Women in France

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Women in France
L'ouvrière parisienne, avant la guerre, pendant la guerre (1916).jpg
A portrait about the social classes of French women in 1916
Gender Inequality Index
Value0.083 (2012)
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)8 (2010)
Women in parliament38,65% (2017)
Females over 25 with secondary education75.9% (2010)
Women in labour force61.4% (employment rate OECD definition, 2016)[1]
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value0.7588 (2014)
Rank16th out of 144

The roles of women in France have changed throughout history. In 1944, French women obtained women's suffrage. As in other Western countries, the role of women underwent many social and legal changes in the 1960s and 1970s. French feminism, which has its origins in the French Revolution, has been quite influential in the 20th century with regard to abstract ideology, especially through the writings of Simone de Beauvoir.


The traditional role of women in French society involves domestic duties such as housekeeping, preparation of meals in the customary fashion that involves a "succession of courses eaten one at a time", child rearing, harvesting of crops, and tending to farm animals. Upon the onset of the industrial revolution in France, women's role changed with them becoming domestic helpers, factory workers, and washerwomen. This did not generally include women who had "bourgeois" status, because these women often became dependent on the financial support of their husbands; such women of upper-class status also had the tendency to send their own "children to wet nurses until" weaned. Further changes to the status of women in France became apparent in 1944, when French women gained the right to vote. But it was only during the 1960s when they won the right to work without getting permission from their husbands, in addition to the right to open personal bank accounts. At present, due to effective health care provision in the country, the life-span of women is at an average of 80.9 years old. So-called "infant allowances" are available to subscribing pregnant women and their newborn children. In 1988, the unemployment rate among the French population was described to be "higher among women".[3] However, in modern-day France, women who have attained a "suitable level of education" and training are gaining prominent positions in the fields of business and the engineering industry, particularly within Paris,[4] the capital city of France.


Educational aspirations were on the rise and were becoming increasingly institutionalised in order to supply the church and state with the functionaries to serve as their future administrators. Girls were schooled too, but not to assume political responsibility. Girls were ineligible for leadership positions and were generally considered to have an inferior intellect to their brothers. France had many small local schools where working-class children - both boys and girls - learned to read, the better "to know, love, and serve God." The sons and daughters of the noble and bourgeois elites were given gender-specific educations: boys were sent to upper school, perhaps a university, while their sisters - if they were lucky enough to leave the house - would be sent to board at a convent with a vague curriculum. The Enlightenment challenged this model, but no real alternative was presented for female education. Only through education at home were knowledgeable women formed, usually to the sole end of dazzling their salons.[5][6]

Reproductive rights and health[edit]

Women in France obtained many reproductive rights in the second half of the 20th century. The Neuwirth Act of 1967 authorized contraception.[7] The Veil Law of 1975 legalized abortion.[8] The maternal mortality rate in France is 8.00 deaths/100,000 live births (as of 2010).[9] France's HIV/AIDS rate is 0.4% of adults (aged 15-49) - estimates of 2009.[10] France has been one of the first countries to take legal action against female genital mutilation (which occurs in its immigrant communities) and to prosecute those who perform the practice.[11][12]

Family life[edit]

Percentage of births to unmarried women, in selected countries, including France, 1980 and 2007.[13] As in other Western countries, in France the percentage of children born outside of marriage has increased markedly during the past decades.

In common with other countries in Mediterranean Europe and of Roman Catholic tradition, French organization of family life has traditionally been conservative, founded on distinct gender roles. Under the Napoleonic Code, married women were subordinated to the husband's authority.[14] Married French women obtained the right to work without their husband's consent in 1965.[15] The paternal authority of a man over his family was ended in 1970 (before that, parental responsibilities belonged solely to the father who made all legal decisions concerning the children); and a new reform in 1985 abolished the stipulation that the father had the sole power to administer the children's property.[16] Adultery was decriminalized in 1975.[17] In 1999, France introduced PACS (a civil union, known as "civil solidarity pact", which can be contracted both by heterosexual and by same-sex couples). In 2005, France reformed its divorce laws, simplifying the procedure, in particular by reducing the separation period, necessary before a divorce in certain circumstances, from 6 years to 2 years; there are now four types of divorce that can be obtained (divorce by mutual consent; divorce by acceptance; hostile divorce; divorce for separation).[18]

In the past decades, social views on the traditional family have changed markedly, which is reflected in the high proportion of cohabitation and births outside of marriage, and in a questioning of traditional expectations regarding the family; in the European Values Study (EVS) of 2008, 35.4% of respondents in France agreed with the assertion that "Marriage is an outdated institution".[19]

As of 2014, 58% of children were born outside of marriage.[20] In France, legal reforms regarding the "illegitimacy" of children (born outside of marriage) began in the 1970s, but it was only in the 21st century that the principle of equality was fully upheld (through Act no. 2002-305 of 4 March 2002, removing mention of "illegitimacy" — filiation légitime and filiation naturelle; and through law no. 2009-61 of 16 January 2009).[21][22][23] In 2001, France was forced by the European Court of Human Rights to change several laws that were deemed discriminatory, and in 2013 the Court ruled that these changes must also be applied to children born before 2001.[24]


Feminism in France has its origins in the French Revolution. Some famous figures were notable in the 19th century, including Louise Michel, Russian-born Elisabeth Dmitrieff and Nathalie Lemel. French feminism encompasses a branch of feminist theories and philosophies that emerged in the 1970s to the 1990s. This French feminist theory, compared to Anglophone feminism, is distinguished by an approach which is more philosophical and literary, rather than focused on practical issues. Its writings tend to be effusive and metaphorical being less concerned with political doctrines.[25]

Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist and social theorist, is a prominent feminist figure. She is known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism.

Domestic violence[edit]

In the 21st century, France has taken many steps in order to combat domestic violence and violence against women, in particular by enacting Law No. 2010-769, of July 9, 2010, on Violence Against Women, Violence Between Spouses, and the Effects of These Types of Violence on Children.[26] France has also ratified the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.[27]

France has a long tradition of indulgence towards crimes of passion, which before 1975 were treated legally very leniently.[28] In France, as of 2004-2009, former and current partners were responsible for more than 80% of all cases of murders of women.[29]


The traditional religion of France is Roman Catholicism, but today it is no longer the state religion; and contemporary France is one of the most secular countries in Europe.[30] In France, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Republic is based on the principle of laïcité enforced by the 1880s Jules Ferry laws and the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Today, France also has a sizable Muslim population. In 2010, France enacted a ban on face covering, prohibiting the wearing in public places of niqab, burqa and similar outfits. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French law, accepting the argument of the French government that the law was based on "a certain idea of living together".[31][32]

In art[edit]

Self-portrait with two pupils, by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1785. The two pupils are Marie Capet and Carreaux de Rosemond

Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing well into the 1800s, there was a large influx of talented French women painters. This is despite the fact that only a select few women were admitted into quality artistic schools, including the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Particularly noteworthy French women painters during the late 18th century include Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Anne Vallayer-Coster, and Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Vallayer-Coster was prominent for her figural paintings of King Louis XV's daughters and his daughter-in-law Queen Marie Antoinette. Antoinette and the Mesdames de France, also helped Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun obtain admission to the Académie which caused a huge stir among the press, who decided to pit them as rivals against each other.

The French Revolution of 1789 created a hostile environment for artists at the time, particularly those supported by the royal family. Vigée Le Brun and Vallayer-Coster, along with many other female artists, fled to other parts of Europe and Russia. Labille-Guiard, however, chose to stay and built a respectable reputation painting the faces of the Revolution. After the Revolution, lesser known women artists were able to use the now wide-open biennial Salon (France) to display their art to a more receptive audience.[33]

After the French Revolution, the number of French women artists sharply declined. It was the monarchy who gave women artists, especially painters, the opportunities to succeed. The Royal Academy was closed down and replaced with an institution that barred the admittance of women. Some female artists close to the monarchy were even executed.[34] It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that a significant number of women were combating stereotypical gender roles.

Gender roles played a big role in hindering prospective French women's artistic careers. While drawing and painting at the amateur level was encouraged as a part of a good bourgeois education, women were not socially permitted to engage in professional careers that weren't deemed important to society and/or disrupted in the perceived women's role of being a fully functional wife and mother. Many of the artists of this time felt the need to choose between a career and marriage. Also, any female students who did receive training from a skilled artist, were given limited expectations and were generally left with the simplest of artistic tasks. In 1860, Marie Bracquemond, a rising impressionist artist, quipped of her instructor, famous painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, "The severity of Monsieur Ingres frightened me... because he doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting... He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes." [35]

In the 1870s, life drawing classes became more open to French female students aspiring to be artists in Paris. Perhaps the most successful French woman artist in this era was Rosa Bonheur, who was well known for her animal paintings as well her sculptures. At a time dominated by male artistic ability, Bonheur is received very positively and rated very well among all of her peers.[36] In an attempt to reject the gender roles, she cut and maintained a short hairstyle and also requested permission from the police to wear man's pants in order to remain relatively unnoticed in farms and slaughterhouses while she painted animals and studied animal anatomy. Due to concerns like this, women were more likely to embrace movements like the Impressionism that put artistic emphasis on everyday subjects, and not historical themes, that could be painted at home. Despite these hindrances, France was still one of the leading countries for the private tutelage of artistic women at the end of the 18th century. This isn't to say France wasn't behind the times, becoming one of the last countries in Western Europe to provide women with a state-sponsored education when the École des Beaux-Arts began admitting women in 1897.

