The collections

Stories of women in 19th and 20th century France

Recent research places women as subjects and actors of history, active in all areas of public life. Confined by the dominant ideology that wants them to be wives, mothers and housewives, women are indeed, whether they like it or not, involved in all the developments of French society over the 19th and 20th centuries. This period saw them conquer new rights, claim equality and independence, free themselves from many taboos ... A feminist revolution was accomplished, through access to education, women's right to vote, without forgetting the control of fertility.

The difference between the sexes and the `` weakness '' of the female psyche

The scientific or romantic discourses held on "woman" and the difference between the sexes are innumerable. Hippocrates' formula sums up the dominant thought: the female sex is defined by her aptitude for motherhood and the woman dominated by her womb. His life is punctuated by pregnancies deemed debilitating and menstruation, at the origin of mood swings that justify their exclusion from any public role.

No urn, no platform for those who bleed every month and carry children! Eternal sick, it is to protect public order (and protect them themselves) that they should be confined to the house. To man thought, reason, genius, to woman beauty and generation.

Are not women, according to the alienists, more prone than men to madness and in the majority in asylums? Hysteria is an evil that all women are susceptible to one day being affected !. From this century insisting on the natural differences between men and women remains the idea denounced by Simone de Beauvoir (1906-1986) in "The Second Sex" "" one is not born a woman, one becomes one ".

The time of the political exclusion of women

The Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 established paternal power and made the married woman a minor, weighing down her future as a citizen. For Geneviève Fraisse, male exasperation is explained “by the fear of confusion between the sexes”, which would result from female citizenship.

Yet women were everywhere during the time of extreme politicization of 1789. They speak in club stands, make donations to the army, participate in civic ceremonies, write petitions, write newspapers, watch and denounce, attend executions, wear petticoats in the three national colors, etc.
"Citizens without citizenship", treated as knitters, they get involved in the popular movement of sans-culottes, scaring the conventional. The decree of May 20, 1795 then prohibited women from entering the stands, and from grouping more than five in the street.

Nevertheless, the French Revolution is an important reference for the socialists of the 19th century. As early as 1808, Charles Fourier (1772-1837) observed that "social progress and period changes take place because of the progress of women towards freedom".

Guilty women and the law

Crimes and offenses committed by women in the 19th and early 20th centuries are most often specific: infanticide, abortion, domestic theft. The justice rendered by men is sometimes indulgent, sometimes extremely severe against the accused, because the model of the gentle and submissive woman is called into question here and any deviance is monstrous. Infanticide affects one in 10,000 newborns in the 19th century. Considered under the old regime as a crime and a sin, he was punished by death. More indulgent, the revolution finds excuses: the age or the fleeting madness of the criminal mother.
If the magistrates, from the bourgeoisie perceive the accused as watches, the jurors, of more modest origin, are more sensitive to the distress of these women, often young servants seduced and abandoned (they have a status that brings together prostitutes, so frequent are the sexual abuses of which they are victims). Severity imposed itself as associations and laws protecting children developed later.

The partner's refusal to assume his responsibilities being, along with rape and incest, a reason given by women to explain their action, the prohibition of paternity research, established by the Napoleonic code, is increasingly contested. The law of 1912 authorizes it, subject to conditions, and also creates the status of natural child.

Domestic theft expresses either the dimension of a revolt against an alienating condition, or extreme poverty. The maids '' thieves '' exposed themselves to heavy prison sentences (they represented half of those relegated to Cayenne in the 19th century). The severity of domestic theft did not fade until the beginning of the 20th century.


While the law of 1920 strengthens the penalties provided for and jointly punishes the termination of pregnancy and contraceptive propaganda, the law of 1923 penalizes abortion.
Under Vichy in 1942, abortion was redefined as a “crime against race” judged by the state court which could pronounce the death penalty. Women who have had an abortion or have had an abortion are the main victims of the repression. This birth pressure initiated under the Third Republic, reinforced under the occupation, was not called into question until the 1960s and 1970s. The law on the liberalization of contraception, known as the Neuwirth law, was passed in 1967 and in 1975 the Veil law authorized abortion (under conditions).

The weight of representations

Parricides, maricides, infanticides, abortions or aborters: all these women come out of the sex crime that fascinates society. Female crimes are seen through a prism of dominant representations of women as an angel or a devil, a mother or a whore.
The criminal pays not only for her actions but also for the monstrous transgression they reveal.

Violent husbands

If the duty of fidelity is relative for men, it is absolutely binding on women. According to article 324 of the penal code, the murder committed by the husband on the wife caught in the act of adultery must be excused! This way of thinking is part of the deep misogyny of the 19th century. The disobedience of a wife can justify her killing.

The courts display a double standard of morality according to sex: conciliatory for the man, uncompromising for the woman. In the 19th century, most spousal homicides were committed by men who beat their wives to death. We inspect the reputation of the victim deemed unfaithful, drunk or spendthrift, which excuses the culprit! Maricide, on the other hand, is qualified as premeditated murder.


