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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

20th Century: The Waves of French Feminism

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Underwood & Underwood, New York City, Photographer. Party delegation en route to Paris to seek admission into International Woman's Suffrage Alliance, May 1926. 1926. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As the word ‘feminism’ in its modern connotation began to take root in everyday French media, the twentieth century saw an explosion of feminist thought and activism both in France and in its former colonies. Though much of the work on French feminism of the twentieth century has been concentrated on the so-called Second Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, in order to understand the demands of these well-known feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Delphy, Hélène Cixous, and Monique Wittig, we must go back to the beginning of the period, following the First World War.

Despite the efforts of the nineteenth-century feminist activists and writers such as Hubertine Auclert and male feminist ally Léon Richer, it would not be until 1919 that a bill, ultimately vetoed in 1922, proposed women’s suffrage in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the class distinctions which had split the late nineteenth-century feminists grew even deeper in the first half of the twentieth century, drawing attention to other feminist issues (such as the right to equal working hours compared to their male counterparts). At the same time, the Catholic influence of family values in French politics encouraged women to remain in the domestic sphere. A landmark development of this time was the 1932 opening of the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand as part of the Paris public library system. This library would continue to be host to one of the largest collections of French women’s publications as well as a venue for feminist and women’s studies events and art exhibitions. Today it is one of the primary resources for French Women’s Studies as a whole.

The study of women during the French Resistance of 1940-1945 remained under-researched until the late twentieth century, in part due to a hesitancy to sow division of any kind in a national history which upheld the notion of French universalism. However, the role of women in the Resistance, as well as female resisters’ position in French society in the 1940s and 1950s, has emerged over the past thirty years in women’s studies departments and intersectional research in women’s history. Many women participated in the Resistance and in the cases of Lucie Aubrac, Suzanne Buisson, Simone Segouin, Hélène Viannay and many more — they played an important role in founding Resistance groups. However, the French national liberation movement was not a women’s liberation movement and many of the women resisters did not receive, or seek, recognition in the years after 1945. Recent studies such as Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved, and died under Nazi occupation by Anne Sebba explore this devastating period in Paris's history by tracing the lives of women who were left to fend for themselves. During a time when men were sent into war or imprisoned by the Germans, Sebba presents this era as a time when women's power was ascending. Women of Jewish ancestry or faith faced bleak choices in life. The Journal of Hélène Berr chronicles the life of one such woman before her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just five days before the Liberation. Novels and film adaptations abound with the forbidden affairs that occurred between French women and the German officers occupying and policing the country. The retaliation against these women after the Liberation was swift and harsh — often shaving the heads of these women and parading them down the streets half naked. The French television series Un village française External depicts these dark years with nuance and honesty.

Algériennes: The Forgotten Women of the Algerian Revolution. By Swann Meralli and Deloupy, (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020). Library of Congress General Collections.

Even more neglected by scholarship at the time, but which has emerged in more recent scholarship, is the role played by women during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Witness to the loss of thousands of Algerian soldiers during the Second World War, and in response to nationalist uprisings such as Sétif and Guelma, in which thousands of Algerian demonstrators were killed by the French colonial authorities, Algerian women joined the FLN as Maquisards. There they fought, were taken prisoner, tortured, and killed alongside their male counterparts. Though women made up less than 20% of the maquis, many more contributed to the national liberation movement by preparing meals, washing and sewing clothes, and providing medical care for the guerrilla fighters. The prominent role of Algerian women was recognized in some of the measures of Charles de Gaulle’s Constantine Plan of 1957, which attempted to lend increased liberties, including education, marital and voting rights to women, though this was largely ineffective at such a late stage in the war. Swann Meralli and Deloupy depict the heroic deeds and brutal treatment of these women in the graphic novel Algériennes: The Forgotten Women of the Algerian Revolution.

The right to vote would not be granted to French women until 1944, making France one of the last European countries to grant female suffrage. Algerian women were granted the right to vote only in 1958. During the 1940s, more texts began to circulate which paved the way for the Second Wave of the 1960s and 70s and formed the basis of contemporary feminist theory. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in 1949, outlining the subordination and subjugation of women throughout history on a biological, sexual, social, religious, and political level. The demands of the Second Wave feminists in France, then, were strongly founded on social rights and an end to economic, medical, and social discrimination. Women’s health was a major point of contention, with the Neuwirth Law of 1967 legalizing access to the contraceptive pill and, in 1975 the Veil Law decriminalizing abortion in France. These measures signified major breakthroughs in the fight for women’s equality.

