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Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945.

Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945. By Kristen Stromberg Childers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. xii + 261 pp. $39.95).

Kristen Stromberg Childers examines "public manifestations" of fatherhood to underscore the centrality of gender to "issues of citizenship and nationhood in early twentieth-century France" (11 and 44). She examines how diverse reformers collectively produced a language of civic paternity that organized beliefs concerning fatherhood into a coherent set of beliefs that ideologically promoted perceived and French national interests. Childers traces legislative debates, social reform agendas, political struggles, and popular perceptions concerning paternal authority and responsibility to underscore their symbolic centrality in a discourse concerning nation, state, and citizenship and to argue that there existed "a vibrant and critical discussion of paternity in the French state among participants from all across the political spectrum." (11)

Representing a new generation of scholarship (1), Childers seeks a "more complex and politically revealing relationship between gender and the state." (3) Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945 adopts a disposition of cultural analysis not easily dismissed by social historians who cut their teeth on statistical distributions or thick description. She finds that rather than viewing "male citizens as gender-neutral beings against whom they contrasted women," (3) the French state hosted, instead, an "animated conversation" on paternity between 1914 and 1945. (9)

Childers' approach may be distilled in how she interprets the un-named "Husband" in Guillaume Apollinaire's "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" (The Breasts of Tiresias) as emblematic of the complex and frequently ambivalent relationship between gender roles and gender politics that constitutes the "silent historiography" of modern French paternity wherein the "links between gender identities and the public good were at the forefront of French debates on national decline, war, population growth." (2) Following his wife's abrogation of her civic duties--spectacularly represented when her bosoms surrealistically fly off like a set of balloons--the now hermaphroditic Husband heroically bears the Nation's children parthenogenetically. The audience is relieved when Tiresias' beard falls off and the family bosom returns home. Thus, Janet Flanner reminds us, sterile, weak, and emasculated France was "repopulated, and indeed, rearmed, to music." (2)

Resting on the extensive use of rich sources that include government debates, court records, reformists' rhetoric, and legislation stretching from the code civil to the Code de la famille, Fathers, Families, and the State in France addresses the impart of Napoleonic reforms on family regulation and paternal rights (chapter 1). This sets up an interesting discussion of representations of paternity in popular imagery (mass advertisements, family magazines, the legislative proposals of social reformers, public debates, pro-natalist propaganda, lesson plans, and religious treatises) through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and how these were, in turn, challenged by the national malaise that followed the devastations of WWI (chapter 2). The result was a renewed debate concerning the links between paternity, military defeat, and national virility during the years leading to WWII. Childers then draws on newly available Vichy archives to scour the literature of women's groups, family manuals, worker's organizations, and numerous associations to build the crux of her thesis concerning the (dis)continuities between Interwar Vichy (1940-1945) and post-war French welfare policies (chapter 3). She agrees that the Vichy Government sought to transform the perceived threat of "voluntarily sterile bachelors" (vieux garcons) who pursued selfish interests into reassuring "proper family men" (pere de famille) who partook in "uplifting" pastimes (such as reading and gardening) and sacrificed themselves to husband families and, by extension, the Nation (57). Recognizing that Vichy's struggle "to reconcile paternal power and governmental authority" is readily taken as a marker for "the apotheosis of reactionary measures to reinstate fatherhood as the litmus test of good citizenship" Childers highlights, instead, that in its efforts to refashion the symbols of state control over "nothing less than the nature of government, the shape of the modern family, and the future of the nation," that Vichy's contradictory policies undermined the authority of the same fathers it sought to support (4, 3, 9, 89). The nascent welfare state's "obsession with the pere de famille" expressed through "a contest over opposing models of authority and a competition for the distribution of assets" (44) was manifest, for example, in its desire to erect traditional families based on paternal authority (104) and mothers restored to their "natural" spheres at a time when many men were absent POWs or providing obligatory labor service in German territories.

Childers' research extends earlier gender forays, among others, such as Robert Nye's Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France, Mary Louise Roberts' Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927, and Edward Berenson's The Trial of Madame Caillaux. (3) She also anticipated Christopher Forth's complementary analysis of the anxieties concerning modernity and masculinity that informed discussions surrounding manhood understood in terms of paternity, national identity, and the survival of the French nation in The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood (4) and neatly dovetails with Jean Pedersen's simultaneously developed discussion of "social dramas" that revealed social concerns and gender inequalities in the Third French Republic in Legislating the French Family: Feminism, Theater and Republican Politics, 1870-1920. (5)

To the extent that Childers demonstrates the significance of gender to modern French political history, her Fathers, Families, and the State in France naturally prompts further questions related to the diffusion of paternalist social policies across 'little' and 'greater' France's variegated human geography. How representative were such practices, what happened in the different colonies, and were there significant regional variations? (6) Historians interested in Vichy's political engagements, antecedents, and legacy will have to reckon with Childers' argument that Vichy and post-war French family policies were discontinuous not for reasons reducible to left-right politics (79) but because the latter eschewed gender as a marker of citizenship (3). Future research will necessarily benefit from and securely build on Childers' scholarship. (7)

Philip Whalen

Coastal Carolina University


1. Comparable recent works include Valeria Finucci's discussion of how masculinities were haunted by notions of paternity and virility in The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity and Castration in the Italian Renaissance (Durham, N.C., 2003), Mary Louise Roberts' Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siecle France (Chicago, 2002), and Lori Jo Marso's (Un)Manly Citizens: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Germaine de Stael's Subversive Women (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002).

2. Jannet Flanner, Paris Journal, 1944-1955 (New York, 1965), 80.

3. Robert Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (New York, 1993), Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927 (Chicago, 1994), and Edward Berenson's The Trial of Madame Caillaux (Berkeley, 1992).

4. Christopher Forth's The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood (Baltimore, MD, 2004). Related is Paul Lerner's discussion of trauma in Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany (Ithaca, 2003).

5. Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, Legislating the French Family: Feminism, Theater and Republican Politics, 1870-1920 (New Brunswick, 2003).

6. Such as, for example, Choi Chatterjee's discussion of Bolshevic efforts to undermine the authority of the local males through the elaboration of an "absent omnipotent male of socialist patriarchy." Choi Chatterjee's Celebrating Women: Gender Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939 (Pittsburgh, PA, 2002), 14.

7. It is a shame that Cornell University Press did not see fit provide professional reproductions rather than research photocopies to illustrate Childers' scholarship.
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Author:Whalen, Philip
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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