Blockades of French Women’s Voting Rights

August of 2018 marks the one hundred year anniversary of when the 19th Amendment was introduced to Congress. Two years later, American women gained the right to vote. Often in history class, this is where the feminist movement ends. In actuality, for many other countries, the fight for the right to vote had just started. Although France in the early 20th century was thought of as socially progressive, French women did not receive the right to vote until 1945. Although France had many radical and open minded time periods, women’s suffrage has always been on the back burner. The quest for women’s suffrage in France was hindered due to the strident moral conservatism of the early 20th century. The difficulty of contradicting long standing stereotypes during a politically charged period without a strong unified feminist front stalled women’s voting rights until 1945.

Some of France’s revolutionary periods include the French Revolution, widely known as a radical and extremist period. The French Revolution took place during 1789 to 1799. During this period, the citizens revolted and overthrew the monarchy, while establishing a republic. Throughout this turmoil, citizens rushed through the palaces and executed many well known philosophers and scientists. It was a revolutionary period of disregarding old customs and procuring new ideas. A Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen was written to outline the rights that every male citizen should have. In response, a woman known as Olympe de Gouges wrote a Declaration of Rights of Women and Female Citizen concerning female rights in marriage. One may think that because she was a radical in a radical time period, her beliefs might have been accepted. Unfortunately, this was not the case. She was executed in 1793 for being too radical and for portraying a disunified front.

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The violent pushback against women’s rights was not exclusive to the French Revolution; many other historical scholars trivialized women’s rights and argued against feminism. The Enlightenment, which could be considered as a catalyst for the French Revolution, was also known as a very radical time period, where many new philosophies arose and flourished. Montesquieu was a progressive thinker during the Enlightenment, in the Spirit of the Laws, he wrote, “Service of institutions we consider to be immoral and whose practices have given to contemporary women diseases unknown to our grandmothers … one of the most significant causes of the degeneration of the race” Even a progressive thinker during the Enlightenment believed that women were “immoral” if they tried to exercise the same rights as men and if women tried to be more vocal, they would cause the “degeneration of the race”. The most progressive thinkers accepted that women should be kept at home without their rights. These entrenched stereotypes had a history longer than 200 years. The deep rootedness only contributed to how hard it would be to contradict them later on.

In addition to these deep rooted stereotypes, there were many prejudices concerning women that made it difficult for them to be viewed as independent people. In Democracy without Women: Feminism and the Rise of Liberal Individualism in France, Christine Faure writes that women were portrayed as sick and exhausted from too much childbearing. Women were not portrayed as strong independent humans, but rather as people who needed to be taken care of. These stereotypes would make it difficult to redefine themselves in the future. Women would be unable to gain the right to vote if they were viewed to be sick and exhausted.

Not only were radicals during the Enlightenment anti feminist, but powerful radical socialists in the 1840s also refused to accept the rights of women. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician and is considered to be an influential theorist about anarchy. In System of Economic Contradictions, Proudhon wrote that a woman was either a “harlot or housewife, no other choice. A man who is still considered to have contributed greatly towards ideologies only believed that a woman could be confined to the home or be viewed as a prostitute. The idea that they could work in factories or become leaders was not an option; instead they were barricaded into a false dichotomy.

In contrast to Proudhon, Engel was a philosopher who believed that historical events were the origin of female inequality. In Origin of the Female, Private Property, and the State, Engels argued, “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex.” He believed that the inequality of women was due to the “overthrow” of women in history, which caused their subservience. “Overthrow” implies that women were the natural leaders prior to men. He did not think that women were biologically inept or could not make decisions, but rather that history was unfortunate. Reasons aside, it was still true that women were considered inferior to men.

Women struggled not only against these prejudices but also against each other because they were unable to present a unified front, thus furthering these prejudices. Differing parties of feminism had trouble reconciling their efforts together. Secular feminism lead by Marguerite Durand and La Fronde wanted equal civil and political rights. Christian feminism wanted women in a maternal role, while radical feminism attacked patriarchy and believed in sexual freedom. The struggles between these types of feminism showed the general public that women were not unified. Women needed to push for change together, but instead they were disorganized and wanted different change.

Not only were the different divisions of feminism unorganized, they also actively fought against each others’ goals. Female members of a party were first members of their party and then women. During the International Women’s Rights Congress in 1900, female socialist leaders could not approve anything outside of their party’s interest and had a distinct anti feminist stance. Socialist women believed that women should return to the household. When unification was needed within women, they turned on each other, and stopped each others’ progress.

Not only were women and men fighting against each other, the Catholic Church was also against women voting. Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii said that women’s emancipation was detrimental to the family. “Emancipation” refers to freedom without the family. Even during the 1930s, the Catholic Church had a lot of power over France, as there were still many practicing Catholics. The Church did not just want women to not vote, it fully supported women to stay at home and let men earn money. With the addition of the Church against women’s voting rights, they were delayed even further.

