So much beauty out there

January 3, 2009


Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:30 pm

In May 1917, a police report in Le Havre stated that a common sentiment in the munitions factory there was that

If this continues, there will not be any men left in France; so why are we fighting? So that Chinese, Arabs, or Spaniards can marry our wives and daughters and share out the France for which we’ll all, sooner or later, get ourselves killed at the front.

The police concluded that this attitude demonstrated jealousy of both foreign workers and allied soldiers. Not only does the statement betray a fear of a loss of national identity; it also provides evidence of the sexual insecurity that was prevalent during the war. The French feared that women’s new found independence would lead to the abandonment of their husbands. For the soldiers at the front there was the added factor of long-term separation from their wives and girlfriends while they risked their lives on a daily basis. This meant that their loved ones were often unable to comprehend the suffering on the front, shielded as they were by distance and censorship.

In 1918, Dr Louis Fiaux, a social reformer and expert on prostitution, described the social crisis that he perceived had resulted from the movement of so many French men to the frontlines.

Quelles conséquences ne devaient point avoir ces exodes d’hommes par masses, ces délaissements equivalents des femmes. Ces innombrables foyers familiaux rompus et dispersés, les hommes mariés redevenus célibataires, les jeunes gens non mariés éloignés de leurs habitudes de cœur ou de leurs arrangements, les circonstances du célibat viril comme les conditions ordinaires de la prostitution féminine bouleversées, sans omettre tous les vides incertains, tous les vides définitifs laissés à l’arrière par les prisonniers, les disparus et les morts de l’avant, sans oublier surtout la crise économique de gêne et de misère s’abattant sur les femmes du prolétariat réduites par milliers et milliers aux plus insuffisantes ressources, quelque intelligente et humaine que soit l’intervention des secours publics. A l’ensemble et aux détails de ce trop véridique tableau, comment s’étonner de ce bouleversement des mœurs?

A M. Marchetti, speaking in 1919 at a veterans meeting in Marseille, lamented that while the soldiers were fighting, “others at the rear, among them many foreigners, enriched themselves scandalously at our expense.”

These quotations describe a world where dislocation caused by war resulted in comprehensive disturbance of social norms. The absence of many of France’s men had created a space that could potentially be filled by women and foreigners performing roles that were not those conventionally expected of them. The question addressed here is whether this dislocation resulted in any significant changes in how French society perceived women and foreigners, or whether existing discourses on gender, race and nationality survived the turmoil of the war.

The destruction and disruption caused in Europe by the Great War was vast, and the imprint it left in politics and individual consciousness was longstanding. For Eric Hobsbawm the war “marked the breakdown of the (western) civilization of the nineteenth century.”  The idea of the war as marking a decisive shift in history is a staple of the historiography of the period, often with substantial justification. The debates over gender, nationality and race have been no different.

Historians have demonstrated that attitudes towards race and gender are an essential constitutive element of any society. The French believed that the governments and citizens of foreign countries acted in ways determined by their racial and national characteristics; this belief shaped relations between France and its neighbours. The growing presence of foreigners on French soil only emphasised the importance of this issue. There were now individuals living in France whose motivation and morality were believed to be not just different from the French, but potentially capable of undermining France’s own national characteristics. Meanwhile there was scarcely a relationship of any sort in France that was not moulded by both accepted and contested gender relations.

My conception of gender relations is similar to that expressed by Denise Riley where she defines “women” as

historically, discursively constructed and always relative to other categories that themselves change; “women” is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of “women” isn’t to be relied upon. 

