So much beauty out there

January 3, 2009

World War 1 and Gender Relations

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:15 pm


Both at the time of the Great War and in its immediate aftermath it was generally considered that the war had brought about a massive change in gender relations. By showing that women could take over male roles it was thought to have done more to emancipate women than years of feminist campaigning had been able to achieve.  However, recent historiography now offers a different orthodoxy, summed up by Christine Bard and Françoise Thébaud: 

La guerre n’a pas émancipé les femmes. Dans les faits, elle a renforcé la hierarchie entre les sexes, bouleversé les relations entre les hommes et femmes, brouillé les identités sexuelles, et ces d’autant plus que les uns et les autres ont vécu une chronologie différente du conflit.

These arguments depend on several grounds, such as that the increase in female participation in the workforce has been exaggerated, that the war made men more hostile to feminism and women’s rights, that the issue of depopulation hampered feminism, and that the war halted the momentum that women and the feminist movement had achieved.

It will be argued that in much of France concern over gender relations was peripheral during the war. While people commented on the various new roles taken on by women, they understood these modifications in traditional terms. Some new developments were believed to be temporary adjustments that would not continue long past the ceasefire; while others were downplayed as applying only to a small minority of women or just to Paris. In most cases, pre-war ideas of gender relations maintained their importance throughout the war, offering a framework within which the changes wrought by the war were understood.

Division Between Front and Rear

 The division between the home front and the front line has often been posited as a source of hostility between men and women. The men risking their lives could only compare the experiences of the home front unfavourably. As Mary Louise Roberts writes “When soldiers returned from the front they saw their female kin, friends, and lovers assuming traditionally male jobs and family responsibilities … The war generation of men found themselves buried alive in the trenches of death, at the same time that they witnessed the women in their lives enjoying unprecedented economic opportunities. One infantryman wrote that “l’émancipation de la femme et la dislocation des familles font des étapes aussi rapides que l’avancée des Boches en territoire italien.”1 Soldiers were also upset at civilians’ lack of awareness of their suffering, and the perceived gaiety and luxury of the home front. Roberts and Stéphane Audoin‑Rouzeau both produce ample examples of this.  In the immensely popular novel Le Feu, which was lauded for its authenticity, Henri Barbusse famously wrote that the distinction between the front and the rear was “a difference far deeper than that of nations and with deeper trenches.” Not only was the rest of the population utterly incapable of comprehending the horror of trench warfare, which only those who had experienced it could truly understand, but also the propaganda and censorship that was considered necessary to maintain morale threw up another barrier. There are many examples of this divide, such as in this article that appeared in the trench newspaper, Le Crapouillot

There was an announcement: “Views of the War”. Most of the civilians got up and left, grumbling, “The war again, what a bore”. While (on the screen) the soldiers mastered the dreadful “pig’s snout”, the audience doubled up with laughter. Perhaps they would not have found the exercise so funny if they had but once had to do it in feverish haste with bells ringing in the trenches to announce the arrival of the dreadful clouds of death  … The final film unrolled before us: “The battle‑fields of the Marne”. The public seemed disappointed that such a terrible battle had left so little trace, and beside me a little old lady, bored with such tranquil scenery, declared with a gentle little pout: “That’s boring: there aren’t even any bodies. 

The question is whether the resentment and discontent felt by the soldiers led to any uncertainty in gender relations. Often the tirades launched against the home front were aimed more at the men perceived to be shirking, rather than women. In Un Tel de l’armée française, written in 1918, the soldier Franconi lambasted 

Stratèges incohérents penchés sur des cartes dérisoires, généraux de plume et combien peu d’épée, maniant à la fois les sophismes les plus contradictoires et les armées, ancien insurgé déguisé en bon berger, tels furent nos amateurs de la guerre. Ils la firent dans les salles de rédaction, les salons académiques et les brasseries littéraires, alors que toute la jeunesse de France agonisait sur les nouveaux champs catalaniques.  

The perceived luxury of the conditions in the rear, whether enjoyed by women or men was a recurring theme in the complaints made by frontline soldiers, and particularly when exploitation of the troops was involved. This song from the front attacks rich shirkers, emphasising the contrast with life in the trenches. 

Pendant que les heureux, les riches et les grands

reposent dans la soie et dans les fines toiles,

nous autres les parias, nous autres les errants,

ici dans les tranchées l’on se bat et l’on crève. 

In a letter Barbusse sent to La Dépêche he highlighted the worst abuses that his book had attacked: “la guerre suscite bien des égoïsmes et des cupidités. J’ai marqué quelques-uns de ces vices; j’ai parlé des embusqués, des profiteurs et des mercantis sans pitié.” The absence of any explicitly female role amongst the groups of abusers is striking. In his account of the Third Colonial Division during the war, General Puypéroux made little mention of women, when his troops rest behind the lines he mentioned only their costly living conditions, criticising those who sought to exploit the troops for material benefit.  “[N]os braves troupiers s’extasient sur le bon marché de certains denrées, eux qui sont si exploités par les mercantis du front. Le résultat de cet étonnement ne se fait pas attendre longtemps… les prix augmentent de suite.” Cazals and Rousseau argue that the trench journals directed their vitriol primarily at “des embusqués, des profiteurs, des journalistes bourreurs de crânes,” In the songs of the trench journals the actions of the poilus were contrasted with the bourgeoisie rather than with women. 

It was also difficult to draw a simple line between front and rear that placed all shirkers in the rear. There were significant gradations of risk amongst combattants as the soldiers were well aware. The infantry were at far higher risk than cavalry and artillery. As one of the heroes of Le Feu commented, “Même au front on est toujours l’embusqué de quelqu’un.” In his memories of the war Jean Estève wrote about morale in 1917: 

Noté en passant ce déplorable état d’esprit de l’artillerie, le plus mauvais sans doute de toutes les armées françaises, et d’autant plus extraordinaires que ces gens-là, surtout dans l’artillerie lourde, ont plutôt été des favorisés dans cette longue guerre. 

Other differences also existed amongst those at the front, based upon class and status. In Nancy in 1919 there was a meeting of working-class mutilés who had left the Association des Mutilés et Anciens Combattants.2 Marchand, the secretary of the new group, declared “En revenant des tranchées où quoiqu’on ait dit, il n’existait aucune fraternité entre combattants bourgeois et ouvriers, les patrons ont repris leur mentalité d’avant-guerre et traitent les ouvriers en conséquence.” Indeed, several veterans’ organisations, including the Union de Poilus did not admit officers into their membership. 

Some critiques of the home front did attack women, but rarely as a primary target. This article by Captain Léon Hudelle, entitled Le Poilu, was published in several trench newspapers, as well as some left wing civilian papers. 

Le poilu, ce n’est pas un secrétaire d’Etat-Major et d’Intendance, ni un automobiliste, mais c’est celui que tous les automobilistes et les secrétaires d’Etat-Major et d’Intendance regardent avec dédain, avec morgue, avec insolence, presque avec mépris.

Le Poilu, c’est celui que tout le monde admire, mais dont on s’écarte lorsqu’on le voit monter dans un train, rentrer dans un café, un restaurant, dans un magasin, de peur que ses brodequins mâchent les bottines, que ses effets maculent les vestons à la dernière mode, que ses gestes effleurent les robes cloches, que ses paroles sentent trop cru … 

The first part is aimed at male shirkers, the second part more at women, but it is significant that the criticism is hardly accusing them of losing femininity; in fact the reverse is implied. Louis Barthas made a similar argument in his journal 

On aurait bien voulu s’arrêter cantonner dans ces petites villes si tentantes avec leurs boutiques flambant neuf, leurs bistrots accueillants, leurs femmes avenantes et rieuses qui nous envoyaient des signes amicaux au passage mais ces lieux étaient trop beaux pour nous, on les réservait aux embusqués de toute catégorie qui pullulaient à l’arrière. 

When women were criticised it was often for the fault, traditionally seen as female, of living above their station. A song recorded in the journal of Antoine Bosc similarly accuses women of not taking the war seriously. “Elles rigolent des communiqués”, while they live the high life, but once again their role is entirely traditional. The song is made more powerful by focusing its attack on the wives of the poilus, often exempted from more general criticism of the rear.

“Les petites femmes des mobilisés”

Les poilus s’en vont, le cafard au front,

Trottinant parmi les cervelles.

A l’arrière l’on voit la gaieté, la joie,

Et la guerre, nul ne s’en aperçoit.

          Concerts, cinéma, casino,

          Tout pleins de badaud

          Qui ont la vie belle.

Nos femmes s’offrent du plaisir,

Elles peuvent s’offrir ce qui leur fait plaisir,

Elles rigolent des communiqués,

Les petites femmes des mobilisés. 

This criticism echoes the criticism earlier in Le Crapouillot by emphasising not just the easy living standards of those at home compared to the trenches, but the added indecency of the privileged finding the war a source of amusement. The home front was expected to be suffering, and those who were not obviously doing so were harshly criticised. 

This theme is also illustrated by the criticism of the population of Châlons sur-Marne by  Barthas. 

Grande animation dans la rues, les embusqués avaient mis leurs képis les plus nerfs, leurs galons, leurs chevrons les plus étincelants. La plupart avaient à leur bras leur femme ou une femme avec des chapeaux fleuris, des corsages, des robes aux couleurs chatoyantes; tout ce beau monde se promenait, souriait, jasait, flirtait dans une inconscience, une quiétude parfaites. 

The majority of the actions described are not objectionable in themselves, it is only in the context of the war that fine clothes and shallow pleasures are unacceptable. The last words are the most significant, what is most damning is the lack of awareness of the ordeal of the troops. The criticism of women in the trench journal La Marmite in 1916 followed a similar line, castigating the shallowness of women. 

La femme a commis certaines fautes de légèreté, d’insouciance, et les jupes de 1916 ont un peu trop l’air de se ficher de tout. La femme n’a pas toujours élevé son âme jusqu’à la compréhension de l’héroisme et j’en ai connu en permission qui, avec un angélique sourire à gifler, me disaient en parlant des combats de nuit: ‘Comme ce doit être amusant!’ D’autres ne pouvaient souffrir le mot de ‘poilu’ et se pâmaient devant les mentons imberbes des Anglais. Tout cela déconcerte le soldat et il en conçoit une certaine pitié méprisante pour la femme. Les exceptions sont nombreuses, je me hâte de le dire; mais elles ne font que confirmer la règle. 

The contemptuous pity the soldiers are claimed to feel for women appears to be based on women having fallen victim to the traditional vices of their sex rather than any challenging of gender roles. 

These sort of criticisms recur repeatedly. When La Dépêche criticised the spring fashions in 1916 it argued that these fashions were not new and normally would be cause for amusement. Only because of the terrible circumstances that France found itself in did they become shocking and unacceptable. The contrôleur of the agricultural workforce in Anjou observed in November 1918, and again in 1919, that the workers leaving the countryside towards the town, in particular the women were “attirée par un vie plus facile, la toilette et les plaisirs variés.”  For Margaret Darrow, the example of feminine fashions is an instance where women’s activities could be read in differing ways. Was their wearing new and elegant clothing a signal of indifference to the sufferings of the front, or was it a proud statement that the natural grace of French women should not be destroyed? Certainly Andrè Kahn responded positively at the front to news that Paris was returning to normal in December 1914. “C’est un honneur pour Poincaré et pour ses hommes du gouvernement que cette résurrection de la France en pleine guerre. Cela doit bigrement étonner les Boches …” 

When the home front was portrayed as wholly feminine, women were often displayed in a sympathetic, traditional role. An article by Jean Longuet in Le Populaire depicted “Les couloirs du Palais de Justice retentissent sans cesse des cris déchirants, des hurlements, des malheureuses femmes dont les maris, les fils, ou les pères viennent d’être frappés de condamnations féroces.” It is not just wives, but mothers and daughters who are crying and wailing, but it appears that there are no fathers or sons there displaying their anger and grief. 

La Bataille regularly castigated male profiteers in its cartoons but rarely women. Even in a rare example depicting a woman profiting from the war, a female also supplies justice; a proletarian woman strangling a bourgeois lady with her own expensive necklace. Le Populaire followed a similar line to the Bataille with a cartoon from April 1918 depicting a fat, middle-aged, male employer, criticising a young female worker for wanting to leave work at six in the evening. Georges Villard in the trench journal Plus que Toral in 1916 wrote a song that included the phrase: 

“En pensant à la femme, en pensant aux enfants,

Qui vivent angoissés dans la maison muette,”

Much more gender specific was the issue of sexual infidelity. Mary Roberts argues convincingly that men at the front lived in fear of being betrayed by their spouses. Roberts goes further though by arguing that “Sexual infidelity signified the wartime reversal of gender roles because in this case, women were free and promiscuous, while men were “confined” to the army and trenches … female infidelity symbolized the isolation, alienation, and emasculation of the male combattant.” As has already been noted, there can be no contesting that men fighting in the trenches felt alienated and isolated from the rest of society. However the argument that the war and female infidelity resulted in a feeling of emasculation among soldiers is more problematic. 

War has traditionally been portrayed as embodying the epitome of masculinity, and hence virility, and at the start of the Great War, it proved no exception. From August 1914 into 1915 the war was portrayed in Britain as resulting in reinvigorating a degenerate and effeminate pre-war culture amongst men, with women similarly refeminized.  The French reaction was similar. In August 1914, René Bazin wrote in his cahiers intimes,

 “J’entends le dialogue des officiers allemands rentrant dans leur positions d’où on les avait lancés en avant:

  • – Vous n’avez pu tenir?
  • – Non, un élan terrible, des troupes comme celles de Napoléon, des armées mieux maniées que les nôtres…
  • – Et le désordre?
  • – Pas
  • – Et l’insubordination?
  • – Finie
  • – Et l’affaiblissement de la race?
  • – Mensonge!
  • – La France agonisante?
  • – Allez-y voir!”

 The war had given the lie to the idea of l’affaiblissement de la race. The reference to the Napoleonic army is also significant; these soldiers are just as glorious (and by implication the war is too). 

The argument is that while previous wars had allowed men to display heroism through acts of personal bravery and virile attacks, the Great War was different, men were powerless against the shells and machine guns, heroism was achieved purely through survival. Jean Norton Cru gives a striking account of this. 

Entre deux groupements plus petits, comme entre deux individus, il n’y a plus de lutte, sauf dans des cas très exceptionnels: presque toujours l’un des deux frappe, l’autre ne peut que courber le dos et recevoir les coups.

The French infantry could only take cover against the German trench artillery, which was impotent against the French 75s, which were in turn powerless to retaliate against German heavy artillery. 

