Top of page

The French republic personified as a woman fending off attacks by various factions of French society
République Française. Lithograph. 1873

International Women’s Day and French Feminist Collections at the Library of Congress

Share this post:

(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.

Poster for International Women's Day in 1987 showing a woman releasing a dove from her left hand
International Women’s Day 1987. Nancy Hom, silkscreen print.

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.

French girls dressed in Alsatian costume.
French Girls in Alsatian costume celebrating Jeanne d’Arc day, 1922. Photograph.
The French republic personified as a woman fending off attacks by various factions of French society
République Française. Lithograph. 1873

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.

French girls on a balcony holding flowers, with part of Paris skyline in background
French girls on a balcony over Avenue du President Wilson showering with flowers the American troops, marching below in the Fourth of July parade, 1918. Lewis Wickes Hine, glass negative.
Group of five women, some holding flowers, standing in front of statues of suffrage leaders at the U.S. Capitol, flanked by columns.
Delegates to an international women’s rights conference decorate statues of suffrage leaders at the U.S. Capitol, October 5, 1925. Glass negative.
Twenty-three women in three rows, the first row seated, on the deck of an ocean liner
Delegates of the U.S. National Woman’s Party en route to the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance Congress in Paris, May 1926. Underwood and Underwood, Photograph.

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.

Comments (14)

  1. great post, big fan of women. about time somebody talked about this

  2. Interesting images.

  3. Incredible work, thank you for posting the struggle, it certainly makes plain how ling “equal rights” take, no matter the century. And in too many areas, we’re going backwards.
    It’s why “Lutter toujours” is still a rallying call.

  4. Wonderful blog post on an often overlooked day of international celebrations!!

  5. This is well organized, well written and very interesting for anyone researching women in France, and women’s history in general.
    I’m grateful that we have the LOC as a repository for this knowledge.

  6. Well written and interesting for all who are interested in women’s history, and women in France. I’m grateful that we have the LOC as a source for so much knowledge and literature.

  7. Too long a journey for a still-unfinished history! Thanks for this narrative, bringing together some nice context for the linked resources.

  8. What a treasure chest of information on such an important part of history. One which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention, yet is as relevant and informative to today’s challenges as ever. I’m only part way through and already learning so many new facts and stories. Brilliant work!

  9. Excellent write up that traces the history of women’s rights in France and in the former colonies of France. Inspiring! I want to learn more and plan to read all the books cited in the post.

  10. Thanks for this history of la Journée internationale des femmes and efforts for women’s rights in France. I’m starting to look at the guide to Feminism and French women too – what an amazing resource!

  11. Amazing historical photos that beautifully tie imagery to the text. Well done.

  12. The new guide to feminism and French women in history is wonderfully illuminating. Access to the LOC’s myriad and varied holdings is always greatly appreciated, especially guides like this one that help us make the most of what is available on paper and online. This guide allows us to move back and forth easily through time to compare the lives of French women from the medieval to the modern period. A focus on lesser known yet remarkable women offers us the welcome perspective of individuals in varied social stations and circumstances. Thank you.

  13. Like the overview format with links to writers and artists new to me, such as Mame-Fatou Niang and Rokhaya Diallo in the section on Contemporary French Feminism. In the Les Bas Bleu section, the French brand of ridicule aimed at the so-called blue stockings, is all the more scathing when launched from the extraordinary pen or brush of Daumier. So much to learn and appreciate.

  14. This resource guide is a true cultural/intellectual feast on a perennially hot topic, French women. One could happily get lost in it for a long time, so many stories and characters, so many ideas and perspectives. The general approach seems to employ a fairly political/legal lens to build understanding of the history of French women and of ideas about them, apparently applying the same human rights analysis that’s used for discrimination based on class, race, ethnicity or religion. That approach seems to me to be quite American (or even Anglo-Saxon!) in how it marginalizes the centrality of the uniquely intense and complex interest that women and men have in each other, which creates intense and complex relationships.
    As an American whose mother was French I’ve always tended to side with the French, making me a bit chauvinist in the original sense of M. Chauvin, who always insisted that France was best. That’s not to say that French women are better than Americans, but they do differ from each other. When American women launched the #Me Too movement, they quickly got a little push back in a public letter from more than a hundred notable – and notably liberated – French women, who were concerned that it was veering towards female chauvinism, to coin a term. They admitted that they had a soft spot for men and no doubt sometimes let them get away with some dubious behavior, but this was, they said, a generous gesture intended to allow some ease in the relationship. Two generations earlier, Simone de Beauvoir had visited Manhattan and expressed some dismay at how much young American women tended to speak about men in sharp us versus them ways.
    Getting back to my pro-French viewpoint, I’ve always felt that French women are notably strong, outspoken, and confident in their sexuality. French men seem unusually interested in the ways of women and in subjects traditionally reserved to or especially congenial to women (cooking, fashion, art and design, polite conversation, socializing, the arts of love, etc.). The expression “chercher la femme” certainly has a derogatory, sexist meaning looked at in one way, but it also is a simple recognition that women’s strengths and skills are potent and should not be discounted.
    I think that in the eyes of the world French women have relatively more status than French men, that France as a country is even viewed as leaning feminine, perhaps more than any other country. “Gay Paree,” one of the world’s most admired and beloved cities, definitely is female in the world’s imagination.
    The resource guide frequently mentions how French men have kept women down in terms of legal rights and political position. But maybe some of that is more a reflection of the power women have actually exercised – and have been perceived as exercising – than a proof of their low status.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *