Liberte, Egalite, Fratenite

Raymonde Machard declared that Liberte, Egalite, Fratemite must be lived out in the broadest sense. But she did not represent the majority opinion. Most writers argued not for a universal notion of citizenship shared between the sexes, but for a particular role that women alone would fulfill. They wanted to enlarge women’s “natural” housekeeping abilities to the public sphere and tried to reinvigorate the active spirit of revolutionary republican motherhood lost to the bourgeois domesticity of the nineteenth century. Most writers who believed in the importance of women’s civic participation linked the universal right of suffrage to the collective effort for social renewal. They considered the role of Republican Mother to be an active one. While motherhood was their particular destiny, women needed to vigorously pursue their mission, and to cease being “passive angels” of the home. Albert Bessieres, a Catholic supporter of women’s public mission, borrowed from seventeenth-century educator Fenelon’s Traite de Veducation des JUles to proclaim that “even the men who hold all public authority cannot, by their deliberations, establish any effective good if women do not aid them in executing it.”28 Conservative writers often recycled old suffragist arguments, reasoning that if France expected women to be mothers, it should not stand in the way of their natural authority.


Bessieres believed that the consequences of women’s civic passivity would be extraordinarily grave. In his treatise Le vote des femmes, he suggested that if not for women’s maternal care, France would be forced to leave children’s education to state-run institutions like the youth groups and schools of the Third Reich. Addressing the ladies with a barrage of historical examples, Bessieres continued; “When we take your children for war, shouldn’t you have the right, more than anyone, to control the legislators who decide on war or peace, to control politics which . . . sometimes prepares war and death for your children?”^^ Bessieres appropriated the rhetoric of the suffragists while remaining firmly committed to the primacy of the “natural world” and Catholicism, redrawing the lines of battle to reflect a more acceptable approach to women’s emancipation. By reviewing the Third Republic’s anti-suffrage position, in the course of his argument he was able to take a stab at the failed republicanism of the 1930s. But he also pointed out the extent of postwar France’s separation from its political past. “Has anticlericalism, too often in power for seventy-five years, produced such sweet fruits that we have to protect against its decline?” Bessieres asked. “Three hellish wars: 1870, 1914, 1939, invasions and civil wars, France divided, the home ruined by divorce, abortion, and a declining birth rate, our social legislation retarded for a century . . . Politics, which is the art of governing for the common good doesn’t have anything to do with being for or against the church.” In another instance, Bessieres pointed out that, traditionally, the right believed that women’s vote would cause division in the home, but “two and a half miUion women don’t argue politics with their husbands because they don’t have one, due to the war. Without the vote they are completely powerless to defend themselves within society at large.”


Women could no longer count on male protection but at the same time France seemed in desperate need of nurturing. Postwar thinkers would attempt to reconcile both these ideas in their construction of a modem feminine identity. Socialists and Communists also promoted women’s suffrage, but they spoke of it as an intermediate step before the era of true socialism leading to real emancipation. Ultimately capitalism and bourgeois society would have to be vanquished for women to be liberated. Suzanne Lacore spoke for much of the feminist left when she said that women’s ability to put a voting sUp into an um would not resolve the problem of her second-class status. Lacore argued that women were weighed down by the double burden of capitalism and male domination, and, with the doctrinal fervor of the French left after the war, she declared that Socialism would assure the total emancipation of human beings, substituting class warfare, exploitation in the work force, and national and international conflict, with fraternity, increased productivity, maximum justice, and material goods. If voting patterns are any indication, the majority of women found such promises less convincing than the amorphous centrist position of the MRP.


Women seemed to take a more practical approach to politics and emancipation. Mattel Dogan and Jacques Narbonne in their well-documented study, Les frangaises face a la politique, published in 1955, argued that in most cases, women’s universe was still the home. Women had veiy limited access to the social spaces of work, unions, political parties and cafes which typically gave men entry to the political and economic world. Dogan and Narbonne explain that even for women who were employed, their working world was more restricted and usually circumscribed by home and family life. Emphasizing women’s relatively narrow employment opportunities they commented: “One understands that the rich marriage exercises considerable attraction on the majority of women … It is almost the only way (albeit very improbable) to escape an inferior social condition.” As Narbonne and Dogan concluded, “Woman is not yet, in many cases, an autonomous social being, and often, she doesn’t want to be—this condition can only evolve slowly. In this context, then, it is not surprising that women did not always embrace newfound political rights—something leftists found tiying. Louis Saumoneau, a Socialist activist, in her usual impassioned tone, warned that women must “immediately raise themselves up to comprehending the vital problems from which they suffer: lack of provisions, the cost of living, housing, health . . .