Les soldiers sont bourreaux ou victimes, chasseurs ou proie, et dans l’infanterie nous avons l’impression que nous jouâmes la plupart du temps le rôle de victime, de proie, de cible. Ce rôle ne tend guère à faire goûter la gloire des combats. 

While the scale of this suffering was undoubtedly unprecedented in the First World War, the experience of war bringing death without possibility for heroism was not entirely new. Dr Samuel Johnson had given a significantly similar description to the experience of soldiers fighting nearly 150 years earlier. 

The life of a modern soldier is ill-represented by heroick fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands, that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groaning, unpitied among men, made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery, and whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without rememberance. By incommodious encampments and unwholesome stations, where courage is useless, and enterprise unpracticable, fleets are silently dispeopled, and armies sluggishly melted away. 

There are certainly plenty of examples of veterans lambasting the dehumanising quality of trench warfare. In Le Feu, a soldier, Bertrand: “Honte à la gloire militaire, honte aux armées, honte au métier de soldat, qui change les hommes tour à tour en stupides victimes et en ignobles bourreaux.” Jacques Rivière writing in 1921 asked “Je demande à tous les combattants … s’ils n’ont pas la sensation d’avoir été amputés de toute une partie de leur sensibilité. Nous reviens mais nous ne sommes plus les mêmes.” According to Antoine Prost: “Le soldat est un homme que la guerre déshumanise.” 

Yet all these references suggest not a loss of virility, but of basic humanity. Furthermore, the surviving of the war seems to have been considered as having passed a test, of being proven. Antoine Prost’s major study of war veterans suggests that the men did not come out of the war feeling emasculated or in need to prove themselves. On the contrary they felt that, terrible though their experiences had been, they had at least gained pride in the fact that they had not been found wanting. The rhetoric of anciens combattants throughout the interwar period is filled with examples of where they assert that they have proven themselves worthy. Writers of such different persuasions as Montherlant and Drieu la Rochelle both expressed nostalgia for the “virile fraternity” of the front. 

The post war activity of veterans also contradicts the idea that they were desperate to forget the war entirely. The vast majority joined organisations of Anciens Combattants, for social activities as well as for campaigning. Holt’s study of sporting activity in France shows that the war resulted in acceleration in numbers participating in shooting. In 1870 there were 300,000 registered participants, which grew to 600,000 by 1914. In the 1920s there were more than one million participants, and by 1930 there were 1.8 million. After 1930, numbers levelled off.  It is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of these newcomers were veterans, who were not put off by any military associations. 

graine-de-poiluThe virility of the soldiers was also constantly eulogised by non-combattants. Stéphane Audoin‑Rouzeau’s study of children’s literature featured several “… histoires développent le thème du héros qui, par sa modestie et son héroisme, conquiert le coeur d’une femme logiquement inaccessible.”  There were a series of postcards during the war entitled “Graine de Poilu”. One depicted an enfant bursting out of his shell, armed with rifle and bayonet and asking “Y en a‑til encore des Boches?” Not all French children would be heroic, just the sons of the soldiers.

Furthermore, as Audoin-Rouzeau notes, the representation of combattants stressed defence of their soil, defence of their country, but most strongly of all defence of their women and children. 

The likely offspring of the soldier, the shirker and the bourgeois

The likely offspring of the soldier, the shirker and the bourgeois

In C. Binet-Sanglé’s book Le Haras humain published in 1918, he described his wish to regenerate the race. His ideal masculine type seemed closely based upon the popular image of the soldier: “hommes musclés, poilus, barbus, à gros testicules, à scrotum ferme, à sperme épais”. Women were expected to have a traditional feminine form, with broad hips and large breasts. Even those non-combatants who witnessed the suffering first hand were positive about the link between virility and frontline combat. The influential psychologist Dr Dide, who worked for some time at the front, wrote in 1916: 

L’acte génital tend à assurer la perpétuation de la race et le guerrier, dans sa force abstraite, se surpasse, animé qu’il est des forces de la destinée: Il n’est plus un homme, il symbolise le droit au soleil d’un peuple, le besoin de vie d’un nation, il devient synthèse de la patrie elle-même qui veut persévérer dans son être. 

Hélène Dequidt has noted that those men serving in frontline medical services found their masculinity in question both by the soldiers, and also by themselves, and many sought to be transferred to frontline combat. Similarly those attending to the wounded at the rear wished they were in the frontline of the battle against death. An indication of the views of the wounded themselves was given by M.Simon, chairing a meeting organised by the Journal des mutilés to form a federation of all associations of anciens combattants in November 1917. “Je salue ensuite nos chers camarades restés au front et qui continuent la tâche rude et sublime de protéger les foyers que nous ne pouvons plus défendre.” Not only did Simon laud the sublime nature of the task, it was placed squarely within the traditional setting of the man defending the home. 


If it is difficult to say that the war resulted directly in the symbolic emasculation of the male combatant, the argument that this was achieved indirectly – through female sexual infidelity – is stronger. There is no doubt that there was an increase in sex outside of marriage, illegitimate births rose significantly.3 For those whose wives and fiancées left them, this would clearly have been distressing, as would be the situation for those who stayed with their partners, knowing or suspecting that they had been unfaithful, perhaps unsure about the paternity of a child. In 1918, an article in Le Courier du Centre began: “Un drame passionnel – ils sont déjà nombreux depuis la guerre…” It described how a soldier, Yves Beauffenie, killed Jean Pestis, who up until recently had been in the same regiment, because Pestis was having an affair with his wife. 

One of the letters from the front recorded by Jean Nicot identified three types of people who aroused resentment at the front. 

… des industriels que la guerre enrichit, ensuite ce sont les viellards, anciens combattants de 1870 qui n’ont personne au front et parlent patriotisme, enfin, en troisième lieu, ce sont des femmes que je ne veux pas qualifier et dont les maris sont au front et qui ont près d’elles des amants recrutés parmi les embusqués ou des jeunes gens imberbes. 

These unfaithful wives were implicitly contrasted with women mentioned earlier in the letter – “Des femmes en grand deuil qu’on croise dans la rue pleurent en regardant les poilus du front”. 

Female infidelity was not typically portrayed as a sign of assertiveness. In the novel Daniel Sherman analyses, La joie by Maurice Genevoix, Genevoix describes the feelings of Pierre, the hero, about the embusqué who had an affair with his girlfriend. “Pendant que je me battais, pendant que je grelottais en Bochie, ce monsieur s’installait chez vous, n’en bougeait plus”. Here the entire agency in the affair is assigned to the man, who wouldn’t leave, without any impression of a wartime reversal of gender roles. This is backed up by some of the trench journals studied by Audoin‑Rouzeau. In this extract it is assumed that if women are wearing jewellery then it must have been men who were responsible for buying it. In addition, the changes it notes are all of appearance, not of character: 

At last he reaches the village … He meets some country women. Oh, but how they’ve changed! No more clogs, no more apron: smart polished boots, jewellery! As the poilu says to himself: “Are there still men at the rear, to pay for all these fine things”. 

Even more explicit, the following extract seems to absolve women from all responsibility for initiating infidelity, putting all the blame on the men at the rear. 

How cowardly they seem to me, those men who are comfortably settled at the rear and who try to profit from the current difficult circumstances by disturbing the noble and dignified solitude of women deprived of their loved ones and their support. I cannot think of any more base or vile crime than that! While others, out there are getting shot or lie bleeding in a hospital bed, those men whose privileged position should impose on them at least a polite reserve roam like wolves round homes where the head of the household is absent. Yes there are roaming wolves. 

The difficulties involved in attributing division between the sexes to combat are also highlighted by a quote made by a railwayman: “women no longer want to obey … we talk about marriage between men and women as people talk of peace between the Boches and the French.”  A man in a reserved occupation made this comment; not someone who had fought on the front line, his use of “we” suggests he knew others who shared his thinking. 

Civilian testimony was more often inclined to assign blame to women. Emile Rethault wrote in 1970 on the consequences of the war in the commune where he would become mayor. He believed that the departure of the vast majority of adult males meant that “L’autorité interne tomba en quenouille…” Similarly, on the subject of extra-marital affaires, Gilles Depérière denounced “les mauvais exemples, trop humains, donnés par quelques mauvais esprits, surtout féminins.” Dr Vernédal in his doctoral thesis claimed that prostitution has many more adherents: “avides surtout de plaisir, mais plus souvent de luxe et de gain” in the difficult financial times during the war. 

One pitfall it is crucial to avoid is conflating the lifestyles of Parisian women and the responses that these lifestyles prompted with that of French women as a whole. Maurice Donnay noted this phenomenon during the war, claiming that foreigners have been prone to judge France by Paris, French women by Parisian women and Parisian women by “certains Parisiennes agitées”. Certain criticisms by the French of the moral conduct of women were Paris specific. Louis Barthas for instance had direct criticism to make of some women in Paris: 

Par exemple, je fus choqué de la tenue de certaines Parisiennes. Appartenaient-elles au grande monde? au monde? au demi-monde? Je l’ignorais. Décolletées, ‘démolletées’, bras nus, épaules nues, elles semblaient avoir le seul souci de plaire, de se faire remarquer, attirer le regard, aiguiser les désirs des passants et cela au moment où l’angoisse étreignait tant de cœurs, où tant d’yeux pleuraient, tant de sang coulait, où se jouait le destin de la France, de l’Europe… et même du monde! 

The postcard mentioned earlier of a woman lifting up her skirt to the admiring glances of foreign soldiers was specifically described as an “Attraction Parisiennes”. Rosny and Mille were both quoted in the last chapter making a distinction between the relationships amongst women and Americans in the big cities and those elsewhere. The presumed sexual behaviour of Parisian women also informed André Kahn’s dismissal of the strikes of 1917, as well as ideas of female irrationality. 

Quant aux manifestations hystériques des ouvrières parisiennes, encore une fois, je les considère sans le moindre importance. Elles s’agitent parce que les printemps les énerve et qu’elles ne trouvent pas assez d’hommes pour le satisfaire.

The extent to which the mores of the capital, and particularly the Parisian elite, were seen to differ from that of those who lived in provincial cities, is highlighted by an article in La Libre Parole in September 1914 on the changes wrought by the governmental move to Bordeaux. 

Il parait que l’on ne s’ennuie pas à Bordeaux pendant que nos soldats défendent la France sur les champs de bataille, à deux pas de nous, au prix de leur sang. Tandis que la population parisienne, épurée de ses politiciens arrivistes et de ses jouisseurs névrosés, conserve dans sa calme vaillance une bonne humeur pleine de dignité, tous nos histrions, nos bateleurs, nos amuseurs et amuseuses, tous les habitués des restaurants de nuit se sont transportés à Bordeaux, où ils ont trouvé dans les coulisses gouvernmentales une clientèle toute disposée à se mettre à l’unisson. On y joue la comédie, on y sable le champagne en aimable compagnie, on cherche à se remonter artificiellement un moral qui avait été un peu ébranlé lors de l’exode… Souhaitons que les colonisateurs actuel de Bordeaux fassent enfin un retour sur eux-mêmes et songent un peu plus aux épreuves que traverse la patrie. 

It wasn’t just the lifestyle of the Parisians that was distinguished from that of the Bordelais, it was that they were doing so while the men from the region, “nos soldats”, were sacrificing their blood for France. 

It must also be remembered that the relationship between front and rear was far from being wholly antagonistic. There were close relationships between soldiers and their families and friends that were maintained by letters and postcards. Awareness of the suffering of their loved ones must have reminded soldiers that they were not unique. André Kahn demonstrated this in writing to his wife “Tu n’es pas la seule à en souffrir. J’imagine que toutes les femmes de France en sont au même point, ne rêvent qu’au même avenir…” When Paris was bombed, soldiers did not celebrate the jolt to the profiteers of the home front, but criticised the cruelty of the Germans as murderers of the innocent. “Que nous nous battions entre hommes, je trouve ce moyen assez légal. Mais d’aller tuer les vieillards, les femmes et les enfants, c’est ignoble.” 

There were also the nurses and the marraines. In both these examples soldiers would have close contact with women in positive, traditional roles. The marraines, or godmothers, were women who offered both moral support and presents to soldiers at the front, particularly those without families of their own. The role of marraines offered women the chance to give support to men at the front in a traditionally feminine role and newspapers regularly encouraged more women to contribute. 






La Bataille urged, “Encore toujours plus de marraines!  Les vieilles femmes, les petites filles!  Toutes, pour nous chers camarades solitaires et tristes, à qui nous devons un peu de joie et d’affection.”




Nearly 3 million soldiers were hospitalised during the war, more than half of them at least twice, plus those who were afflicted by illness. Female nurses would have attended all of these. One of the extracts from Gaspard by René Benjamin that was printed in La Petite Gironde painted a glowing picture of nurses. The same newspaper also printed a description by a soldier from the region, Leo Larguier, describing being hospitalised for his wounds. 

Un arrêt, et des quatre coins de la gare sur le quai désert, s’essaiment les dames et les demoiselles de la Croix-Rouge. Je ne rêve pas. Ce sont bien des anges qui apportent des corbeilles… Des souliers de velours sur les marchepieds, des mains fines, des sourires frais et des yeux qui rient, des voix de miracle et des blancheurs de paradis; tout cela pour de vieux poilus brisés qui n’ont fait que leur devoir. C’est trop, nous sommes confus, et nul n’aurait osé imaginer cet accueil, et nous nous estimons payés au centuple […] Sur le fond sanglant de la guerre, pour les bons poilus meurtris, elles se détachent en voiles blancs et elles demeurent de petites figures françaises, avec leur grâce légère et leur goût charmant.

Larguier doesn’t just appreciate the care given by the nurses of the Red Cross, it’s their very femininity that is stressed – their soft hands, their fresh smiles, their grace and charm – as salving the pain of the bloody war.


Jean Hugo spoke of “une très jeune infirmière d’un beauté céleste, accompagnée par son grand-père, un vieux gentilhomme à moustache blanche: elle nous servit gravement du café, en silence et sans sourire.” General Puypéroux paid homage to a nurse who worked on the front with his division. He claimed she would be remembered by all the soldiers as “la personnification de la bravoure féminine et du dévouement désintéressé.” Pierre Mille described how nurses were initially reluctant to treat German prisoners who had been trying to kill their husbands or brothers, but when it was pointed out to them what might happen if German nurses took the same approach they realised what was necessary. “Elles se sont dévouées corps et âme et bientôt, d’ailleurs, l’instinct de maternité et de pitié qui est au cœur de toutes les femmes a triomphé chez elles de tout autre sentiment.” While Mille was writing to praise the nurses, his description implicitly stresses the dominance of sentimentality and instinct above reason and rationality in the actions of these women.

