From Vichy to Alizée: Making The Modern French Woman with Dr. Sarah Fishman

From Vichy to Alizée: Making The Modern French Woman with Dr. Sarah Fishman

 
 
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A conversation with renowned scholar Dr. Sarah Fishman on how French women under Vichy, who were among the most oppressed in the developed world, turned France into the most egalitarian major country on Earth.

 

Hello everyone. This is your host Gary. I’m just going to start by saying what you all want to hear: our next episode is going to be returned to the main series. In two weeks time I will begin an eight to ten episode long series on the Gallic wars an epic culmination to the centuries-long conflict between the Gauls and Rome which will completely transform both. As much as I would like to put out episodes more frequently, I’m currently working on my doctoral dissertation and working as a teaching assistant. So just the fact that I am doing a podcast in the first place is crazy ambitious and I am so grateful that my colleagues have helped put together these special episodes because if they didn’t then I wouldn’t be able to put out regular content. Putting together the podcast is a lot of work and as of now it doesn’t pay the bills so I am incredibly grateful to my guests my patrons and of course you my listeners. So just know that I am working as hard as I reasonably can and probably a little more than that.

Last week I delivered an episode on women in France during World War 1 and its immediate aftermath. Today we’re ending our specials for Women’s History Month with an interview with one of the leading scholars on women in Vichy, Dr. Sarah Fishman, wherein we talk about how France went from being arguably the least free country in the developed world for women in the 1920s and 1930s to today being possibly the most egalitarian country for women on planet Earth. After graduating from Harvard University Dr. Fishman went to France where she interviewed wives of French prisoners of war for her first book. ‘We Will Wait: Wives of French Prisoners of War 1940 to 1945.’

From her position at the University of Houston she transitioned to studying juvenile delinquency under Vichy for her 2002 book ‘The Battle for Children: World War II Youth, Crime and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth Century France.’  Her most recent work ‘From Vichy to the Sexual Revolution: Gender, Marriage and Family in France 1945 to 1965’ moves beyond Vichy and examines how women and children’s lives changed after liberation. I could spend an hour just reading through her CV. So for now I’ll just say she’s very accomplished. In addition to her prolific work on modern French women she co-authored the book ‘France and its empire since 1870’ with Alice Conklin and Robert Zaretsky, two major figures in modern French studies. So if you’re looking for a good book that is both in depth but also accessible to non experts I highly recommend it. On a personal note she is my advisor and the chair of my dissertation committee so I suppose some credit for this entire podcast is owed to her and the many conversations that we have had both in and out of the classroom over the past couple of years. With that here is my conversation with Dr. Fishman on women from Vichy to present.

 

Gary:

Thank you very much for sitting down with me. Is it right to say you are the world’s leading expert on women in the Vichy period?

 

Fishman:

I’m not sure I would say the world’s leading. I would say that I was one of the first amongst the first to start looking at the lives of women beyond women and the resistance in France during these years.

 

Gary

And not just women but children also. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your specific work?

 

Fishman:

Yes. So the first time what happened was, I went to France and had proposed to my adviser something about women in France because they were already some interesting books on women in the U.S. during World War II. And women in Germany during World War II. And the only thing you could find in France were stories of women in the Resistance, and he thought it was a good idea. So I went over and in the old-fashion card catalog deal and looked for the word ‘woman’ which in French is the same word for ‘wife’ [femme]. And so I’m looking up femme in the subject catalog and I keep finding femme de prisionner which means (       5:09         ). And I found it and kept finding it and finding it and I thought, What’s the deal with (     5:15        ). And then I discovered you know that it was a really large group of women and that a huge number of French soldiers had been captured in the Battle of France and were away for four or five years from their families and that the wives, (there were so many entries) they formed their own association and they published a monthly little newspaper magazine kind of thing and so that’s how that ended up happening and looking at questions about the impact of war on women’s lives it seems to me that this was one of the groups that had the most direct impact in that that would be an interesting group to look at because it was a really large-

I estimated I think something like seven hundred thousand women without their husbands maybe. I can’t remember the numbers exactly.  And at that time it was in the 80s a lot of the women were still alive. So I managed to do a lot of interviews and correspondence with women whose husbands had been POWs and sometimes with their husbands. And so one of the topics that came up as I was writing about prisoner of war wives or researching is this concern about their children. You know mothers aren’t the authority figures in their families. So what’s going to happen with dads away? And concern that women would not be able to exert authority and you know a lot of writing about that. And even amongst the women telling each other well here’s how here’s some ways you can do it. Think about what your husband would say you know what would he do? And so which I argue was a form of sort of acting ‘as if‘ which is a temporary role which you can then give back.

But so the children at the same time you had a tripling of the number of kids appearing before juvenile courts between 1940-1942 and that was rather shocking especially for a conservative government that wants to re-moralize society and get all the kids you know strong and healthy. You know, Pro-French and anti-Semitic.(7:11-some joking  don’t want this to come off wrong)      So they were really concerned and of course they put the two together because a lot of the research from before the war  had sort of posited the father absence is a huge cause of delinquency and there are a lot of problems with that work that came before the war but that was just an easy assumption was that it’s because all the fathers are gone that these kids are going crazy.

