France and Women 1789-1914.
In the roughly twenty years since James McMillan first published his pathbreaking study Housewife or Harlot (Brighton, 1981), the field of French women's history has expanded enormously on both sides of the Atlantic. The time is right, therefore, for a new synthesis, particularly since, as McMillan claims, a single-author narrative remains a conspicuous void in current English-language historiography. France and Women is more than a textbook, however, for McMillan blends much of the recent work on French women with thorough archival research to produce a narrative with its own strong argument: "The failure to create the French female citizen rests squarely with the male political establishment and with a political culture which rejected sex equality on grounds of principle and expediency." (p. 228) In short, most French feminists, like Maria Deraismes, prioritized republicanism over feminism and moderated their actions and rhetoric to secure that most treasured goal. Radical feminists, like Madeleine Pelletie r, who demanded complete political equality with men, were either ignored or marginalized. At the same time, most republican and socialist men paid lip service to feminism and hid behind anticlericalism to conceal their enduring attachment to the domestic ideal that dominated nineteenth-century France.
McMillan supports this argument in a study that he describes as a fusion of social, cultural, and political history. Organized into four parts with an introduction and epilogue, the book begins with three chapters on France's eighteenth century legacy and Napoleon's impact on "woman" as ideal and legal category. Relying primarily upon secondary sources and printed treatises, McMillan argues that the Enlightenment's new emphasis on science and medicine reshaped the debate over women's nature while the Revolution offered many of them new opportunities for public activity. This paved the way for a Napoleonic backlash that entrapped women in a domestic ideal where they remained wholly private and subservient to men. The second part focuses on the reality of women's lives during the first half of the nineteenth century, as France industrialized and underwent two more revolutions. In these three chapters McMillan outlines the impacts of the domestic ideal while emphasizing its failure to limit all of women's action s to the home. Bourgeois women secured some education and relied on charitable associations to expand their spheres of activity, while working-class women, despite a significant dependence on homework, relied on their continued attachment to the public world of commerce. A few women, particularly those associated with Utopian socialism, rejected the private sphere completely and espoused a feminism that was once again embroiled in revolutionary politics in 1848. The result was another backlash that becomes the focus of the book's third part, an exploration of the discourse on "woman" between 1850 and 1880. This includes an analysis of medical and political studies that formed the foundation of both the "woman question", especially the role of the woman worker so necessary to France's economy, and the beginnings of a feminist movement that gathered momentum with the formation of the Third Republic in 1870.
The growth of this feminism and its relation to politics and the lives of bourgeois and working-class women during the final decades of the nineteenth century fill the pages of the fourth and final part of the book, as well as the epilogue--over one third of the text. This part also contains the core of McMillan's argument and the majority of his archival data, especially material from the Bibliotheque Marguerite Durand. McMillan begins this section with the rather contentious claim that no "crisis in gender relations" existed during this period: "the perspective of a coterie of frightened male intellectuals" should not be read as social reality. (p. 142) There was no crisis because there was no "new Eve Had the book concerned itself with men as well as women, the works of Robert Nye, Angus McLaren, and Edward Berenson might have led McMillan to a different conclusion.  These historians have persuasively asserted that anxiety over gender certainly spread beyond a coterie of male intellectuals. Nonetheless, the point concerning the "new Eve" is well made. McMillan convincingly argues that feminism, especially the battle for suffrage, rang hollow for most French women. The domestic ideal continued to define their lives despite significant gains in education and the changing nature of female employment thanks to the growing service sector. As for the feminists, McMillan deftly weaves his way through myriad personalities and associations to demonstrate the resilience of la politique de la creche. Such views held that female suffrage was too controversial, particularly as most women, so these feminists argued, remained under the sway of their parish priests and could very well effect the Republic's downfall. That doesn't mean, however, that French feminists achieved nothing during these years. Despite significant internal divisions, moderate feminists won enough converts to secure important reforms like divorce and various property rights. Only in the last years before the First World War did suffrage become a more substantive issue for mainstream feminists, who would be severely disappointed by the war's impact.
For the most part, this book serves as an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with French women's history, with an outstanding bibliography to guide the reader to both primary and secondary sources. It would also make a superb addition to any course in modem European and French history; McMillan is more than adept at situating women's history into a greater historical context and holds the reader's interest with an engaging mixture of life histories within the larger narrative. It is rather remarkable, however, that any substantive discussion of maternalist welfare, a subject that has seen a great deal of intriguing work of late, is missing. In addition, for those already familiar with French women's history this book has limited value. McMillan essentially revamps older interpretations, placing more emphasis (and blame) on republican male intransigence and hypocrisy. In short, McMillan's work succeeds primarily yet admirably as an introduction to a field that has certainly come into its own in the la st twenty years.
(1.) Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (New York, 1993); Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (Chicago, 1997); and Edward Berenson, The Trial of Madame Caillaux (Berkeley, 1992).
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|Author:||Beaudoin, Steven M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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