(This blog post is by Keara Mickelson, an intern in the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division.)
March 8 is International Women’s Day across the world. Stemming from the universal female suffrage movement and labor movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, International Women’s Day celebrates the progress made by women’s rights activists and highlights current issues related to gender equality and social welfare.
International Women’s Day is widely celebrated across the French-speaking world as la Journée internationale des femmes. France has officially celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8 since 1982, when it was adopted into law by the first Minister of Women’s Rights Yvette Roudy, who was also the first French translator of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Roudy’s career and her long fight for French women’s rights are detailed in her memoir, Lutter toujours. Although the holiday has officially been recognized in France only since the 1980s and by the United Nations since the 1970s, the French women’s rights movement and French female accomplishment have a long history. In the fifteenth century the Italian poet and writer at the French court Christine de Pizan imagined a society composed of educated and politically powerful women in Livre de la cité des dames. Six centuries later, the public conversation around the #MeToo social media movement echoes increasing demands for respect and visibility. The Library’s French collections encompass valuable resources spanning from the Middle Ages to the present day. Researchers can peruse the foundational proto-feminist works of Pizan, alongside those of contemporary feminists such as French journalist Sandra Muller, who coined the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc or “expose your pig”.
A new research guide from the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division, Feminism & French Women in History, aims to collect and organize resources on French women and feminist history by historical period up to the present era. Although the concept and study of feminism as we know it today did not emerge until the nineteenth century, individual women in ancien régime France were able to win power and acclaim despite the relatively strict confines of their social role. Women like Marie de Gournay published essays and writings promoting the equality of the sexes and won recognition from their peers for doing so. Gournay’s most noted 1622 essay, “L’égalité des hommes et des femmes,” explicitly advocated the equal education and intellectual potential of women. Through the Enlightenment, radical ideas about the cognitive abilities of women and discussion of their place in society beyond the private sphere began to circulate. The Marquis de Condorcet, influenced by his wife Sophie de Grouchy, took up the cause of women’s rights in French society. His proto-feminist writings appear alongside abolitionist tracts in Condorcet: Political Writings. Despite proto-feminist writing like Condorcet’s, philosophical discussion of such topics was limited mostly to upper-class, educated women and their literary, political, and artistic salons. Nevertheless, the high ideals of the Enlightenment coupled with the lofty goals of the Revolution soon lead to a temporary expansion of women’s rights, including civil status and the right of women to divorce by mutual consent. Olympe de Gouges was the most vocal advocate for women’s equality and right to vote, but her radical views resulted in her execution under the increasingly extreme Revolutionary Tribunal. John R. Cole’s Between the Queen and the Cabby gives a detailed biography of de Gouges’s writings and activism, as well as the unique political and social context of her lifetime. Under Napoleonic rule much of the progress that had been made by women was reversed, and the Napoleonic Code of 1804 reflected a revival of traditional values etched into law.
It was not until the long nineteenth century that the feminist movement began to gain steady traction among French thinkers as well as early activists who demanded equal opportunities for women. Susan K. Foley’s Women in France Since 1789: The Meanings of Difference provides an in-depth look at the evolution of feminist thought and activism over this period. The explosion of printed media created a women’s print culture during the nineteenth century, often referred to as the presse féminine. Although these magazines, journals, and newspapers were not all overtly feminist, they paved the way for women’s voices and ideas to be heard across the ever-expanding reading public. More sources on this topic can be found under the French Women’s Press page of the research guide.
Women’s rights accelerated in the twentieth century, though not without setbacks. Alongside the suffrage movements in Great Britain and the United States, French men and women organized to bring women’s suffrage to the forefront of French politics. The women’s suffrage bill, introduced in the Chamber of Deputies in 1919, was vetoed in 1922, and women would not gain the vote until 1945. In the intervening years, women would play a crucial role in the French Resistance despite the traditional social mores of the Vichy Regime. Francine Muel-Dreyfus provides a nuanced study of Vichy-era women in her book, translated into English as Vichy and the Eternal Feminine: A Contribution to a Political Sociology of Gender. Gains in women’s rights evolved at a different pace in those parts of the world still under French colonial rule. While French women gained the right to vote in 1945, Algerian women would not do so until Charles de Gaulle’s Constantine Plan in 1957. Félix Germain addresses the disproportionate struggle of Black French women to gain equal rights, both within France and in the wider colonial and postcolonial world, in Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848-2016. Today, la Journée internationale des femmes not only commemorates the historical significance of the women’s rights movement in France but also focuses on how gender equality is closely linked to issues of sustainability, disability rights, and racial justice. A similar thematic broadening can be seen in the American women’s suffrage movement, which was closely linked to the early French women’s rights movement. (More resources on American women’s suffrage can be found on the Library of Congress’s Shall Not Be Denied exhibition page.)
For further reading, please see Feminism & French Women in History: A Resource Guide.