With regard to literature, France is well known for the writer George Sand (pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=LFS_SEXAGE_I_R#
  2. ^ "The Global Gender Gap Report 2014" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 8–9.
  3. ^ France, everyculture.com
  4. ^ Women in Business in France, worldbusinessculture.com
  5. ^ Carolyn C. Lougee, "'Noblesse,' Domesticity, and Social Reform: The Education of Girls by Fenelon and Saint-Cyr", History of Education Quarterly 1974 14(1): 87-113
  6. ^ Linda L. Clark, Schooling the Daughters of Marianne: Textbooks and the Socialization of Girls in Modern French Primary Schools (SUNY Press, 1984) online.
  7. ^ http://www.france.fr/en/institutions-and-values/changes-role-women-french-society.html
  8. ^ http://www.france.fr/en/institutions-and-values/changes-role-women-french-society.html
  9. ^ https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2223rank.html
  10. ^ https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2155rank.html
  11. ^ http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/France-a-pioneer-in
  12. ^ http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14713&LangID=E
  13. ^ "Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States". CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. May 13, 2009. Retrieved September 24, 2011.
  14. ^ http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/crs1_low.pdf
  15. ^ http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/explore/cmcf-vsi-women-in-france.pdf
  16. ^ http://ceflonline.net/wp-content/uploads/France-Parental-Responsibilities.pdf
  17. ^ http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2015/02/18/01016-20150218ARTFIG00358-l-adultere-en-un-clic-la-justice-saisie-contre-gleeden.php
  18. ^ "Divorce in France". Angloinfo France. Angloinfo. Retrieved 2016-06-14.
  19. ^ [1] See for each country: Variable Description - Family - Q 45.
  20. ^ http://www.insee.fr/fr/themes/tableau.asp?reg_id=0&ref_id=NATnon02231
  21. ^ http://www.dictionnaire-juridique.com/definition/autorite-parentale.php
  22. ^ http://ceflonline.net/wp-content/uploads/France-Parental-Responsibilities.pdf
  23. ^ http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000020104273&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id
  24. ^ http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=001-116716#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-116716%22]}
  25. ^ Moi, T. (1987). French feminist thought: a reader. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-14973-6.
  26. ^ http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000022454032&categorieLien=id
  27. ^ http://www.conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/ChercheSig.asp?NT=210&CM=&DF=&CL=ENG
  28. ^ http://www.gallup.com/poll/107521/Common-Ground-Europeans-Muslims-Among-Them.aspx
  29. ^ http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-14.pdf
  30. ^ http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_341_en.pdf
  31. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/01/france-burqa-ban-upheld-human-rights-court
  32. ^ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28106900
  33. ^ Auricchio, L. (2004, October 1). Eighteenth-Century Women Painters in France. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/18wa/hd_18wa.htm
  34. ^ Wolff, R. (2012, March 4). Feminism in Old France. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204795304577223542287084590
  35. ^ Myers, Nicole. "Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/19wa/hd_19wa.htm (September 2008)
  36. ^ Rosa Bonheur. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/realism/Rosa-Bonheur.html

Further reading[edit]

  • Curtis, Sarah A. "The Double Invisibility of Missionary Sisters." Journal of Women's History 28.4 (2016): 134-143, deals with French nuns in 19th century.
  • Diamond, Hanna. Women and the Second World War in France 1939-1948: Choices and Constraints (1999)
  • Hafter, Daryl M. and Nina Kushner, eds. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century France (Louisiana State University Press; 2014) 250 pages; Scholarly essays on female artists, "printer widows," women in manufacturing, women and contracts, and elite prostitution.
  • McBride, Theresa M. "A Woman's World: Department Stores and the Evolution of Women's Employment, 1870–1920," French Historical Studies (1978) 10#4 pp664-83 in JSTOR
  • McMillan, James F. France and Women 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics (Routledge, 2000) 286 pp.
  • Muel-Dreyfus, Francine; Johnson, Kathleen A. (2001). Vichy and the Eternal Feminine: A Contribution to a Political-Sociology of Gender. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0822327775.
  • Rapley, Elizabeth, and Robert Rapley, "An Image of Religious Women in the 'Ancien Regime': the 'Etats Des Religieuses' of 1790–1791." French History (1997) 11(4): 387–410
  • Roberts, Rebecca. "Le Catholicisme au féminin: Thirty Years of Women's History," Historical Reflections (2013) 39#1 pp. 82–100, on France, especially research on Catholic nuns by Claude Langlois
  • Spencer, Samia I., ed. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment (1984)

External links[edit]