Amongst the “other categories” that Riley mentions, race is a primary example. French racial thinking had little, if any, basis in any objective reality, but was constructed amongst an accumulation of discourses arising from myriad scientific theories, arbitrary designations, geo-political history and simple prejudice. The huge variety of discourses in politics, in literature, in the press, in art, in everyday conversation, that served to construct the categories of gender and race inevitably led to a variety of perceptions towards those categories. Indeed the notion of gender and race as contested ideologies is crucial to an understanding of public attitudes towards them. During the First World War – as before and since – there was no single, unquestioned social view of the “natural order of things”. While many conceptions held almost universal sway, considerable scope for debate appeared on some issues and within virtually every element of society. For example the idea that whites were different and superior to non-whites was considered a given, but the extent of this superiority and the ways in which it manifested itself was more controversial. This thesis is predicated on the contention that there was a multitude of public opinions, and that their interaction was a major determining factor in the history of the period. [1]

The other important issue here is that although these ideologies were historically contested and constructed, they were expressed and acted upon as if they were secure, natural and constant. Joan Scott argues convincingly that the “meaning of male and female, masculine and feminine” is “categorically and unequivocally” asserted through normative statements. Despite the contestation of these concepts that underpin these statements, “the position that emerges as dominant […] is stated as the only possible one. Subsequent history is written as if these normative positions were the product of social consensus rather than conflict.”

The apparent dichotomy between conceptions of gender and race as natural, unchanging and reliable categories and simultaneously sites of contestation amongst a variety of ideologies is crucial to explaining any evolution in basic ideological assumptions about these categories. The availability of alternative norms allowed the potential for change over time instead of imposing an ahistorical consistency. Yet the crucial role that that gender and race played in the French understanding of their society and their belief that this foundation was a solid, natural one meant that any change was a difficult and inherently traumatic process. Hence any significant change in attitude in these matters was unlikely over a short period of time, and any change or perceived change was likely to be accompanied with much anguished questioning of what concepts could be relied upon.

While this study does focus primarily on discourses of gender and race as opposed to social experience, it does not argue that discourse is entirely constitutive of what it describes. The attitudes expressed by the French had a direct impact on how they lived their lives. So, a discourse that presented the courage of black men as savage and reckless while that of white men was calm and rational manifested itself in a French military doctrine that suggested that colonial troops were best suited to assaults on enemy positions, but were unreliable at combating enemy attacks. In turn the putting into practice of this doctrine manifested itself in the relatively high proportion of casualties suffered by African troops during offensive operations.    The process was not all one way either, while discourses often are self-reinforcing, the lived experiences of the population could and did allow them to modify their views. In certain areas of thought  the events of the First World War did have a significant impact on people’s attitudes on issues such as pacifism or depopulation.  This study seeks to understand why, despite often significant differences in the behaviour of women and foreigners from that suggested in pre-war discourses concerning them, there were not comparable changes in the discourses on those subjects.

The focus on two, potentially discrete, categories: gender and race; is important for a number of reasons. In part, this is because the ways in which pre-war assumptions were maintained was similar in both instances, the behaviour of both women and foreigners was consistently viewed and analysed through preconceptions that existed before the war. More crucial is that the two categories were frequently linked at the time, in scientific discourse, popular rhetoric and public policy.

Nancy Stepan has argued that

So familiar and indeed axiomatic had the analogies concerning ‘lower races,’ ‘apes,’ and ‘women’ become by the end of the nineteenth century that in his major study of male-female differences in the human species, [Havelock] Ellis took almost without comment as the standards of which to measure the ‘typical female’ on the one hand ‘the child’ and on the other ‘the ape,’ ‘the savage,’ and the ‘aged human.’

nurse-colonial-soldierAugust Strindberg writing in 1895 quoted Darwin and craniologists to conclude that, “between the child, woman and the inferior races there exists a not negligible analogy.” 

Alphonse Séché, who wrote on the subject of black soldiers during the war, claimed that female nurses got on well with wounded Senegalese because of their shared sentimentality:  “Les noirs sont des grands enfants, de grands enfants susceptibles, sentimentaux et orgueilleux”, while “[l]es femmes (nurses of Senegalese soldiers) seront toujours sentimentales, et c’est heureux, car nous gagnons à cela des gardesmalades incomparables.” 

