Male conservative writers never discussed female solidarity. As far as they were concerned, women were far more connected to the earth than to each other. But they were worried about women’s growing independence–whether or not it resulted in their cohesion—and it fueled a serious discussion about the decline of patriarchy, the origins of gender roles, and the future existence of the French population. This debate would reappear in identical form for the next three decades, in activists’ struggles to update the Civil Code and to win the legalization of contraception. They would be forced to chip slowly away at its arguments in order to free women from its contradictory and suffocating protection.


Male writers, particularly on the right, viewed the small reforms of the Napoleonic code, the Fourth Republic’s constitutional mention of sexual equality, enlargement of workers’ rights, and women’s increasing activity in the public sphere as different aspects of the same escalating women’s problem. Its consequences were serious and included the possible dissolution of social hierarchies or the collapse of France brought on by the dreaded declining birth rate, or what they called denatalite. Jean Lacroix, in Force et faiblesses de la famille, largely devoted to the question of authority and gender roles, put it most succinctly when he said: “To emancipate women and children at the same time as workers—to weaken the power of the father—is at the same time to weaken the power of the master, the priest, and the boss. . . The death of patriarchy is the end of governance over both state and family respectively.”‘^^ Female writers, in contrast, generally saw the erosion of patriarchal authority as part of the advancement of civilization and an opportunity for women to prove their competence.


Men also expressed far more concern over denatalite than did women. The declining birth rate had long been a driving force in the debate over women’s role in France. In the 1930s it led to the enlargement of the social security system and the linking of family subsidies to numbers of children. French concern over the continuing decline of French fertility, spurred on by the losses of first one and then two world wars, manifested itself in a flurry of commentary, social legislation, and state subsidies to create centers such as the Institut National des Etudes Demographique (INED), and scholarly journals devoted to population study. Many French people in government and industry believed that without a reversal of its population decline, French civilization was doomed. It was because of their fear of denatalite, in addition to an awareness of dwindling male authority, that so many men were critical of feminism as well as male and female equality. Many analysts unhesitatingly linked the decline of men’s absolute authority with great movements of history—the end of feudalism, the development of capitalism, and the creation of a republic—and they situated women’s experience in this broader context. According to most of the writers, their contemporary world was witness to the institutional remnants of a defunct political and social system. The question for them was to what extent was this old system natural and proper—and useful—to contemporary society.


Conservative male writers sought to trace the decline of patriarchal values through history and to suggest ways that they could be resurrected in a modem framework. Jean Lacroix, for example, performed what he called a “psychoanalysis of the French Revolution,” arguing that the Revolution and the creation of a constitution radically changed notions of authority and prescribed roles in French society. Before the Revolution, autocratic rule by force, based upon “natural” aggressivity (what he refers to as a “law of life”) had formed the basis of social hierarchy and the backbone of the family. Yet, according to Lacroix, the Revolution ushered in a democratic movement, which severed the tiaditional link between paternalism and paternity in both public and private life. In psychoanalytic terms, it caused the “death of the father.”^9 Lacroix proposed to “transcend this imminent fact of hierarchy” by creating a more generous collectivity, but his recourse to patriarchy as society’s prop made this impossible. Alfred Sauvy, Jean Stotzel, and Marcel Bresard, aU contributors to Robert Prigent’s collection Renouveau des idees sur la famille, agreed with Lacroix. They claimed that from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment and burgeoning capitalist production significantly liberated women and children from patriarchal authority. World War I, they said, simply completed the process. Nevertheless, the authors were optimistic about the future of patriarchy. They saw much potential in state paternalism seriously embarked upon (they suggest) in 1939 with the Code de la Famille which augmented family subsidies after the birth of a second child, provided loans to young rural couples, required demography to be taught in school, and further penalized abortion. They hoped such measures would continue to be implemented in the postwar period and return France to an updated but irenic patriarchal state.


Many intellectuals on the left as weU as on the right believed that the development of capitalism and individualism had alienated human beings from their labor and from themselves. But some conservative men believed that its most deleterious effect had been to cut women off from their natural destiny, Paul Crouzet illustrated the extremes of such an argument in Bachelieres ou jeunes filles when he argued that the essential principle of the difference between men and women had been somewhat overlooked in the recent past. “There has to be significance in the fact that [a woman’s] physical nature is at the same time more fragile and more gracious and displays less force than beauty,” Crouzet opined. It has to be significant that a body’s conformation is, as it were, destined less for the burden of work than motherhood’s fruition; the fact that a brain has to practice its intellectual activities with a volume usually smaller by one sixth. There has to be significance, similarly, in the fact that this intellectual activity is usually spontaneously directed less towards speculation and abstraction than towards practical matters; the fact that it applies itself with more conscientious assiduity than originality; the fact that it deploys imagination and sensitivity more often than logic . . .


In exaggerated form, Crouzet’s description of women’s brains was fairly similar to other writers’ belief in natural laws which governed all aspects of society. Female authors were less likely to condemn the decline of patriarchy even if they agreed with men about its cause and even if they were critical of contemporary society. Even more so, they shied from the determinism shown so vividly by Crouzet that was nevertheless a logical consequence of their essentialist arguments. On the right, writers such as Pauline Archambault bemoaned the increasing separation (economically and psychologically) of the individual from the household. She considered the modem family—with women at its head and men losing control over their children—to be imbalanced. Similarly Jeanne Picard condemned any work that “made it impossible or difficult for a woman to realize her human and Christian vocation and which hindered her blossoming.


“52 Women on the left and center viewed the death of patriarchy as a new beginning, and, excepting their reasoning that mothers could rally together for peace, they avoided essentialist discussions. Rauze-Comignan, in her preface entitled “An Era Opens,” remarked, “If it is true that the enslavement of the feminine sex has been determined historically by the institution of property rights; that it has been maintained by the need for muscular force at the service of (industrial and agricultural) production, then we are in the era of great industry, of great motorized culture, the era of the mechanical supplanting the muscular. “53 These writers were aware that underlying men’s fear of declining femininity was their terror over the increasing irrelevance to production and sustenance of men’s superior physical capacities, while women’s “natural functions” remained as vital as ever to contemporary society. Such understanding allowed Rauze-Comignan and even Pauline Archambault to believe that society was in a period of transition in which traditional structures of power and affiliation barely existed and new ones begged to be constructed.

June 15, 2018


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