While those who participated in nursing were widely praised, their role was not considered to warrant parity with the men at front in terms of privileges. A circular from the war ministry stated “le bénéfice de la franchise postale militaire s’applique exclusivement aux militaires et marins mobilisés, et qu’en aucun cas, le personnel féminin employé dans les services et établissements militaires ne peut bénéficier de cette franchise. Furthermore, the worth of the nurses’ service was valued so highly  because of the reflected glory from those they treated. This is illustrated by the monument to war-time nurses at Berck-Plage, which features not a nurse but a wounded soldier on a stretcher.

There was also leave from the front. While some soldiers found civil society insensitive, others reacted positively. The memoirs of Marius Hourtal contain a long passage describing a leave, where the entire trip is described positively, except for a difficult meeting with the mother of a war victim.  He gave several examples of consideration being shown towards him and his companions. They were granted free admission to various Parisian attractions as they were recognised as permissionaires who had come straight from the front line. On the trip to his village his train was full and he began to fall asleep in the corridor until an old lady gently took his arm and insisted on giving him her seat, despite his attempts to refuse.  At the same time his comrades were lying down all along the corridor, but the conductor didn’t wake them, understanding they were exhausted. Later another conductor stamped their passes so as to give them an extra day’s leave. Finally he arrived at his home, where he was warmly welcomed by his family “Puis ce fuit la tournée des voisins et amis du village, car tout le monde voulait me voir.” A soldier told the Petit Parisien that he didn’t need to read patriotic exhortations from the rear, but that leave was welcome. “Let them double our wine, brandy, and also leaves and not brainwash us with that claptrap”. For Octave Clauson, his enjoyment was in seeing his family, and the suspension of leave was a major blow. But there was a downside, with people saying to him on every leave “Tu es déjà là!” and also the sense that life back home was moving on without him. 

permissionIt appears that there was a close correlation between the morale of the troops and their reaction to civil society. In the winter of 1915-1916, the prefect of Anjou reported to the Interior Ministry that 

Les visites des permissionnaires continuent à produire dans l’ensemble leur action bienfaisante. La très grande majorité […] fait impression par leur bonne santé physique et morale, leur bonne humeur, leur courage, leur résolution, leur assurance dans le succès final qu’ils annoncent généralement comme prochain. 

At roughly same time, the sub-prefect of Cholet believed of soldiers that “leur confiance dans son issue [the end of the war] gagnent les plus indécis, les plus enclins au découragement.” 

However in 1917 the situation was reversed; the soldiers were depressed and made no secret of it. According to the prefect “Ceux-ci apportent depuis quelque temps du front un état d’esprit extrêmement fâcheux et exercent autour d’eux une influence délétère. Les effets de cette influence se font ressentir partout et ont beaucoup contribué à la dépression qui s’est produite dans toute les milieux…” It may be no coincidence that Hourtal’s account was of a leave taken in 1916, while Clauson only arrived at the front in 1917. 

The post-war rhetoric of the veterans’ organisations testifies to a more subtle distinction than simply a dichotomy of frontline service and home front fecklessness. Instead, distinctions were made in terms of perceived sacrifice. Thus when, in 1919 at a meeting of the Union des Poilus in Toulon, the order of a cortege was decided, it was headed by mutilés, then the war widows, and finally the poilus. Several organisations, such as the mutual society La Gallieni, had memberships made up of war widows and war wounded. Nor were the interests of widows considered to be necessarily less important. At a meeting in Rennes in 1919, made up in equal parts of war wounded and widowed women, the first two complaints it made were “Contre le licenciement des veuves de guerre employées dans l’Administrations publique et les Arsenaux.” and “Contre le non-emploi des veuves de guerre qui devenues chefs de famille du fait de la mort de leurs maris, ont acquis une priorité sacrée dans le droit au travail”. Only then did it move on to various complaints about the treatment of mutilés. When, in 1924, M. Felix of the Fédération ouvrière et paysanne des Mutilés organised a demonstration for the 16th of November, he disassociated it from the 11th of November celebrations because he believed that they were being run by the Bloc National which “n’étaient pas qualifiés”. However he did believe that an association of war widows was sufficiently qualified to organise the demonstration with. When there was a national congress of mutilés in 1919, it attempted to agree a “programme minimum des combattants”. This mainly consisted of ensuring the employment of the wounded. It was agreed that “tout ce qui a été des mutilés s’appliquera également aux veuves [de guerre]” Similarly, at a meeting of veterans in the Hautes-Pyrénées the president, M. Maumus, complained that in certain industries “dont les meilleures places ont été pris par ceux qui sont restés à l’arrière.” His next complaint was about the dismissal of war widows from their place of employment. The conference of the Union nationale des mutilés in April 1919, called for “le droit de vote et l’éligibilité à tous les degrés pour les veuves de guerre”

Thus, when these groups campaigned, their opposition was not to women taking the jobs of men, but more specifically those who had not suffered during the conflict denying employment to those who had sacrificed a limb or a husband. At a meeting of La Gallieni in May 1919, a M. Richard criticised the 15th arrondissement for “a renvoyé tout récemment 4 démobilisés qu’elle occupait, et conserve dans ses bureaux une vingtaine de jeunes filles qui n’ont rien perdu à la guerre, sont dans leur familles, et ne travaillent, selon leurs dires, que pour la voilette et leurs gants”. Richard argued it was necessary to signal such abuses to the public.4 During a meeting of the Association amicale des mutilés, reformés et anciens combattants in 1920 a man called Davillers neatly encapsulated several of the veteran movement’s grievances in demanding that “… dans les diverses administrations, les emplois sédentaires soient réservés aux veuves, aux mutilés, et non à femmes paraissent de mœurs légères, comme il s’en trouve au Ministère des pensions.” Morality and sacrifice were linked as inextricably as immorality and exploitation of the war. 

Indeed the resentment of those who had fought for France may have been more developed by their treatment after the war. A poster entitled “Ceux qu’on Oublie!” drew attention to the adulation heaped on the veterans in 1918, and their subsequent neglect. 

1918 “C’est la Gloire! la Victoire!  l’Enthousiasme des foules!  l’Elan vers les Héros!… Ce sont des promesses, l’assurance qu’elles seront tenues et que pas un seul de tous nos droits ne sera méconnu…

1922 “Quatre ans d’indifférence!  les couronnes de lauriers devenues couronnes d’épines,” 

Further down, the poster asserted that “Malgré la bonne volonté du Ministre des Pensions, l’Administration continue sa lutte contre les Mutilés…” 

In 1919, the 14th of July celebrations in Bordeaux saw the places reserved for the victims of the war occupied by a mass of people, and they were unable to join in the celebrations. The Association des mutilés et anciens combattants de Montpellier demanded that “les mutilés ne soient pas relégués à la fin du cortège comme les années précedentes, car ils estiment que leur place est en tête de cortège” for the 11th of November procession in 1919. Again though, as Monique Luirard notes, the anger of the former soldiers in the post war period was largely directed at the male exploiters of the war, politicians, profiteers and shirkers. 

Impact of the War

Christine Bard argues that the war halted the momentum of feminist campaigning, “Nombre de changements dans la vie des femmes trop hâtivement attribués à la guerre se sont en réalité produits à la Belle Epoque. Dans la littérature apparaît, alors une “femme nouvelle”, libre, indépendante, revolt, en un mot, féministe.”  Bard is correct to say that the “femme nouvelle” was a popular image in the Belle Epoque, as indeed it has been in several contemporary epochs. However, as Roberts has shown with her study of the post war “femme moderne” the existence of liberated, independent, feminist women was not in itself sufficient to create significant changes in the position of women as a whole. While there was some pre‑war emancipation – in 1907 married women gained the right to their own earnings, and in 1912 the right to bring paternity suits – this was little more impressive than post-war reforms. For Michelle Perrot though, it was the campaign for the right to vote that was derailed by the war. 

In 1914 Le Journal ran a referendum on women’s suffrage and reported five hundred thousand votes in favor. The political Left, which previously held itself aloof, was converted to women’s suffrage: in 1914 Jean Jaurès openly favoured giving women the vote. But the war halted this momentum. The procrastination of the 1920s and 1930s and the Senate’s long resistance to proposals for female suffrage illustrate how women’s cause regressed during the interwar period. 

This argument is not wholly convincing. Le Journal‘s poll is hardly conclusive, and it carried out a similar vote, with similar results, after the war. The political Left often made statements in favour of female suffrage, without ever considering it an issue important enough to warrant doing much about.  It is also difficult to see why the procrastination and the obstructionism of the Senate would have been any different prior to the war, those being the primary qualities the Senate brought to the Third Republic throughout its existence. Furthermore, it doesn’t chime in with the international experience, where women were very rarely enfranchised without some tumultuous occurrence, such as a war or a switch to a different form of government. Perrot and Roberts also differ on the pre-war period, Perrot asserting, “The turn of the century was a time of prodigious invention and novelty which raised significant questions about the social organization of gender, but this questioning was soon silenced by the war.” Compare this to Roberts’ “They [legislators, novelists, social reformers, journalists, and feminists of all political stripes] demonstrated a strong urge to return to a pre-war era of security, a world without violent change.” In this quote Roberts is clearly talking of a perception of a lack of change, but there is still considerable gap between the two.5 The most likely explanation is that both are overestimating the impact of the war. As Thérèse Pottecher concluded in La Grande Revue in 1910, “feminism has gained sincere ground in public opinion. Yet this success is little in the face of the conquests that still need to be made over the spirit of our nation.” 

Perrot’s argument on turbulent gender relations before the war is supported by Margaret Darrow’s claims that 

According to a host of commentators at the end of the nineteenth century, the French family, society and nation were all in desperate straits because women were refusing to be feminine and men were not being sufficiently masculine. ‘Female emancipation’ was the leading culprit. 

Almost all the fears that appeared in the post-war period over the damage done to society by women not acting accordance with the roles nature had prescribed them are echoed before 1914. In his influential book, The Sexual Question, August Forel argued “The modern tendency of women to become pleasure-seekers and to take a dislike to maternity leads to the degeneration of society. This is a grave social evil.” In 1913, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu wrote “The masculinisation of women is, from all points of view, one of the grave dangers facing contemporary civilisation.” In the same year, Theodore Joran received a prize from the Académie des sciences morales et politique for his work “Le Suffrage des Femmes” in which he asserted that the feminist argument “is only a tissue of errors, ravings and sophisms.” According to H. Thulié, writing in 1898, degenerate prostitutes whose destiny was “to be delivered over to deplorable excesses, to undergo the most abominable miseries, and to fall into the most shameful and abasing degradations whose torments are marked by the perpetual pursuit of new pleasures and the incessant satisfaction of their erotic frenzy.” Robert Nye points out that Thulié, like most observers, “saw worsening degeneracy affecting women by miring them ever more deeply in ‘female’ crimes like prostitution.” 

Annie Stora-Lamarre has argued that the immediate pre-war period saw the peak of a panic about pornography and erotic literature. 

Elle (the woman) se trouve à la intersection de la complaisance et de la violence qui est une constante de l’érotisme morbide et sanglant des années 1900. Sur le thème des ravages de la passion, la femme sème le plaisir, la luxure et la mort. 

Alain Corbin agrees, arguing that the activities of “those who were engaged in the struggle against pornography and licentiousness intensified.” Supervision of prostitution became more severe. Pornography prosecutions peaked from 1910 to 1914, as it was believed to be feminising the nation while war loomed. The years leading up to the war also saw several novels that showed the positive effects of war in regenerating society, in a society that clearly needed such regeneration. 

The ill-effects on the health of women working in the professions had been picked up as early as 1900 by the doctor Vaucaire who noted of these young women that “Les petits prodiges ont les yeux cernés, les lèvres blanches; ils sont pâles, chétifs; leurs mouvements deviennent langoureux, les muscles n’ont plus aucune souplesse, les poumons ne savent pas respirer, l’estomac ne digère pas, le peau fonctionne mal.” 

The pre-war debate on hysteria was also framed in the context of social dislocation. In 1883, Henri Legrand de Saulle published Les Hystériques, which argued that, due to hereditary and social factors, women of the lower classes were greatly affected by this illness. Upper class women and, to a lesser extent, those from the middle classes were also affected. Those suffering from hysteria saw their character suffer, they became “égoïstes, capricieuses, irritables, désireuses d’attirer l’attention”. The consequences of this illness were not always negative; sometimes they could lead to acts of great self-abnegation. Thus he described a woman who saved several children from a burning house, with no thought of her own safety, as acting under the influence of hysteria. For Charles Richet, it was social changes that were responsible for hysteria: “la réalité inférieure au rêve; c’est un maladie commune aux déclassés, aux jeunes filles de la classe inférieure qui reçoivent une éducation supérieure à leur état.” Grasset remained attached to a traditional explanation “Sans vouloir manquer ici de galanterie, je ferai remarquer que la plupart des traits de caractère des hystériques ne sont que l’exagération du caractère féminin,”. 

A few months before the outbreak of war the Petit Marseillais noted the progress of the “fille moderne”

Dès la fin du xixe siècle, la jeune fille moderne a pressenti ses destinées: elle a constitué, dans le sein des vieilles nations lasses, comme un sort de grande peuple neuf. C’est elle, sans appui et sans guide, qui a mené son évolution.

 Although the author generally approved of the changes achieved by the modern girl, he noted that “[e]lle a été extremement maligné”.6 

If it seems clear that the early years of the twentieth century were marked by significant anxiety over gender relations, is Perrot correct to suggest that only the war prevented this debate from leading to significant changes in women’s position? It seems difficult to believe that the assumptions of an improvement in conditions by contemporaries were wholly without foundation. In an article on “La femme et la guerre” that appeared in La Petite Gironde in 1916, the author commented approvingly that before the war when women had claimed legal and economic equality, men had responded with ironic disdain or brutal contempt. It had taken the catacylsm of war to alter this situation. By rendering women indispensable the war had allowed women to take the rights that previously they had only been able to ask for, as well as helping to save France. The bourgeois wife had become a nurse to the wounded, the refugees and the unfortunate, the wives of industrialists and shopkeepers had taken over their tasks. Everywhere, the article argued, women had replaced men. 

