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A Brief History of French Feminism

Kyra Krall - editor for Feminists in the City

· Histoire

“Regardless of what barriers confront you, it is in your power to free yourselves; you have only to want to."

These are the empowering words of Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), a playwright and political activist of the French revolution (1789). Turning these words into action, one might say, is easier said than done. Has feminism in France, a country known for its expertise on overthrowing a government or two, been able to revolt against the patriarchy and overcome the barriers of sexism and misogyny? Well not quite yet, but we’re getting there.

To look back on who paved the way, from Christine de Pizan, to Louise Michel, to Simone de Beauvoir, this article will provide you of a rough overview on the history of French feminism.

The Time Before Feminist Waves Were A Thing

In France, feminism has always been around in some shape or form. One of its earlier defendants dates back to the Middle Ages: Christine de Pizan, a writer at the royal court, published works on female autonomy and education, her most famous work being “The Book of the City of Ladies”, in which she grants female figures political power.

In the 16th century, female-led salons or so-called bureaux d’esprit were brought to life, which allowed those privileged enough to partake in intellectual discussions and to access a cultural space, fostering emancipatory spirit.

French revolution

The French revolution, starting in 1789, was a time of largescale political upheaval. Inspired by the age of Enlightenment and the American revolution, and catalysed by France’s poor financial situation which further aggravated the living conditions of the population, the revolutionaries’ primary aim was to install equality before the law and abolish the privileges of the clergy and nobility.

A milestone of the revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. However, the rights proclaimed in this document were only applicable to so-called active citizens: French men who were older than 25 and paid a certain amount of taxes. Women, enslaved people, foreigners and others were left out of the equation.

This stirred much anger among the female population, who had played an active role in the revolution. During the Women’s March to Versailles in October 1789, several thousand women gathered in Paris to walk to Versailles to confront King Louis XVI on the scarcity of bread and rising prices. The crowd grew and soon incorporated demands of political reform and calls for a constitutional monarchy. After a siege and violent confrontation, the King returned to Paris with the protesters, marking the event as a significant trigger for reforms. Following this protest, the “Women’s Petition to the National Assembly” was presented to the revolutionary legislative body by Etta Palm d’Aelders and Nicolas de Condorcet, the latter of whom is said to have declared "he who votes against the right of another, whatever the religion, color, or sex of that other, has henceforth abjured his own". However, the demands for equal rights for women were not accepted.

Olympe de Gouges therefore took matters into her own hands in 1791, by writing the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”. This act countered Rousseau’s widespread view on confining women to the roles of mothers and wives, and confronted contemporary scientists declaring the female psychology and anatomy as inferior and unreasonable, deeming women incapable of partaking in political decision making. In addition, their input was seen as redundant as they were expected to hold identical views as men, who in turn were said to have the interests of their family in mind anyways.

Rebelling against what was perceived as their “natural callings” of domesticity and submission, women engaged in revolutionary organisations and continued to fight for political and legal rights.

The Aftermath

This activism deflated under Napoleon, whose Civil Code (1804) declared women to be incapable beings, before the Bourbon restoration re-established traditionalist policies after his fall in 1814, such as the prohibition of divorce.

Protofeminist sentiment was revitalised during the uprisings of 1830 and 1848, paralleled by the founding of women’s newspapers (“La Fronde” is a famous example) and clubs.

The First Wave

The second half of the 19th century is considered the beginning of the French first wave of feminism in our modern world. After the previous events had inspired the rise of theoretical feminism, the Paris Commune (revolutionary government ruling Paris) of 1871 aroused radical female-driven action. Women founded unions and committees to fight for various issues like wage equality, the right to divorce and to education, as well as dismantling the distinction between legitimate and natural children. They built barricades and took part in violent confrontations. Prominent figures include Louise Michel, a teacher who joined the National Guard, and the journalist André Léo, who provided support to underprivileged women.

