Have a question? Need assistance? Use our online form to ask a librarian for help.
Erika Hope Spencer, Reference Specialist, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division
Keara Mickelson, Intern, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division
Created: August 1, 2021
Last Updated: February 18, 2023
This is a resource guide to remarkable women in French history, and to the evolution of the feminist movement in France. It is organized chronologically through historical periods:
Each historical section in this guide has a bibliography of English and French-language print resources from the Library's collections and also contains a bibliography of primary sources and special collections, and a section that includes open-access digitized works. There are stand-alone sections on French Women's Press and Famous Women in French History followed by a page on French Feminist Journals held at the Library of Congress. There is an image gallery of the satirical cartoons of Honoré Daumier's series, Les Bas Bleu: Satirizing the Bluestockings. The following section lists Related Online Resources & Libraries including cultural institutions and specialized archives that hold materials on these subjects. The page on Subscription Databases requires onsite access on the part of the researcher. The last page contains Research Strategies for locating materials at the Library of Congress in general. The bibliography of print resources directly below represents general works on women in France or on feminism that cover larger time periods or general themes. Since many books span the centuries, some of these works are cross referenced, so researchers are encouraged to browse all historical eras.
The section on Famous Women in French History lists remarkable French women from all eras of history and has short biographical information, relevant images, and a short bibliography. The list is arranged chronologically. Women from the Middle Ages through the 18th century include: Héloïse, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Jeanne de Clisson, Jeanne D'Arc/Joan of Arc, Madame de Sévigné, Louise Dupin, Jeanne Baret, Olympe de Gouges, Marie-Louise Girardan, and Marie Antoinette. Starting in the 19th century: George Sand, Louise Michel, Berthe Morisot, Hubertine Auclert, Camille Claudel, Marie Curie, Camille du Gast, Colette, Marie Marvingt, Natalie Clifford Barney, Nelly Roussel, Lili Boulanger, Joséphine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil, Gisèle Halimi, Colette Guillaumin, and Monique Wittig. This list is meant to be a small representative sample of French women in early modern and contemporary history. It is by no means comprehensive. Researchers are encouraged to use this guide as a starting point from which to delve deeper into the vast history of underrepresented women.
The massive and complex topic of women in French history has gone through many interpretations. This guide is not about French feminism as represented by feminist philosophers and academics such as Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Bracha Ettinger, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva or Monique Wittig. It is about the evolution of feminism as represented by independent women throughout the various eras of French history. While it includes scholarship and scholarly sources in the bibliographies, the guide is ultimately a generalized survey of remarkable individuals of varying occupation and status who instruct our understanding of the modern feminist movement. This guide is a resource for not only the individuals themselves, but their works, and those chronicling their achievements and lives. Feminist author Titiou Lecoq's work Les grandes oubliées: Pourquoi l'Histoire a effacé les femmes (image, right) asks why women are so often erased from history, and attempts to bring back the names of these forgotten greats.
As is often observed, the social position that women are born into has an enormous influence on their range of opportunities. One reason the social class of one's family was important was because it influenced access to education and connections. While a person's family status and gender always held enormous sway, the degree of mobility generally improved over the centuries. In France the system of government, the legal policies, and the cultural mood all influenced the degree of latitude and power women possessed. Unmarried women often found themselves at a distinct disadvantage. The laws that prevented property ownership, hindered divorce, denied freedom to work — or even to move about in society unaccompanied by a man — were inescapable barriers. But these barriers have prompted independent-minded women from all eras to push against these restrictions — and in many instances, prevail.
Women in medieval and ancien régime France, while not considered equal to men, did wield considerable indirect power. The influence that wives and mistresses exerted upon men cannot be denied. Marie Antoinette herself intervened directly in matters of state while her husband King Louis XVI was in power right before the fall of the Monarchy. Indeed other queens, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, proved to have a more indomitable spirit than their royal partners. During the 1789 French Revolution women enjoyed nominal support for their cause, and even if they were never seriously considered to be on par with men, their voices began to be heard and often respected by progressive men. Salonnières such as Madame de Staël and political activists such as Olympe de Gouges made names for themselves by bringing up radical new ideas. Enlightened thinkers of this time debated new ideas in salons —forerunners to the "public space". And in fact, the notion that a great mind, and not just noble blood, could grant access to these salons was in itself revolutionary. Unfortunately, during the Napoleonic Era and the Restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, the gains of "ordinary men" over nobility had the effect of enshrining males' superior status over women. Thus, the gains of lower classes of men had the byproduct of relegating women to the backseat — their only value being as a devoted wife and mother. While this did not prevent individual women from challenging these roles, a true movement for women's political rights would not emerge until the turn of the century when the burgeoning French women's press would create a public space for women's voices. In the United States, feminists were influenced by the abolitionist movement and indeed many of the first wave feminists were ex-slaves, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, who were also involved in the Underground Railroad. In France some say this First Wave of feminism had its roots in the French Revolution and the ideals of the Enlightenment, but the ideals of the Enlightenment did not intend to give universal suffrage to all, and ended up (in Napoleon's Civil Code) defining women only in their relation to men. Wealth and position greatly enhanced the bargaining power of elite women, but this still left women of all classes (elite, urban professional, and peasant) and political persuasions (monarchist or republicans) with an uphill battle to establish themselves as agents of their own lives.