The assumptions of progress for women in society were often taken for granted. Those who argued in favour of the new fashions of clothes and hair argued that they were suitable for the newly emancipated woman. A spokesman for the Institut des coiffeurs des dames de France suggested that short hair could be a sign of feminism and equality. In 1927 designer Jacques Worth wrote “The war changed women’s lives forcing them into an active life, and, in many cases, paid work.” The Carriéres féminines intellectuelles, which was published in 1923, stated that “The war has emancipated women, and the majority of professions that, up until now have been closed to them, are now opening.” The 1920s saw a huge increase in women in higher education. As Thébaud admits “The war broke down age‑old barriers and opened many prestigious positions to women.” It must be acknowledged though that these are references to a minority of educated middle class women. While the significance of their progress should not be underestimated, their experience was different to that of the vast majority of women at the time. There were changes for working women as well; the number of women in unions, which rose from 30,900 in 1900 to 89,300 in 1914, took off to reach 239,000 in 1920. The comparable male figures were 588,000, 1,026,000 and 1,355,000.  Working women also left the home as a place of work; domestic service and textile piecework both declined.  This may or may not be considered as necessarily a good thing, but it does show that women were not being confined to the hearth. 

There was also more personal freedom in dress and hairstyle. Although the bob was controversial, it became more and more popular. It is important to remember how tight the constraints on women were before the war. For example, Hubertine Auclert was refused accommodation in a hotel because, as a single woman traveller, she was seen as being immoral. These things were much less likely to happen after a war when women had been forced/free to travel around on their own.

Marriage may also have been more pleasant for women. In the wake of the war men tended to marry older women, this being one of the ways to get round the gender imbalance caused by the war. This may have given women more equality in the marriage than there would have been with a greater age difference. If the marriage didn’t work, divorce was more available. In 1900 there were just over 7000, in 1913 15,450. 1920 and 1921 saw the peak of divorce with 29,156 and 32,557 carried out respectively. After that it settled down to around 20,000 a year. Sex may also have been les traumatic for some women, as there were more official sources of information than previously. “Although sexual education for women remained a taboo subject before the war, in the post-war years, well‑known doctors, sociologists, educators, and government officials debated it openly.”  From 1925, government funded lectures on the subject by the Comité d’éducation féminine. Though most women still learned from relations and friends, those who for some reason would not or could not do so now had alternative sources of information. 

These changes are important and may have had significant impact on the day to day lives of Frenchwomen in the 1920s. They do not, though, suggest that either a radical evolution in gender attitudes was brought about by the war, or indeed that in the war the opposite had occurred and that traditional interpretations were bolstered by the conflict. The book Mariage Moderne by Resclauze de Bermon highlights both the perception of social dislocation that was present during the war as well as the restricted nature of radical behaviour. It was serialised in La Petite Gironde which claimed in its advertisements that “L’auteur a analysé avec une sûreté et une franchisses saisissantes l’âme de la jeune fille, de la jeune femme d’aujourd’hui”. The book is written from the viewpoint of Yvonne, a young woman from a very respectable family. She is beautiful and feminine and she doesn’t work, her primary concern as the book starts being her dowry. Her nature as a modern woman only becomes clear when she asserts 

Or, j’ai la prétention d’être de mon temps, c’est-à-dire pratique, avec tout ce que le bon goût actuel autorise de sentimentalité. Je veux que mon mari me plaise, qu’une sympathie susceptible de devenir quelque chose de beaucoup plus tendre m’attire vers lui, que son âge soit en harmonie avec le mien et aussi que par sa fortune ou par son travail, il puisse m’assurer la vie large que j’aime. 

Soon afterwards she made it clear that her husband’s primary duty would be to aid her life of pleasure “Ce qu’il me faut, c’est un mari qui soit capable non seulement de me comprendre, mais de me suivre.” For this reason she rejects the mentality of Gaston, a prospective suitor who wishes to remain loyal to his roots and farm like his ancestors. She finds the prospect of marrying a gentleman farmer dull; instead she wants to live life fully. 

Instead of marrying the safe Gaston, she meets a stranger called Roger and is swept off her feet by him. She agrees to marry him. The marriage goes badly, in a very traditional manner; Roger gambles unsuccessfully, and then is caught having an affair. Yvonne tries nonetheless to maintain the relationship. Roger continues to spend her money. Eventually he becomes so indebted that he kills himself. 

While the book seeks to portray Yvonne as representative of a new type of emancipated women, and a product of the modern age, what is most noticeable is how much her behaviour remains within traditional female norms. She goes against the wishes of her parents, who want her to marry Gaston. However, she does not ignore their wishes entirely, she tries to gain their approval and waits until it is eventually granted. Roger was a perfectly good match socially, and it was he who was in full control over their courtship. Despite the disastrous nature of the marriage, Yvonne does not seek recourse to adultery or divorce but remains loyal to Roger and allows him to spend her dowry. 


One of the major reasons why it is considered that the developments that occurred during the war years were not continued, or were reversed, is the issue of denatalité. The war had cost a vast number of the lives of young men, while at the same time displaying graphically that early twentieth-century warfare required very large armies. Clemenceau intended no exaggeration in his comment on the treaty of Versailles that

the treaty does not specify that France should commit herself to bearing many children, but that is the first thing that should have been written there. This is because if France renounces la famille nombreuse, you can put whatever fine clause in the treaty you want, you can take away all the armaments in Germany, you can do whatever you want. France will be lost because there won’t be any more French people.

The pronatalist organisations reflect this: L’alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population française received a considerable boost from the war. Pour la Vie was created in 1916. However, while the events of the war had heightened concerns over depopulation, the issue had been considered important for  many years – in July 1914 the Petit Marseillais could claim of the question of depopulation, “puisqu’il n’en est pas de plus grave à la heure presente…” The debate over depopulation and low levels of natality was so well rehearsed that when the Comite Consultatif d’action économique of the Toulouse region asked its sub-committees to comment on the issue, it commented that  “il n’a certainement pas eu la pensée de provoquer des joutes oratoires sur la décadence des pays de ‘célibataires et des filles uniques’.” 


The consequences of attempts to increase the birthrate could impact on every area of a woman’s life. If the obvious example is the legislation that outlawed contraceptive propaganda and toughened the anti‑abortion laws, it had many other aspects. Those who opposed female suffrage argued (somewhat tendentiously) that countries that had adopted it had seen their birthrate fall. Others believed that working women were less likely to have children, and campaigned for their return to the hearth. Some conservatives saw even the figure of the “new woman” with her lack of breasts and hips as a rejection of nourishment and motherhood.  The campaign for motherhood and the birth rate helped justify closing many nursing and day care facilities after the war. 

Fears over the French population also affected French attitudes towards foreigners. Even in an admiring article on soldiers from Britain and her colonies, Pierre Mille could not escape the spectre of how marriages between foreign troops and French women might result in those women going overseas. In the Dépêche, General Z. argued that because of depopulation there would be no French people left by the year 2112. The loss of so many men in the war only exacerbated this situation, potentially halving the time until French extinction. His despairing conclusion was that “En 2112 il n’y a pas un Français dans notre pays. Tous seraient remplacés par des étrangers.” The Comité Consultatif d’action économique de la 17ème région also fretted about whether immigration was a reliable way to maintain France’s population. “Nous ne nous maintenions avant la guerre aux environs de 39.000 d’habitants que grâce à l’appoint inquiétant de l’immigration.” L’Œuvre was more resigned to the need for immigration, but hoped it could be simply a stop-gap. It contended that France’s slow population growth compared to Germany and Austria-Hungary meant there was a need to repopulate France. Naturally all possible measures needed to be taken to encourage births, but such measures would not bear fruit for 25 years and thus immigration was necessary to cover the intervening period. 

It has been argued that the concern for the size of the population can be exaggerated, and that it was used as a tool to gain support for other political issues, including the removal of women from the workplace. After all, there was very little actual legislative action taken beyond the 1920 law forbidding antinatalist propaganda. Roberts argues that the even the aims of the 1920s law were not strictly demographic. Instead “… it sought specifically to bring women’s sexual practices under legislation by attacking abortion and female forms of contraception.” Roberts offers three reasons in support of this hypothesis. Firstly that it did not deal with male forms of birth control (prophylactics), secondly that the respected expert Adolphe Pinard’s opposition was disregarded, and thirdly that the deputies themselves had a small number of children. 

The significance of Pinard’s opposition should not be overstated as it was countered by several other experts speaking in favour. The last argument is also unconvincing, as it is quite possible that the deputies may have thought that an increase in population was necessary for France but found it to their own taste or advantage to limit their own children. Similarly, La Bataille mocked L’Œuvre for having claimed in 1916 that “Après la guerre, madame, vous ne serez pas une ‘honnête femme’, si vous n’avez pas au moins trois enfants.” The reason for La Bataille‘s derision was not that it disagreed with the statement itself but that Gustave Téry himself only had two children.  In addition, other than a shortage of men to enlist in the armies, the greatest fear that a falling population posed at the time was rural depopulation. As one of the most noticeable factors in the makeup of the French legislature was the scarcity of peasants, it was less essential that they reproduced. 

The exemption of male forms of contraception is significant; the legislation was clearly attempting to create a position where men were intended to have choice over procreation and women were not. There certainly was an element of attempting to increase social control over women, but the legislation could also be seen as presenting women as the reason for denatalité. Furthermore the concern over syphilis and other sexual transmitted diseases would certainly have played a part in deciding to retain the legality of prophylactics. It should also be noted that conservative pronatalists delighted in the election results of 1919, proclaiming them a great improvement on those of 1914, so some increase in pronatalist activity might have been expected under any circumstance. 

The legislative action also fitted firmly into the wartime rhetoric on the subject. Before the Congrès de l’Association Nationale d’Expansion Économique, M. Souchon delivered a speech on the needs of agriculture. When he came to natalité the audience gave a warm reception to his speech. He asserted “la question de la natalité n’est pas une question légale, la question de la natalité est une question morale”. Once again the problem was seen as propaganda: “il est certain qu’au cours de ces dernières années, des propagandes criminelles ont été faites contre la famille française, helas! par des Français!” While in general he opposed state interference, it was necessary for the law to counter this. Another speaker at the same conference noted that depopulation of the countryside was threatening to compromise national prosperity. His first recommendation was for severe measures to be taken against “odieuse propagande contre la race, trop fréquente dans les campagnes comme dans les villes.” 

Souchon gives one reason why there was a limit to the legislative action taken on the issue, the dislike of many influential Frenchmen to grant the power to the state to interfere in their actions whether personal or professional. An equally pressing reason was economics. The war had done a great deal of damage to France’s financial capability, and it is unsurprising that various governments, committed in principle to encouraging les familles nombreuses, felt they were financially unable to give fiduciary incentives, or tax breaks to large families. Where there were cheap expedients then they were utilised. Thus when colonial troops were needed to make up the shortfall in French soldiers after the war, Echenberg argues that conscription was made into a systematic peace time institution in French West Africa, because this was cheaper than voluntary recruitment, which required higher pay. 

It is possible that the war was part of a shift in the emphasis of the campaign to increase the birthrate, a shift from attempting to persuade the male head of the household to give his wife more children, to persuading the wife herself of the need. Pedersen’s account of the long history of the 1920 pronatalist legislation illustrates this. In 1910 Senator Lannelongue introduced a proposal aimed at increasing the birthrate by offering inducements to fathers. By 1913, this had been revised by Strauss and Besnard, who switched the focus “almost exclusively on to women’s interaction with the medical profession.” It was also more repressive and offered fewer inducements. The legislation remained stalled until 1920 when Ignace extracted a few of the repressive articles on abortion, anti-natalist propaganda and female contraception and put them forward on their own. Both houses passed them easily. 

Zola’s pre-war natalist tract Fécondité glorified woman as a mother and a housekeeper, not as a factory worker. However its main argument was to glorify fertile peasant life, compared to the urban bourgeois with their child limitation strategies and individualist morality. In it, Dr. Boutain warns the hero Mathieu Froment about the perils of contraception. 

One cannot deceive an organ with impunity. Imagine a stomach which one continually tantalized with an indigestible lure whose presence unceasingly called forth the blood while offering nothing to digest. Every function that is not exercised according to the normal order becomes a permanent source of danger. You stimulate a woman, contenting her only with the spasm, and you have only satisfied her desire, which is simply the enticing stimulant; you have not acceded to fertilization, which is the goal, the necessary and indispensable act. And you are surprised when this betrayed and abused organism, diverted from its proper use, reveals itself to be the seat of terrible disorders, disgraces and perversions!

Cole argues that this declaration of Dr. Boutain implies that female contraception is being used, but the whole passage seems to grant the entire agency to the man and with it the choice of whether to use contraception. 

The declaration of Doctor Boutain can be contrasted with this post-war claim 

Quel est le grand devoir de la femme? Enfanter, encore enfanter, toujours enfanter. Que la femme se refuse à la maternité, qu’elle la limite, qu’elle la supprime et la femme ne mérite plus ses droits; la femme n’est plus rien. 

Not only does this make women’s role in society quite clear it also implies “la femme se refuse” that it is the woman who is responsible for the refusal. This is the same as the argument made by Clément Vautel in Madame ne veut pas d’enfant. Vautel’s work also contrasted the fertility of the working class with the sterility of the bourgeoisie. 

However, a report on depopulation in 1917 by the Comite Consultatif d’action économique of the Tolouse region made it clear that they believed the problem was with male behaviour. 

Le célibataire, surtout le célibataire fils de famille, tient en France le haut de pavé. Il occupe les hauts emplois, réussit dans la politique, échappe aux plus lourdes de nos charges, débauche nos filles, détourne nos femmes, affiche ses maîtresses, donne les plus pernicieux exemples … et est considéré.

It was necessary for him to be seen as a bad citizen, to tax him heavily, to exclude him from certain functions, occupations and offices. The report also argued that part of the opprobrium should be levelled at households without children or those with less than three, but the bachelor was the main target of their aim. Henry Spont in his book La Femme et la guerre followed a similarly traditional line, arguing that women were still defined by their motherhood, and that those without children were condemned to that unhappy fate by their rejection by men. 

Aux mères françaises! 

Heureuses ou non, (the married woman) elles ont justifié les espoirs de leur famille, elles ont atteint le but proposé, elles sont désormais en règle avec la nature, avec la société. […] elles peuvent marcher la tête haute, sortir seules, promener les enfants, qui consacrent la noblesse et l’utilité de leur rôle. 

Voilà des créatures dignes d’estimes, qui remplissent bien leur mission. 

Mais les autres, celles que l’homme a dédaignées!  Quelle tristesse, quelle humiliation de se sentir un être indésirable, encombrant qui va traîner sa vie en marge de la grande route et disparaître sans laisser des traces, après avoir trahi les plus légitimes espérances! 