William Vogt wrote in Le Sexe faible, published in 1908, that “Les femmes étant comme certains juifs, partout où elles ont pris pied, sachez leur imposer silence”

The two categories were often placed together in wartime legislation, notably when, in January 1917, a new system of pay was designed by Albert Thomas, with the (ultimately unsuccessful) aim of ensuring that female and foreign workers both gained the same wages as French men.  When Blériot sought to lay off workers in 1918 it eliminated foreign and female labour along with its apprentices.  Martha Hanna concludes in her work on the education system that women and foreigners were classified together.

Two themes emerge from these debates about standards, rigor, and academic competence in classical languages. The first was an ill-concealed tendency on the part of most scholars, including those who favored the educational advancement of young women, to categorize French women as “foreigners” within the confines of the university. Throughout the war years discussions about the education of French women arose only when the faculty were considering how to satisfy the academic needs of American men. Mingled with the belief that French women and American men had comparable abilities, aptitudes, and interests was the impulse to blame French women for declining standards.

For French women themselves, foreigners remained a consistent point of reference, although often in a context that criticised society for placing women at a level equivalent, or even below that of foreigners. When Hélène Brion was charged for treason for distributing pacifist pamphlets, in her trial she claimed that it was unfair that “before the law I am not the equal of an illiterate black from Guadeloupe or the Ivory Coast.”   In the socialist and feminist journal, La Vague, Marcelle Capy claimed that the situations in which women were working during the war meant that “L’Europe est tombée aux rangs de ces peuplades barbares où les femmes sont des bêtes de somme et des hommes des bêtes fauves.”

The belief that gender, race and nationality were linked, fixed categories was made most explicitly by the radical nineteenth century anthropologist and sociologist Vacher de Lapouge who claimed “The prince can no more make a Frenchman from a Greek or a Moroccan than he can bleach the skin of a negro, make round the eyes of a Chinaman or change a woman into a man.” 

Despite the ways in which discourses of race, gender and nationality intersected and overlapped, this essay does not seek to argue that the war affected each discourse in an identical way. Partly this is due to the different ways in which the discourses were structured and their functions in ordering French society and partly it is due to the different experiences lived by men and women, French and foreigners, whites and non-whites. For example, because France’s colonial subjects were under the control of metropolitan authorities, their utilisation in the war closely followed existing conceptions about their nature and abilities. Similar control of French women was much more difficult, and that of non-French subjects non-existent. Thus these groups had much more scope to act in ways contrary to accepted discourse and posed a significantly greater threat to that discourse.

The early consensus over women’s position in society arose out of contemporary views that the war advanced the status of women immeasurably, far more than decades of feminist activity preceding it. The oft-lauded heroism of women in coping without their menfolk, and the successful way they adjusted to new tasks convinced men that women were capable of playing a much wider role in society than previously afforded. The first significant challenge to this view came from James MacMillan who saw the war as having a conservative impact, reinforcing an image of women as housewives and mothers. Michelle Perrot argued that not only was the war not emancipatory, but that it halted a progressive movement that was gathering momentum in the years before the war.

Other historians have argued that while the war did disrupt traditional norms, that these changes were not durable and that the immediate post-war period saw the reconstruction of gender in a conservative manner. In this interpretation the division between the troops on the frontline and the home front was crucial. This division was seen in gendered terms, with the home front seen as a feminine counterpart to the male world of the trenches. The soldiers, angered by the lack of comprehension of their sufferings by those at home and fearing sexual betrayal by women, developed a great hostility towards the social developments that the war was believed to have fostered. This hostility resulted in post-war antagonism towards the social progress of women.

Margaret and Patrice Higonnet argue that

[I]f we perceive the wartime changes in women’s roles as a realignment of social territory that produces […] greater social equality, then the rapid retreat from those advances during the immediate postwar years seems puzzling. 