So I moved into the second book just with that question. Is that true? And it was such an easy answer: no. There were very few children of POWs in the in the groups of kids that appeared before the courts. And I discovered that by going through court documents it was other kids. So then the question is ‘well why so many other kids?’ And you know what was you know what it would tell us about French society during the occupation? So that’s when we got interested in sort of there in the context of children’s lives during the war. And also if you look at it in the context of adult crime it’s a situation where it’s not clear; the lines are blurred. I mean you’re family starving you might you know try to get some food outside of the official system of rationing. You know you might find the black market you might go out to the farm and buy stuff which is strictly speaking illegal. And so with adults blurring that line it’s no surprise that kids did as well. And if you look at the relative increase in juvenile and adult crime rates it’s an almost identical curve; of course many more cases for adults. So I argue in the book it’s the same circumstances that cause adults to be more and more finding themselves in court that are causing it’s there’s need and there’s opportunity. Kids. Most kids in France stopped going to school at age 13. And so they’re working and they’re working in places where they have exposure to you know flour if these are in a bakery or steal. I mean you wouldn’t believe the stuff that they could haul home for their parents help their parents.

 

Gary

I would believe it hasn’t been that long ago. Yeah yeah. Not to say that I was ever caught for anything. In any case, I think there’s a lot of really good stuff to unpack there one thing. One small thing I just want to know is that you make a case in your book that it was actually the prisoners of war returning that caused more of a negative influence on children or at least as I understand as negative a disruption.

 

Fishman:

It was disruptive. I mean it’s just I mean if you’ve ever been in a relationship with somebody and you’re away for any stretch of time and you come back it’s not like you can usually pick up like you’ve been left yesterday. And on top of that you know the men had been gone for if they were captured in 1940. They didn’t come back to 1945 unless they got released to some other program. And you know they’re not exactly at summer camp even though that’s how the government tried to picture it as you know this is kind of fun and they’re doing this and that; it’s a prison camp they’re prisoners you know. And so you know they’re hungry and they’re being worked really hard and they’re in the war zone as the war is coming to an end. They’re where the bombs are falling. So they’re being marched as this you know sort of hostages at the German army needs them they’re being used as bargaining tickets and so they come back after having had a difficult five years and their wives have also gotten used to taking charge and running things. And so there was clearly not tension and it was hard harder than I think.

You know I think a lot of the publications that came out sort of romanticized when the men would come home. But what I found is from what I looked at it didn’t look like the divorce rate amongst those couples was particularly higher than the divorce rate amongst all couples in France. I think that was the concern, is that there would be a surge of divorces and there really wasn’t; there was pent up divorce for a variety of reasons which you know happens because she had required couples to stay married at least three years before they could get a divorce. And because when people are starving they tend to just need each other so they don’t get a divorce so this is a common thing that you have to have a little upsurge of divorce after the war but it’s not driven by prisoners’ families. So I think that they come to some kind of a new kind of way of operating over the over a couple of years of tension and difficulty readjusting is basically what they came to think.

 

Gary:

Right. So if we could step back for just a moment, So in our last episode I talked about women essentially in World War 1 and then in the post-war period how women in France unlike in much of the Anglosphere they actually had their rights reduced rather than increased. Because in the Anglosphere many of them got the vote whereas I wouldn’t happen in France till 1945. So I was hoping today we could do Vichyand maybe a little bit farther as we approach women in the modern French woman. So when all of these prisoners of war were taken by the Germans this left as you said somewhere around 700 thousand women who were essentially in charge of keeping the economy going and caring for the families without the traditional breadwinner. Can you tell us about the effect this had on women?

 

Fishman:

So the women actually they would say this some of them depending on their circumstances. Now if they were on the farm they’ve clearly been helping with the farm you know farming is a family operation in France but they might have to do things that they had not had to do before. Like figure out breeding that might not have been something that they had done, or you know hire people to replace the male labour on the farm or find enough women if you saw that film ‘The Guardians’ that gives you a really good idea what women had to do to keep a farm going during the war.

 

Gary:

I’ll add it to my list!

 

Fishman:

Yeah it’s backbreaking work. It is set in World War 1 actually. So anyway so yeah they had to. And then in small shops they probably had helped with this shop so again that it’s not that huge a change to be you know working in some way to keep this part of the family enterprise. I think for middle class women that was the one they were the ones who were more likely to be having different kinds of experiences in the labor market and they would have maybe not even been in the labor market if they didn’t have to. But on top of that the other thing that happens in France of course is shortages. The Germans see France as this great bread basket which it is. And they requisition and take huge amounts of production of agricultural production wheat and beef and everything. Leaving the French with very little and rationing and harsh rationing. The rationing calories in some points were below fifteen hundred calories a day which is you know a weight loss goal! *laughs*

 

Gary:

The German diet!

 

Fishman

The Vichy government would say well, they’ll be supplementing it with un-rationed goods. Well that’s fine if you have the money to buy whatever, but if you’re a working class family, and when you do get to a shop with your ration tickets there’s a huge long line and you have to wait in line and you get to the front in the stuff you want is probably not there and you might have to you know take what you can get if there’s anything left. And so that’s a huge operation just to get food and bring it home. If you’re living in a city and a lot of couples would work out a system of taking turns in the line or you know while the wife is waiting in line the husband could be watching the kids or whatever and these women didn’t have that support. So they have to deal with a difficult situation. You have shortages ,you know, very little help maybe having to add a job to all of that to you know their ordinary lives. One of the women I interviewed I asked, “What did you do that was different?” She said “oh mama I’ve never even written a check!” *laughs*

