France Grants Suffrage to Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As part of a perceived need by the Free French government to reform the society that had too easily fallen to the Nazis, French women achieved the right to vote in 1944. Although not immediately a factor in French elections, voting Frenchwomen eventually developed their own voices and influence in electoral politics.

Summary of Event

The emancipation of French women, symbolized by the extension of the voting franchise in 1944, was the result of the national struggle for survival in World War II. Emancipation of French women was not, however, a new idea. Suffrage for French women was delayed by the determined opposition of the French Senate and by provincial and religious prejudice. These were the antifeminine suffrage arguments that dominated efforts to include women in the franchise throughout the years of the Third Republic (1875-1940). One extreme argument in the Senate against the female vote was made by a senator who said, “The woman of the Latin race does not think, does not feel, does not develop like the woman of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic race. Her position in the home is not the same.” [kw]France Grants Suffrage to Women (Mar. 15, 1944) [kw]Suffrage to Women, France Grants (Mar. 15, 1944) [kw]Women, France Grants Suffrage to (Mar. 15, 1944) Women;suffrage France;woman suffrage Voting rights;women Women;suffrage France;woman suffrage Voting rights;women [g]Europe;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] [g]France;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] [c]Women’s issues;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 15, 1944: France Grants Suffrage to Women[01120] Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;women’s rights[womens rights] Aubrac, Lucie Duclos, Jacques

Perhaps this sentiment was too extreme for most senators, but they were ready enough to argue against woman suffrage on other grounds. For example, some argued that it would be indecent to give all women had the right to vote, because that would include prostitutes. If women had the vote, they would mix freely with men in the polling booths, and that, too, would be seen as indecent. Above all, it was assumed that women, being religious, would vote for the clerical parties and threaten the existence of the lay republic. As a result, it was ironically France’s Radical Party Radical Party, French , progressive on most issues but staunchly anticlerical, that was most adamantly opposed to votes for women.

Attempts to promote woman suffrage failed in 1901, in 1910, and in 1919. This was the pattern of political action on votes for women during the years of the Third Republic, the product of traditional attitudes and values that sought women’s idealization on one hand and their repression on the other. Edmond About observed, “We want above all to keep women faithful to their husbands. So we hope that the girl will bring to the world an angelic provision of ignorance which will be immune to all temptations.” Feminine innocence, purity, and timidity were considered virtues; achievement was not. A female journalist recalled her youth as one of constant repression, and a host of nineteenth century writers averred that if there was to be education for girls (as there had been for at least some girls ironically even during the Middle Ages), it must differ from that provided for boys.

In the modern period, the political liberation of French women was greatest in the period between the revolution of 1789 and the actual granting of votes to women in 1944. In 1789, both male and female revolutionaries wanted revolutionary principles applied to men and women equally. The marquis de Condorcet Condorcet, marquis de wrote that “anyone who votes against the rights of another, whatever their religion, their color, or their sex, has from that moment abjured his own.” Olympe de Gouges Gouges, Olympe de , a pamphleteer and playwright, complained, “I put forward a hundred propositions; they are received; but I am a woman; no one pays any attention.” These appeals were ignored, and one-half century later French women still were paid half the wages of men and denied the rights to sit on juries, hold public office, vote, or be educated. Their legal status was oppressively restrictive, and married women had almost no legal rights at all.

Slight improvement was made during the Third Republic. Teacher-training colleges for women Women;education Education;women France;women’s education[womens education] were established (1879), as was a regular system of secondary education (1880). The Paris medical faculty excluded women until 1868, however, and the Sorbonne excluded them until 1880. The first French woman received a law degree in 1884, but by 1913, men still outnumbered women at French universities nine to one. Changes for the better in the legal position of women were equally slow in coming. A married woman could open a post-office savings account in her own name—and use it without her husband’s consent—only after 1895.

A married working woman could not keep ownership and use of her wages until 1907. Women could not be legal guardians of children until 1927, and it was 1920 before a woman could join a trade union without her husband’s consent. Divorce remained illegal altogether in France until 1884, and women could divorce their husbands for cause only since the early 1900’s. Challenges to such slow progress were present, but they were few and ineffective in the nineteenth century. A handful of protofeminist journals were published, backed by luminaries such as Victor Hugo, and occasionally women, notably the novelist George Sand, were able to live emancipated lives.

In time, France experienced feminist Feminism and suffragist movements that paralleled those in the United States and Great Britain, but without either the intensity or the success. Before and after World War I, suffragist leaders were unable to put much pressure on French men to rectify the inferior status of women. French feminism expanded in activity in the 1920’s and 1930’s but remained largely philanthropic and reformist. It is reckoned that the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church over women was the reason. Repression of women remained intact, virtually an article of faith for French men, until the outbreak of war in 1939.