They offer an explanation through the device of the double helix. In this interpretation the female strand is intertwined with the male strand, with the two strands in opposition with the female strand positioned in subordination to the male strand.  Whatever changes occur in wartime is ultimately inconsequential.

In the long run, however, the dynamic of gender subordination remains as it was. After the war, the lines of gender can therefore be redrawn to conform to the prewar map of relations between men’s and women’s roles. Even when material conditions for women differ after the war, the fundamental devaluation of the tasks assigned to them remains.

Where this thesis differs from that approach is through a rejection of the idea that the war saw a breakdown in gender relations that was resolved by a retrospective post-war reinterpretation of women’s activities in traditional terms. Instead, it argues that throughout the war the activities of women were interpreted in a manner consistent with pre-war conceptions of gender relations. While the roles women performed in wartime often differed significantly from those that existing conceptions of gender would prescribe, such roles were offered, accepted and understood by both women and men within the framework of those conceptions. Not only were these conceptions flexible enough to withstand the ruptures caused by the conflict but also the key assumptions that underpinned them continued to be largely unthreatened. Laura Lee Downs has convincingly argued that in the metalworking industries of Britain and France the organisation and reorganisation of the labour process during the war was based upon employers’ “conviction that male-female differences are stable and knowable”. Although beliefs about gender difference were felt to be stable and natural, the multitude of assumptions contained considerable scope for incongruent and contradictory ideas. Downs argues that

sexual division was treated as a foundational principle of production and of shop-floor order. Yet that division shifted over time and from place to place in a way that suggested that this fundamental fact of life, bedrock of a factory pecking order, might not be natural and immutable, but rather a construction that required constant reinforcement if it was to endure.

It will be argued that Downs’ argument is applicable beyond the metalworking industries. Traditional assumptions of gender roles informed all areas of French society, and even radical wartime change was understood in the context of those assumptions. The subordination of women to men in French hierarchies and the greater status automatically accorded to work carried out by men to that of women was one of these key assumptions, but it was by no means the only one. Amongst the other beliefs that informed French understandings of gender relations was a conviction that women had several innate characteristics, including being nurturing, patient, deft, sentimental, irrational and intellectually passive. These traits were repeatedly used to describe and understand the actions of women during the war. The sometimes contradictory nature of beliefs over sexual difference could be a source for unease; they also offered considerable scope for those beliefs to adjust and take in new historical realities, while retaining their normative force.

The debate over French attitudes towards those of other nationalities and races shows similar differences of opinion. It has been argued that the presence of other races in France in unprecedented numbers allowed these foreigners to dismantle beliefs amongst the French population that they were terrible savages and replace them with a more benevolent image of loyal colonial subjects, overgrown children to be patronised rather than feared. For historians like Phillip Dewitte and Robert Aldrich any changes that were made by the war were in this direction.  Dewitte claims that:

[…] l’arrivée en métropole des tirailleurs, leurs contacts avec les indigènes de France: poilus, infirmières ou marraines de guerre, ont fait évoluer les mentalités. Le stéréotype du ‘bon nègre’, doux, sociable et rieur, va bientôt prédominer. Après-guerre, l’Africain n’est plus ce sauvage effroyant, mais un ‘grand enfant’ naïf et tout disposé à recevoir ‘la Civilisation’.

Aldrich argues much the same thing. “The heroism of the tirailleurs sénégalais during the war helped change the stereotypes of Africans, the jungle savage replaced by the smiling, brave soldier willing to sacrifice his life for France.”

Tyler Stovall expresses the alternative interpretation:

For a variety of reasons, in certain contexts, people of color came to symbolize both the war in general and its deleterious impact on the French working class in particular, and some members of the latter targeted colonial labourers as an outlet for frustrations about the ongoing conflict.

Similarly, Gérard Noiriel has argued, “The First World War […] radicalized distrust of all non-French individuals”. 

In examining these interpretations, this thesis suggests that many historians exaggerate the impact of the war on attitudes towards race and gender. It argues that the resilience and flexibility of existing discourses often allowed pre-war ideas to be maintained, despite the presence of many individuals acting in roles that could seem to challenge those discourses. Neither the disruptions of the war, nor the reaction to that disruption were able to fundamentally shift these entrenched ideas. Throughout the war, the actions of men and women of all nationalities were ordered and interpreted in terms that revealed an acceptance of inherent innate differences amongst them. This is not to deny human agency or to suggest that each individual was wholly bound by these discourses. What people experienced in the war could modify their views even on perceived “natural” categories like gender and race, and sometimes they did. The existence of competing discourses allowed each individual to find the position that seemed most accurate to them, amongst the discourses available to them. A continual process of construction and reconstruction of these categories enabled excluded groups to take on new roles and gave the scope for evolution of attitudes, but these changes were restricted by certain beliefs that remained constant. People’s responses to the war were expressed in ways that showed great continuity with the pre- and post-war period.

This study is based on a wide range of primary materials. The breadth of sources chosen represents a deliberate methodological choice to examine a variety of different attitudes, even at the risk of occasional lack of depth of analysis. This is a study of certain attitudes, and while it is hoped that these attitudes are representative, there is no claim for definitiveness. Geographically, again this study is intended to be as varied as possible, although the primary areas of study are the cities of Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon, Bordeaux and Nantes and their environs.

It draws heavily on newspapers; in particular major provincial newspapers, the conservative Le Petit Marseillais and L’Ouest-Éclair, the moderate La Petite Gironde, and the liberal La Dépêche. Others consulted include the conservative L’Echo de Midi, a newspaper of the colonial movement La Dépêche Coloniale, the syndicalist La Bataille, and the socialist and feminist La Vague.  Although these newspapers spanned most of the political spectrum, on these issues there was rarely significant difference in their interpretations, and some journalists appeared in more than one publication. Pierre Mille for instance wrote columns in both the Petit Marseillais and La Dépêche. This focus on provincial newspapers is largely due to a desire to obtain a broader national perspective rather than one dominated by Paris, but also informed by the argument of Ross Collins that distance from Paris allowed provincial newspapers more freedom from the censor and thus they were able to report more objectively. 

Of course, opinions published in newspapers cannot be taken as a direct gauge of public opinion. Those who published and wrote in them are not representative either of their readership or of the public as a whole, either in terms of their social background or in terms of their views. However, as Pierre Purseigle has argued, what is revealing is the attempts of popular “newspapers to get the largest circulation possible thanks to their market-driven content, and thus on the dialectical relationship this implied with their readers.”  Given this relationship, they can be seen as offering some indication of public opinion, at least among the newspaper reading public. In addition to this, even if they are not considered representative of general attitudes, examining changes in opinion (or the lack thereof) in newspapers is suggestive and significant in its own right.

The censorship of the war years does reduce the utility of newspapers somewhat; some of the more hostile commentary aimed at women and, especially, foreigners may have been excised by the censors, or by self-censorship on the part of the journalists themselves. For example, La Vague featured in 1918 a “Lettre de Roanne” which was cut by the censors to remove references to the foreigners who worked in the arsenal there, and the accusation that their employment went against France’s national interest. The italicised text was censored.

Dans l’Arsenal Albert Thomas, on a relevé les classes 14 et 13. On devait remplacer par des R.A.T. Mais on a envoyé à leur place des prisonniers allemands, des Chinois, toutes sortes d’étrangers. C’est contraire aux circulaires de l’Armement et contraire aux intérêts de la France, contre aux vues d’avenir de la classe ouvrière.

For more detail on what was likely to be censored see Maurice Rajsfus, La Censure, militaire et policière (1914-1918).  Paris: le cherche midi editeur (1999).  The vast majority of censored material referred to the conduct of the war. The R.A.T or Réserve de l’armée territoriale referred to in the text were those who had returned to civilian life after becoming too old for active service.