Spont argued that men rejected women primarily because they did not provide enough in the way of dowries. He suggested a variety of unhappy life paths that might be taken by the rejected women. Some would just go on living with their parents, or live on their own in solitary misery, others would go into employment and some would revolt. These would be the ones who end up in unions libres, where they would inevitably be betrayed. Spont indignantly denied that these women were to blame, “Est-ce leur faute? Non!  Toutes ont souhaité se marier, être mères.” It was the fault of the man, too demanding, and scornful of his responsibilities. 

L’Eclair du Midi came out in favour of a financial solution, in this case assistance to parents of large families, and reported that they had received a large amount of positive feedback for this idea from their readership. Once again the problem was considered to be practical rather than due to a crisis in female behaviour. Likewise, Galéot in his book L’Avenir de la race ascribed the problem to material difficulties, explicitly focussing on paternity. “Dans l’état actuel de notre organisation sociale et de nos mœurs, la paternité est pour presque universalité des citoyens un très lourd sacrifice matériel.” 

Clément Chaussé in his book on pregnant women working in munitions factories suggested that the key way to increase natality was financial incentives. He made no mention of female morality, “La grossesse restera un accident tant que la vie normale n’aura pas repris son cours et tant que l’enfant sera une trop lourde charge pour ses parents.” Pierre Mille also believed that the solution was to offer financial inducements for large families, and the Lyon branch of the Ligue populaire des pères et mères de familles nombreuses launched its periodical by calling for economic and political advantages for large families. 

Pronatalists also worked to convince women of the desirability of having babies. Paul Haury argued that maternity was the essence of female psychology; Fernand Boverat claimed that the infant satisfied “le plus profond des instincts qui existe chez la femme. Cartoons in the natalist journal “La femme et l’enfant” showed children bringing happiness to miserable relationships.  Other natalists emphasised it more as a duty than a pleasure, Jacques Bertillon claiming “Between the violent causes of devastation and Malthusianism there is one difference, the latter calamity, even as it slowly destroys the country, makes none of its inhabitants suffer. How true it is that the interests of individuals can be entirely opposed to those of the collectivity.” Alfred Krug came to a similar conclusion in his 1918 pamphlet, Pour la repopulation. Auguste Isaac argued that society was arranged to the advantage of those without children and asked “Qui sont donc ces nigauds qui veulent avoir tant d’enfants?” Sébastien Marc, in his book Contre la Dépoulation, also suggested that it was a mental problem, but his suggested solution was a reform of the Civil Code system of inheritance.

French and British views on the importance of procreation didn't always coincide.

French and British views on the importance of procreation didn't always coincide.

The debate over France’s slow population growth was primarily characterised by the diversity of opinions as to causes and remedies. This is illustrated by the Congrès National de la Natalité, held in Nancy in September 1919. Alexandre Dreux, President of Nancy’s Chamber of Commerce ascribed the failing birthrate to egotism and lack of civic spirit, though he didn’t specify which sex he thought was primarily responsible. Paul Bureau demanded “purification sociale”, the family vote, subsidies for large families from the state and higher wages for large families from their employers as well as a solution to the problem of bad housing in order to rectify the situation. Auguste Isaac focussed on the ideal of a mother “qui ne soit pas obligée de travailler en usine et qui puisse s’occuper de ses enfants.”7 Isaac did mention the practical impact of the war but he didn’t claim that there had been any changes in morality resulting from the war, except that the allocation had accustomed people to accepting subsidies from the state. 

While observers generally agreed that the work done by women during the war had had a negative impact on the birthrate they differed on whether this was to be a permanent change. A report by Dr Lesage for the Comité du travail féminin argued that 

Certains esprits, forts et sceptiques, disent, en semant le pessimisme, que l’ouvrière ne veut plus d’enfants et que ce n’est pas la peine de créer des chambres d’allaitement. Mille fois non..! Ayons confiance en elle. Quand, en ce moment, on la voit en pleine valeur, en plein travail, en pleine fièvre patriotique, forger l’airain sacré, on est saisi d’une angoisse reconnissante. Comme le poilu à la tranchée, l’ouvrière a sauvé le pays. 

Non, Mesdames et Messieurs, quand le cyclone sera calmé, nous verrons l’ouvrière reprendre la vie commune et se consacrer à ses devoirs de maternité, consciente de sa force, consciente de sa valeur, consciente de sa dignité.

Despite this diversity of views, the idea that women could actually contribute to finding a solution was rare. As he acknowledged, the deputy Charles Chaumet was unusual in making an argument in favour of female suffrage in order to gain female input into which legislative changes were needed to boost the birthrate.

Nous ne pouvons en fixer les dispositions pratiques sans la collaboration de la femme. Elle doit avoir voix au chapitre dans ces questions délicates aussi bien que lorsqu’il s’agit de l’éducation des jeunes filles et des conditions des travail. Et c’est pourquoi, au grand scandale de certains de mes plus chers amis, je suis partisan du suffrage des femmes. 

The Ligue populaire des pères et mères de familles nombreuses certainly didn’t share Chaumet’s position, arguing that granting the vote to women would do nothing to change France’s population situation, and that only the introduction of the family vote could be effective. Advocating allowing widows with children the vote was the closest they came to support for female suffrage. 

Françoise Thébaud notes wryly that when attempts were made to persuade the French to procreate that men were offered money, women were offered medals. While it is difficult to argue that this was not based on a condescending view of women, it may also have been an attempt to link female medals for fertility with male military decorations; both had performed the duty that nature had bestowed upon them. 

This is not to say that the behaviour of women was never held to be responsible for declining birth rates. For Paul Bureau, female work in industry and commerce was the major obstacle towards an increase in the birthrate, with celibacy, concubinage and the selfishness of young married couples as secondary reasons.  George d’Esparbes also blamed women working, claiming that it resulted in either “l’ignorance ou l’égoïsme” which then reduced natality. This ignorance also increased infant mortality, as women no longer were learning how to look after babies. D’Esparbes suggested the best solution was the “renvoi aux foyers des mères de famille.” However, he didn’t believe that the war was to blame for women being forced to work, claiming instead that it was too late to “détruire un système de travail établi depuis des années.” Adolphe Pinard noted that infant mortality had risen in 1916 compared to 1915. He believed that pregnant women had been seduced by high wages, and were not taking advantage of protection available to them. “Nous le savons et avec une certitude absolue: le travail de l’usine et son gain a été pour les pauvres femmes en état de gestation, pour les mères nécessiteuses, un véritable miroir à alouettes.” So he proposed forbidding entrance into a factory “à toute femme en état de gestation, à toute femme allaitant son enfant, à toute femme accouchée depuis moins de six mois.” M. Héron, in a report for L’Union du Sud-Ouest des Syndicats d’Encouragement de Motoculture, argued that depopulation was partly caused by the attractions of the towns with “le prix disproportionné des salaires offerts par l’industris, le goût de la toilette chez la femme.” In the Petit Marseillais, Durandy blamed women for wanting to look pretty rather than having babies. 

For all the natalist legislation and rhetoric, the level of the French population continued to be static. “Malgré les lois, les Français étaient de plus en plus malthusiens.” Restraint, contraception and abortion were all used to control family size. In 1898, a member of the clergy wrote a letter to L’Ami du clergé about questioning in confession about contraception. “La réponse invariable sera celle-ci: ‘S’il faut avoir un enfant tous les neuf mois pour se confesser, je ne consentirai jamais’.” 

Not only did people limit their own families, they were reluctant to condemn others for it either. The move to switch from trial by jury to trial by judge for abortion suggests that many people thought that abortion was understandable under certain circumstances. Public discourse on the evils of abortion was not matched by popular action against it. Similarly, as Offen points out, “In no industrializing country had women constituted so great a percentage of the labor force … yet in no country did (male) prescriptive rhetoric insist so strongly on the necessity of achieving the ideal of a sexual division of labor”. A report by the Comité Consultatif d’action économique for the Toulouse region in 1917 on the subject lamented 

Le mal sur lequel nous sommes appelés à délibérer est connu. Il a été dénoncé par les rapporteurs des statistiques de dénombrement, par de courageux écrivains et conférenciers; les Chambres de commerce, l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques ont poussé le cri d’alarme; des commissions parlementaires ont délibéré sur la danger et ses palliatifs; l’intention de modérer “la course à l’abîme” a inspiré quelques timides mesures législatives… 


Il ne paraît cependant pas que la conscience nationale ait la notion aigue du péril. L’amour et la fécondité sont restés en France matières à propos légers, et aucun puissant mouvement d’opinion tendant à l’avenir de la race n’a impressionné les pouvoirs publics. 

These instances show the problems of assuming that the population at large accepted the rhetoric of the powerful. A further example is the issue of infant mortality. This had been a major concern for republicans like Paul Strauss before the war, and there was much debate on the issue. Rachel Fuchs, drawing on Roberts’ work, argues that after World War One there was a significant change in emphasis, from trying to reduce infant mortality to pushing motherhood as the desired role for women. Yet infant mortality began to fall at this moment, while wet nursing declined sharply from 1916 as part of a considerable improvement in infant care. 

Monuments and Commemoration

The aftermath of the war saw the erection of memorials to the war dead throughout France. Practically every commune built an individual monument to its dead. While these monuments were sincerely intended to honour the heroes of France, they also could have other meanings. Of course many communes were restricted by cost to simple steles, but other monuments featured more intricate sculpture. This often led to a great deal of controversy, particularly along the religious divide. The fights for religious or secular commemoration were often bitter. The conflict was further complicated by the 1905 Separation law, which forbade commemorative monuments to have religious emblems, other than those in cemeteries. The ministry of the interior send out a circular in April 1919, confirming that the law of 1905 remained in force. This was changed in 1924, but by then most monuments had been built. 

The positioning of the monuments testifies to this. In Brittany, the vast majority were in cemeteries, elsewhere it varied between the churchyard and town hall, symbols of clericalism and secularism respectively. Occasionally the school or a public park provided a more neutral setting, though even here the école laïque carried ideological baggage. 

Beyond this, Annette Becker argues that the sculptures also intended another meaning, one that crossed the religious divide: 

Les femmes y sont vierges comme des saintes, hautaines dans leur chagrin de veuves, figées dans leur sens du devoir. On sent combien ces oeuvres sont une reconstruction idéologique. Les sculpteurs ont réussi ce qu’on leur demandait: ressusciter l’Union Sacrée et l’union des familles, par-delà le drame. 

Daniel Sherman goes further, arguing that commemoration not only reinscribed gender codes which had been disrupted in the war but also “that commemoration itself played out, in gendered terms, a pervasive cultural unease in which nothing less than the masculine cast of politics and national citizenship was at stake.” 

During the nineteenth century, republicans built on the Revolutionary ideas of republican citizenship and the citizen army to create “an inherent association of citizenship, masculinity, and military service.” This is a very important point. Those on the left who opposed the law returning to three years military service in 1914 often did so within the context of defending the nation in arms. Vincent Auriol, writing in the Midi Socialiste wanted to “défendre l’armée nationale contre les criminelles enterprises des fournisseurs intéressés et des professionnels du militarisme.” His slogan was “Vive la Nation armée!  mais a bas les trois ans! a bas l’Empire! Vive la Paix Internationale!”  Even when there was a distinctly pacifist tone to the message, the citizen army was not denounced. According to a report by the prefect of the Haute Garonne, the syndicalist Marty-Rolland believed that the people “ne veulent plus la guerre, mais la paix, plus d’armée permanente, mais les milices nationales.”  It is noticeable that even those campaigning for the reduction in length of military service rarely oppose its existence. Only on the extreme left was there outright opposition to military service. In a pamphlet produced in May 1913 by the Fédération Communiste Anarchiste “Contre les armements, Contre la loi de 3 ans, Contre tout militarisme” which concluded by advocating desertion, it urged conscripts: “ne sois pas un fratricide, ne sois pas un assassin, sois un homme”.   The assertion that not to fight showed you were a man strongly implies that the reverse was commonly held to be true. 

It was also a common reason given for denying female suffrage that women had not earned it through military service, and one which feminists felt they needed to combat, childbirth often being posited as the female impôt de sang. An example of how close the association was is given by M Vignols, a syndicalist speaking in St-Malo in May 1913 against the three years law. He argued that the suffering women endure during gestation was significant, and it would be more profitable for everyone if the fruit of their labours were to work rather than be cannon fodder. He thus proposed that women launch a grève du ventre. When women sought to present themselves for registration on the electoral list in January 1914, the clerk in the Eleventh Arrondissement responded ironically by asking for their certificates proving military service.  The war, which provided a genuine example of the nation under arms, should surely have reinforced this nexus. For Bard and Thébaud, “La guerre a réactivé la définition de la citoyenneté qui associe droits politiques et devoir de défendre sa patrie.” However, Sherman argues that the reverse was true. 

Sherman also argues that it was felt necessary to combat the threat posed by the all‑male world created in the trenches. His argument is based on the assertion that the mutinies of 1917 constituted a threat to the patriarchal social order. Thus it was necessary for commemoration to reinforce the traditional family order. He returns to this point by suggesting that war memorials involved a subliminal choice of poses, atypical of the war, which represented masculinity as aggressive and heroic and “repressed any lingering memories of homosocial friendship.”  However, Sherman also argues for the essential similarity of the various texts, commemorative speeches, novels, memoirs and advice literature, which “framed the construction of monuments and that, reciprocally, monuments helped to legitimate.” Wartime and commemorative texts however are all insistent on the existence of homosocial friendship and the growth of veterans associations was just the most obvious manifestation of a desire to continue it. Thus if there was an attempt to construct commemoration wholly in familial terms, there was also a strong ideological current seeking to retain the image of the brotherhood of the trenches.

Sherman describes how Pierre Andrianne, the hero of Maurice Genevoix’s la Joie is disgusted at the “petty bickering that marked the construction of the monument”. This is an example of how monuments were a contested site; a point Sherman makes eloquently himself in another article, where he describes the various factions that sought to control the commemoration process and their underlying motivations. An examination of the inauguration of the monument to the dead of the Savoie gives a clearer idea of the preoccupations of those in charge of constructing a memorial. 

