How did Social Reforms Improve Women’s Position during the Third Republic?

Category: Gender, Reforms
Last Updated: 03 Mar 2020
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Over the course of Third Republic, social reform policies were largely shaped by industrialisation and the fears of social discontent it instilled amongst republicans, war and the on-going demographic crisis. The social question became ever more pressing and ultimately came the gradual recognition that the state had to play a more prominent role in administrating social policy. Concern over the administration and the cultural effects of implementing social policy led to a preoccupation with the question of women in the new Republic. Through a gendered reading of republican history women were undoubtedly a prominent area in political discussions throughout the Third Republic and after 1870, reformative legislation was in certain cases clearly gender specific, and designed with the position of women in mind. However, state instigated reforms passed in the areas of education, work and familial health largely “sought to enhance the position of women within society in ways dictated by their gendered vision” (S. Foley, P144, 2004). As a result of social reforms throughout the Third Republic, undeniably “women’s lives did change with bourgeoises and ouvrieres alike entering the world of work in ever greater numbers, however these changes occurred in tandem with continued emphasis on women’s maternity” (Pedersen, p 695, 1996). Reformers sought to reinforce the social construction of woman as mother and by the end of the regime the doctrine of separate spheres prevailed, “women had a place in the third republic as mothers of future citizens, but little success in their claims to equal treatment in their own right” (Pedersen, p.695, 1996).

In the early years of the Third Republic, the most significant social reforms, which had real potential to improve the position of women, were in the domain of education. Reform of the education system began in 1880 with the Camille See law establishing lycees and colleges for girls as well as boys. The following year saw the introduction of free, secular education for both sexes under Jules Ferry, a law which was amended in 1882 to make attendance compulsory between the ages of 6-13. Education over the course of the republic became arguably, the most crucial element in female emancipation. However, “progress, over the period 1870-1914 was slow and undynamic” (McMillan, p53, 1981). The laws were difficult to enforce, as social expectations of girls were not necessarily compatible with compulsory education. Amongst working class families, young girls were expected and required to work to contribute to the family income, and thus school attendance was low; this hostility to the laws was also felt in the provinces, where attendance was often seasonal in conjunction with working seasons on the land. The need to educate girls was often seen as unnecessary amongst upper-middle class families who resided in the doctrine of separate spheres and saw education as common. Indeed, in the early years of the new system, it was largely the middle-class population that benefited the most from the changes in education.

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In addition to the socio-cultural and economic restraints on the progress of girl’s education, the republican government cannot be said to have implemented the reforms to drastically change the lot of women. In fact the laws were designed to keep women in the same position as they had been under the Second Empire, a position dictated by male authority and shaped by their gender difference. The Camille See law intentionally prescribed a distinctly different curriculum for boys and girls and did not prepare girls for higher education or include Latin classes to allow girls to take the baccalaureate, but rather prepared them for domesticity, with the aim of creating “Republican companions for Republican men” (Foley, p146, 2004). The intention was never to provide boys and girls with equal educational opportunities and the law was unquestionably “designed to dissociate female education from the professional and career orientations of its male equivalents” (Silverman, p66, 1992). Camille See in particular was an ardent defender of the doctrine of separate spheres, “nothing was further from his mind than the creation of female lawyers, doctors or politicians” (McMillan, p51, 1981).

Furthermore, before 1880 the Church had been largely responsible for educating girls and boys in religious schools. To consolidate the new republic and secure the regime, legislators believed in the need to diminish the influence of the church in society and break its strong hold over women. The incentives to introduce educational policies were closely bound up with anti-clericalism and thus in hindsight, can be seen to constitute more of a “victory for anticlericalism [rather than] feminism” (McMillan, p47, 1981).

Nevertheless, the educational reforms did constitute a real achievement and eventually improved the level of education for girls. By developing in a way that was unanticipated by their creators they eventually “undermined the assumption that girls were irrevocably destined for domestic life” (Foley, p146, 2004) In the face of competition with private and religious schools that did offer Latin for girls, certain state schools were forced to introduce the subject and prepare girls for the baccalaureate. Over the period 1900 to 1914 the number of female students registered in higher education rose from 624 to 2547, a slow but significant increase which paved the way for a select group of middle class women into the professions. The law had paradoxically “led certain women to choose the very careers it was supposed to discourage” (Silverman, p66, 1992).