And she was really funny. So I think that they did gain skills and I think came you know in some cases they move back with their families which made the labor easier but certainly led to its share of disputes over rules about raising children and things like that if there were kids. They put it in very veiled terms when they write about it but it’s clear that it’s not easy when you’re being undermined in attempts to discipline your children by the indulgent grandparent or whatever whichever way it goes. So anyway so yeah they had to really change their whole lives and figure out how to make things run. And that was not a role…legally they were not allowed to do that legally according to the French legal code they had to get their husband’s permission to have a job outside the home to ,you know, borrow money to do it. And so temporarily the government lifts all that because of all these women. And so they they’re doing things, they’re just doing them. They have to just figure out how to do them. And you know I suspect they did some of this stuff before that the husbands were all dictators but you know they had the husband to say well you know who do you think I should do that. I mean you know it’s just when you’re the only person left to make all these decisions it’s a lot to take up.

 

Gary

Yeah I’m sure. So one thing that is really eye-opening about your work is when you talk about ideology versus practicality. So Vichy was a heavily traditionalist regime that wanted women out of the workplace and in the domestic sphere while men worked. But since potentially upwards of a million men were absent, wounded, or killed Vichy pushed more women into the workplace. So did Vichy have an inadvertent positive effect on women’s rights for this reason and women’s consciousness?

 

Fishman:

Yes in some ways I would say yes. I mean I don’t know. Like I say for a lot of women it’s not a change from staying at home and being a homemaker to being in the workforce. But even if they were already working it would be under new circumstances and for other women are going to have to enter the labor force and they’re going to be making their own money and making their own decisions. And you know that’s one of the arguments that’s used at the end of the war in terms of giving women the vote was that they had proved themselves worthy not just through the Resistance, women of the Resistance that was the big thing, but also because they were able to keep their families together and you know sort of keep things going.

And just in the same way that economically the traditional vision of Petain and the conservatives around him was to go back to a rural France, small towns, small farms, you know, industry bad ,you know, big business bad. But because they have to meet these German requisitions Vichy inadvertently causes a lot of concentration and rationalisation of the industry. And so it promotes in some ways the modernization of France’s economy in spite of itself. And I would say the same goes for women is partly because of what they have to do. If Vichy really wanted prisoners wives to stay home they would’ve given them much more generous benefits but they got allowances because their husbands were away that which is ridiculously low and not adjusted for the real huge rate of inflation. And so they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths. So yeah I think that, and then the other thing and I argue you in this second book is when the war is over there’s this sense of OK we’re done with this, because the distance between what Vichy is saying and the reality that people are living gets further and further you know when there’s the shock of defeat in 1940 and somebody say yeah we’re just going to go back and everything’s going to go back to this wonderful simple life you know, it sounds pretty good you know in the shock of the moment but as this sort of I call it Baby Talk keeps going and it’s so far removed and then you’re having policemen pulling families out of apartments because they’re Jewish and they’re putting children, you know arresting children. It’s you know it gets further and further removed from what they’re living and they get more and more cynical about it.

 

Gary

So one thing that I would just note…it’s funny because in my own personal work looking at the munitionettes here you would mention how the French government they hardly gave women welfare and at the same time expecting them to continue their womanly duties and my case would be. And that’s something which happens also in World War One with the munitionettes where they try to get women to produce the maximum amount of babies and the maximum amount of munitions while meanwhile the English are actually providing quite a bit of welfare. So one thing which we are going to get to in a little bit is this dispelling of myths about France, and one of them being how this sort of turned towards being this huge welfare state. extremely left wing. This is a pretty new phenomenon. This is not something that is really part of France’s older history.

 

Fishman:

In fact it was it was very slow compared to even to the German Empire. Very slow to anything in terms of protection of workers rights, child labor. I mean if you look at anything in terms of welfare…now the thing about the allowances for the women is that they didn’t see it as welfare. They saw this as entitlement because their husbands were absent in the service of the country.

 

Gary:

But women saw it as an entitlement whereas the men-

 

Fishman:

Well the the government I think also agreed that that they needed to step up to replace the husbands. You can see that in the government documents but they just don’t pay them enough. You know in other words that the talk is all you know these are wonderful our husbands are suffering they think they have this image of the prisoners as suffering in atonement for France’s sins and sort of being purified through that atonement and they would come back and meanwhile their wives are suffering so they have this sort of talk you know and we need to sort of keep their wives and their families safe and meanwhile the allocations- I think I did at one point in the first book look at the weekly allocation for a woman with one child or whatever versus the cost of a dress. And it’s just it’s clear that those allowances which were meant to replace the husband’s salary while he was serving where he was in captivity came nowhere near. So they do talk about this as being an entitlement.

But then when the prisoners come home it’s a huge thing. It’s a huge disappointment because they don’t feel that they get compensated for what they’ve been through adequately which again they see as an entitlement and they have to fight for at least a decade to get anything close to what even to be called ‘veterans’ because some of them were captured on their way to their units. So there was this whole fight about: “You’re not really veterans” there was just this really sort of unpleasant thing that happened to the POWs when they came back. So yeah. on one side it wasn’t entitlement but it’s also true that in terms of welfare France had been very far behind the other countries and including the more much more conservative German Empire in creating these benefits and providing for working families.

 

Gary

So I know that your area of expertise isn’t necessarily the resistance but because there were so many women that were involved in it and were actually leaders of the resistance, do you see this as having a big effect on women’s consciousness after the war? Do we see women who are involved in the Resistance now becoming leaders?

