In France, the right to vote was extended to women in 1944 after a long struggle. When did it come back?
Anne-Sarah Bouglé-Moalic. – Women’s suffrage did not come fully armed with General de Gaulle’s cap. It is a hundred-year struggle that finds its origin in a concrete inequality dating back to 1848: universal suffrage for men, and men only.
The creation of universal male suffrage in France nevertheless remains a remarkable innovation that did not exist anywhere else at the time.
While society was highly hierarchical with political power tied to wealth, everyone was suddenly placed on an equal footing. Servants have the same power of political expression as their masters, illiterate people with scholars…
The hierarchy of society is also based on the separation of spheres: male on one side, female on the other. Due to this limit, the issue of women’s political rights, if it exists, is excessively marginal.
However, some brave politicians are asking for it. Deputy Victor Considerant at the time of drafting the Constitution, or even Pierre Leroux in 1851 in front of the House of Representatives, causing general rejoicing.
Women who stand up for political equality, like Jeanne Deroin, are doomed to the same fate: ridicule.
What elements change this paradigm?
Several factors, intervening over a very long time, lead to this change. Political regimes are becoming more open, society is becoming more democratic, the position of women in society is changing over time, through compulsory education, their increasing place in the world of work, etc.
Women’s suffrage in France is therefore closely linked to the history of the Republic. The first suffragist bracket occurred in 1848 when several Republican women demanded political rights. Political life died under the Second Empire (1852-1870), then feminist demands re-emerged with the advent of the Third Republic (1870-1940). The establishment of democracy opens up space for the demand for equality.
At the same time, activists are beginning to question their administrative minority. They want the evolution of the Napoleonic Code in order to obtain equal civil rights, but soon the question of political rights arises, carried by the young woman who will embody this movement: Hubertine Auclert.
A feminist believes that all women’s rights are based on the right to vote. According to her, if women do not participate in the drafting of laws, they have no chance of being heard. With other suffragettes, she loudly led a discourse whose ideas, deeply egalitarian, were still marginal, even radical, in French society.
However, after many years of demands, carried out through numerous channels, women’s suffrage managed to break out of its limited circle. We are at the beginning of the 20th century and women from the upper middle class, often close to political power, are taking up the subject.
For them, women play a big role in society, especially by acting against “social scourges”: alcoholism, gambling, disease, but also by educating children. Therefore, they ask that this role be taken into account and confirm that their participation in political life would be beneficial for the country.
Ultimately, it is the combination of these two movements – socialist and bourgeois – that firmly puts the issue of women’s suffrage into the public debate.
First in the House of Representatives, and much later in the Senate?
Indeed, the debate on women’s political rights first reached the House of Representatives through Paul Dussaussoy, who in 1905 wrote a bill granting women political rights at the municipal level.
In 1909, Ferdinand Buisson wrote the first positive report on the desirability of women’s suffrage in France. But its legislative process was interrupted in 1914 by the First World War.
At the end of the conflict, in 1919, women’s suffrage was returned to the House of Representatives. After long discussions, an amendment was submitted proposing that political equality be given to women at the age of 21 for all elections, except eligibility.
The House adopted the text with a real majority, but the Senate blocked it and decided, with regard to the political rights of women, to wait latently until the collapse of the Third Republic.
The collapse of the Third Republic and the order of April 21, 1944.
Yes, in 1943 the Provisional Assembly put the topic of women’s political rights back on the agenda and received a positive vote, after debates in which we found all the arguments from the debates of the Third Republic.
The order of April 21, 1944 confirms this vote, even if it refers to the overall organization of France in the Liberation, and not specifically to women’s suffrage.
How is this progress perceived?
We must remember that on April 21, 1944, the war did not end. The concern of the French during this period was thus quite far from suffrage.
Furthermore, between the laughter of 1848 and the decree of 1944, French society evolved significantly in terms of women’s political rights. Obtaining this right is perceived as something normal, almost as a formality.
In the municipal elections, on April 29 and May 13, 1945, women voted for the first time. How are these elections progressing?
One of the great arguments against women’s suffrage was that they were indifferent to political issues and did not want to vote. Even worse, if they had gone to the polls, they would have voted for the extremes.
However, two lessons from this first election, which have been studied by political scientists, are that 1) women voted a lot and 2) they voted more moderately than men. A trend that will continue for decades.
A few months later, in October 1945, 33 women were elected to the first Constituent Assembly. Strong signal?
This is a positive signal, but still weak. For years, women will represent only 2% of representatives on average. Of course, they got the right to vote, but they remain minors in their relationship, their home. For example, they only got the right to open a bank account in 1965.
It is complicated, in this context, to dream of being a representative of the Republic, and to become one.
Anne-Sarah Bouglé-Moalic holds a doctorate in history from the University of Caen-Normandie and is the author of the book “La Marche des femmes” (Éditions du Cerf).