Even though the feminist movement could have been more efficient, they gained traction and major progress for women to recieve the right to vote was achieved. Unfortunately, after World War I, women’s voices were silenced by anti feminists and an urge to return to the family, causing a regression in progress concerning their voting rights. A literary prize was awarded to Théodore Joran for his Le mensonge du féminisme. He was a radical anti feminist who wrote about beating women and killing liberals. Anti feminist messages were not only being written but also read and acknowledged across the country, as shown by his award. The heroic deeds of men were celebrated and women were delegated to caring for the family once again. Another example of an anti feminist who had a large audience was Marinetti. He wrote that, “we want to glorify war… and contempt of women. We want to destroy … feminism and all such opportunistic and utilitarian acts of cowardice.” Marinetti preached about the beauty of the “contempt of women” and destroying “feminism”. Instead of women being concerned about the right to vote, they had to fight for their right to be viewed as people first.

In addition to the rise in anti feminist literature, the rise of the Vichy Regime halted all progress that women had already made. Phillipe Pétain, the ruler of the Vichy Regime, preached that the “mothers of France… [were] the true educators. [They] know how to inspire in all … that sense of discipline, that modesty, that respect, and give men character and make nations strong.” “True educators” refers to women being apart of the family and their main job to birth babies. Pétain argued for French women to return to the household and to stop going from work. The words “discipline”, “modesty”, and “respect” are all subservient adjectives in which the woman is inferior to the man. During a time period where the government forces women to return home and labels women to be inferior to men, women were unable to advance their fight for the right to vote.

As the Vichy Regime continued to pressure women to return to their homes, they contradicted themselves constantly by their standards for women. French women were encouraged to make themselves more attractive, but they were also condemned for being vain and for their material concerns. It was hard to be a woman, when the standards were always changing and impossible to fulfill. During this time period, the Vichy Regime had given into Germany and the German soldiers occupying France were the bigger threat. Germany took two million male French prisoners of war and pillaged France’s economy. Women were no longer interested in the rights, when their country was in danger of getting destroyed.

As a response to the terror of the Vichy Regime, many French women joined the Resistance, but even there, they were still subjected to sexism and denial of their rights. When Berty Albrecht, an influential woman resistance fighter, was appointed by Britain as the new network leader after the previous one was captured, she had difficulty establishing authority. Many of the male resistance fighters did not hold the same amount of respect for her as they did for the male resistance fighters. Yet again, history repeated itself as women were not viewed as a equal to men during a radical time period. In addition, Pierre Henri Teitgen, a Resistance leader, was always cold and distant with female agents and called them “frivolous”, while he was easygoing with male agents. He did not believe that women were capable in carrying out their missions to the same level of success that men did. These prejudiced notions were not exclusively Teitgen’s. Although the Resistance was unified in its’ fight against the Vichy government, women were still viewed as inferior and unable to be as intelligent as men. In addition, during these hard times, women’s right to vote was not a priority as the most important thing was to fight for the Resistance and to help one’s country.

Even after women were given the vote, they were not allowed to exercise this power because many citizens still felt that women were incapable of correctly using their power. In 1944, after the government adopted women’s voting rights, they were not allowed to use them until men come back from war, because it was believed that without men, the women’s vote would count too much. The implications were that a woman’s vote should not count for that much. These sexist notions forced French women to wait even longer until they could vote. In 1998, Denoyelle stated that in the 1940s, Politicians had difficulty accepting that women could also vote to the same degree as men. Although women had contributed greatly to the war, the influential politicians still could not accept that women were intelligent enough to vote.

After World War II ended and the Vichy Regime was overthrown, women were allowed to exercise the right to vote in 1945. It had been a 150 year long fight for women to gain the right to vote, starting from Olympe de Gouge and ending right after World War II. Our perception of France being revolutionary, although not wrong, is not quite right. While French men had been given the right to vote during the Enlightenment, it would take a couple of years until the idea of women voting was brought up. From then on, there were many obstacles that women had to face.

Women were not allowed to voice their opinions because these “practices have given to contemporary women diseases unknown to our grandmothers” and were “one of the most significant causes of the degeneration of the race”. Despite these prejudices, women formed different coalitions and pushed for more rights, including the right to vote. Not all women had the same goals, so disunity within women and fights with men delayed their right to vote even further. After World War I, there was a return to conservatism due to the rise of the Vichy Regime, which preached about women returning to the home and birthing many children. At the same time, there was Resistance against this dictatorial government that was ruining France. The population was more concerned about France’s survival and the issue of women’s’ rights left people’s’ minds. After World War II concluded, French women were finally given the right to vote.

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Blockades of French Women’s Voting Rights. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved from