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The Invisibility of Powerful Women

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Thaima Samman

The question of women and power is inevitably part of a country’s political history, argues Thaima Samman in her analysis of the role of women in French public life.

Pragmatism behind the surface

France has always known and recognized women of power, but only on one condition: that they are neither visible nor on the front line. Women’s intelligence and influence are not necessarily called into doubt, as long as they stay in their place, behind the official holder of power. The “well-born” could be queen regent, but never queen regnant (Blanche de Castille, Catherine and later Marie de Médicis…), politically influential mistresses/favorites (Agnès Soral, Diane de Poitier, Madame de Pompadour and Jeanne du Barry…), women of letters and culture, who received Parisian high society from the spheres of power and culture in their “salons” even if only few of these women would have the right to publish (the Comtesse de Ségure, Madame de Lafayette, Madame de Staël) and Georges Sand, a member of the lesser provincial nobility, who dressed as a man to be able to live more freely.

Flora Tristan

In working-class circles, women were present during every protest and revolution, on the barricades during the French Revolution and then during the various uprisings of the 19th century. Here too, few achieved recognition by making it into the pages of history: Olympes de Gouges, revolutionary and author of the 1791 “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen”, counterpart of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and standard-bearer of the revolutionaries, failed to have the principle extended to women and ended up being guillotined, as were her male “Girondin” friends; Flora Tristan, a woman of letters and a battered woman in the first part of the 19th century, dared to raise her head to write about the status of women and demand equality. Louise Michel, anarchist and member of the Paris Commune, a popular uprising in 1870 that was bloodily repressed, ended up being deported to the penal colony in New Caledonia. This tradition continues to this day, with a number of invisible hands serving in an advisory role, as the unofficial number two in political organizations, in the senior civil service, companies and trade union organizations.

Women in France have carved out their own niche in all professional spheres.

While republican France prides itself on being ahead of the game when it comes to political and social rights –the right to unionize, to form associations, and to demonstrate…–  all of which rights were won before WWI, and with the right to paid leave, and to a maximum 40-hour working week also being won before WWII, it was not until 1947 that women were extended the right to vote, well after Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom or Turkey… In the battle raging between liberals and republicans against conservatives to limit the weight of the Roman Catholic Church, the “progressive” camp opposed the extension of universal suffrage to women, who they was feared would vote “like their confessors” and therefore for Catholic conservatives.

Louise Michel

As elsewhere in Europe, it was the two world wars that accelerated the legitimacy of women in social, professional and political life. Working in factories and in the fields to replace men away at war, they did not all return home as they were expected to, and began to climb their way up the social ladder.

At the end of WWII, General de Gaulle, a conservative Catholic, identified demographics as an instrument of power, but understood that French women were not willing to give up work for the sake of motherhood. He therefore imposed an early childhood policy with the extension of day nurseries, preschools where children no older than three were enrolled, diversification of childcare options, tax benefits of all kinds, etc. to facilitate working and mothering.

Since then, women in France have carved out their own niche in all professional spheres, right up to middle management level, while maintaining, until recently, one of the highest birth rates in Europe.

The republican egalitarian illusion and the cultural relationship to femininity

On the flip side, the glass ceiling in France has long remained much lower than elsewhere. Latin machismo and its corollary of the family burden, whether material or mental, are, as in other countries, obstacles on the path to power. Compounding the situation are a few national specificities: republican equality and the relationship to “femininity”, which are well described in an essay by the well-known French historian and academic philosopher Mona Ouzouf in her “Women’s Words: Essay on French Singularity”.

She theorizes that “Anglo-American” feminism was built on the cultural model of group demands, while the three fundamental values of the French Republic admit nothing but citizenship. Far from social or gender determinism, the French Constitution states that “France shall be an indivisible […] Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion […]”, Hence the domination of the white man is merely an optical illusion, and women’s rights are not a battle but a charming conversation, which should enable us to preserve relationships of seduction “à la française”. Writing in 1995, Mona Ouzouf said that “Feminism in France still has a tranquility, a moderation, even a timidity about it […] French women have not given up hope of negotiating a happy relationship between differences and equality”.