Female teachers were seen by many as republican instruments to continue teaching young girls about their domestic role, and thus while paradoxically granting many women with increased independence, like the educational legislation itself, they also highlight a commitment to a supportive and dependant role for women based upon their feminine characteristics, rather than a desire to enhance their position in society. An 1879 law set up the Ecole Normale Superieure de Saint-Cloud in Paris which provided female teacher training to manage the spread of republican ideals through education. By 1906 about 78,000 women teachers worked in state schools and a further 5000 in religious schools; almost half the teaching profession were women, demonstrating an acceptance of women working in nurturing, caring roles which upheld republican values. By 1914 as a consequences of opening up secondary education and the professions to women, they were beginning to be visible in the public sphere, “but the implications of this change for a social model based on ‘difference’ remained to be addressed” (Foley, p148, 2004).

The post-war 1924 Berard Law finally saw the alignment of boys and girls curricula and the Ministry of Education established a baccalaureate stream for girls schools. Yet a 1928 decree kept the girls diploma running for those who did not want to sit the baccalaureate and attempted to continue to reinforce the development of capable housewives. Nevertheless, in 1929 lycee fees were scrapped and the number of enrolments rose substantially; 255000 girls were registered in 1929. Only then had a veritable “trend towards modern mass education begun” (Sowerwine, p128, 2001) which was not based upon sexual difference.

As a result of educational reforms, the number of middle-class women entering the labour market did rise; in 1906 779,000 women worked in the commercial sector, by 1921 the number had increased to 1,008 000. Many middle-class women were finding work as teachers or nurses and in the tertiary sector as secretaries, typists or postal employees. Yet, on the whole women who entered the professions were markedly young, single women. Managerial positions across all sectors were almost solely reserved for men and despite the successes of certain women who did enter into the “male” professions, numbers remained low – twenty female doctors and ten female lawyers had completed their studies by 1906. The advancement in the position of some middle class women into the public sphere, alongside the development of the bicycle which granted women more independence, and the changing fashions of the Belle Epoque – shorter hair, and shorter hemlines- encouraged a perceived idea that middle-class women were en route to emancipation and that their presence in the public sphere was considerably greater than it was (Sowerwine, 2001).However, the reality of working life for most women was far removed from “the emancipated existence imagined by troubled male minds” (McMillan, p142, 2000).

The acceptance that women from working-class families needed to work for their family’s survival was not a phenomenon that emerged in the Third Republic and despite republican rhetoric about a woman’s domestic role, legislators “never seriously proposed prohibiting all women’s wage labour…instead working hours were limited” (Stewart, p15, 1989). In 1906 women constituted 36.6% of the working population (not including agriculture) but their participation was “on terms of massive inferiority” (McMillan, p57, 1985), with women in most sectors earning half as much as men performing similar tasks. The early years of the Third Republic saw the introduction of a number of reforms which attempted to control and regulate working-class women’s working patterns and improve their working conditions. An 1874 law forbade women from working in mines, in 1892 the working day was set at 11 hours and night work was banned. In 1898 a law penalising employers for industrial accidents marked an attempt at tightening up factory safety, in 1904 the working day was shortened to 10 hours and in 1906 an obligatory weekly rest was decreed. In 1909 a law decreed that a woman could not lose her job after having a baby and 1913 saw the introduction of 4 weeks unpaid maternity leave. For reformers, the ideal was to “create a situation where a women’s productive work would not interfere with their reproductive work” (McMillan, p.178, 2000).

However, the implementation of protective working legislation was difficult and in many cases where women were expected to bring in their share of the family income and resume all domestic duties, they had little choice but to break the laws. Financial demands meant that in many sectors women needed to work more than 10 hours and fines for breaching the laws were low; night work enabled women to both earn a wage and care for their families in the day. Furthermore, despite the 1907 law allowing married women who worked to dispose freely of their own income, no attempt to address wage inequality was made until 1915 when a minimum wage was introduced for domestic workers. In 1914 the wages of women who worked in the clothing and domestic industries, had not reached even 50 % of those of men. Despite acceptance that many women need to work, they were not expected to earn enough to lead an independent life a “deliberate policy on the part of employers not to pay women a living wage” (McMillan, p.68, 1981), to keep women in a dependent, familial position. Thus, social labour reforms (and deliberate lack thereof with regards to wages) were largely implemented to facilitate a woman’s dual exploitation as a worker and a bearer of children, a position based upon male double standards and inequality.

