The sub-title to this lecture on women in postwar France should really be `continuity and change' with the stress as much on continuity as on change. In many ways, the story we will be exploring today is one familiar to many western countries, Great Britain being no exception. The story is, of course, one of both significant advances made by or on behalf of women but also of the persistent continuation of gender inequality. The French have a saying: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. For French women, in the 1950s and 1960s at least, this was certainly the case.
Let's start our analysis of women and politics in France with a brief review of women's lives during the Second World War.
The Second World War was - as of we needed reminding - disastrous for most people. This was certainly the case for French women who suffered as much from the French defeat in 1940 and from the subsequent German occupation as anyone else. In a six week blitzkrieg in May and June of 1940 France was rapidly defeated by the Nazi Germany.
In October 1940 Marshal Philippe Pétain who was 84 at that point intervened and negotiated a new peace with Nazi Germany. France was to be divided into two zones: the north occupied by the Germans whose organization was based in Paris and the so-called `free' zone in the south based in the spa town of Vichy. This was the best way, he claimed, for France to regain the dignity it had lost during those six weeks in May and June. Vichy France was an authoritarian state - the Third Republic was dissolved and replaced by l'État français - nominally under French rule but in reality servicing the Nazi war effort. Behind Pétain's idealized rural nostalgic fantasy, lay the degrading reality of France's collaboration with the Nazi war machine providing it with labour, foodstuffs, manufactured goods and, much more shamefully, assistance in the `final solution'. Within only a few months of taking office, Pétain - without pressure from Berlin - introduced anti-semitic legislation which reduced France's considerable Jewish community to the status of second-class citizens.
A key feature of many fascist states - and under this definition I would include Pétain's État français - was its institutionalized misogyny. In general, conservative and fascist holistic thinkers tend not to value equality for its own sake. The emphasis is on hierarchy, leadership, tradition and a fixed notion of national identity. The ideal life for women was a domestic one: women should remain at home and the profession they should exercise should be none other than le métier de femme with housewifery and motherhood high on the agenda. After the Liberation of France from German occupation in 1944, French legislation was enacted specifically targeting women as housewifes and mothers. As such, it continued the pre-war as well as the Vichy state's policy of attempting to increase the French birth rate by encouraging women to be wives and mothers.
In the few years following the war, the majority of French families experienced housing shortages, shared lodgings and inadequate provisions of certain basic facilities such as running water and electricity. The home was therefore discussed not as a private, a-political space, but as a political problem requiring immediate government action. Housing was then high, or indeed, top of the political agenda of the postwar coalition government. Its priority position all the more pressing due to the demographic situation: France desperately needed to increase its birth rate yet most young couples were opposed to having a child until after they had secured a home of their own.
Historically, France had had a problem with its birth rate since the middle of the eighteenth century. The most common population pattern in nineteenth-century Europe was rapid growth with fertility rates exceeding mortality rates. This was the case in countries like Britain and Germany. However, this was not the case in France which experienced a period of population stagnation caused by low levels of fertility (due to a desire to limit inheritance to fewer children, the practice of coitus interruptus, comparatively late marriage of women and higher levels of celibacy) and higher than average levels of infant mortality (due to poor sanitation, nutrition and healthcare). In 1881, for example, the birth rate in France was 25 per 1,000 as opposed to 35 per 1,000 in Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century the population of France grew from 28 million to 40 million (an increase of 43%) as opposed to the growth of the German population from 22 to 63 million (an increase of 186%) and Britain from 16 to 40 million (an increase of 150%).
This low level of fertility continued into the twentieth century and, indeed, was exacerbated by such events as the First World War (1914-1918) which claimed 1.3 million lives, the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the Second World War (1939-1945). Indeed, it is following France's military defeats of 1870 and the First World War, that France's falling birth rate became a subject of much concern at the highest level of French political life.
During the years of the Third Republic (1870-1914), sucessive French governments adopted a pronatalist line, i.e. a policy that explicitly sought to encourage a rise in the birth rate. In the 1920s, for example, both abortion and the sale of contraceptives were prohibited and in 1939 the Code de la famille was introduced with a range of financial incentives for married couples with children. During les années noires of Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1944, the Vichy government - whose slogan was Famille, Travail, Patrie - adopted a similar pronatalist line and established a Ministry of Population (1940) and introduced the death penalty for back-street abortionists (les faiseuses d'anges).