World War II accomplished what neither idealism nor revolution had been able to. The humiliating defeat and occupation of France by Germany led many French men and women to the conviction that sweeping social and political changes must be part of a reconstructed France. In 1943, from his base in Algiers, Free French Free French movement leader General Charles de Gaulle issued a call for a dramatically reformed France to be raised out of the ashes of the Third Republic once France had been liberated. Regarding women, he said, “The women of France must more than ever in the past assume a larger share in the affairs of the state. They must have the vote and be eligible to election in various posts. France needs them.” The pronouncement was endorsed by the French Resistance French Resistance , whose manifesto of March, 1944, called for universal suffrage as part of the France to come.

The law giving women the vote was passed March 15, 1944, by the Committee of National Liberation Committee of National Liberation, French . The law read, “The women will be electors and eligible in equal right to men, and will take part in every election that takes place after the liberation of the country.” The Communist Party, Communist Party, French as well as de Gaulle’s Movement Républicain Populaire (MRP; Popular Republican Movement Popular Republican Movement, French ), which was heavily Catholic, favored the change and worked to effect it in the months after liberation. Each department drew up new polling lists that included women, and women took an active role in the work. It took time, since there had been no elections in France since 1936. The elections were spread over the spring months of 1945, beginning in February, and by the end of the year a new National Assembly was in place, elected in part by women and including thirty-three women members. Women;politicians

The emancipation of French women paralleled the liberation of France in 1944. France;German occupation Indeed, the efforts of French women in resisting the German occupiers, opposing the collaborationist Vichy regime, and aiding the Allies in the liberation were largely the reason for emancipation. The Allied armies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and liberated Paris in August. Along the way, women took on roles that they had not had in recent memory, if in some cases ever. By October, one hundred women from the ranks of nurses, factory workers, and shopgirls, among others, had been appointed municipal councillors in Paris. A woman doctor was appointed to the post of executive secretary in the Ministry of Public Health, and other women were given jobs in the foreign office and Ministry of Colonies. Women were appointed as aides to the mayors of two arrondissements, and a committee of housewives controlled food prices and distribution in Les Halles, the central Paris food market. Juries trying collaborators included women, and the promise was made, soon to become law, that women’s salaries would attain parity with men’s.

Women had fought courageously for France as part of the Resistance and often had been imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their efforts. They had hidden fugitives, carried arms and messages, spied, and occasionally fought with arms, in the Maquis and other organizations. It was the consensus of journalists from around the world, writing on the events of 1944-1945 in France, that the women of France had earned their own liberation, symbolized by the granting of the vote, fully as much as had the people of France generally.

Significance

The immediate effect of votes for French women was of small significance. The two chief fears of those who opposed female suffrage, that French women would either bring communists to power or vote Catholic, were not realized. Subsequent research indicated that in the elections of 1945, 85 percent of women voted in the manner of their husbands, the other 15 percent being largely composed of widows and unmarried women. All political candidates in 1945 sought the “female vote,” but it clearly did not yet exist.

Gaining the vote in and of itself did not immediately alter the position of women in French society. With the vote gained, however, French women had opened the door to change for the future. By 1949, thirty-nine female deputies sat in the National Assembly, and two had served as vice presidents of the Assembly. Each of the major political parties had women in positions of leadership, including Geneviève de Gaulle Gaulle, Geneviève de , niece of the general, in the MRP. Two women were appointed judges in the national courts. Moreover, women had won important social benefits. The promise of equal wages, hours, and benefits made in 1944 had been kept, and social insurance was extended to include pregnant women, who received an allowance adjusted to the cost of living for every month of pregnancy, an extra ration card, and at the birth of their children, the cost of delivery.

In time, legislation in the Assembly responded to women’s issues. Abortion was legalized, and the phrase “head of the family”—meaning the man—was deleted from the law on parental authority. The number of women in higher education increased dramatically, as did the number in the workforce. Thus, while votes for women in France were no more dramatic in immediate impact than they were in the United States or England, in the long run suffrage helped lead to a positive alteration in the relationship of French women to the society of which they were a part. Women;suffrage France;woman suffrage Voting rights;women

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duchen, Claire. Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterrand. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Includes an introduction to suffragists before World War II and to the mentality of French women in the context of both gaining the vote and applying its potential political power in subsequent years. Useful index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMillan, James. Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society, 1870-1940. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. This work is largely about the evolution of suffrage in the years of the Third Republic and is extremely useful for background to the events of 1944-1946. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Paul. Feminism and the Third Republic: Women’s Political and Civil Rights in France, 1918-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Details the development in France of women’s movements and women’s rights, including suffrage, from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, David. Democracy in France Since 1870. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. A standard history of the period, this volume is useful for its inclusion of texts from the Resistance Manifesto of 1944 and the constitution of 1962. The index is adequate, and the bibliography is extensive, if slightly dated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times: From the Enlightenment to the Present. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. A standard text in modern French history, this volume provides details for all aspects of French society and culture. Useful index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeldin, Theodore. France, 1848-1945. Vol. 2 in The Oxford History of Modern Europe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. This volume explores in careful detail the social, political, and cultural development of France over the period indicated and includes an in-depth analysis of the role of women in French society. Extensive index and no bibliography.

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