 

 

 

Fishman:

Not so much really. I think that it was in the sense that was one of the main you know selling points for giving women the right to vote is that they proved that they’re active politically engaged. You know they care about the republic through their activity in the resistance. So it’s something that that plays well into that you know getting women to vote and in fact it’s de Gaulle who does it while he’s still in Algeria. I believe 1944. And you know it’s just sort of done. It’s not a whole fight in the legislature. In fact in 1922 it was approved by the by the Chamber of Deputies which is the lower house it was the Senate that voted it down. And so if they hadn’t had the Senate which was set up to be a very conservative. There were senators for life for example, the Senate was set up to be a very conservative thing anyway. But yeah I think that being having the role in the Resistance didn’t give them the legitimacy for being politically active…There were communist women in the Resistance. They’d been engaged before the war. They engaged during the war. They engaged after the war. You know that’s one of the myths is that you know women were totally apolitical. And my friend Paula Schwartz who has worked on communist women in the Resistance sort of puts the lie to that. So yeah I think that if they were already inclined to be activist they would maintain that. I’m not sure that it got that many new women involved in politics.

 

Gary

Maybe I’m just thinking of a great screenplay where a woman gets involved in the resistance you know frees Marseille right and then becomes president.*laughs* All right. Well moving on a little bit. So now let’s talk about liberation. So the incoming government gave women the right to vote though in your book you argue that this didn’t have as big an effect on women as the post-war material benefits. So let’s tackle these two different issues separately. So why was it that these sudden ability of all women to vote where previously no women could vote didn’t have a huge transformative effect on women?

 

Fishman

Well because politically and this happens everywhere is always a disappointment. Somehow there’s this argument that women are sort of have a different outlook on the world and it’s more caring and more family oriented.

 

Gary

Which are all bad things!

 

Fishman:

Yes *laughs*. But it turns out that women often vote very similarly to the way men vote. Right. And it’s not it’s not like you have men split between all of these different political trends and women on the left they’re just as sort of divided across the spectrum as men. So that just means that that politics kind of goes back to the way that it was. And while there’s a little bit of a sort of I wouldn’t call it a spike but there are some women that are serving in the Parliament for lack of a better word or as mayors or you know in different positions right after the war. It’s not as if it’s all of a sudden 50/50 and that number starts to go back down as you go through time. So the political system doesn’t really change much as a result of women’s voting. I wouldn’t say that women’s lives don’t change. And the women…the first election where they can vote you can see the pictures they go out in numbers! They are ready. So you know it’s important to them when they do get the vote. But it doesn’t really change the politics overall particularly for women.

 

 

 

Gary:

All right. So let’s get to the second part of that. So why then did the post-war economic boom have such a huge effect on women perhaps even more than right to vote right?

 

Fishman:

Well again we’re going from a society that’s made up that’s dominated by agriculture and French agriculture is dominated by the small family farm partly because of the French Revolution and the land settlement. And so you have lots of those small villages. You have some medium sized cities in the cities. It’s artisanal. You have workshops that are small where you have shops that are small where the women may be working in the shop as well. It’s family oriented and they’re very stable communities in which people know their place and you know it’s it’s it leads to a very sort of unchanging society in terms of how families operate.

Then what happens after the war is what they call the exodus, again they like the biblical terms, a rural exodus. And that is that that because of the economic changes that started during the war you have bigger and bigger industries locating in parts of France like around the city of Paris and Lyon and Marseille, that are pulling people off the farm and into cities. And that makes a huge difference. And in fact one of the interesting sort of unexpected things is that the number of women in the labor force goes down and that’s because in France in the census they count women who work on their family farms and shops as employed. Whereas in some countries they don’t. But when they get to the cities it’s their husbands who are employed in the women’s or out of the labor force. So it looks like women’s participation is dropping radically. It’s just that the families are in a different place and they’re living differently.

And also the that the wealth- the, well the family allowances. So one of the things that became clear as I looked at these household budgets is because France wanted people to have big families, they set up this system whereby the wages that you earn if you’re a man in the workplace and you’re married and you have kids your wages are going to be higher than the guy standing next to you on the line even if you’re doing the exact same job. And so you don’t get money for the first kid because they don’t want single- they don’t want only children. Number two you get an additional 20 percent added to your monthly salary. Number three you add another 20 percent. In other words it’s not like it was total of,  but no actually I think number three I think you get 30 percent but it’s not like goes from 20 to 30. It goes from 20 to 50 and so on and so if you had I think it was like seven kids you could literally double your salary. It’s huge. And that pumps a lot of money into families at that you know. Well it’s universal so it’s for all families. But it really makes a difference in working class families.

And so they’re becoming a part of the modern economy. And wives when you have seven kids you’re probably better off staying home anyway because you are going to pay a lot for whatever. So you know it allows them to stay at home and it allows them to purchase these new things that then feed into the growing economy. But you know again when you’re not in a small village where everybody knows you, where things are done a certain way, where expectations are set. Now listen you’re a big city you know your parents might still be back on the farm. You know there’s much less constraint on how you do things as it sort of opens things up, which is one of the reasons I think we finally have the ‘baby book’ is that people are not are no longer sort of being taught as they go by their parents or aunts or whatever. Now they need somebody to tell them what to do when they have a little baby. So you know I think it really changes the circumstances in which people live to have that much more money available and to be in new urban units without that critical traditionally weighing on them.