According to Françoise Navet-Bouron, it wasn’t just criticism of foreigners that could be excised. Excessive praise could be a problem. “Les articles faisant l’éloge des troupes indigènes sont soigneusement épluchés, les censeurs devant veiller à ce qu’ils ‘n’exaltent pas leur valeur au détriment des autre troupes’”.  Attacks on neutral countries and governments were also restricted, particularly those directed at the US and Greece. The main themes that cartoons were censored on were neutrals, peace, life at the front, profiteers and shirkers.

Despite censorship there is still an abundance of revealing material in the newspapers. The reduction in the number of pages they were allowed to have means that the papers had no option but to focus on the most important issues of the day, so their priorities are made very clear. The presence of censorship, restricting the expression of more radical ideas, makes it clearer what ideas are considered mainstream and acceptable.

Letters sent home from the front were subject to even more stringent official scrutiny but again this reveals and highlights what sentiments were considered to be acceptable. The context of these letters also influences their content; they were primarily intended to ease the worries of loved ones at home. In their collection of letters, 14-18, le cri d’un génération, Rémy Cazals and Frédéric Rousseau cite the case of Eugène Bayle, in which there is a record of both his letters and his journal until his death in April 1915. While his journals contained much that could have shocked or dispirited his audience back home, his letters excised anything liable to cause concern, his primary motivation for writing home was to reassure. However see also Martha Hanna, “A Republic of Letters: The Epistolary Tradition in France during World War I”  for an argument that letters were often honest and unguarded, and they remain an important source, as are the journals kept by certain soldiers. These documents can be analysed both as overt statements of belief, but also for the implicit assumptions of gender and race that underpinned them. They can allow us to examine the thinking of soldiers who often claimed to be ignored by the rest of society. This is particularly significant given that some soldiers contended that the war had allowed them to see beyond the mendacities of civilian life and understand the world as it was. Jean Marot advanced this argument :  “La vie civile est un vaste champ clos où luttent des intérêts … Aussi le mensonge triomphe. Nous sommes détachés de tous les intérêts antérieurs … Pourquoi mentir?”

A variety of official documents have been consulted. A large number of Committees and Sub-Committees of Economic Action were created in late 1915 to look after the regions of France and suggest ways in which they could better respond to the challenges posed by the war. These committees were presided over by the prefect of the department in which the committee is sited, and were composed of the political, commercial and agricultural elites of the regions. Each region was denoted by a number.  Regions 1 and 2 were in the occupied North East, the others were centered respectively in 3 Rouen, 4 Le Mans, 5 Orléans, 6 Chalons, 7 Besançon, 8 Bourges, 9 Tours, 10 Rennes, 11 Nantes, 12 Limoges, 13 Clermont-Ferrand, 14 Lyon, 15 Marseille, 16 Montpellier, 17 Toulouse, 18 Bordeaux, 19 Paris, 20 Troyes, 21 Chaumont. The reports made by the committees and their recommendations – or lack thereof, on some issues – are often very revealing of their attitudes. For example, their suggestions for how to solve the problem of an insufficient workforce was regularly to call for more reservists or German prisoners, but very rarely to call for immigrant labour, or greater use of women. There is not a comparable source for the views of the working classes, whose attitudes must be understood through the prism of police reports of trade union meetings and activities. In these reports the police would make claims about the attitudes of the workers, but these may not always offer an entirely accurate representation; the police would clearly bring their own preconceptions to bear as well. Not only this but the very presence (or suspected presence) of police informers may have influenced what was said. At a meeting of the Syndicat du Personnel des Etablissements militares de Lyon, in front of a crowd of 50 people, including both men and women, the presiding speaker, M. Croisille declared that he found it abnormal to see women making shells while their brothers and husbands were sent to the carnage of the front. He was immediately called to order by various people, including the secretary. He excused himself, claiming that his thoughts had been exceeded by his words. It is difficult to tell whether what caused Croisille to retract his words was fear of police action, or fear of offending his audience. The police noted that Croisille had particularly radical views.