One of the first things to be noted is that the committee appointed to deal with the issue was very large – 35 people. The size and the composition of the committee suggest that the desire was to achieve inclusivity in the design and creation of the memorial, rather than to privilege an ideological position. That all 35 were male suggests the limits of this inclusivity.  In fact the affair was almost wholly male, all the speeches being delivered by men. The only exception was a song “Hymne Aux Savoyards, morts pour la France” sung at the inauguration of the monument, which was written by a woman, Marie-Rose Michaud Lapeyre.8 

The speeches by Borrel, deputy and president of the committee, and Juilland, the mayor of Chambéry, both spent only a short time on the war itself, Juilland claiming, “les événements sont encore trop proches pour qu’il soit besoin de les rappeler.”  Instead they utilised the glorious dead as supporters for their political cause. Both claimed to be speaking on behalf of the dead. In Borrel’s view they had fought for a Republican France, for humanity, progress and justice, while for Juilland: “Ils voulaient, nos morts, que la France pût développer librement, sans crainte, a l’abri des agressions, son clair et généreux génie dans les œuvres de paix, de civilisation et de progrès.” 

The next speech by Gustave Pillet, Vice-President of the Savoie veteran’s association, was very different, being almost entirely devoted to the war. While it strongly focused on the sacrifices made by soldiers, it also offered a sympathetic view of women and the supporting presence that they represented. He described those lost at the front, fathers and brothers, but also “du Mari, qui n’ignorait pas la vaillance de l’épouse, mais redoutait pour elle les brutalités de la vie;” and “du Fiancé qui apportait espoir et joyeux rêve, et auquel allait incomber l’une des plus belles tâches de la vie: fonder un foyer.” Later on he says “Hommes de tout âges, qui avez vécu la guerre à l’abri, – femmes qui n’en avez pas connu pas toutes les privations”.  It is also traditionalist, speaking of the “task” of founding a family home. It does not suggest that the war shook his view of gender relations; his references to women seem to be motivated by a desire for all sections of the commune to be recognised rather than as a focus for the speech. 

The final speaker was the guest of honour, President Poincaré, who devoted a long portion of his speech to individual descriptions of the battalions, before continuing on to justify his current foreign policy as based on the lessons of the war.            

On the evidence of this, the preoccupations of those in charge of the monument were fairly narrowly focused on their position in the masculine political agenda of the Third Republic, with women excluded by default, rather than by intent. The fact that it took until 1928 for the inauguration to take place also suggests there was no desperate need for this particular form of commemoration to combat a threat to that masculine agenda arising from the war. 

At the ceremony at Beauvais, the chair of the ceremony, M. Desgroux lauded the sacrifices made by the soldiers, but also their families, arguing that the city had given France “huit cents de ses meilleurs enfants qui l’ont sauvée par leur mort héroïque, pendant que leurs mères, leurs épouses, leurs bambins supportaient avec stoïcisme les assauts impuissants de la rage et de la barbarie teutonnes.” M. Largilliere, the Vice President of the Beauvais veterans also sought inclusiveness amongst those who had suffered.

Ils [anciens combattants] savent que vous n’oublierez pas les camarades morts et l’enseignement qu’ils ont fourni, ils savent aussi que vous êtes toujours pleins de bonté pour les mutilés, et que votre charité pour les veuves et les orphelins est sans borne. 

The next speaker, M. Noel, a Senator from the Oise, like the politicians who spoke at Chambéry emphasised the current political situation, and how France needed to be vigilant to combat the eternal Prussian threat. 

An interesting, if unusual, monument is the one in Equeurdreville.

Made by Emilie Rodez, one of the few female sculptors commissioned to construct a monument, it depicts a mother with two young children looking exhausted, dispirited. The inscription read “Que Maudite Soit La Guerre. Aux enfants d’Equeurdreville morts pendant la guerre 1914-1918”, makes it one of the very few overtly pacifist monuments in France.  While the men responsible for the erection of the monument must have accepted the design, it is an indication that women might have had a different conception of the war than that of the male establishment. 

What Women Thought

This study, like the vast majority of studies on gender and the First World War, has focused on male views of women. Nevertheless, the patriarchal structures of Republican France seem to have enjoyed at least the tacit support of most women, and several studies have discussed the lack of feminist activity against the oppression of women. Of course this cannot be taken to imply that women unquestionably did accept male discourse on society; there were several other factors that hindered the development of feminist activity on the Anglo-American model, not least that the Interior Ministry ordered the police to refuse almost all applications for feminist street demonstrations throughout the existence of the Third Republic. There thus remains the question as to how women saw society at the time, and how the war modified their understanding of it. 

Susan Kent’s study of the effects of the war on British feminism suggests that the war had a dramatic impact on feminist perceptions of gender. 

With the onset of the Great War, many feminists began to modify their understandings of masculinity and femininity. Their insistence upon equality with men, and their acknowledgement of the model of sex war that accompanied that demand, gradually gave way to an ideology that emphasized women’s special sphere – a separate sphere, in fact – and carried with it an urgent belief in the relationship between the sexes as one of complementarity. Pre-war feminists had vigorously attacked the notion of separate spheres and the medical and scientific discourses upon which those spheres rested. Many feminists after the First World War, by contrast, pursued a program that championed rather than challenged the pervading ideas about masculinity and femininity…

 This change was brought about primarily through the shock felt by British women at the dreadful realities of the war. Simultaneously admiring the heroism of the soldiers, and horrified at the brutality needed to fight it, to women it seemed a graphic illustration that men and women were better suited for different tasks. A flavour of this attitude is displayed in the views of Millicent Fawcett in October 1914 

While the necessary, inevitable work of men as combatants is to spread death, destruction, red ruin, desolation and sorrow untold, the work of women is the exact opposite. It is … to help, to assuage, to preserve, to build up the desolate home, to bind up the broken lives, to serve the State by saving life rather than by destroying it. 

As well as the resounding call for traditional roles, this statement has powerful overtones of repugnance at the conduct of war, firstly by the extended list of the evils of war, then by the final comparison of roles. Of course she acknowledges that this destruction of life is necessary and inevitable, but it is hardly a resounding endorsement of war, and her depiction of the female role as oppositional to men’s, rather than complementary, further distances women from it. 

The early date of this quote shows how soon this change in attitude happened. During the first phase of the war, it was portrayed in a very traditional manner. Much of the atrocity propaganda that circulated in Britain focused on outrages against women, emphasising the heroic role being undertaken by British soldiers in protecting their womenfolk from the misfortunes that had befallen the women of Belgium and Northern France. The suffrage movement almost as one swung behind the line that a woman’s task was to take up her traditional roles. 

For Kent, this change in view was in many ways based on flawed perceptions of the suffering that trench warfare was having on the men involved in it. Censorship and propaganda prevented women from making an accurate judgement on the situation. 

Those women who were able to hold on to pre-war understandings about gender … were those who had experienced the war directly, at the front. Most ‘new’ feminists, by contrast saw the war from afar, from home. 

It does also have to be noted that there was a boost to feminism brought about by the war work done by women, and the privations they suffered as a consequence of the fighting. Nina Boyle of the Women’s Freedom League argued, “women’s place by universal consensus of opinion is no longer the Home. It is the battlefield, the farm, the factory, the shop.”  Rebecca West believed that: “Surely, never before in modern history can women have lived a life so completely parallel to that of the regular Army.” 

Nevertheless, for Kent the ultimate legacy of the war in Britain was a shift from women believing that masculinity/femininity were “the products of laws, attitudes and institutions” to a belief in a “biologically determined, innate male and female sexuality.” She quotes Christabel Pankhurst writing in 1924 

Some of us hoped [for] more from woman suffrage than is ever going to be accomplished. My own large anticipations were based upon ignorance (which the late war dispelled) of the magnitude of the task which we women reformers so confidently wished to undertake when the vote should be ours. 

Of course it cannot be assumed that a similar process occurred in France. Indeed French feminism had been characterised before the war by the very features that Kent notes in post-war British feminism. Yet there are echoes in this report made during the war by the French section of the CIFPP “Le devoir impérieux des femmes, aujourd’hui plus que jamais est de dénoncer et de combattre cet universal mensonge [that war is “une des formes possible ou même nécessaires de l’activité humaine”], par lequel le meurtres des hommes se fait accepter à la pensée des hommes.” Jacobzone notes that “Les militaires sont à la fois admirés, convoités et redoutés”. 

Jo Burr Margadant’s study of the institutrices of the Third Republic gives an interesting insight to women, who were unusual amongst the middle class in having sought paid employment before the war. This independent choice might not necessarily mark them out as feminists, but it does suggest that they were women with their own opinions on society. In lieu of the usual dignitaries who came to address departing pupils, during the war these institutrices had to take over the role of speaking at graduation ceremonies. In 1915 they delivered a resoundingly traditional message. Marie Lépine argued “To nurse, to dress wounds, to cure, to conserve, such is the role of women in peacetime.” This was all the more vital in wartime. The directrice of the college at Dax stressed how the female war effort paled in comparison with the men at the front: “boys’ lycées and collèges piously celebrate the glory of teachers and students who are suffering and dying for the nation … we feel profoundly the humbleness of our contributions.” Looking to the post-war France, Cécilia Térrène Lafleur declared, “Your brothers will be the poets, the scholars, the artists of the new France. You will be the guardians of the foyer…”9 

However, Margadant argues, by the equivalent ceremonies of 1916, things had changed dramatically. No longer did the women make apologies for making the speeches themselves, while the messages contained in them were less traditional. Alice Bolleau, the directrice of the lycée in Niort argued, “Single women do not have the right to be useless and inactive. The liberal professions, the administration, commerce, even industry need their intelligence and their activity.”  Similarly Mlle. Thomas, a headmistress in St Etienne, believed that 

The type of girl, occupied by useless tasks, for whom a bit of embroidery, an hour of piano sufficed, once her studies ended, was already on the wane before the war. All the more reason for her disappearance today. 

Their students were urged out to work by Mlle. Bousquet, who took “the beautiful motto of our heroic defenders who cry out to one another: ‘We shall go on because we must.’ Let us say, instead, “We shall work because we must.”  Margaret Lépine in Agen admitted that it went against the taste of her students to cultivate the soil and that the “duty does not seem to befit you, but I tell you that it does because it is going to be the task of everyone.” Louise Thuillat Manuel admonished the graduates of Limoges that “as good French women, you will not have satisfied all your obligations just because you have fulfilled your family duties.” 

Yet there are clear limits to this change in attitude, graphically illustrated by all the caveats included in the statements. Bolleau restricted her exhortations to find paid employment to single women. Bousquet said that women had to work, not that it was necessarily desirable. Thuillat Manuel believed that family duties naturally came before anything else. Most of all, for the intelligent, ambitious, middle class graduates of these schools, being encouraged to till the soil or work in “administration, commerce or even industry” could hardly have been seen as emancipatory. 

For these instutrices traditional roles were still seen as the ideal, but in wartime they were not sufficient. Nevertheless they appear entirely confident in the ability of their charges to take on all the extra tasks that war made necessary. In Anjou, Mathilde Allanic believed that the war had allowed a re-evaluation of French women. 

Française!  Pour la majorité des habitants de notre planète, ce vocable équivalait à un synonyme de frivolité, d’étourderie, de coquetterie, d’inconscience presque anormale.” However the war had shown that the French woman had “ses qualités de ferme et lucide raison, d’intelligence initiative, de persévérance courageuse. 

Nevertheless she still saw a traditional role as the ideal. “C’est dans une vie familiale, tendre et simple, que s’épanouit l’âme gracieuse des colombes de France.” 

When French women spoke of feminism, their ideas were traditional. Jeannine, while arguing in favour of feminism, dismissed the American and English suffragettes “des viragos moustachues, au regard farouches et décidé, qui, tout en copiant le disgracieux costume masculin, déclaraient une guerre implacable à l’homme.”   She forcefully rejected “scientific proof” of women’s inferiority in favour of an argument of equilibrium in difference, with the woman being “la force plus reposée, moins brutale, elle est la Vie enfermée dans la courbe adorables des lignes; elle est le rythme et la musique, la grace indicible, l’épanouissement, le triomphe de la chair baignée d’ombre et de lumière.” A few months earlier she argued it was necessary for women to retain their sweetness and mocked “les féministes qui exagèrent” who consider men the enemy and wear masculine clothing. Her tone suggests she is amused rather than threatened by “Ces chères combattantes!”

An exam question for secondary school girls in June 1916 proposed this question on what feminism was. 

Un écrivain moderne a dit ‘il y a deux sortes de féministes: les vrai amis des femmes, ceux qui veulent leur donner le beau rôle dans l’humanité, c’est-à-dire la prépondérance par l’intelligence et le cœur; les faux amis qui désirent en faire des avocats et des députés’. Vous expliquerez cette réflexion et vous donnerez votre avis personnel sur cette question. 

The 20 students who took the test all agreed with the writer. They argued that the role of women was determined by nature and it was to be mothers, to raise children and to support and encourage their husbands. 

Traditionalist ideas also permeated any discussions of the role of women in society. When the Petit Marseillais wrote an article advocating giving women the vote, it printed two letters from female readers in response. The first claimed that the vote would be an unwelcome distraction from domestic duty. The second disagreed, claiming that the uniquely feminine characteristics of women would mean that their vote would have a beneficial effect on the country. Laura Downs points out that “the unpleasant discovery of the male production worker’s relative and arbitrary privilege rarely produced a movement for equal pay.” Instead women merely sought to work harder. When women did demand extra pay it was as substitutes for their husbands, not as a fair reward for their own labour: “As our husbands are all at the front, we have a right to the same wages as the men.” Jeannine called on her female readers to become marraines 

Pour la marraine, c’est la joie d’accomplir une belle mission, c’est comprendre son rôle de femme pendant la guerre. N’est-ce pas très femme de dorloter les peines, d’encourager, de choyer, d’être maternelle, de sourire, de se faire gaie afin de chasser les tristes ombres qui dansent leur ronde autour du poilu. 

Marcelle Capy, writing in the self-proclaimed feminist journal La Vague on the subject of soldiers returning after the war pointed out the difficulties for women who lacked a returning husband, but also unquestioningly accepted that those whose husbands did return would return to the household. 

Voici l’hiver. La famille ouvrière a besoin de charbon, de vêtements, de lumière, de nourriture. Si le mari était rentré de la guerre, il pourrait aller à l’usine et la femme reste à la maison. Mais le mari est toujours soldat, et la femme est toujours obligée de conduire la barque. 

Similarly, Jeannine quoted a correspondent who argued that women who became municipal councillors or entered careers lost their grace and feminine charm. Instead they should stay at home, seeking to make it comfortable and attractive. She agreed with him in theory, believing that but for a few exceptions the true vocation of a woman was to occupy the family home. However the modern world made this often impossible. Again, feminism seems to have entailed simply recognition that the ideal role for women could not always be achieved. 

