On 7th March 2022, a group of women, painted in Ukraine’s flag colours with slogans ‘Stop war Putin’, ‘Feminists against War’, and ‘Slava Ukraini’, protesting topless in front of the Eiffel Tower have gathered the world’s attention. Such protests have recently remerged in France to voice not only political concerns but more importantly women’s issues. Similar protests organized by the group Femen, are known for topless public demonstrations which are symbolic to denounce sexual harassment, gender inequality, homophobia and even political representation. Women in France have now become more vocal about their rights, freedom and equality but this bold participation in public demonstrations was only possible because of the decades-long fight of the French women against their oppression. In this context, this article aims to trace the evolution of the feminist movement in France and how it has remerged in the 21st century.
The evolution of women’s rights in modern France could be traced back to 1944 when women obtained the right to vote after 24 years in the USA and 51 years in New Zealand women had first voted. More progress came in 1965 when married women obtained the right to work and open a bank account without the permission of their husbands. Later in the year 1967, contraceptive pills were legalised which brought about a drastic change. Furthermore, the French women’s liberation movement was born in the wake of the May 1968 uprising with the mission to fight the patriarchy. A few years later in 1975, abortion was legalised thanks to a law championed by Simone Veil. In the year 2000, another law was voted to tackle sexism in politics. According to that law, all political parties must include equal numbers of men and women on electoral lists.
Despite these remarkable legal reforms, in the year 2020, the first female governor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo was fined nearly $110,000 for bringing 11 women to fill 16 top city jobs. Nonetheless, the proportion of women in French government cabinets has been increasing, from 12.5 per cent in 2005 and 2006 to more than 50 per cent in 2021. Yet, France has a long way ahead for gender parity in politics. On the other hand, in the year 2021, thousands of women came down on the streets to demand the French government to increase spending for the prevention of violence against women. This demonstration come amid the growing outrage in France as women are increasingly killed by their partners or ex-partners.
It is said that the emergence of feminism in France is the history of women’s claims to freedom and individualism. It is pertinent to mention that French women were not only victims of discrimination in French society but also of war crimes during the second world war. German troops who invaded France in the 1940s committed widespread atrocities against women, especially against the African colonists. However, today, French women can serve in all areas of the military. In fact, since 2014, women have obtained the right to work in submarines, including nuclear ones.
Historically, in traditional French society, women were considered subordinates to their male counterparts. They were confined to their limited role in ‘women-oriented’ tasks. Thus, several feminist artistic and literary movements emerged in France as a response to their oppression. For instance, in the 16th century, “bureaux d’esprit” or female-led salons were formed for at least the then privileged enough to indulge in intellectual discussions. similarly, the status of women in the 17th-century society could be traced by referring to the writings of Molière, author of enduring plays such as Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope whose audacious, imaginative, satirical and revolutionary writings highlighted and criticised how women were treated as subordinate. For instance, his “Le Malade imaginaire” play gained popularity for his criticism of the medical profession and freedom of rights of women which acted as a catalyst to ignite the flame of a one-of-its-kind cultural revolution. Later in the 19th century, female painters such as Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès, and Mary Cassatt pioneered the impressionist movement in France. It is interesting to mention that it emerged at a time when women were not allowed to obtain formal painting education and they were banned from presenting their work at the French Salon. These revolutionary painters through their paintings channelized their inner state which brought out their individuality and paved the way for emerging female artists.
Be it the bold piece by Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”, famously tracing the historic shreds of evidence of women’s condition and paving the way for women’s personal and bodily autonomy or literary theorist Hélène Cixousin coining the term écriture feminine (feminist writing), the French literature too, has certainly played a crucial role in strengthening the feminist struggle in France.
In more recent times, the debate related to ‘inclusive writing’ or more of ‘feminising’ the French language which has been literally going on for a lot of years (since the 17th century) was officially discussed on a political level last year. It further gained worldwide attention when the National Education Minister rejected this idea because it would mean adapting to a whole new ‘education system’ and changing the orthography for every second word. For instance, for a class filled with 35 men and 55 women, normally in French we say: ‘Ils sont nombreux’ but l’écriture inclusive reinforced the idea of framing the sentence like: ‘Ils et elles sont nombreuses’ or writing ‘Cher•e•s étudiant•e•s’ instead of Chers étudiants, for example. This gender neutralisation of the ‘gendered’ French language where all nouns are assigned a gender, is not limited to inclusive writing but also denounces the gendered nature of the language that promotes sexist outcomes. but, as Albert Camus wrote, “My homeland is the French Language”, any attempt at changing the language is mostly met with suspicion and resistance. However, it is important to note that alone changing the orthography of a language does not necessarily guarantee a change in perception of the society.
Another controversial debate in France is the ban on head coverings such as the burqa. It is a debate revolving around the French principle of laïcité (secularism) and their civil liberties as French citizens. While a few feminists support the protest against the ban, others find the head coverings going against the fundamentals of France’s secular society. Hence, establishing laws around these issues present challenges as well as opportunities for reshaping and redefining the feminist movement.
Nonetheless, France has entered a new era of feminism where the internet and social media is playing a pivotal role. France is no exception in online activism and it too had participated in the online #MeToo campaign. Besides, it is interesting to mention that President Macron had declared gender equality a global cause, “l’égalité femmes-hommes une grande cause Mondiale” in connection with the G7 conference held in France. Furthermore, by 2025, France is committed to ensuring that 75% of the projects funded by France’s official development assistance helps to improve gender equality. Besides, just like Sweden, France is also aiming to adopt a feminist foreign policy to fulfil its commitment to gender equality.