Perceived and defined differently according to the times, rape has a history. In the 17th century, confused with kidnapping, it similarly tarnishes the reputation of the two protagonists. It is a crime rarely punished. At the end of the 18th century, the increase in cases concerning the rape of children testifies to the evolution of mentalities.

Between 1791 (or the penal code made it a crime against people) and 1863 several laws refined the definition of rape. In 1857 jurisprudence speaks for the first time of moral as much as physical violence. If the stigma weighs more on the aggressor than on the attacked one, gendarmes and magistrates rarely take the measure of the trauma suffered by the victim.

At the end of the 18th century, public opinion assimilates the aggressors to crude monsters from the rural world or to noble libertines. In the nineteenth century the rapist took the figure of the '' wandering proletarian '' then that of the pedophile teacher, the incestuous father or the murderer of children.
At the end of the twentieth century, the aggressor was "mister everyone" and the danger was everywhere, but the press and legal medicine focused on the monstrous figures of child rapists and minimized sexual crimes against women .

For feminists, rape is a violence induced by patriarchal society, the paroxysmal expression of a relationship of domination, the seriousness of which they accuse the justice system of.
As victims dare to file a complaint, the number of rape cases brought to justice is increasing.

The denunciation of these misdeeds is the subject of media coverage (testimony broadcasts, TV films, etc.). Despite this, surveys show that only 10 to 15% of women file a complaint (the rapist is known or belongs to the victim's extended family) ...
The scale, diversity and seriousness of attacks against women have given rise to recent awareness in French society.

Safe and 'painless' childbirth

While women gave birth at home (sometimes with the assistance of a midwife and often very questionable hygienic conditions), the practice of doing so in clinics became more and more widespread from the 1960s. ten, resulting in a significant reduction in infant and maternal mortality.
Launched by the doctor Fernand Lamaze, the painless childbirth method must be imposed on the orders of doctors and the Vatican. In 1956, the National Assembly voted to reimburse preparation sessions based on information, relaxation and breathing control.

The conquest of contraception

The law of 1920 prohibiting the sale of contraceptives, French women are not entitled to spermicidal jellies, contraceptive eggs, IUDs (1928), nor to the pill tested by Doctor Pincus in Puerto Rico in 1956. The named association Planning Familial in 1960 revived the debate thanks to female doctors, lawyers, women of letters and mothers of families.

Contraception legislation (François Mitterrand's campaign promise in 1965) was then debated in parliament and the law adopted in 1967 mainly thanks to the voices of the left, but at the cost of many concessions. The Protestants are in favor of it, but there is strong opposition from the Catholic Church, which only allows birth control through abstinence. The recourse to clandestine abortion remains important.

A body subject to economic order

For women we speak of overexploitation in the world of work. In industry, women are paid by the piece, while men are paid by the day and generally better paid for equal work. Depersonalized by the wearing of the uniform, occupied with dirty tasks, they are constantly monitored, limited in their movements and frequently humiliated (insulting punishments ...). Domestic work continues in the factory (cleaning machines outside working hours, machines and the workshop as well as preparing meals and maintaining uniforms).

The female body may be suitable for sexual use by men, colleagues or supervisors: “layer or die!” that is the motto. Bodies taken by force or for sale: wage labor does not protect prostitution. It was not until 1992 that sexual harassment was introduced into the penal code.

Women's access to culture

In the 19th century, the push by women towards artistic activities was irresistible despite everything that was done to prevent it. If the Julian Academy, from 1873, trained many painters, they struggled to exhibit their works and sell them. Hélène Bertaux, founder of the Union of Women Painters and Sculptors, organizes specific exhibitions for women. The School of Fine Arts became mixed in 1897, while a decree authorized applications for the Prix de Rome. Original talents like Camille Claudel have sometimes difficult paths. Until the 1970s, the artistic community, even revolutionary, was excluded.

Publishing houses were created to promote the writings of women, but they were still in the minority at the exhibition “Twelve years of contemporary art in France”. Faced with this situation of exclusion, collectives of plastic artists are created, such as the group "women in struggle", "the Collectif femmes / art" or "Art et regard de femmes".

The history of women and gender produces numerous theses and publications each year. Four generations of historians are now working on its development in universities and research laboratories. It is supported by associations and scientific journals. Gender is recognized today as a “useful category of historical analysis” for considering the relationship between women and men and the construction of the feminine and the masculine over time.

In the areas explored, legal, political, social and cultural constraints have certainly been eased at the cost of constantly renewed negotiations. Women have gained spaces of freedom, autonomy and power. But if certain obstacles to gender equality are erased, they give way to new configurations where the hierarchy of the sexes has not disappeared.

Histoires des femmes dans la France des XIXe et XXe siècle, by Christine Bard, with Frédérique El Amrani and Bibia Pavard. Editions Ellipses, May 2013.

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