French universalism, which finds its roots in the republican ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, also works to discourage individuals from self-identifying with any community other than the larger community represented by the Nation. In fact, this explains why it is illegal to collect statistics or personal data based on race, ethnicity, political, religious or philosophical opinion. This universalism coexists in an uneasy alliance with another concept, equally central to the dominant French republican ideology – that of exceptionalism.

Getting back to the main topic at hand, while the struggle is as tough in France as it is elsewhere, feminism fell out of fashion (having even become an F-word) and this trend of non-identification is wrapped up in the phrase repeated by millions of women in every sphere of their lives: “I’m not a feminist but…”. This state of mind among a certain number of privileged women was prevalent right up to peak of the MeToo movement, with the famous open letter, published in Le Monde newspaper, penned by actress Catherine Deneuve and a dozen other women from the establishment (among a few others) who defended their “right to be bothered”.

While Mona Ouzouf and the signatories of this open letter represent a true sensitivity of French feminist elites, they are generationally and sociologically an exception. The numerous and furious reactions to this open letter forced Catherine Deneuve to issue an apology.

State intervention under political and social pressure

At the same time, the conquest of family, political, economic and cultural power progressed steadily throughout the 20th century, accelerating with the great student and social mobilizations of the ’60s, although it was not a smooth ride. Not until 1965 did a woman have the right to work or open a bank account without her husband’s consent. The right to abortion was a hard-won fight that was fought in Parliament by the then Health Minister, Simone Veil in 1975, with the support of the then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, with Simone Veil ending up being booed by some of her fellow majority lawmakers, who made her cry, and the support of the left-wing opposition. As for Jacques Chirac, a few years later he admitted that he preferred women with their hands in the dough.

Siomne Veil

The Anglo-American approach has ended up being emulated by women’s movements and organizations, particularly at the top end of the social scale. Women’s movements multiplied, and single-sex organizations and networks sprang up – a heresy for the French mentality, and a potentially criminally punishable offense in France on grounds of discrimination, as men were not included. The vote of women became a political issue, and it was they who elected the first left-wing President of the Fifth Republic in 1981, after 23 years of right-wing government. Social and professional equality gradually became part and parcel of all political programs.

In 2000, under a left-wing government, France created a world first by adopting the law “to promote equal access of women and men to electoral mandates and elective functions” obliging parties to present the same number of women and men at all local elections. While the rule is only in force for national elections, those who do not respect it become subject to financial penalties.

France is beginning to catch up with the gendered nature of political representation, but it took a law to do so. It was a right-wing government that tackled the corporate world, imposing a 40% quota for women on boards of directors from January 1st, 2017, under the “Coppé-Zimmerman” law of 2011. And once again it worked: France is reported to have become the best-performing country in terms of gender equality in large companies by 2022.

But without a law, no results, and smaller companies are struggling to keep up with holders of senior management and executive committee roles remaining largely male. Emmanuel Macron’s government therefore passed a new law on December 24th, 2021, aimed at “accelerating economic and professional equality”, imposing quotas of 40% women executives and 40% women members of management bodies by 2030 on companies with more than 1,000 employees, on pain of financial penalties.

France has finally built a path to equality and parity between French tradition and Anglo-American influence.

At the same time, the State, as the main or major shareholder in many large companies, is forcing the placement of women in management positions at CEO level, in central administration and in regulatory authorities.

Last but not least, women have made their presence felt in recent years in trade unions which have long been a temple of machismo, in parallel with the trend towards deindustrialization and the rise of service activities. For years, women have been at the helm of several highly feminized teachers’ and public service unions. Since the spring of 2023, they have replaced two men at the head of the two main generalist unions, the reformist CFDT and the more confrontational CGT

France has finally built a path to equality and parity between French tradition and Anglo-American influence. Over the past decade, feminism has not only ceased to be a dirty word, it has become fashionable once again. Women are conquering new spaces, and State-owned companies are getting involved in the drive to promote equality and parity, either voluntarily or under pressure. But resistance remains strong, and although women in power are increasingly numerous, they remain statistically marginal, with the temptation to exploit them as the tree that hides the forest. The current period of tension and conflict is also occasioning a “virile” backlash. Ultimately, regardless of philosophical tradition, the question of women and power is inevitably part of a country’s political history.



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