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Feminism and “Égalité”: France Makes Gender Equality a Global Cause

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(The following is a post by Erika Hope Spencer, reference specialist, European Division.)

July 14th (Le Quatorze Juillet) marks France’s National Holiday (La Fête Nationale), when the 1789 battle cry “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity!” (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) was enshrined in the French national tradition. Marianne, the visual symbol of the French Republic (la République) has been depicted in a number of ways since the French Revolution. She has been rendered as demure and sweet, or bold and commanding, depending on the desired impact. But does this motto ring true for contemporary French women? Leaders in France are turning a more critical eye to what equality means in 2019.

French President Émile Loubet holds papers that read “La Constitution.” The young female figure represents France. The background sun represents “Le Triomphe de la Vérité” (The triumph of truth). Cover of “Puck” magazine, 1899.
Marianne (symbolizing France) holds a sword and the tattered French flag (the tricolor), while French troops march behind her. The World War I poster from 1917 exhorts: “For the flag! For victory! Subscribe to the national loan.”
Woman holding flag.
A woman (symbolizing France) is dressed in a French military uniform and holding the French flag. The 1918 World War I poster is titled “Vive la France!” (Long Live France!).













As French women have entered the political arena in recent years, the aim of making freedom, equality, and fraternity universally applicable has become a central focus in French politics. The current French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful election campaign ran on a platform promising to commit to gender equality.  In 2017, Macron created the Secretariat of Equality between Women and Men, headed by Marlène Schiappa, the author of many books, including “Le deuxième sexe de la démocratie” (The second sex of democracy. Éditions de l’Aube, 2018).

Among other measures to protect women, such as laws against street harassment, feminist activists and politicians have focused on the concept of parity (parité) that is, increasing women’s representation in government, and including a law requiring that half the political candidates of any given party must be women. Despite this law, in the almost 20 years since it was passed, few parties have achieved this level of representation. Notably, Macron’s 2017 campaign was one of the few to meet this standard.

Revolutionary French women march on Versailles, 5 October 1789

This lag can perhaps be attributed to the French approach to feminism, which has prided itself as being less single-minded than American feminism. American women gained the right to vote earlier, and generally have more representation in local and national politics, while French women are more divided over the explicit goals of gender equality. One of the most glaring differences can be seen in public reactions to the French equivalent of the Anglo-American #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, called #BalanceTonPorc (“Expose your pig”). While the American movement saw nearly complete support from women, the French movement faced considerable pushback from some women who feared that it created a narrative of victimhood among women and criminalized men’s freedom to “importuner” that is, bother or flirt with women.

It is worth noting that many of the detractors of that movement, including the famous actress Catherine Deneuve, were over the age of 50, and that younger French women were more inclined to support it.  Perhaps emboldened by greater discussion in the media and high-profile women’s rights activists, feminists in France are beginning to grapple with thornier nuances within the feminist movement itself—most notably to what extent women’s rights are entwined with the intersectional issues of racism, poverty, LGBTQ+ rights, and other social inequalities. For example, well-known British journalist, podcast host, and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge was recently interviewed by French journalist and podcast host Lauren Bastide about her book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2017). Eddo-Lodge’s book, translated into French last year, takes on structural racism and candidly articulates the exasperation that women of color often feel in the feminist movement. If “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” has historically excluded women, many feel it has especially left behind French women of color. Many communities increasingly feel that inclusion and representation of people of color have too often been glossed over in France with a type of willful obliviousness.

A poster from 1945 shows the French tricolor (blue, white, and red flag) flying above a building. Translated, the text reads: The “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—Finally!”

The French outlook, similar to the “color blind” sentiment in America, harkens back to the notion that all French are citizens, thus there is no need for ethnic distinctions. In France for example, there are no ethnic identifiers collected with the national census. French national identity is the first (if not only) identity.

After the French men’s soccer team won the 2018 World Cup, they were enthusiastically celebrated in France, but little mention was made of the fact that many of the prominent players were of African descent. The fact was not lost on political commentator Trevor Noah, who joked about an African victory. Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S. at the time, wrote a letter to Noah stating, “This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French. Nothing could be less true….” Araud was proud to embrace these players within the nationality of their current home, but Noah, who is South African, responded to the world, “Why can’t they be both?”