 

Gary

And one of your favorite things to talk about which I remember from our classes together is the new appliances like the washing machine and how essential that was to creating the modern woman.

 

Fishman:

Oh if you polled women about what they most wanted when they could afford something the washing machine would be number one, because before then you’re literally having to go to a wash basin where they’d have these big wash basins and like you know wash your clothes in a big basin and then you know you have to take them back home and you have to hang them out on the line and you have to wait for them to dry and then everything’s wrinkled so you have to iron it. It just takes a huge amount of time and effort or you have to pay somebody else to do all of that. So the washing machine-

 

Gary

You need a kid for that! Either for the money or to work.

 

Fishman

*laughs* The kids do help with that! I mean you see when they’re big families like that the older kids oftentimes they’re working and bringing money home and or helping out with some of these chores. But yeah it’s  I think you know the washing clothes by hand you know remembers before all of this happened there wasn’t necessarily even running water in all apartments right. Much less hot water heater. So that I think of all the things that women did as part of their domestic duties the washing was one of the heaviest. And they were very happy to have help with that. You know cooking shopping that’s sort of part of life as you go to the store and you make food and you know it doesn’t really it doesn’t change life quite as much to have an electric range or whatever you know.

 

Gary

Yeah. No I just think it’s interesting how something like that can be so transformative. Well, because this podcast is dealing with three million years ago to present. I talk about how uniform bronze tools are the whole thing that changes all of society. Yet you wouldn’t think this bronze tool is so much better than a rock, but it really is, same with the washing machine.

 

Fishman:

One of the women ,I wasn’t even interviewing her, she was another scholar but she was of an older generation and she said You know I didn’t wash my kid’s diapers I took them to a place where they washed them but then I had to haul them up the stairs, wet, heavy, and then hang them up. I mean so that’s just you know one child’s worth of diapers when he had two or three kids.

 

Gary

Right. And you want to explain why they were wet and heavy? why they didn’t get.

Fishman:

Because they had no dryers. Even today, well there are a few places where you can find them now of course in the big laundromats but that was just not something that French people had.

 

Gary

And so so she’d take all these terrible stinky diapers to this one place get them all wet and supposedly clean, then have to carry them back while they’re wet and probably causing quite a sight.

 

Fishman:

And haul them up the stairs and you know a lot of old buildings don’t have elevators. So yeah it’s a heavy duty and like I say with kids, babies generate a huge amount of stuff that needs to be cleaned. So yeah I think it’s really important the most important appliance I think in terms of freeing women from a really really heavy burden.

 

Gary

Right. So at this point I think it’s good enough time to make a plug for your book. Vichy to the Sexual Revolution because not only does it have a lot of really interesting history in it but I think that the methodology is pretty fascinating. In particular I think that it’s very fascinating how you show that modern historians essentially have to be detectives and how we have to glean information from sources. My favorite observation you made was when you looked at theft cases between the 1940s and 1950s and noticed that theft cases were less about common necessities and more about consumer goods and appliances as time went on and so from these cases you showed how France was becoming a richer consumer culture. I thought that was pretty fascinating. Would you like to give any other examples of inadvertent or unexpected conclusions you were able to glean from the sources you looked at?

 

Fishman:

Yeah I mean the theft thing…it’s funny because when you look through these files they’re dossiers put together you know of court hearings and you know testimony and whatever else happens and also social workers reports. And that’s a big important thing that happens for kids is that they have to have a report on their family milieu. And by the post-war mostly it’s social workers are doing it. And you know as I just it didn’t entirely surprise me to see the shift from you know- Oh my God you know in World War II as bicycles or bicycle tires or stealing food off the shelves or that kind of thing. And you know so the first time I see a car, little Vespas those little motorized scooters you start to see them stealing that. And it’s like OK. Now we and the social workers were also very keen to describe the family’s material surroundings in very detailed ways. You know again exactly how much everybody’s making what they’re spending on rent how many rooms how many beds and you know whatever else they might have and if the family has a car I’m going to find out.

There was one social worker who felt like the family was not spending its money very well.  The apartment that was kind of a wreck and it wasn’t very well maintained, blah blah blah. But the social worker says there was a magnificent television set in the middle and you could tell that she thought this was a bad use of family resources to you know you’re going to know if they have this stuff and it’s a good way to watch that trickle of material goods into working families.

The other thing that surprised me in looking at the social workers reports from war to peace was that focus during Vichy years on the mother and the father only in so far as was he in the picture. Was he an alcoholic. Did he provide adequately for the family. And if so you know they’d interview the neighbors about all the family and what they’d say about the father was he’s not the subject of any unfavorable comments. And that’s pretty much it. Whereas for the mother during the war, you know like there was one where she’s Spanish type, her fingernails are dirty.

I mean they described the physical appearance personality of the mother and you don’t get any of that of the father. And like right after the war I look at a report, I think it was probably outside of Paris. And they’re trying to find the father to interview him and then they say, “well we came across him in the garden, he was gardening” and I’m just stunned. And my friends don’t get it. They’re telling me that he’s gardening.  It would never have appeared. And so you know that implies that he’s at home and that he likes to go. I mean that’s telling you something about the man.  And you start to get the descriptions of their physical appearance of their personalities of their relationships with the kids so that instead of thinking of the family as you know the father’s the provider and the authority and the mother’s the one that has all the interactions with the kids they’re starting to see what mothers do and fathers do and fathers interact with mothers about the kids and it’s just a much more complicated picture. And that starts right after the war and that really surprised me.