Though the student and worker uprisings of May 1968 are seen as the touchpaper of the Second Wave, the changes in laws, and the broader shift in conversation on a national level had been brought about by decades of feminist organizing. As feminists became more active in strikes and demonstrations, what became known as the mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) was born. In her book Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women's Liberation Movement, historian Lisa Greenwald traces the birth of the MLF movement back to an event on August 26th, 1970 when a group of feminist activists were prevented by the police from holding a peaceful demonstration. The MLF as a movement was less of a unified group as the women involved preferred to work in smaller like-minded  and independent clusters although they united for a few years behind reproductive rights. The Manifeste des 343 (Manifesto of the 343) appeared in the Nouvel Observateur on April 5th, 1971, bringing national attention to the issue of abortion by listing 343 women who revealed they had undergone illegal abortion procedures.  The unified women's movement began breaking apart after abortion rights were won in 1974, in part because of radically different philosophies, priorities, and approaches of the participants and in part because of the commercial interests of one group which trademarked the name of the MLF thereby prohibiting its use by others. French historian Michelle Perrot has published numerous works on feminist studies and was one of the first to critically study French women in history. Her most recent book, Le temps des féminismes explores the struggles of women in France's history. Drawing from Olympe de Gouges, Hubertine Auclert, Arlette Farge, and others, she discusses the divisions of contemporary feminism and the progress made toward equality in the twentieth century. The 1990s and beyond saw a greater receptivity to women in public office and positions of power. Martine Aubry, Ségolène Royal and Elisabeth Guigou demonstrated the ability for women to represent political parties in a serious way. The Parity Movement (which was written into law beginning in 2000), requiring equal numbers of female and male candidates on a party slate, in commerce, and in wages, demonstrates the degree to which second wave feminism was a powerful force in France at the end of the twentieth century.

Complete digitized collections of French women's press are available for both Presse féminine External and Presse féministe External from Gallica.

French Feminist Thinkers of the 20th Century

  • Simone de Beauvoir- (1908-1986) A preeminent writer and philosopher of the twentieth century, de Beauvoir is best known for her two-volume feminist treatise Le Deuxième Sexe or The Second Sex (1949), which has gone on to become a seminal work of feminist literature globally.
  • Hélène Cixous- (1937-) Growing up Jewish in Algeria, Cixous had established herself as a preeminent post-structural feminist philosophical thinker and writer by the 1970s. Her paper, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), introduced the idea of literary écriture feminine or “women’s writing” by and for women.
  • Catherine Clément- (1939-) Novelist, feminist, literary critic and philosopher, Clément wrote prolifically and teamed up with feminist theorists Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. She also lived many of her years overseas in countries such as Gambia and Senegal.
  • Christine Delphy- (1941-) A co-founder of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) as well as a distinguished scholar of materialist feminism, Delphy has drawn attention to issues of race and racism as well as patriarchal domination through her academic work and activistm.
  • Colette Guillaumin- (1934-2017) Alongside Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin was a prominent materialist feminist and through her academic writings made significant contributions to the field of French gender studies.
  • Luce Irigaray- (1930-) A widely-cited Belgian-born French feminist philosopher, Irigaray is best known for her theory of ‘Phallocentrism’ and her psychoanalytic work on the social role of gender in French language and society.
  • Sarah Kofman- (1934-1994) A Jewish philosopher and professor of Polish descent who grew up in France during the Holocaust, Kaufman read and wrote widely on philosophical matters, including the philosophy of the feminine and the ways in which femininity had been rejected by prominent philosophers in their work.
  • Julia Kristeva- (1941-) Combining research in linguistics and semiotics with studies in psychoanalysis, Kristeva worked as both a researcher at Paris VII-Diderot and a practicing psychoanalyst. Her work on the gendered aspect of language learning and use has been widely influential in both the French and American feminist movements.
  • Monique Wittig- (1935-2003) A radical lesbian feminist novelist, essayist and poet, Wittig’s most notable contributions to French feminist writings include L’Opoponax (1964), Le Corps lesbien (1973), and The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992). Wittig was a founding member of the Gouines rouges, one of the first lesbian groups in Paris, and participated in MLF activism.
  • Simone Veil- (1927-2017) A survivor of deportation and internment during the Holocaust, Veil would go on to serve as a member of French and European Union governance, notable for being one of the only woman civil servants at her level and for her work to decriminalize abortion and expand women’s rights in France. Simone: Woman of the Century External, a biopic on her life, came out in France in 2022 directed by Olivier Dahan and staring Elsa Zylberstein.

For further information see: French feminisms 1975 and after : new readings, new texts and French Feminist Criticism: Women, Language, and Literature: An annotated Bibliography by Elissa D. Gelfand and Virginia Thorndike Hules.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about Women in the French Revolution it is useful to browse by authorized subject heading. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections.

There will be some overlap, and these subject headings are not always entirely comprehensive. For example, Women revolutionaries--France--Biography will not bring you every biography on revolutionary women in France. You will find additional works under Women intellectuals--France--Biography.

For resources on individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name and look for subheadings.

For example, to find all resources on Simone de Beauvoir search "SUBJECTS beginning with:"