The prominent feminist Cécile Brunschwig, speaking at a meeting of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, argued that the soul of women was incarnated through the family. “N’est-ce pas autour d’elle que dans chaque civilisation se groupe la famille?  N’est-ce pas elle dont la longue patience a défendu, au cours des siècles, l’intimité du foyer, la fragilité de l’enfance, la moralité de la jeunesse?” She also joined feminist colleagues Julie Siegfried and Margueritte de Witt-Schlumberger in helping to found the natalist group Pour la vie. When women did act independently, they were at pains to point out their adherence to traditional norms of feminine modesty and virtue. The Association française pour la Recherche des Disparus claimed in an advertising flier that it had “poursuit sans ostentation depuis février 1915 son œuvre de secours moral.” 

Jeannine encapsulated the views of much of French feminism in her article on Le rôle social des Femmes. She argued that women had shown their worth during the war, and could have a very beneficial part to play in public life. “Devenues pour un temps – ou pour toujours, hélas! – chefs de famille […] leur faculté d’adaptation leur a permis d’entrer hardiment dans toutes les voies pour lesquelles il semblait qu’elles ne fussent point faites”. Their contribution to public life would be rooted in their intrinsically feminine qualities. 

Son action peut apporter d’immenses bienfaits dans nos sociétés imparfaites, car la femme est l’ennemie de la guerre inique, de toutes les abominations et des injustices qu’elle sent profondément. 

Elle lutterait pour la disparition de l’alcoolisme et de la tuberculose; elle voudrait des lois plus équitables et serait une force dans les organisations qui combattent pour les causes vraiment humaines.

Working-class women also rarely proved to be radically more feminist than their male counterparts. At a meeting of the metal workers union in Bourges in April 1918, the star speakers were Hélène Brion and Madeleine Vernet. According to the Police report, Brion’s speech, which focused on feminism and on improving the position of women in society, “fut très écouté et souvent applaudi.” However the audience of roughly 500 people was a largely male one. “Malgré le pressent appel aux ouvrières pour assister en grand nombre à cette réunion une quarantaine ne femmes à peine se trouvaient dans la salle.” 

When female journalists wrote for newspapers they rarely took radical positions and whatever the newspapers thought of the potential changes that might be wrought in women’s place in society during the war, they made little concession to them in their articles directed at women. In the Petite Gironde, the only feature that was directed at women was an occasional column, entitled the Carnet de la Femme, that concentrated on fashion, perfume, beauty and similarly feminine concerns. A typical beginning to a Carnet article referred to the “multiples travaux que nous exécutons pour nos combats: ceintures tricotées, chaussettes, chandails, mitaines, gants, plastrons, etc.” One article began “On nous reproche parfois, peut-être – (tout arrive…) – de nos occuper de toilettes et de beauté à des heures douloureuses.” They rejected this of course, but devoted that article primarily to boosting marraines organisations. This was the only diversion towards any new developments that might have affected its readership. La Semaine Féminine in the Petit Parisien followed a similar line. 

In an article in La Bataille entitled Pour les Petiots, Jeannine sought to distance her paper from that of the bourgeoisie, claiming that the Bataille was not a journal of fashion and that neither she nor her readers cared about what the aristocracy were wearing. However she thought that mothers might make an exception for their babies. “Vous avez toutes, j’en suis sûre, la coquetterie de vos enfants, et comme vous avez raison.” Moreover, La Bataille also ran occasional articles by Jehanne la Chaperonnière, which focused on clothes, and these were the only articles, other than the ones seeking marraines, which addressed themselves directly to women. 

The only exception to this tendency of articles aimed at women to address them simply as domesticated housewives was the conservative L’Ouest- Éclair, in which Marthe Dupuy offered several articles calling for greater rights for women in recognition of what they had achieved during the war. However, these articles stopped appearing after 1916, and the newspaper brought in a regular column entitled “Pour les Menagères” which represented its only content written either by, or explicitly for, women.

Consistency of Attitudes

From the material given, it would be easy to think that the debate over the behaviour of women and their place in society was omnipresent in French discourse. Instead, it was largely peripheral. Newspapers only occasionally dealt with women; the reports by the regional committees assigned to oversee the administration of the war were virtually silent on the issue. Paul Cambon barely mentioned women in his wartime correspondence, except for an occasional comment about the malign influence upon the Tsar of his wife, which was, he sadly noted, a far from unprecedented state of affairs. As Thébaud notes “[a]fter the arms fell silent, tens of thousands of books were written in the hope of understanding the extraordinary events just past. […] In all this post-war writing, however, there was little discussion of women.” When journalists did address women it was often as light relief from the serious issues of the war. In La Petite Gironde, Berthelot noted that proposals to grant female suffrage included restricting voting to women aged over thirty. “Mais, candidates parlementaires, il n’y a pas une jeune femme qui, pour la plaisir d’aller faire queue à la porte de la mairie pendant une heure, consentira à reconnaître qu’elle a passé la trentaine!”  For Jules Véran in L’Eclair du Midi, women were a regular source of lighthearted material. When it was announced that no dress would measure more than four and a half metres he commented 

Ne vous effrayez pas, mesdames, on ne songe pas à vous imposer un uniforme national. Vous pourrez continuer, l’hiver prochain, à vous habiller comme vous voudrez et ce sera toujours charmant, j’en suis sûr. Mais… oh! ne tremblez pas! …

 When the clocks changed “Nous connaissons déjà le mois où les femmes parlaient le moins, qui est le mois de février, parce qu’il n’a que 28 jours. Nous saurons maintenant quel est le jour où elles auront le plus parlé…” 

Zette, writing in Hors d’œuvre, commented on a judge who was faced with 55 cases of defamation or slander, all between women. The judge inquired if the Union Sacrée applied to women.  “Et faut-il que les femmes se gourment entre elles pendant que leurs maris unissent leurs forces contre l’ennemi commun?” Zette argued that the reason for this was “La femme a des nerfs: en temps de paix, elle passait ses nerfs sur son mari, et la chose allait rarement devant les tribunaux de répression. Depuis la guerre, la femme, plus nerveuse et plus justement nerveuse, est obligée de passer ses nerfs sur ses amies et voisines.” The way to deal with it was to employ the methods of schoolmasters as if the women were children. The ambulancier, Germain Balard, explained moral dislocation arising from the war as due to women being “portées naturellement par leurs instincts”. 

Even serious issues like the strikes of the midinettes and then the couturiers in 1917 were treated as amusing diversions by L’Eclair du Midi. L’Ouest-Éclair headlined news stories on the strikes alongside little cartoons, presumably to indicate the essential frivilousness of the topic. The next occasion that similar cartoons were featured was the first instalment of “Pour les Menagères”, a very traditionalist column offering practical advice to housewives.  

The most noticeable constant in these comments is the traditional idea of women that informs them. The apparent resistance to significant modification of pre-war attitudes to gender relations appears repeatedly. In the French army, a regimental order of the day in August 1916 commanded soldiers not to use language that might offend the sensibilities of women employed by the regiment, while Veran joked about General Pershing’s admonition to the American troops never to tell anything confidential to a woman. L’Eclair du Midi reprinted advice given by the Turin section of the General Union of Professors on how women should behave during war, claming it was very wise. This advice was wholly consistent with an eternal idea of womanhood: don’t gossip, do not be swayed by alarmists, do not overspend, think about loved ones, not to complain, make yourself useful, admire the soldiers, be patient, and suffer stoically. 

The irrationality and sentimentality of women continued to be primary themes when the actions of females were examined. According to La Dépêche, the women who had been granted the vote in the US prior to the 1916 election were expected to vote for Wilson because “les femmes inclinant à approuver celui-ci d’avoir évité la guerre aux Etats-Unis, même au prix d’humiliations nationales.” Ferri-Pisani wrote in his book on the United States how Wilson had “seduced” women into voting for him by “le romanesque de sa vie privée et son sobriquet de ‘great lover'”. The discussion in L’Ouest-Éclair on how the female voters of Illinois would vote in the 1916 election was predicated on a belief in the innate pacifism and sentimentality of women. “Logiquement, les quatre millions de suffrages féminins devraient aller au candidat socialiste [because he was the pacifist candidate]. Mais il faut compter – et largement – avec le sentiment.” As mentioned earlier, the emotional behaviour of the female US deputy who voted against the war was remarked upon negatively and indicatively. 

In La Dépêche, Pierre Mille argued 

Cette manière de raisonner portait surtout sur les femmes – on avait institué des parlottes des femmes. Quand les femmes se mêlent de généraliser, certaines le font avec une angélique et terrible esprit de simplification. Celles-là sont mal capable d’analyser les mots et voir ce qu’il y a dessous. Elles les prennent en bloc et logomachisent avec sentiment. 

In his letters home, André Kahn pondered on the possible reasons for the conversion to Catholicism of a woman called Marcelle. “Est-ce le fruit d’un amour malheureux? Une crise de mysticisme hystérique?” That her decision could have been made through any sort of rational thinking doesn’t appear to occur to him. Eventually he finds a satisfactory answer in the malign influence of a priest.10 

The conservative L’Eclair du Midi waged a consistent battle against the popularity of the cinema during the war, arguing that it could have a corrupting influence on weak minds. Jules Veran found a perfect illustration of this in a murder carried out by two young women, aged 16 and 20. Questioned by a psychiatrist “Ses bourreaux en jupons – la langue française, trop galante n’a pas de féminin pour ce mot…” revealed that they were “toquées sur lesquelles avaient agi fâcheusement les films policiers donnés par les cinémas.” 

In La Petite Gironde, Berthelot responded to a paper offered to l’Académie des sciences by the prominent work scientist Jules Amar. 

La conclusion de M. Amar est logique, les désordres physiologiques et moraux dont la société portera un jour le poids viendront de l’utilisation défecteuse des aptitudes chez la femme. Il est donc nécessaire de classer les femmes d’après leurs aptitudes physiologiques et psychologiques, et d’ecarter de leur travail toutes circonstances où l’effort et l’émotion ont chance d’être fréquents. 

Berthelot pointed out the difficulty of removing women from all areas where emotion and effort are required. Amar himself argued that 

Il n’y a pas, entre l’homme et la femme, une difference de degré intellectuel, de puissance cérébrale, de quantité d’énergie psychique; c’est tout simplement une question de qualité: les modalités du travail cérébral ne sont pas identiques. Ici, pour la femme, l’ordre sensitif l’emporte; il s’est imposé par l’habitude et l’hérédité. Là – pour l’homme – c’est, au contraire, l’ordre abstrait de la raison et de la pensée; en vertu de cette abstraction même, il s’établit une indépendance relative des fonctions motrices à l’égard des actions extérieures, et c’est ce que traduit le mot volonté. […] Pour en revenir au cerveau humain, il semble difficile de tirer un enseignement quelconque de son poids, de ses replis, de son architectonique. L’examen de cet organe n’a permis de rien conclure, non plus, quant à la race; il a le même poids moyen chez les Australiens, Indiens, Chinois, Japonais et Malais que chez les Européens. Celui des nègres est, toutefois, moins massif et moins dense. Mais aucun rapport réel entre la quantité et la qualité, entre les facteurs mécaniques et les facteurs psychiques. Les races, comme les individus, comme les deux sexes, ne présentent aucun indice cérébral visible de leur inégalité intellectuelle. 

Amar’s argument is very significant. Not only is he restating the conventional idea that men have the capacity to utilise abstract thought while women rely on an instinct, but he is giving it the weight of scientific fact. Moreover, by arguing that the difference between men and women’s intellect cannot be measured by the quantity of psychic energy, or by any visible indicator from the brain, Amar effectively renders his judgement unfalsifiable. If only outward manifestations of intellect can illuminate questions of intellectual equality or inequality, then it becomes still harder to combat preconceptions. Amar’s argument also provides another example of the frequent comparison of relations between the sexes to relations between the races. 

Paul Cambon, talking about bombing raids in London, praised French women for being calmer in a crisis than their English equivalents, but nevertheless noted that there was a tendency amongst women to become emotional for no good reason. The usual calmness of English women by contrast was dismissed as intellectual inertia. 

Il est curieux de constater combien les femmes anglaises sont inférieures aux nôtres au point de vue de la résistance morale et du sang-froid. Chez nous on crie pour des riens, mais on se calme quand la situation devient grave. Ici la silence et la tranquilité ordinaires des femmes ne sont qu’une signe d’inertie intellectuelle et aussitôt le danger déclaré elles perdent la tête. Nous avons un lot de dactylographes françaises qui conservent leur bonne humeur pendant la canonnade, et ne s’embarrassent pas de rentrer chez elles pendant la raid. 

J.H. Rosny offered an equally backhanded compliment when advocating that women should be allowed into juries and to become magistrates. Rosny looked at Balzac and other such writers and agreed that women were indeed capricious and irresponsible, but that men were not doing much of a job at providing impartial justice either. 

Indeed, praise for women took as conservative a form as did criticism or humour. In July 1916, Raymond Poincaré rendered homage to the women of France: 

A vous surtout, Mesdames, j’adresse les remerciements émus et respectueux du pays. Vous avez montré ce qu’il y a chez la femme française de flamme intérieure et d’élévation morale; vous avez prouvé une fois de plus qu’elle demeure à jamais la sûre gardienne de nos traditions et l’inspiratrice des grandes vertus populaires. 

For Maurice Donnay “Si les hommes sont partis pour combattre l’envahisseur, aussitôt les femmes se mobilisent pour combattre la souffrance, la misère et la douleur.” Despite his jokes about women voting, Paul Berthelot actually advocated female suffrage because 

La femme sera la bonne marraine qui apportera dans la lutte avec la misère, avec l’alcoolisme, avec la tuberculose, le sentiment très précis des réalités, la connaissance profonde des divers cas et espèces, et aussi cette délicatesse de doigté qui donne la confiance au malheureux et au malade, et en lui rendant l’espoir assure le succès. […] La grande famille française, tout comme notre foyer, a besoin de gardiennes ferventes, agiles et clairvoyantes.

Elles sauront faire face à leurs responsabilités nouvelles. Le bulletin de vote, dans leurs petites mains, ne sera pas un joujou, mais comme dit la bon Coppée, ‘Un outil de travail, une arme de combat’ pour le bon combat contre toutes les déchéances, pour le mieux être sinon pour le bonheur de tous.

Camille Mauclair in La Dépêche 

Depuis trois ans et demi. La femme isolée a singulièrement progressé et mûri. Elle s’est grandie dans l’estime nationale par la façon energique et intelligente dont elle a accepté et rempli les tâches de l’homme absent. Cette conduit a plus fait pour la cause du féminisme que vingt ans de revendications théoriques. L’expérience est là. Il sembler juste, naturel et utile que la femme conquière l’électorat et bien d’autres privilèges sociaux. Mais s’il y faut applaudir, il n’en faut pas moins craindre que la force d’une telle évolution détourne de plus en plus la femme de son ancien rôle, redevenu primordial: l’amour et la fécondité au foyer. 