 

Gary

So yeah I’m going to plug the book again. It’s definitely a good thing to check out because I think it teaches the way that historians now have to essentially craft these narratives and be extremely critical of the evidence probably just because there’s so many of us and all the big events all the big wars and all the obvious things are taken now we’re writing much more in-depth things that don’t immediately come to the fore.

 

Fishman

So I would say also that a lot of people you know one of the easy things to do and I certainly did is popular culture. But you have to be careful because it’s meant to sell and it’s meant to sensationalize. You know it’s not necessarily a reflection of ordinary people’s ideas and beliefs and behaviors. So that’s why I felt like I had to dig deeper and look for these other sources and particularly even though I was no longer looking at juvenile crime using those court documents because they gave me a picture of the family was the sort of thing that came to me while I was doing the second project.

 

Gary

All right. Well, we’ve talked about women in general so far but during this post-war period there was finally a full fledged feminist movement with figures such as Simone Beauvoir coming to prominence with the book ‘The Second Sex.’ Can you tell us how the feminist movement emerged and impacted this period?

 

Fishman:

So you know one of the things that is puzzling to people is aside from Simone de Beauvoir…it seems like the book sort of dropped off a cliff and nobody really picks up on it. There’s no organized feminist movement like you saw before World War I with women out in the streets marching and demanding and that doesn’t happen after World War II because women have the vote. So there’s none of that. You know like I say the Communist women are agitating but they’re always agitating. And so you know it’s I used to think that it just went off a cliff. But what turns out to be the case is if you look a little bit deeper there are women involved in movements and particularly having to do with birth control and family planning. So a lot of the women who want to change women’s lives recognize that if women can’t control how many pregnancies they have they have no control over their lives. So you’ve got doctors and other women in these movements and then they call it they call it ‘happy maternity.’ They don’t call it family planning or birth control but you know so that so that women can have you know be able to control the stuff that we don’t like families or we don’t like children. It’s just that you know women need to be able to devote themselves to their children properly, the ones that they have. So yes there are these women these groups that are organizing and tackling specific issues that are of importance to women in the 50s. So I think I put one of the headings is “There Was Feminism in the 50s, Really?” because you know it’s not the kind of thing that that that’s out there in the magazines and whenever you know there’s feminist is out there on the soapbox you’re trying to get support. You don’t really see that so much as you do like again in the late 60s and 70s. But it’s there.

 

Gary:

So one thing which the French History Podcast tries to do is dispel myths about France. I think the two big ones that people have is that France is bad at war. And France is liberal. And on the second part this seems to be pretty firmly ingrained in Americans minds even though the French think of themselves as being very traditional and conservative. Up until 1968 which we will hopefully briefly touch on. So with that in mind and I know this is a big topic but can you go into why you think France lags so far behind not just the English speaking world but Weimar Germany Scandinavia and much of the Western world vis-a-vis women’s rights?

 

Fishman

Yeah. Well again I think that it’s you know to me a lot of it is the economic foundation because you have. You know the vast majority of French families scattered around in the countryside and very small villages and small cities small towns. It’s it sort of keeps you if things tend to be in spaces. I would say they have enough to eat they can keep their land. There’s nobody forcing them off their land. You know they can provide for themselves it’s a very rich agricultural place in France that the land is really good for farming and most many parts of France. And so I think that that foundation meant that things change very slowly. Now obviously World War I disrupts that to a certain extent right it does pull them away from their families. But again I think that it’s still it still remains. I think in nineteen thirty nine or forty France is still 40 percent rural which is…Meanwhile Germany is what 8 percent or you know I mean it’s really different. And I think that explains a lot of the difference. I mean there are there are you know but they don’t call them flappers they call them ‘garconne.’

 

There are nude women and there are English-speakers ‘garçonne’ is a clever play on words essentially, what would you say? Like tomboy or she-boy

 

Fishman:

Hard to translate. Yeah. But a tomboy is like a girl trying to be a boy. And I think this is more that they’re seeing them as. Yeah I guess tomboy would be a good one. Yeah yeah. But it’s sort of like it’s a diminutive. Right. Garçonne is to sort of make it seem kind of funny because you know and the thing is if you think about it before World War I women war you know we’re covered entirely. They wore corsets. They had hair that they had to put up. And after the war they cut their hair short which was shocking to a lot of people. And they look like boys and they wear dresses that don’t cover all the way down to their ankles and their dresses don’t have cinched waists anymore and so they you know the idea is that they look like boys and they’re desexing themselves. So you know that’s one of the upsetting things to French society. But that does exist. It’s just that it’s really, you’re talking Paris and maybe some of the other big cities where that happens. It’s not something going on out in the countryside. So I think you know things change a lot more slowly because of France’s rural nature. I think that’s the foundation of its more conservative or slowness to change its ideas and attitudes about the family.

 

Gary

So one other thing that I would add, I think that’s a perfect explanation. But from what I’ve found from my own work is one of the main reasons why the French feminist movement struggled had a lot to do with problems with the left because France for a very long time had a far-left, socialist, anti-capitalist movement and there were those on the economic left but socially they were often very traditionalist and very sexist.

 

Fishman:

They emphasized that to make it clear that they don’t  that you know socialism doesn’t mean the destruction of the family. Right. Right. Even feminists would talk about you know they want to elevate the wife and mother they don’t want to destroy the family. So they feel that they have to sort of rest on that more traditional vision of gender relations.