During the inter-war years, when France's falling birth rate had been at its peak a number of laws and initiatives were passed to make domesticity and motherhood desirable goals for women. These included coercion in the form of laws passed in 1920 and 1923 banning abortion and contraception. But it also included symbolic gestures such as the Concours de la meilleure ménagère (Housewife of the Year Award) as well as the setting up of family associations such as the Ligue de la mère au foyer (League of the Mother at Home) which actively campaigned against women working and the highly influential Women's Catholic League, the Union féminine civique et sociale (UFCS). All of these laws, initiatives and associations were, of course, alive, kicking and highly active in the postwar years.
In Britain policy making in the years between the two world wars took place within a political culture of virtually universal parlimentary democracy. In France, by contrast, trade unionists, feminists and reformist bureaucrats played a much more muted and marginal political role and women were, of course, excluded from the electorate until 1945. The major actor in French social policy were paternalist big-business men, the so-called `social' Catholics and pro-natalists obsessed with raising the French birth-rate. These groups were motivated by a variety of concerns - the businessmen wanted to maintain low wages and labour discipline, the Catholics to buttress family life, the pro-natalists to avert military and cultural decline.
It was not really until the middle of the 1940s that such measures began to work and the years between 1943 and 1965 see the so-called `baby boom'. Between those years the number of births (14 milion) in France greatly exceeded the number of deaths (9 million). The rates of infant mortality fell and more and more young couples, encouraged by state incentives (family allowances, tax relief, housing allowances, cheaper transport and cinema tickets etc.) had larger and larger families
Reversing France's falling birth rate - la dénatalité française - was a priority, of course, of sucessive governments in postwar France. France's demographic situation was taken very seriously by politicians and economists: for France to recover from the effects of WWII and rebuild its economy it needed to raise the birth rate. The issue of raising the birth rate was also an important factor in France's industrial recovery. In short, more babies meant more demand for goods and services and more potential worker-consumers.
As early as 1945 General de Gaulle, the head of the newly-formed postwar government, called upon French citizens to produce: "en dix ans, douze millions de beaux bébés pour la France". To acheive this ambition, France set in place a bureaucratic structure with the specific aim of encouraging more and more young couples to have more and more children. It started building lots of new flats - the shortage of accomodation being the most important disincentive to having children - and introduced an elaborate system of allowances allocated to families according to how many children they had had and the timing of their births as well as tax relief and certain reductions on public transport or in cinemas for families with over three children, the so-called familles nombreuses.
The ideological pressures exerted on women by the media, the church, family associations and by politicians were complemented by concrete financial incentives from central government designed to encourage women to stay in the home and produce babies. To produce, in fact, the 12 million bouncing babies for France of which de Gaulle had memorably spoken. In the postwar period France introduced a series of complex allowances and family benefits, allocated to women according to how many children they had had and the timing of their births. The perception of women solely as potential or actual mothers indicates that for de Gaulle and his government at least, women's primary contribution to France's economic recovery was to be reproduction rather than production and conception and comsumption were closely linked.
By the mid-1960s however, the `baby boom' had slowed down. Changing attitudes to women and the workplace, the availability of contraception (legalised in 1967 under la Loi Neuwirth) and abortion (legalised in 1975 under la Loi Veil) led to a change in cultural attitudes and a slowing down of the birth rate in France. The `domestic ideal' for women and the conservative gender agenda that informed it, however, is a defining feature of much of les trente glorieuses.
... that most anti-feminist of decades, the 1950s.Rosie the Riveter is a well-known American documentary which shows a woman working at a man's job during WWII. After the war, of course, Rosie loses her job to make way for the men coming back home. Although Frenchwoman did not have the exactly the same experience of WWII as America or British women, their postwar experience is remarkably similar insofar as both are marked by a reassertion of tradition gender roles and a retour au foyer. The experience of women in postwar France needs to be understood in the context of this reaffirmation of traditional gender roles, of the turning back the clock and pronouncing daily life to be business as usual: men at work, women at home.