It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that the suffragettes movement travelled from Great Britain to France, but starting with the first voting on the issue in 1914, all attempts remained unsuccessful until 1944. France was therefore one of the last European countries to introduce female suffrage. “Indigenous Muslim” women of French Alegria however were only granted voting rights in 1958. As time passed, women’s causes gained more supporters, and especially the two world wars loosened traditional gender roles and challenged the stereotype of physical and mental inferiority.

The Second Wave

With a second wave of feminism gaining momentum in several countries starting in the 1960s, the French feminist movement achieved its peak after the period of civil unrest in May 1968. Beforehand, forerunners like Simone de Beauvoir, an existentialist philosopher and activist who famously published “The Second Sex” in 1949, paved the way to an increasing personal and bodily autonomy of French women. Married women were allowed to work without their husband’s approval in 1965, and birth control was legalised in 1967 (although the conservative government blocked its implementation for a few years after). The Women’s Liberation Movement was founded after the protests of 1968, in connection with the American Women’s Lib and student movements. Its activism echoed the second wave feminist slogan that “the personal is political”.

In 1970, men’s authority over their family was abolished, meaning that legal decisions concerning children were no longer solely made by the father. A 1985 reform ended a father’s sole power to manage the children’s possessions.

Another noteworthy event is the Manifesto of the 343 women who had the courage to claim they'd had an abortion, co-written by Gisèle Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir and published in 1971, in which women spoke about their illegal abortions, rendering them susceptible to legal consequences. A manifesto by 331 doctors in support of abortion was consequently released in 1973. The Veil Act (named after Simone Veil, the Minister of Health at the time) finally legalised contraception and abortion in 1975.

Around this time, literary theorist Hélène Cixousin coined the term écriture feminine (“women’s writing”), a frequently mentioned theory of French feminism. It insisted on a deviation from masculine writing styles and a focus on female experiences, thereby releasing an ineffable expression of a female narrative.

Another noteworthy phenomenon is the notion of French feminism, which in English feminist theory refers to one branch of feminism that evolved during the 1970s-90s. It is said to focus less on political principles, but rather emphasises on theories on the body.

The Third Wave and Beyond

During the time period of what is considered the third wave of feminism, starting in the 1990s, several legal breakthroughs ensued. Workplace sexual harassment was subjected to legal consequences in 1992 and marital rape was criminalised in 1994. Recent changes include the removal of the title “Mademoiselle” in official documents in 2012, or a law against street sexual harassment passed in 2018.

Through the internet and increased globalisation of social and political movements around the world, France has been no exception in the participation in online activism, such as the #MeToo movement, which spurred much debate even among feminists. Recent affairs have shown the extent to which such a movement is necessary, as Gérald Darmanin, accused of rape and sexual harassment, was promoted to interior minister. President Macron defended Darmanin with the presumption of innocence and a “man-to-man trust”, which was considered by many as a blatant portrayal of male solidarity. Several other male politicians are being investigated on sexual assault, paralleling a debate on sexism and harassment with justifications of a “cultural exception” and a typically French idea of seduction.

When it comes to political representation, France had a very low number of female delegates after their candidacy was permitted in 1944. In 1946, the National Assembly was made up of 5% women, while nearly 50 years later, in 1993, women constituted 6%.

To this day, many parties enlist more men than other genders for elections, even though financial penalties for candidate lists with less than 49% women were put in place in 2000. Despite these measures, women are usually placed in constituencies that they are unlikely to win, which also contributes to minimising the female ratio.

However, this male-dominated legacy was destabilised in the 2017 parliamentary elections, when voters elected a record number of women. With a female percentage of still only 38,6% delegates in the National Assembly, France has surpassed Great Britain and Germany to rank on place 6 within the EU, and moving from place 64 to 17 in the world ranking of female representation.

From revolutionaries to philosophers to politicians, women in France have always taken action to demand recognition of their humanity, rights and capabilities. Fuelled by hunger, elite salons, revolutionary ideologies, violence, literature, overseas movements, or the internet, the feminist cause has found an increasing number of supporters.

Just like elsewhere, multiple feminisms continue to coexist in France, and looking back on their history shows how far things have come. And yet, feminism in France, just like elsewhere, still has a long way to go.