which are of a political and governmental order and whose solution depends on the way in which women fill their civic duties.” The Socialist Suzanne CoUette-Kahn, in her appeal to women to exercise their vote, felt the need to remind them that the election of representatives was not similar to choosing a new hair stylist or dress maker. If they were afraid to vote they need only remember that their grandfathers probably felt similarly in 1848. “Make the effort to educate yourselves,” she cajoled, “it is not an impossible task.”33 The 1946 Constitution had established women’s fundamental equality to men in France, and women were officially considered fuU citizens by the government. Under the law, however, married women were still at the mercy of the anachronistic Napoleonic Code which effectively maintained them legally as minors. Despite modest reforms in 1907, which officially allowed women to dispose of their wages, and in 1938, which granted married women some legal capacity, they generally could not seek employment, relocate, or keep their finances and business separate without the consent of a father or husband.


The constitution’s declaration of equality and the slight easing of divorce regulations in the Fourth Republic did not topple the edifice of institutionalized patriarchy. Without deliberate recodification of the law, married women were bound to the dependence required of them in the Civil Code.^^ As a result, Socialist and Communist parties focused their appeals to women on their status under French law. And most writers concerned with women’s roles, left or right, often inveighed against the flagrant contradictions in French law as it stood in the decades after the war. It was not difficult to view the Napoleonic Code as infantilizing and repressive or at least problematic for women, and its inconsistencies with constitutional principles made it easy to repudiate. Even conservative writers who still championed separate standards for women could not claim that this legal system protected or served them. Catholic writers acknowledged the need to update it and Socialists and Communists included revision of it in their women’s platform. Propaganda pamphlets for the French Communist Party enumerated the most grievous articles in the Code and proposed their amendment to cany out the government’s “declaration of equality” in principle. The Code incriminated women for “adulteiy” while effectively condoning the practice for men, it acknowledged dowries as women’s personal property while allowing husbands to manage them, and it denied women basic authority over their children, In short, it protected male privilege while at the same time repudiating even the most traditional realms of women’s authority.


Purging the Code of its Bonapartist stamp from 1945 onward was one of the greatest achievements of French institutional reform. Much of it was not completed until the 1970s and 1980s. While the Code had served to restrain women more than to protect them, circumstances after the war increased its inadequacy. Commentators noted that marriage, if it had ever represented a guarantee of material safety among the middle class years ago, could hardly be expected to constitute one now. Writers cited dramatic examples to show how it trapped honest women. Marianne Rauze-Comignan, for example, argued that men seduced women to many them and when they became pregnant, abandoned them by accusing them in court of adultery. Men could cany on adulterous relationships without interdiction (as long as they did not bring the other woman into their household) or at the worst received a few months of prison without salary or a fine. “Such is the law of man,” Rauze-Comignan protested, “governed or inspired by the Rights of Man. In March and April 1955, the conservative newspaper Le Figaro ran a series of articles entitled “Women have the floor.” In one of the articles, “Feminine opinion reveals itself at the Pare Montsouris,” reporter James de Coquet interviewed a woman who ran a workshop making hand painted scarves in the fifteenth arrondissement.


“Here is a young, intelligent, and active woman involved in commerce,” Coquet remarked. “A voter who has the mind for decisions and the habit of responsibilities.” As he described her, Colette Perot was not really motivated by political struggles but was more interested in the proposed legislation which would at last make women the commercial equals of men. She was one of a group of women business owners who fought against inequitable practices and laws in the work place. “If women’s work has entered popular mores,” Perot remarked, “it has yet to enter administrative concepts or into commercial jurisprudence. . .” If she married without a contract stipulating her financial independence, Perot continued, This workshop, C. Perot, which I created from scratch and which I would continue to direct, even when married, would nevertheless pass into the authority of my husband by virtue of an article in the Code of Commerce which makes the husband the sole administrator of anything belonging to the ‘community.’ Even better, he would have the right to sell it! It is such legislation, so contrary to the interest and dignity of women, that our little women’s group struggles against.^

May 6, 2018


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