Another controversial debate centers on the French ban on head coverings such as the burqa. This recently provoked renewed protests by French Muslim women who defied the ban by swimming in “burkinis”. “Operation Burkini” was led by the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble (Alliance Citoyenne). The leaders cite inspiration from American civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, and feel that the French ban is an assault on their civil liberties as French citizens. While many French feminists support the protest, others feel the head coverings are a vestige of religious traditions created and enforced by men, and run counter to women’s rights. Still others feel that the religious origin of the head coverings go against France’s secular society. Drawing lines and establishing laws around these issues of religion and culture elicit strong opinions from all sides. As international dialogs become more public and commonplace, conversations around feminism present both challenges and opportunities, in terms of understanding cultural differences and how they redefine the feminist movement.

The 1909 poster titled “Handicapped!” illustrates women’s struggle for suffrage. A woman rows a boat in high waves while a man glides by in a sailboat with the wind inflating his sail marked “Votes.”
A 1945 photograph titled “French Women Vote for the First Time” shows a young woman casting her ballot in a Paris district.









France will host the G7 (Group of Seven, an informal partnership of industrialized democracies) summit this August, in the elegant coastal town of Biarritz. In connection with the conference, President Macron has declared gender equality a global cause, “l’égalité femmes-hommes une grande cause mondiale.” Macron has brought new energy to the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC), a group of 30 feminist activists, politicians, and aid workers selected from all corners of the world to advise the G7 ministers on the most pressing feminist issues. To this end, the Council has drafted a “Declaration on Gender Equality” that the ministers are expected to sign in August.

A photomechanical print from around 1890 to 1900 shows the beach at Biarritz, southwest France.

The “Declaration on Gender Equality” lays out 28 well-defined and detailed objectives that include urgent issues such as combating violence against women, fostering women’s economic empowerment, and supporting access to education. The points enumerated in the declaration urge the international delegation to consider women’s rights around the globe. France’s revival of the Council during its G7 presidency is an important step toward renewing its commitment to ensure “liberté, égalité, et fraternité” for all. Actor and activist Emma Watson, a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council and a UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, spoke prophetically and optimistically on these issues in 2016 stating, “We, the entire spectrum of the feminist movement, are building an unstoppable current, for which we need ripples of hope from every age, race, ability, walk of life, every human experience.” (One Young World Summit, Ottawa, Canada, 2016). Because the opinions of high-profile personalities reach a greater international audience, differing views on gender equality and national identity are more readily exchanged. Although these opinions may clash, it is vital to examine the experiences of all individuals in order to address long-entrenched inequities.

This summer France will lead the G7 in promoting gender equality worldwide, while also playing host to the Women’s World Cup, known for empowering and inspiring female athletes across all nationalities. The United States is also celebrating strong women this summer. Feminist icon Megan Rapinoe and up-and-coming soccer star Rose Lavelle scored the game-winning goals, to bring about the resounding victory of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the vote. The Library of Congress has staged the exhibit “Shall Not Be Denied,” consisting of photographs, pamphlets, and illustrations from the Library’s collections that highlight the women’s rights movement, as well as educate the public about the long road women have traveled and the work that continues today. Clearly, that work must take into account the diverse experiences of our increasingly interconnected world.

The Library of Congress exhibit “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote” will be on display until September 2020.





Comments (22)

  1. Un chapitre de l’histoire humaine vient de s’inscrire, un autre demande à être écrit sur les annales encore toutes fraîches du temps.

  2. Pretty interesting stuff, helped with my summer french studies! Bonne fête nationale!

  3. I thought it was important, as the author mentioned, to recognize that Macron followed through with what he promised. In a country where feminism movements and equal rights for women struggle to survive, it is crucial that someone is making a clear effort to maintain them.

  4. This is a fascinating article. Good for France, and Macron in particular, for leading the way to gender equality. It is interesting to see the parallel between the words of the founding document of the U.S, “all men are created equal” and France’s battle cry “Liberte, eqalite, fraternite” when the former was written during the time of slavery and the latter more than a century before women could vote. The “thornier nuances” of feminism change with every border crossed, yet the increasing success of women on the international stage–in politics, soccer, and everything in between–“Shall Not Be Denied”.

  5. Bravo! This intriguing editorial truly broadened my perspective. The images embodied french culture accurately.

  6. This is an excellent blog post. Ms. Spencer notes without judgment how French women’s ideals of gender equality are less homogenous than those espoused by American women. It is interesting to consider how a male “right to flirt or bother” might reasonably fit in a framework of women wanting to be left alone except when there is enthusiastic consent. It is also interesting to consider how feminism intersects with multicultural vs melting pot ideas of national identity. Anyway, the post is thought provoking, well written and sophisticated. I hope to see more from Ms. Spencer.

  7. This post touches on so many important and timely issues in French and US feminism! It’s hard to imagine covering more ground as succinctly and clearly, and the breadth is appreciated. The perspective you give shows how complex efforts toward gender equality can be in today’s world.