Jeannine argued that women should be given the vote because “… l’activité qu’elles sauraient déployer dans les œuvres sociales et dans la confection de lois justes a profitable à tous.” 

In this poster seeking subscribers for national bonds, the men are handing in large wads of notes, while the woman is scrabbling around for some change in her bag.

One excellent source for ideas about female abilities is the collection of depositions given to an extraparliamentary commission on the organisation of secondary education for girls that reported in 1918. Nearly 50 oral depositions were given from a wide variety of sources. 

The commission began from a starting point of rejecting the “radical” idea of giving girls the same syllabus and same diploma as boys. It argued that such a “complete assimilation” would be contrary to the law of 1880.  Not only that but it would display a failure to recognise the real aptitudes of women. Not only would such a move go against the true interests of society, it was contrary to nature itself. To push all young women towards the baccalauréat would be to create a female intellectual proleteriat.”

Though most of those invited to give their opinions agreed with this, there were occasional dissenting voices. Mme. Cruppi, the President of the section lettres-sciences du Conseil national des femmes françaises argued that schools for girls should offer same qualifications as for boys. M. Brunot, a professor from the Sorbonne also argued strongly in favour of equal education for both sexes. He argued that it was necessary to open to women every career to which they might “legitimately aspire.” Unlike the vast majority of participants, Brunot mentioned the war as having played a part in his thinking arguing that “ce qui n’était qu’un devoir avant la guerre pourra devenir une obligation.” However, he is not arguing that the war had opened his eyes to the qualities of women, but taking the common line that women’s efforts during the conflict demanded a reward.

M. Bernès, a member of the Conseil supérieur de l’instruction publique, was slightly more equivocal, arguing in favour of offering an equivalent programme of studies for girls as boys in secondary schools, but claiming that he didn’t envisage many girls taking the baccalauréat.

The majority of the responses emphasised traditional feminine roles though. The Inspector-General of l’instruction publique, M. Cahen, argued that the aim of the school was to create good republican mothers, evoking the motto of the École de Sèvres: Virgines futuras virorum matres respublica docet. He argued that a similar educational workload to boys would be too demanding, intellectually and physically for women, and that space needed to be reserved for teaching them women’s work.

On n’en doit pas conclure que l’éducation des jeunes filles doive ressembler tout à fait à celle des garçons. La préparation simultanée de deux ou trois examens, diplôme, brevet supérieur, baccalauréat, place les jeunes filles dans des conditions très fàcheuses au point de vue de l’hygiène intellectuelle et physique. […] Une place doit être réservée aux travaux féminins, en particulier à la couture et à tous les arts qui s’y rattachent.

M. Darlu, an inspector general of public education, also claimed that the two sexes had different needs in education, more techinal for boys and more general for girls. Mlle. Milliard, a member of the Conseil supérieur de l’instruction publique argued that, from the ages of 7 to 11, girls should be taught to develop their moral and social side, and learn about hygiene and good housekeeping. “c’est à l’âge où la jeune fille est la plus malléable qu’il faut accentuer le caractère féminin de l’enseignement qu’elle reçoit.” From 11 onwards, different programmes should be available for girls who wished to take the baccalauréat in order to enter certain careers, for others who wanted to work in commerce or industry, while a third programme should be available for girls who wanted to look after children, the sick and so on.

One of the members of the commission, Senator Lintilhac, wondered what was wrong with allowing any girl who was interested to take the baccalauréat as “il y voit l’avantage de diminuer certains paresses et d’éveiller certains curiosités.” Milliard responded by arguing that many young girls are badly informed about the possibilities offered to them by possessing the diploma and “elle craint le snobisme et l’inutilité social d’efforts qui pourraient être mieux employés à l’acquisition d’une culture différente et tout aussi bonne que celle du baccalauréat.”

Mme. Suran-Mabire, a lycée professeur in Marseille and also a vice-President of the Fédération nationale des professeurs de lycée et du personnel de l’enseignement secondaire féminin, suggested a regional dimension by noting that in the small towns girls were happy with the diploma and fearful of studying Latin and the baccalauréat, while in Paris and the big cities they demanded the baccalauréat.

Various women working as  lycée professeurs were invited to give their opinions, and they offered a wide range of opinions.  Mlle. Couvreur, argued that the majority of the female population in lycées should not be educated  “dans le sens de l’éducation masculine.”, while Mlle. Dugard, argued that “Il est indispensable de mettre les jeunes filles en état d’assurer leur existence et, le cas échéant, celle de leur famille; il faut les préparer aux fonctions que les hommes ne peuvent ou ne veulent plus remplir.”

Mlle. Amieux, a lycée directrice, suggested that boys should be taught maths and physics while “les futures mères aurant plutôt besoin des sciences naturelles”, but Mlle. Picot, a professeur disagreed, claiming that she had enountered plenty of female pupils who had a taste for maths, which they could do as well as their brothers and which made them no less charming as wives or excellent as mothers.” Despite the clear differences though, the underlying theme remains that the primary aim of education for girls should be to prepare them for matrimony and maternity and that if they were forced to make a living it would only be in work that men no longer were available for. They also echo the ideas transmitted in the speeches of the institutrices studied by Margadant, as discussed above. 

M. Goy, a senator on the commission offered the most traditional response, arguing that the exigencies of war had driven women to take the place of men in many situations “n’y aura t-elle pas contracté des idées d’indépendance qui relâcheront les liens de la famille qui lui feront oublier le devoir le plus sacré, celui de la maternité” This tendency for women to forget their primary function needed to be halted, or else natality would drop. Additionally, Goy argued women were not of the required intelligence. They lacked intellectual power, and it was essential not to encumber France’s faculties with “étudiants médiocres, incapables d’augmenter le patrimoine intellectuel de la nation.” 

Despite attitudes like this amongst members of the commission, a proposal to forbid girls from taking the baccalauréat was generally opposed. “On opposa des raisons de droit constitutionnel, on invoqua le libéralisme traditionnel de l’Université et l’utilité de laisser le choix aux jeunes filles entre un examen conçu pour elles et le baccalauréat des garçons;” Instead, the commission decided that the education given to girls by the current secondary system was “bonne dans l’ensemble”, and that they shoud seek to retain it “dans ses grandes lignes”. 

The views of the commission as to educational priorities were shared elsewhere. The subcommittee of economic action in the Correze also argued that it was necessary to urgently organise “enseignement ménager” in the region. 

Ayons moins de femmes savants dont les connaissances sont souvent superflues et efforcons nous de possèder dans nos jeunes filles des legions de bonnes ménagères n’ayant pas peur de la besogne, aptes à tirer profit pour le mieux de tout ce don’t elles pourront disposer et possédant déjà au sortir de l’école beaucoup de notions sur leurs futures devoirs d’épouses et de mères. 

In Michel Chassagny and G. Labarre’s Précis de physique, designed for the secondary education of girls, they wrote how they had sought to exclude abstract reasoning and purely mathematical developments. Instead “[n]ous avons constamment donné pour base aux différentes théories des expériences aussi simples que démonstratives…” 

These educational ideas were not restricted to France’s metropole. Guidelines set out for the teaching of girls in French Indochina advised that they should have the same programmes of teaching as the boys, but only half as much time should be allocated to it, with the other half devoted to domestic education, “l’enseignement ménager”. In addition, it was advised that their regular lessons be taught so as to adapt to their domestic education. Young girls needed to be taught through practical demonstration and application what could be taught to boys more theoretically. 

It was concluded that it was necessary to teach young girls 

l’hygiène, la morale et la politesse en insistant suivant l’âge des élèves sur les devoirs de la fille, de la sœur aînée, de la femme, de la mère, de la maîtresse de maison et en ne négligeant aucune occasion de redresser les notions grossières (préjugés ou superstitions) qui obscurcissent si souvent les cerveaux féminins;

It was noted that the principles of morality were not really very different between young Indochinese girls and their French equivalents. The ultimate aim of the education of these girls was to prepare them to become homemakers, and it was claimed that their aim was to ensure each one of their students became “une maîtresse de maison.”

Advertisements remained particularly traditional, with women depicted as housewives, nurses, or consumers of medical products, or else as potential customers for the latest fashion. Men appeared as tradesmen, professionals or soldiers. One of many possible examples is a Globéol advert from 1917 where a male patient was depicted being attended to by a solicitous female nurse, who was supervised by two male doctors. An advert for Pilules Pink asserted that women were “êtres faibles” and often were hiding suffering behind their smile. Their blood was poor and they risked losing their “charme naturel”. Thus they needed to take the Pilules Pink. In an advert for Malt Kneipp, an alternative to coffee, a couple were receiving counselling for their relationship. The husband was “coléreux, jaloux”, the wife “nerveuse, emportée”. The counsellor advised them their problems were due to the coffee, but the characteristics of the spouses were entirely consistent with traditional stereotypes. An advert for a medical product claimed that, far from living the high life, “Trop souvent les mères et épouses commetent une erreur en se sacrifiant continuellement pour les autres.” 

It was not just commercial imagery: official posters followed a similar line. A poster advertising a “Journée du Poilu” in the Val d’Oise in December 1915 depicted a young boy in military garb and his slightly elder sister dressed as a nurse requesting money so their father could come home on leave.


In its first issue after the armistice, La Vague featured a large cartoon on its front page. Bright sunshine signified the new dawn, as did the dove with an olive branch. In the foreground a man destroyed a cannon with his hammer. Behind him a soldier comforted his wife and daughter. In the background a man ploughed the earth and factories belched smoke. It was an utterly traditional picture, in which gender roles were wholly unproblematic. Men worked and protected their families, women looked after their children. That the avowedly feminist Vague saw this as an ideal post-war scenario demonstrates the limited nature of the impact the revolutionary behaviour of women during the war had. 

An article entitled La libération de la femme by Arthur Lauba offers an excellent illustration and bears quoting at some length. He argued that women had been oppressed ignominiously, but that when the war called on them to replace men, they “ont remplacé parfaitement les hommes”. 

Donc, assez d’égoïsme a fait souffrir la femme, aujourd’hui sa libération totale est devenue inéluctable; plus de femmes-servantes, des femmes-soeurs. Si nous voulons vraiment empêcher le retour des abominations actuelles, libérons la glorieuse femme, reine de la maternité, des tutelles odieuses qui trop longtemps l’asservirent au détriment des intérêts supérieures de la société. 

However, the liberation of women did not involve their having a post-war role similar to men, despite their ability to replace men. 

Aux hommes les labeurs de forces musculaires; à la femme, le labeur sacré de la féconde maternité, de la vie sacrée qui perpétue le genre humain. Si la femme n’est pas à nos côtés avec égalité de droits et de devoirs, la lutte contre l’alcoolisme, contre le militarisme et toutes les hideuses plaies sociales, sera vaine. Elle seule, mère sublime, pourra régénérer les hommes, car c’est elle qui peut déposer dans la coeur de l’enfant les premiers ferments de liberté et d’amour. Aujourd’hui, les tergiversations ne sont plus de mise, l’heure est aux actes qui, seuls, font poids, la femme doit être rendue à la liberté. Autant pour elle que pour nous, la dépendance économique doit être supprimée. Et la femme, rendue à la plénitude de ses moyens, sera la mère respectée qui, dégagée de tous les préjugés imbéciles qui entravent l’essor du genre humain, nous donnera des fils auxquels elle apprendra l’amour et inculquera la haine de tous les tyrans et la révolte contre toutes les oppressions.

 Si nous voulons tuer la guerre, libérons définitivement la femme.” 

For Lauba the war had not undermined his belief in the complementary nature of men and women; it had reinforced it. The liberation that women had earned was the freedom to exercise their maternal role on a national scale. 

As Margaret Darrow has argued, “What women did in the war or what was done to them by the war was explained – and explained away – as minor adaptations of a traditional feminine destiny.” Any changes in women’s behaviour due to the war were believed to be only temporary, with the expectation that a return to normality in other aspects of life would see a return to traditional behaviour. For Henri Drouin this even applied to sexuality when, writing in the 1920s, he excused lesbianism as a natural response to the absence of men in the aftermath of the war. He explained it as a transient phenomenon though, and illustrated it with the tale of a young woman who had taken a female lover. Guilty and anxious, she had consulted a doctor, who claimed that it was a natural response to her circumstances, and one that would pass. His conclusion was immediately supported by the woman declaring her love for him. 

[1] In passing, it is also notable that Italian military weakness has become proverbial.

[2]The groups full name was La Fédération Ouvrière des Mutilés et Reformés de Guerre, Veuves et Orphelins.  Once again, the distinction is made on the dividing line of those who were victims of the war.

[3] It should be noted however that this was not setting a trend that was to follow after the war.  Illegitimate births per 100 between 1866-1875 were 7.4; between 1896-1905, 8.8; and between 1926-1935, 7.9.

[4] Interestingly, this was portrayed not as a sign of public indifference to veterans, but administrative indifference.  It was believed that if such abuses were indicated to the public then they would support the veterans.

[5] In a more recent book, Roberts has suggested that  “While the issue of female identity remained at the forefront of postwar concerns, the failure of liberal beliefs to make sense of the war changed the focus of this preoccupation. The fin-de-siècle New Woman gave way to the postwar Modern Woman, who came to represent not so much a threat to (a relatively stable) liberal culture as the full-blown crisis of liberal culture itself.” Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2002). By contrast, this thesis argues that traditional beliefs were successful in making sense of the war (at least as regards gender relations) and ensured that the Modern Woman was no more able to transcend those beliefs than the pre-war New Woman.

[6] For other evidence of disputed gender relations before the war, see also Annelise Maugue, L’Identité Masculine en crise: Au tournant du siècle, 1871-1914, Paris: Editions Rivages (1987), Christopher Thompson “Un troisième sexe? Les bourgeoisies et la bicyclette dans la France fin de siècle.” in Mouvement Social 192 (2000) pp. 9-39.

[7] My emphasis, by acknowledging that women had been forced into undertaking work in the factories, Isaac is evidently reducing the blame placed on women.

[8] This pattern of men making speeches and women’s role being restricted to singing patriotic songs is seen again in other inaugaration ceremonies.

[9] It is noticeable that the male roles are distinctly unwarlike.

[10] It is not specified who Marcelle is but she is clearly well known to Kahn and his correspondent, and seems to be a relative.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Chapter 3: World War One and Gender Relations […]

    Pingback by French attitudes to Race and Gender during World War 1 « So much beauty out there — January 11, 2009 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

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