were being stripped of institutional power. This immediately puts French women in a different position with reference to politics

and power than they occupy in cultures that render women invisible or that immobilize them far more successfully.As a result, French women’s expectations vis-a-vis their own society have been especially complex. They have wUlingly embraced, and indeed been indoctrinated with, the belief in universalist principles to which they were encouraged to aspire. At the same time they have been thrown back on the fact of their sex by being denied the fruits of those same ideals. The historian Mona Ozouf tries to get at this contradiction when she quotes George Sand as saying “There is only one sex,” implying that women invested meaning in a standard they believed more aUencompassing than one sex or the other. But this statement obscures the other half of the equation. This other half finds the president of Simone de Beauvoir’s agregation jury recounting that, although it gave Jean-Paul Sartre first place and Beauvoir second, “eveiybody agreed that, of the two, she was the real philosopher.” They reasoned that “he was the normalien and, besides, he was taking [the exam] for the second time.” Unstated, but clearly understood, was that women were expected to settle for second place. Men and women might have resolved that French culture and politics were universal, but they did so by deliberately accepting their particular application, i”* Indeed, it is hard for non-French readers to appreciate the degree to which the 1970s feminist critique of “femininity,” in all its manifestations, created such hostility among women, and why so many women rejected feminism because of it.


French men and women have prized each other for their mutual admiration and understanding, an appreciation which makes them appear eminently civilized and their culture compelling. And yet for many American women who consider themselves even vaguely feminist, and who believe they watch French women coquettishly sacrifice themselves to uphold a feminine ideal, French attitudes toward women make France seem infuriatingly backwards and sexist and French women absurdly cowed. It would require another dissertation to unravel the threads of this sexual je ne sais quoi, but even as a first approximation, it is clear that the attachment in France to “femininity” has had a negative impact on the development of feminism as a movement. Feminists’ attacks against traditional constructions of gender were relatively unpopular. In contrast, a conservative state created an abundance of relatively popular laws that recognize women’s special roles in society as mothers and aim to protect their vulnerability as workers and as women. Today in France it is illegal for factories to employ women on the night shift, a law supported by the French left. In addition to the laws seen as safeguards, women are granted much the same privileges and freedoms as men in law, notably, sexual autonomy, no-fault divorce, and meritocratic entrance examinations to the top schools in the country. The combination seems to produce a satisfaction among women that they are recognized for their reproductive labor, and at the same time able to achieve in the public sphere.