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Happy Bastille Day!

French Women’s Suffrage, April 21 (1944). Photo from Women’s Network for Change.

In celebration of Bastille Day,  la Fête national, le 14 Juillet, we wanted to explore the national history of women’s suffrage in France. It is a unique movement, with the First Wave of Feminism dating back to the time of the French Revolution, in 1789. In 1944, France would become one of the last European countries to give women the right to vote–a surprising fact considering the rich history of famous French féministes, such as Coco Chanel, Joan of Arc, and Olympe de Gouges. 

The First Wave

As previously mentioned, the First Wave of Feminism in France dates back to the time of the French Revolution, in 1789. The Women’s Petition to the National Assembly was created and produced for the French National Assembly of 1789, however, of the thousands of topics presented to the Assembly, it was ultimately not discussed. The contents were remarkably ahead of its time–preposing such decrees as the appointment of women as Magistrates, and “Equal liberty, advantages, rights, and honors between the sexes”.  The following year, in 1790, the “Fraternal Society of Both Sexes” was formed, and in 1791, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (see image below) was written by the French activist, feminist, and playwright Olympe de Gouges. It was addressed to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, and its intention was a call to action regarding the issue of inequality between the sexes. Two days after its publication, the author was executed on the guillotine during the Girondins.

An excerpt of Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, published September 5, 1791.

The Later Years

The feminist movement in France in the 1800s was most notably apparent in the lifestyles or social culture of French women, and furthermore, in works of literature of the Romantic and Parisan Saint-Simonian movement, including the 1833 text Appel au peuple sur l’affranchissement de la femme by Clare Démar. Feminism in France during the 1800s would also somewhat of a step back during the Bourbon Restoration, when, divorce would again become prohibited in 1816.

After some of the earlier attempts and struggles of the earlier 19th century, by 1871, the prospects for equality of the sexes in France again started to look rather bright during the times of the Commune. During this year, Nathalie Lemel and Elisabeth Dmitrieff created the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés at a cafe on rue de Temple. Later that year, when the city of Paris would be governed by the Commune and the Bloody Week, Lemel was on the barricades side on rue Pigalleboth fighting against the police, and tending to those that were wounded.

French Suffrage

French suffragettes in 1900 (WSU).

By 1909 the French noblewoman Jeanne-Elizabeth Schmahl founded the French Union for Women’s Suffrage–which specifically advocated for the right to vote. Elena Borne of Washington State University wrote of this period leading up to the eventual suffrage in 1944 as such:

The first world war gave women a chance to take over men’s responsibilities for a while, and sparked the passion necessary to rally for any real changes. The wars also hindered the feminist movement as women’s rights were ignored and the country focused on mobilization and recuperation. Between the wars women had to fight to keep the freedoms they’d been given, and during war they had to sacrifice their battle for the survival of the nation, but they never lost sight of their goals and came out of the war ready for change.

On October 5, 1944 women were finally granted suffrage. However it was not until 1946 that French women could become judges, the right to work in paid employment without their husband’s permission in 1965, and total marital equality during the 1980s. Authors such as Simone de Beauvoir, writer of the Second Sex (1949) became instrumental towards the fight for total equality in the early to mid 1900s. As did French politician Yvette Roudy, who passed the 1983 law against sexism.

Since suffrage, there has been many strides toward equality in France, such as the appointment of Simone Veil, a politician and lawyer, became the first female French Minister (Health). As with many other places in the world including Canada and the United States, there is still an ongoing fight for total equality in France.

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