 

Gary:

Yeah. In the last episode we did on the munitionetts at the socialist workers claim that women didn’t belong in the workplace. In your book you note that the communists of the 1940s believe that women’s place was in the home. And from my understanding women really only developed a strong feminist movement when they broke off from male groups and made their own. Is that fair to say?

 

Fishman

Again, like I say they form a visible feminist movement when they do that. It’s not like there aren’t women who are doing this stuff sort of like I said quietly in the scene under the radar screen. But yeah and the interesting thing in this sort of frustrating thing about France is that they finally like in 68. This happens in many places where they get involved in these radical movements and student movements and whatever and then they’re told OK you cook for the group and we come over you know then they get frustrated and they start having their own demands and so they break off and they you know they say how with this and start to form their own group. And so they created the Mouvemenent de Liberation des Femmes, MLF. And you know they put they published the ‘manifesto des salopes’ [Slut’s Manifesto], which is the the manifesto of 300 and some women who said I’ve had an abortion and you know. And then what happens sadly is that sometime in the 70s this movement is sort of hijacked by this crazy. I don’t want to get in trouble so but I think it’s sort of hijacked by a very bizarre almost cult like figure who who goes off into this strange psychological Psychepo (?) they called it. And so the MLF ceases become being a force for change to women it ceases focusing on political change and sort of goes off the deep end and so that leaves. But you know that doesn’t mean that women aren’t still going to be active but that very visible movement sort of. Gets hijacked. But that’s unfortunate.

 

Gary

Right. And I’m glad you mentioned the 60s and 70s because this whole problem between the female leftists and the male leftists as something that really isn’t resolved even into the 70s. I remember maybe you remember this but I wrote a paper which I think I got an A for your class *laughs* which was a famous case in the 1970s where an immigrant student raped a female French college student. And while feminists denounced the rape a number of male left wingers claimed that the only reason that men rape was because society restricts them from fully expressing their sexuality. And it was the state’s fault that rape occurred. And so even into the 1970s there was this clear divergence between women and men on the left.

 

Fishman:

Right. And like I say that goes that goes way back. If you look at I think I can’t remember the name of the book but the women who wanted to be both socialist and feminist just were never accepted  you know because feminists in the not like in the late 19th century tended to be middle class women and socialists tended to be you know men who didn’t who saw women as lowering men’s wages not as useful allies. So you’d have the occasional person who tries to cross over those lines, Madeleine Pelletier is one of them. But they they have a really tough time trying to get socialists to think about women’s rights is something that needs to be done separately.

I mean part of it is that they want to reassure you know particularly the Socialists not so much the communists that reassure society in general that they’re not about destroying the family and treating society upside down.

But on the communist side it’s like well first comes first things first we have to have the communist revolution and then things for women will just magically be OK. We can’t be diverted into this thinking about a situation for women because this is diversionary it’s not the fundamental problem. So you know it just that you can’t win if you’re a woman on the left in terms of sort of fitting into these movements which isn’t to say that there weren’t women who were writing and publishing and you know one of the interesting things that I’m thinking about now is I’m working on these two women who wrote in re Claire and Elle magazine in the 50s and 60s who were advice columnists and who in many ways you know were moderate. They were modern women. They were professionals. And you know but they didn’t, they wouldn’t call themselves feminists. So I mean you know that’s not the focus of the book but it’s something that I keep thinking about in terms of…

one of them, and this is another factor in terms of French conservatism the Catholic Church right. France is predominantly Catholic. And you know well past World War II. And then starting in the 70s I believe practice just just falls off the charts. And now there are probably fewer practicing Catholics in France than there are you know proportionally than in the United States. Very few people attend mass regularly. So of course the Catholic Church had been a force of sort of conservative values. So this woman one of the women was Catholic but she didn’t really. She was more spiritually Catholic. She liked St. Teresa and that kind of mysticism. She didn’t really believe in following the rules particularly. And so she wrote in that she was people wrote letters to her all the time she collected letters and she published in 1962 something called the Black Book of Abortion. And she doesn’t say you know we need to legalize it she says lets these women speak for themselves. And you know all these awful stories about the things that happen and you know the lives that are made extremely difficult or very painful things that happen when women don’t are not able to get an abortion. And she you know it’s 1962. That’s you know 15 years before anything happens in France. You know before Roe v. Wade anyway. So again she would not have labels herself a feminist but in many ways she and the other woman Marcelle Siegel (?) were sort of pushing the way people think in in that direction.

 

Gary

It’s almost as if women can seem apolitical because nobody is advocating for their side. Normally we talk about those on the right and the Conservatives hindering the promotion of women’s rights. But in France and I don’t want to say just France but in France in particular it’s the left wing as well. And I don’t really are on women’s side as well. So  I thought that was a pretty interesting thing to note. So OK we only have so much time in this interview. I know you are always working on something. So I was hoping to end with this before we put a close on these special episodes commemorating Women’s History Month. I was hoping to develop a narrative that brings women from World War 1 to present.

So today France has one of the highest rates of female representation in politics in the world and is considered to be one of only six countries on Earth where men and women enjoy equal rights according to the women business and law index for 2019. So can you explain that how France went from being one of the most anti women’s rights countries in the developed world in 1944 to being one of the most pro-women countries?