Toril Moi, `She came to stay' in Paragraph 8 (1986) p.110
Although women were given the vote in 1945, it would be wrong to suggest that social, economic and sexual emancipation accompanied this their new political right. Quite the reverse, in fact. The percentage of women in the workforce dropped and did not rise again until the mid 1960s. This was in part related to the decline of the kind of industries (e.g. textiles) in which women had previously been employed. Many turned towards secretarial and administrative roles in the growing service sector. However, a significant number returned to the home as housewife and mother. There was an increasing trend for young couples to set up home on their own rather than move in with their parents or in-laws. This was made possible by the large-scale housing construction in postwar France. Within this new - and it was new for France - culture of the modern home, new products and publications began to emerge. Companies like Moulinex, for example, began to produce more and more products for the home targeted specifically at the French femme au foyer. The case of Moulinex, the makers of kitchen appliances is a good example of a French company benefitting from this consumer boom driven by this new passion for the home and between 1958 and 1968 they doubled their turnover from 1 billion to 2 billion francs. Women's magazines also became more and more popular.
The home issue gradually appeared as a women's issue. The home became the location of calm, stability and normality that had been lacking in the war years and the immediate postwar years. The domestic as the feminine ideal crept back into the public discourse on women, defining perceptions of women's true nature and role and circumscribing their possibilities in paid employment and their appearance in public life.
What one sees then in the late 1940s until the late 1960s is wave upon wave of articles and editorials in newspapers and women's magazines, advertisements, schoolbooks, sermons and political speeches all exhorting women to accept their true `nature' as mother and housewife and to look after family and home.
The reaffirmation of traditional gender roles even had an influence on the the way women looked with more `feminine' look (stiletto heels, accentuated bust, narrow waist etc.) dominating women's fashion in the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s.
For a closer look at some typical fashions of the mid-1950s click on the following image from FEMINA Pratique (May 1955).
It was in the immediate postwar period then, that one witnessed an increased theorization of women's responsibilities for domestic work, for childminding and homemaking. But just how much did women actually do and to what extent did men share domestic chores?
It is very difficult to get an accurate picture of the extent and division of domestic labour because it does not have a monetary value, it is not undertaken in exchange for a wage and because of this has not - until recently that is - been taken all that seriously by economists, much to the fury of feminist researchers and academics.
In 1966 however, there appeared the first national survey on the `time-budgets' of the French population produced by INSEE (Institut National de Statistique et des Études Économiques). The significant point about this survey was that it allowed comparison of the daily activities carried out by both men and women. However, the statistics it produced did not separate domestic and professional work or allow for a comparison of how men and women shared domestic responsibilities. It was not until 1974/5 and 1985/6 that INSEE produced surveys which accurately supplied the necessary information for the division of domestic labour.
The results of these surveys are unlikely to cause much surprise and sure enough, the weight of domestic burden falls disproportionately on women. In 1975, for example, for people in the 18 to 64 years old range, employed women spent nearly 33 hours (32 hours and 54 minutes) on domestic work per week whereas men spent around half of that (16 hours and 20 minutes). Non- working women spent a staggering 54 hours and 29 minutes. Interestingly enough, social class and place in the lifecycle have a negligeable impact on an essentially gender-determined division of domestic labour.
The news is a little better in the most recent survey in 1985/6. Women did a staggering 28 minutes less domestic work per week (32 hours and 26 minutes). However, one should be a little wary of reading too much into these figures since a discrepancy of around 14 hours still remains. Moreover, included in men's domestic world were gardening and DIY which increased in the 1970's and 1980's.
INSEE have also produced surveys which have attempted to put a price on women's domestic labour, to cost it in terms of a percentage of France's GDP. The first attempt at this appeared in 1975 and yielded interesting figures. INSEE attempted to `cost' domestic labour by using three methods. In the first two methods they assessed how much a household would have to spend to pay for certain services if they were unable to provide those services themselves, either by employing a single servant (method 1/global method) or by employing individual specialists (method 2/product by product). The third method (opportunity cost model) used was to calculate what those performing domestic duties could earn in the labour market in the time that they devote to their domestic duties. Each method of coming up with a `cost' for domestic work varied: methods 1 and 3 ended up with 634 billion francs or 50% of GDP and method 2 with a staggering 826 billion francs or 65% of GDP.
Arguably, such surveys may well in fact underestimate the value of domestic labour. One major problem of such surveys as INSEE's of 1975 is that as a result of using equivalent values borrowed from the formal labour market in which women traditionally perform domestic work and are poorly paid for it. It is important to try to give domestic labour some kind of monetary value, but this is far from being the only way of valuing it.