Women's long battle to vote in France and the generations who fought it

By Jessica Phelan - RFI
France Women's long battle to vote in France and the generations who fought it

This 21 April marks 80 years since women secured the right to vote in France. A wartime decree finally granted equal suffrage in 1944 – decades later than other European countries, and only after generations of women had demanded their democratic rights.

From Denmark to Azerbaijan, Germany to Georgia, Russia to the United Kingdom, swathes of Europe established at least limited voting rights for women in the 1910s.

Finland enfranchised women even earlier, in 1906. On the other side of the world, Australia and New Zealand had opened voting to certain women in 1902 and 1893 respectively. 

Yet in 1932, a French senator was still arguing in all seriousness: "Giving women the right to vote is a gamble, a leap into the unknown, and we have a duty not to rush into this venture."

Sure enough, France went slow. It would be another 12 years before Charles de Gaulle's government in exile passed the decree that, on 21 April 1944, declared women eligible to take part in elections on the same terms as men. 

What took so long? 

Currents of history

"It's true that it's a long, long story, and it's not just 1944," says Anne-Sarah Moalic, a historian whose book La Marche des Citoyennes ("The March of Women Citizens") traces the history of the suffrage movement in France.

She is keen to correct the notion that women in France were slow to demand their rights. Equal treatment had been a matter for debate since the French Revolution, with thinkers such as Olympe de Gouges arguing for women to play a role in politics from the 1790s. 

But it was an era of revolution and counter-revolution, when breakneck progress was followed by reactionary backlash.

By 1848, after the conservative monarchy had been restored and toppled once again, a new provisional government declared that all French men could vote from the age of 21 – a suffrage they called "universal", but that specifically excluded women. 

Bold pioneers

Women began to object immediately, says Moalic – women such as Eugénie Niboyet, who founded France's first feminist daily newspaper, La Voix des Femmes ("The Women's Voice"), just weeks later. 

The following year one of her fellow campaigners, a seamstress, schoolteacher and socialist named Jeanne Deroin, became the first woman to run for parliament in France.

"You sincerely want the full consequences of your great principles liberté, égalité, fraternité, and it is in the name of these principles, which do not admit unjust exclusion, that I am standing as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly," she declared.

Ridiculed in the press and heckled at hustings, Deroin did not win a seat; even if she had, the law wouldn't have allowed her to take it.

"We have to imagine how difficult it would have been for her," says Moalic, who marvels at Deroin's courage.

"But we cannot say that it was really the beginning of a big movement."

By 1851 a coup d'état had re-established imperial rule and a crackdown was underway on socialists like Deroin, who left France for England and never returned.   

"So we had to wait for the feminists of the Third Republic from 1870, 1875, to find the strong movement for women's rights in France," Moalic says.

The first suffragists

The rights they were demanding weren't just political. A growing number of social reformers were campaigning for better access to education, legalised divorce and broader property rights, among other changes, which they believed would make life fairer and freer for women and girls in France.

But Hubertine Auclert – "the first French suffragist, the big one", in Moalic's words – drew a line between reforming the laws and making them in the first place.

"Auclert said the vote was a priority, because if you don't vote you're not considered," says Moalic. 

In 1876, Auclert founded the first French group dedicated to campaigning for women's suffrage. 

She adopted tactics more militant than any yet seen in France, including refusing to pay taxes and sabotaging ballot boxes at the 1908 municipal elections.

"We could not imagine today that a woman [of the time] was that bold, that audacious in the way she campaigned," comments Moalic.

Within the law

On the whole, though, French activists were less radical than the suffragettes who were beginning to force the issue to the fore in the UK – chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows, scrapping with police, going on hunger strike and eventually mounting bomb and arson attacks.

"In France, women weren't using the same kind of action," says Moalic. "They preferred this respectable, legalist approach, to show that they could be part of the Republic and would obey the law."

Auclert's successors, suffragists of the 1910s and '20s such as Cécile Brunschvicg and Maria Vérone, shunned civil disobedience in favour of peaceful protests and petitions.

Even later activists remained more or less respectable. 

In the 1930s, journalist Louise Weiss grabbed headlines with stunts including staging mock ballots, blocking traffic, burning newspapers, marching onto a racecourse, airdropping pamphlets over a football match and covering policemen in talcum powder.

But though inspired by British suffragettes, the pranks were more playful than confrontational.

"I felt that in France, if the people who laugh are on your side you're almost sure to win, and we got the laughers on our side," Weiss later said.

Institutional gatekeepers

It was a time when respect for institutions was especially sacred in France, which was finally in a period of stability after more than a century of upheavals.

That also helps explain why, as French suffragists persuaded MPs to take up their cause in parliament, lawmakers were leery.

Starting in 1901, women's suffrage was discussed – and dismissed – in the lower house several times. MPs eventually voted in favour for the first time in May 1919. But the upper house, the Senate, took until 1922 to consider the proposal – and then rejected it.

The same thing would happen repeatedly over the following decade. By 1936 the National Assembly had voted for women's suffrage six times, the Senate not once.

Senators – who at the time, unlike lower-house lawmakers, were not directly elected – saw themselves as the guardians of a delicate status quo, Moalic explains. 

Fearing further tumult, she says, "they have this reaction of protection, and they say: 'What would they vote for, these women?'"

Opponents claimed women would struggle to vote responsibly or be unduly influenced by husbands – or worse, by priests.

Moalic says: "They're afraid of what could happen with that vote, so they prefer to keep the situation as it is."

Sea change

But equal franchise was rarely gained without tumult, Moalic points out. 

Most European countries extended suffrage soon after World War I, when empires were crumbling and new constitutions being written.

"And in France, it's just the same," says Moalic. "In 1918 the institutions were strong enough not to be broken by the First World War. And after that we had great stability in our institutions in France for all this period between the two wars."

That was shattered by World War II. 
"And so, on the ruins of this Third Republic, we had to build something new – and that is the moment of 1944 when the vote is granted at last to French women."

France was one of a fresh wave of countries, including Italy, Belgium and Japan, that rewrote their voting laws in the wake of World War II.

Even then, de Gaulle's provisional government didn't approve the reform unanimously. But women had worked alongside and instead of men and fought in the Resistance.

The argument that they weren't capable of voting was no longer tenable.

From ballots to seats

The first chance they got to vote was in 1945, first in municipal elections and later in parliamentary ones.

"Women did vote, and that was a very important point, because many people said that women weren't interested in voting," says Moalic.

"Where the inequality was stronger, and still is, is with the fact of being elected."

Just 33 of the 586 lawmakers elected to the National Assembly in 1945 were women; in 1958, it was eight. Today, 215 female MPs make up just over 37 percent of France's National Assembly.

But in women's long, unfinished struggle for equality, the right to vote was a milestone – a right not given, but claimed. 

"These women, these feminists, they were looking for a better world," says Moalic. "They wanted to be included in the 'republic'. And not as women – they just wanted to be part of this big and beautiful thing that is democracy and republic.

"And I think today, where some ideas and ideologies in society are quite sad and separatist, with everyone looking for their own little right, it's really important to celebrate this reform, and all these women who gave many of their years and their attention to make a change."