 

Fishman:

And again I’m not sure I would say anti women’s rights. I would say you know look at the vote right. That you don’t have groups particularly raising issues about women as women their mothers. Right. Or they’re nuns or their school teachers or you know the other ‘jeune filles’ the young girls but they don’t think of women as a category.

In my book it’s the last part when you get into the 60s that you begin to see articles and studies addressing women as women. And that’s one of the groups I say young women, women and  the young in general. Those are the three objects of concern and women are the intersection of all of those right. But you begin to see this this emphasis on women as having particular needs and particular issues that that pertain to them just as by virtue of their sex. So that’s  a big change.

So now I’m forgetting that the narrative, why so far behind, why all of a sudden take over one of the things that I’m often struck by when people look at France is that they look at the structure of support for women who have children that they have excellent day care that starts at the age of three that they have maternity leave. That’s well the generously funded that the maternity care is funded medical care is funded. All of these things happen in addition to the fact that family allowances still exist and they say oh you know it’s too bad that families here couldn’t get that.

Well it wasn’t feminists it’s got that stuff. It was pro-natalists as you probably know, the whole point you know the family allowances were passed by the third republic in 1939 and they were implemented by Vichy. And the idea is that they were so obsessed with getting their population growth rate back that they pump money into these families that they create things that make it enable women you know when society begins to choose that enable that make it easier for women to be in the labor force that have their children well cared for in an in the crash of the day care that you know their maternity care is covered that they get generous leaves. I think now the husbands also get leaves these things were not implemented on based on feminist pressure initially there were people concerned about the size of the French population and wanting to sort of encourage people to have babies but that could all that once the policies were in place and they were universal they could be sort of shifted such that it used to be that you could only get the bonuses if you were legally married, that could easily be, you know these things are changed such that they no longer reinforced the traditional family used to be that only the father was paid the allowances they went on his paycheck even if they were both working.

That changes. So yeah it used to be that you think it might have been that you’re only eligible if the wife is staying at home. There was an allowance for when the wife was staying at home to supplement the man’s salary so that the wife could afford to stay at home and only that could only happen if the wife stayed at home. But now it’s either parent can stay home. So it has become more feminist and gender you know gender neutral over time in ways that are extremely beneficial for women. And the French, they have this sort of very strong legal system if this thing says equal wages then there’s going to be equal wages. So I think I’m not entirely surprised that the pay differential between men and women might be smaller than it is in other places. The political representation is relatively new for that increase.

 

Gary:

It’s up to 40 percent.

 

Fishman:

Yeah. I mean it’s crazy but you know that took a while for that all to happen for the more explicit attempt to improve women’s lives to sort of to come along and take these things and use them in very explicit ways. But you know that has certainly changed things. And I think again. So it’s not you know the question is if you want but why didn’t that happen here. For example the United States. I don’t think you could ever pass something like a family allowance here because of race. Right. We don’t want everybody having lots of kids. Right. And then so…

 

Gary

Also of economics because in France they’re because they have this big welfare state they’re fine giving women all these benefits right. But whereas in America I mean we’re still fighting about health care, something everyone else just accepts.

 

Fishman:

That’s right. Exactly.

 

Gary

So it’s not so much I guess what I guess what you’re trying to say is it’s not so much a feminism versus traditionalist issue it’s it more has to do with the big state.

 

Fishman:

It does. I think and the ways in which that makes it possible for women to lead to have a lot of freedom in determining how they’re going to live their lives. So you know obviously unless you unless you take a lot of the burdens off exclusively often women it’s going to limit what they can do with their lives. And so this is you know I think that this has been a sort of a foundational thing you know it’s still you know you have to have education you have to have you know people sort of pushing ahead. But I think that that sort of creates the foundation from which all these other things can go. And you’re right.

I think that’s the thing we see with people believing welfare is for the lazy. And that it’s a bad thing. You know it’s sort of individuals should make their own decisions and choices and without the state coming in and it’s a very attitude. But I think that that’s ultimately contributed a lot to women’s abilities to benefit from the options available to them.

 

Gary

Well thank you very much Professor Fishman it has been enlightening entertaining. I’m sure all of my listeners will agree with that. Do you have any final thoughts on women in France today or anything that we have covered about women in history?

 

Fishman:

Women in history you know…

 

Gary

Well, I mean when I just talked about 60 years but I suppose if you want to go to Jeanne d’Arc [Joan of Arc] or something.

 

Fishman

No I don’t really want to go to Jeanne d’Arc. Actually there’s interesting discussions about Jeanne d’Arc and historically because you know she’s a woman dressed like a man but when and so. So she’s used during Vichy. She’s actually used in a number of different ways. Number one she was into English. So the government wants to use that evil English. You know they always were stabbing us in the back and they killed Joan of Arc even though it wasn’t English. But never mind that. But on the other hand she’s dressed like a man and she’s wielding a sword. So then they try to like domesticate her by having images where she has a little lace in. So they have a problem with that aspect of her. So it’s just interesting to see them sort of trying to get around some of these issues about Joan on the left a lot of people I discovered sort of without real you know because I always found her to be fascinating figure and on the left it’s like oh she’s so religious. You know they just you know they don’t they don’t see her as like a feminist they see is like ultra Catholic religious you know kind of figure. So it’s interesting she’s not neutral even though it’s been a long time.

 

Gary

So I guess the takeaway from today’s episode is that it’s all complicated.

 

Fishman

It’s all complicated. Yeah yeah.

 

Gary

Thank you very much again professor.

 

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