  8. Vive La Femme!
    Thank you for this timely and well written article. The broad scope and historical background was very illuminating on this important and nuanced issue. The photos and illustrations were delightful and you referenced many interesting and evocative themes and sources.
    Please continue to post more articles of quality and topical and historical content such as this.
    Bravo L.O.C.!!!

  9. Interesting post! Reflecting on how France chose a woman to embody three national aspirations including Equality, while the US widely circulated imagery of “Lady Liberty”- who until the 20th century couldn’t have voted in the US if she had wanted. Which led me to look up suffrage in France- apparently only gained in 1944. We are all works in progress, it seems- let that never cease to be the case!

  10. Beautifully written. I appreciate the information and the photos and all of the details. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for posting this gem of an article about Le Quatorze Juillet. I appreciate the explanation of the historical context of this beloved holiday, and all that it represents! The artwork choices for this enliven the piece as well. I wouldn’t mind having some of them framed in our home. Bravo!

  12. Thanks for posting this! So interesting – and important – to see how another western country is grappling with the same issues we are grappling with here. Especially interesting to hear differing viewpoints among French feminists, which implies that there isn’t a singular right answer or course of action to these thorny questions. It should help us all become less dogmatic.

  13. Ah yes, the lovely, passionate Queen of the People (la Reine du Peuple), Marianne. It’s a pleasure to bring her into focus in these charming posters. For lack of a better term, one must admit that Marianne, always young, always fetching, seems not quite down with the “Me too” mindset. The good men of France are all, of course, ready to obey her, serve her, even die for her — but they will not deprive themselves of a little sexual frisson of admiring her (especially if she has a lovely breast bared), maybe dreaming of a romantic moment with her.
    Is this acceptable to Americans? I doubt it. It all goes back to the great dichotomy between the Gallic and the Anglo-Saxon sensibilities: for the French, humans are basically bad (with some exceptions), but sex is basically good; for Americans, humans are basically good, but sex is basically bad (unless strictly regulated).
    Is there an American female icon comparable to Marianne? Lady Liberty comes to mind. While definitely a handsome woman, she’s a bit older and a bit forbidding; her outfit is quite solemn. And we wouldn’t have her except that the French gave her to us. I suspect that the original design may have been more Mariannesque. My unreformed French side wouldn’t mind if she were showing us an inviting, if perhaps more maternal breast. Surely all those cold, starving refugees from the cold, cruel world that isn’t America

  14. (continuation) … would have been warmed and cheered by those modifications. But it never could have happened, even in New York.
    It’s interesting to note the difference between the “Me too” mindset and the French version of “Balance ton porc.” Me too is a woman banding together with other women who have encountered insufficiently regulated Male sexuality. Balance ton porc, literally means “throw out your pig,” which brings the male offender into the picture, with a sense that he, a specific character with whom you have a relationship, is too pig-like to put up with. Get another, more satisfactory pig, seems to be the point. (A popular old bawdy song (chanson galantes) co includes that “men are pigs, but women love pigs”!)
    Thanks for the post. Vive la France!

  15. Thank you for this thoughtful photo-essay on Bastille Day in light of women’s ongoing struggle for equality across time and culture. The path to parity reaches around the world and covers lots of disparate territory. Like France’s own glorious struggle, this one by women creates in its wake much to consider and address along the way, as this piece shows.

  16. What a wonderful reminder of the resource we have in the LOC. I have often pondered the European women’s perspective on the Me Too movement so I got a charge out of this post.

    Loved the art work and historical references. Thanks

  17. This is an eyeopening and thought provoking consideration of the evolution of and challenges surrounding the global feminist movement – I found the focused discussion on historic and developing issues and events in France and the USA especially informative.

  18. Nice write-up and selection of illustrations. Informative and interesting post on France’s experience with gender equality. It would be interesting to compare France to its neighbors with regard to how they have approached this issue.

  19. In her July 14 blog, Spencer honored Bastille Day and its battle cry “equality” and then artfully explored facets of feminism through history. Well done!

  20. Fantastic article on France’s role in the international fight for women’s rights! Ms. Spencer presents a clear and unbiased analysis of France’s past refusal to acknowledge its lack of women’s rights and President Macron’s efforts to bring women’s rights to the forefront. Bravo!

  21. A very enjoyable article. It reminded me that my mother, who is French, went with her own mother in 1945 to vote for the first time. She was only 22 years old, but her mother was almost 60 years old. I love the illustrations!

  22. great article, good illustrations, and I remember my mother and her mother going to vote in Paris, for the first time, her mother almost 60 then.

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