One of the potential sources on gender perceptions that have not been used to a significant degree in this thesis is the fictional literature of the period. In part this is due to the fact that Mary Louise Roberts has already made an excellent study of this area.  It is also because the literature of the time was very Paris-centred, which it will be argued was a special case in terms of behaviour and perceived behaviour. There is not so large a body of fiction dealing with themes relating to race and nationality, but a number of books appeared at the time on the various peoples that France was encountering on its soil, often for the first time, during the war. Some were scientific, some popular and they provide an excellent source for understanding received ideas about race.

In all of these sources, viewpoints conveyed in direct references to women and foreigners tell only part of the story. Their absence can also be crucially important. One of the key arguments that underpin this thesis is that the resilience of traditional thinking is shown not just in the instances where gender and race are referred to in conventional ways, but in the multiplicity of situations in which those assumptions were not stated because there seemed no need to restate them. Where categories are held as normative, then the existence of a large number of discussions about them – even when they restate the traditional position – suggests the presence of an overt challenge towards those categories. The paucity of such references is the clearest sign of the strength of those normative assumptions. Clearly, categories as fundamental to French society as gender and race would never be invisible at a time of great upheaval – and the years of the First World War certainly were, even if they are far from unique in being seen as such by their contemporaries – yet the vast majority of texts produced during the war exhibited little sign of uncertainty over such core concepts.

The first chapter of this thesis examines French popular and scientific views of race as a category and of other races more generally. It describes how each race was seen to have differing innate characteristics and sometimes these varied dramatically. Nonetheless, there were several themes that recurred in discourses dealing with practically all non-white races. Principal amongst these was an element of childlike nature, a reliance on emotion and instinct rather than the rational behaviour of white men. It also focuses on the issue of immigration, which the war made an important issue in public policy. It suggests that the ways in which people of different races were utilised and portrayed in the war was defined by pre-existing discourses, and that responses towards the behaviour of non-whites in France were conditioned through those existing ideas. Received wisdom about other races could be manipulated to serve the case the writer wished to make. The perceived ferocity of Black African troops could be situated in the positive context of terrifying the Germans; for example a caricature depicted a German prisoner fearing being eaten by a black soldier. The soldier responded: “Don’t be afraid. Li savage, but Li only eats clean things”.  This ferocity could also be portrayed negatively, as a threat to French women left defenceless by their husbands’ absence. It is argued that this flexibility of usage and the omnipresence of traditional concepts in the discourses of the participation of non-white peoples during the war prevented any significant alteration of attitudes towards them.

The second chapter focuses on the various white foreigners living in France during the period of the war, whether as immigrant workers, refugees, allies or invaders. It argues that each nation’s inhabitants were held to have different collective characteristics and that these differences were ascribed to racial factors within that nation as much as to cultural influences. The ways in which French discourse on nationality differed from its discourse on race is examined, as well as the similarities and connections between the two. Again it argues that, despite the radically different ways in which France interacted with its fellow nations during the war, these interactions were interpreted within the limitations of pre-conflict conceptions of those nations. J. B. Massé, the founding director of “L’Aide-Assureur de France”, arguing in favour of life insurance, spoke of how the Germans had introduced it “to elevate the social level of its population and to better prepare it to dominate the entire world.” Meanwhile he praised how the Americans had introduced the measure for “tous ses soldats et marins combattant aux côtés de nôtres pour la civilisation et le Droit de Nations.”   Thus the German decision is seen within the context of its militarism as a preparation for future expansionist wars, while the American one is described as indicative of their commitment to civilisation.