During the Belle Époque (1871-1914) women began to exert increasing control over their lives. The so-called "modern woman" was gaining traction, and women's "power of the purse" got the attention of savvy entrepreneurs — especially in the fashion industry. François Coty, the famous parfumeur and the pharmacist Eugène Schuller (founder of L'Oréal) began to make profits by considering women's desires. As the years surrounding the First World War saw women entering the workforce in greater numbers, fashion designer Coco Chanel saw the need for more practical and liberating styles of dress (down with the corset!). The automobile makers André Citroën and Louis Renault saw great success as cars became symbolic of modernity and independence. And, interestingly, Citroën was very progressive in appreciating the role of his women workers, and employees much preferred his equitable working style to that of his competitor Renault. In the coming years the desire of women to learn to drive and play sports would lead to more utilitarian and modern styles of dress and hair. The years around the First World War are associated with the first wave of feminism, when most women in the Western world were granted the right to vote.
World War I ended the Belle Époque. The modern woman, who would become even more independent as men enlisted during WWI, were asserting themselves more boldly. War challenged the frivolous well-dressed shopper of Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames to be a more practical and empowered woman; a woman who was beginning to have more overtly political demands. Still, all this depended greatly on class, and therefore is impossible to summarize using women as a collective term. Generally speaking, this marked the more direct involvement of women in politics. The absence of men during both WWI and WWII put strain on marriages and shifted many of the traditional gender roles, not least because of the long separation and the hardships that befell both men and women during this time. Just as women were proving to be independent and capable, there came a reactionary pushback to the more traditional mothering role and a nationalistic movement began. The Code de la famille of 1939 (part of the pro-natalist campaign) glorified the family and proclaimed it as an almost sacred key to France's success as a nation. The novel Madame ne veut pas d'enfant (Madame does not want a child) by Claude Vautel explores the complicated world of gender roles by portraying a modern woman (short hair, no child, sexually promiscuous) with the "real" woman (curvy, faithful and maternal). This rather didactic novel seems to support the natalist campaign's desire for women to have large families and flourish in their "natural roles" as mothers. This aspect of nationalism is not unique to France; Russia and other nations launched similar campaigns. Both Prime Minister George Clemenceau and later President Charles de Gaulle held these traditional beliefs. WWI and WWII seemed to have the effect of putting women's suffrage on hold while France dealt with the more "pressing matters" at hand.
It was not until after World War II that the second wave of feminism emerged. In fact, French women did not win the right to vote until April of 1945, the first election following liberation from the German occupation. By the 1960s, France, like America, was experiencing massive student protests that focused on issues of race, women's rights (around abortion and the Pill), and wars overseas. France was reckoning with conflicts in Algeria, which after much violence would result in Algerian independence in 1962. Students in particular were weary of de Gaulle's strong hand in government and they began staging mass protests. At this point in the women's liberation movement women had become more vocal as they sought to dismantle sexist power structures. By 1975 it was widely accepted that French women should have full autonomy — and yet they still had decades of negotiations ahead of them — particularly over the issue of legalizing abortion which was viewed by feminists as an unconditional right signifying personal autonomy. The passing of the Veil Law (pronounced "vey" after activist and politician Simone Veil) in 1975 legalized abortion.
The challenges facing women seeking to enter the political arena (where they were barely represented) exposed the subtle, and not so subtle, barriers that sought to keep them out. In 1982 Gisèle Halimi proposed a law requiring 25% of municipal candidates to be female. The issue of woman's parity was also addressed in Au Pouvoir Citoyennes (Women Citizens to Power) in 1992. The law was ultimately rejected using the problematic view of French universalisme External to define citizenship in such broad terms as to make it impossible to "see" differences and therefore impossible to fix the many obstacles to minority citizens. This has made it difficult for people of color and those of different religions to point out discriminatory policies. The third wave of feminism is characterized by the intersection of race, class, culture and sexuality. Contemporary issues such as immigration, class conflicts, racism, the environment and exploration into notions of gender and sexuality all have a place in this ongoing discussion. There has been a much overdue awakening in the first two decades of the twenty-first-century to the significance of the French overseas empire. The experience of colonized peoples as well as how metropolitan France itself was affected has been analyzed by scholars such as Jennifer Boittin. Boittin focuses on the contact between continental France and colonial spaces in West Africa, the Caribbean, North Africa and French Indochina. In her recent work, Undesirable : passionate mobility and women's defiance of French colonial policing, 1919-1952, she has expanded her study to include how feminists play into these complicated relationships. The issue of the hijab, for example, became enormously controversial in 2007 when France banned the headscarves worn by many Muslim women. It was seen to be contrary to the cultural mores of metropolitan France and as in past centuries, women's choice to clothe themselves according to their own wishes came under violent attack. The task before France today is complex as it attempts to grapple with how their color blind notion of universalisme fails to account for differences of religion, culture, and race. For a recent study see Universalisme by Julien Suaudeau and Mame-Fatou Niang, Identités françaises : banlieues, féminités et universalisme by Mame-Fatou Niange, and Kiffe ta race : explorer les questions raciales sans tabou by Rokhaya Diallo and Grace Ly included in the bibliography on contemporary Feminism.
While the intention is to highlight the Library's materials on feminism in France and French women in history, there is a focus on providing sources that can be accessed online, especially digitized primary sources for students of history and feminism in France. With a few exceptions, this guide is limited to sources published in continental France rather than French territories or modern-day French-speaking countries. For resources on other Francophone countries please consult librarians in the respective Reading Rooms for those areas.
For an excellent overview of the topics surveyed in this guide see Susan K. Foley's Women in France Since 1789.
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 general materials about French Women in History it is useful to browse by authorized subject headings. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections. Keep in mind, no single subject heading is comprehensive. Some headings, for example, will leave out women, and some may leave out France, so it is imperative to do a variety of searches.
For biographies or monographs on individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).
For example, to find all books on Joan of Arc, browse "SUBJECTS (beginning with)":