The war years invariably required women to take on new roles and act independently while their husbands were at war and in 1915 they were temporarily granted paternal authority. A number of new industries – chemicals, munitions and metal- opened their doors to women in the name of the war effort and the increasing number of accidents in the workplace boosted concerns over working conditions and the health of women who worked long hours. In 1917 the government introduced a female factory inspectors scheme for the protection of female labour, offering companies financial incentives for participation and in the post-war years the inspectorate “did much to raise the condition of women workers far above the level of abject misery and exploitation that had persisted throughout the 19th century” (McMillan, p144, 1981).Wartime creches and nurseries were imposed by the government to enable working class mothers to continue with their jobs, yet “far from being established as a feminist demand” (Reynolds, p.36, 1996), they were viewed as beneficial for the child and a necessary concession to meet production needs.

From the 1920s onwards, post-war, and faced with huge losses, the Third Republic became increasingly marked by state intervention in the lives of citizens and “reformers focused on reproduction and depopulation, linking the demographic crisis to the degeneration of the working-class family” (Stewart, p.108, 1995). In 1920 the Declaration of the Rights of the Family was issued, this meant that the protection of and preservation of the family and the collective was now seen as more important than the rights of the individual. With the depopulation crisis reaching a new height in post-war years, masculine fears of the loss of the familial women rose to a new level and “wartime losses coupled with a century of slow population growth, gave impetus to the country’s pronatalist programs and general public health measures resulted” (Smith, p.50, 2003). The working mother became increasingly problematic as the government and employers endorsed the notion that domesticity and motherhood as a moral duty for women would not only save France, it would also create jobs for returning soldiers. Propaganda scapegoated the ‘new woman’ through rejection of her maternal duty, as responsible for Frances low population growth and therefore wartime failures.

Repopulating France was seen as the most important social function for a woman and in the interwar period government led incentives “reduced women from whole human beings to temporarily fertile bearers of children” (Reynolds, p.24, 1996). The conservative Bloc National established the Conseil Superieur de la Natalite in 1919, a government body designed to support the pronatalist, Alliance Nationale pour l’Accroissement de la Population Francaise, which imposed an income tax surcharge on single men and women over 30 without children. The 1920 law imposed strict fines and imprisonment for anyone providing birth control or facilitating contraception and a 1923 law designed to restrict abortions, made them a penal crime for anyone who performed or had an abortion. The new laws affected men and women differently, and “while ostensibly universal, were actually gendered” (Pedersen, p.676, 1996), prohibiting all forms of female contraception except for the condom, thus perpetuating the republican ideal of productive man and reproductive woman. The laws aimed to diminish a woman’s right to control her own fertility and increase “French legislators’ political and medical authority to intervene into family life through the bodies of women”. (Pedersen, p 677, 1996)

The code de la Famille declared in 1939, the biggest legislative achievement for pronatalists (Koos, p.705, 1996) encouraged women to have more children by paying more family allowances to larger families, and offered a 10% wage supplement to workers whose wives stayed at home to raise children. The laws against contraception and abortion were also made tougher. Politicians used science and medical authority to socially define women’s position as a mother and housewife and in this sense “women’s reproduction became linked to the nation’s health” (Koos, p.635, 1996) and some fascist pronatalist newspapers portrayed female aborters as being guilty of treason.

By the end of the regime in 1940, women did occupy a greater share of public space than they had previously through the unprecedented development of education and “by turning motherhood and other private family responsibilities into political and social concerns, Third Republic politicians ironically increased women’s public function.” However, this public function was largely defined by women’s biological, moral and social duty as a mother (Stromberg Childers, p6, 2003).Despite greater educational and job opportunities available to both middle-class and working class-women, and some legal gains such as the liberalisation of the divorce law and the 1938 revision of the Civil Code, “the doctrine of separate spheres had not been seriously undermined, neither in theory nor in practice” (p 189, Mcmillan, 1981). Women were repeatedly denied the right to vote and the revised Civil Code, still decreed male dominance over the family. Prevailing patriarchal mentalities were slow to change and even many women and feminists did not dispute the familial movement in the 1930s. By the end of the Third Republic men still held authority in the public and private spheres and although many women may have benefitted physically from certain social welfare policies, and from new job opportunities, a woman’s social position in 1940 continued to be largely determined by the patriarchal model established by the French Civil Code and “a gender order based upon sexual difference rather than sexual equality was still widely considered to be fundamental to the well-being of society”(McMillan, p. 154, 2000). Women were still subject to male inequality and primarily defined by their gender, as a mother and housewife.


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