The third chapter discusses the impact of the conflict on ideas about women and their place in society. It considers the extent of the division between the home front and the trenches and how far this division resulted in shifts in gender perceptions. While the division between those who fought at the front and those who did not was real and significant, it will be argued that the primary way in which this division was felt and expressed was not between “masculine” and “feminine” but through a rhetoric where what counted was the degree of suffering that the war had imposed. Clearly the soldiers were the ones who were held to have suffered the most, but widows, the orphaned, and refugees were also privileged in this interpretation. Those widowed by the war often took prominent positions in activities commemorating the war. On the other side of the divide were those held to be profiting from the war. This definition was very broad and could cover a wide range of individuals depending on the situation. These might include those believed to be shirking their duty to fight, those making money out of the war, those using the war to indulge in illicit sexual behaviour, and those who visibly enjoyed themselves, seemingly indifferent to the suffering of others. While women were often placed amongst those who constituted these categories, it was rarely exclusively their province. Furthermore, when women were criticised for taking advantage of the war, or not taking it seriously enough, the criticism followed traditional lines. The similarities with pre- and post-war discourse are clear, and most wartime observations on female behaviour succeeded in placing that behaviour within accepted conceptions of what was normal.

This chapter will also address the issues of commemoration and the birth-rate, two vital areas of post-war debate that have been posited as both the source and site of reactionary activities towards feminism. Commemoration was significant because it was a key way in which the memory of the war was officially formalised. Daniel Sherman argues that French authorities used commemoration as a crucial part of attempts to re-impose traditional ideas after they had been challenged in the upheaval of the war and in particular to emphasise the pre-eminent role of masculine heroism.  While Sherman is convincing that this influenced the manner in which commemoration occurred, this thesis suggests that it was only one of several such influences and was by no means the dominant one.

The issue of natality and depopulation was seen as vitally important in the wake of the colossal casualties inflicted on the French armed forces during the war. A vast number of solutions were offered as to how to increase the birth rate. This variety of opinion meant that no consensus was achieved on how to address the problem and what action was taken was largely ineffective.

The fourth chapter focuses on how women and foreigners were seen in the context of the workplace, and what effect the changes wrought by war in the French economy had on this. This chapter will also examine how the work carried out by women and foreigners during the war influenced broader views of their nature, their abilities and the positions they could or should occupy in French society. It will argue that the utilisation of these groups was firmly rooted in pre-war conceptions of their capabilities and qualities.  For immigrant labour in particular, this meant that they were rarely trusted in any area of employment except low skilled, low paid work under French supervision. Fears over differing customs ensured that colonial workers were usually kept together, away from the French population as much as possible. French women were granted more opportunities in employment, although traditional forms of employment still predominated. There were also significant changes in French working practices associated with the modernisation and mechanisation of the economy, with a consequent reordering of jobs undertaken by both men and women, that had begun before the war but accelerated during the conflict. This changed conditions did little to alter existing conceptions of women’s abilities however. Instead their work was interpreted within the constraints of a pre-war discourse that was flexible enough to allow a broader range of work as “women’s work” while maintaining a clear division between that and “men’s work” with different attributes and skills being essential for both.  Where women were held to have performed well in a job, that work was viewed as being either not being skilled or based on traditional home-making skills. When such an interpretation was untenable then women were held to have been at best an adequate stopgap while men were unavailable. Throughout the war, debates over how to solve the problems over workforce shortages were predicated on the assumption that it was much more desirable to employ French men than foreigners or women.

In general the issues of whether the war actually resulted in a change in the position in society of men and women, French and foreign, lies outside the scope of this study. It simply seeks to assess people’s attitudes towards gender and race.

[1] In using the term “non-whites” I follow Tyler Stovall who argues that while the description is problematic, it offers the closest approximation to the reductionist way in which race was seen at the time.  Tyler Stovall, “The Color Line Behind The Lines: Racial Violence in France During the Great War” in American Historical Review 1998 103(3)

1 Comment »

  1. […] Introduction […]

    Pingback by French attitudes to Race and Gender during World War 1 « So much beauty out there — December 31, 2008 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

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