Why is Women’s Suffrage in France Only 70 Years Old?

Reunion of the French League for Women's Rights, April 1914. Photo: Lebreton32 for Wikimedia Commons

Reunion of the French League for Women’s Rights, April 1914. Photo: Lebreton32 for Wikimedia Commons

On April 21, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the provisional government in Algiers, issued a simple decree, “Women are eligible to vote under the same conditions as men.” The first municipal election after the liberation of France was held a year later on April 29, 1945. Across France twelve million women walked into voting booths and cast their first ballots. On this historic day, one woman told reporters, “I am so proud to vote and I hope that all women will fulfill their duty.”

Historic as it was, female suffrage arrived comparatively late in France. A century and a half earlier, the French Revolution made France a modern republic under the motto of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Then, in the wake of the 1848 political uprising, France became one of the first nations to grant universal suffrage to men. However, it took almost a century to extend that right to women. In April 1944, women in Finland had been voting for 38 years, in Germany for 25 years, in the US for 24 years, and in Britain for 16 years. France was in fact one of the last countries in the West to recognize female suffrage. The question is: what caused this delay?

“It is a longstanding issue in French history,” said Michèle H. Richman, Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. Clovis, first king of the Franks, established Salic Law in the early Middle Ages, which was reinforced by French royals during the 14th and 15th centuries. Under these laws, women could neither inherit nor transfer the crown of France. “When Elizabeth became the English Queen,” Professor Richman explained, a female ruler “was impossible for France.” After the the French Revolution, the Constitution of 1791 continued to exclude women from political action, referring to women as “passive citizens.” Even the Napoleonic Code in 1804, which is widely considered the first modern civil law, required that married women absolutely obey their spouses. The code further stated, “Women are incapable of carrying out any legal action.”

Despite historical and legal constraints, French women were active in suffrage movements beginning in the 19th century. French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791, but she was denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and executed by guillotine. Still, the female suffrage movement in France did not end with de Gouges. L’Union Française Pour Le Suffrage Des Femmes (the French Union for Women’s Suffrage) was created in 1909 to further advocate female suffrage. Furthermore, three women served as undersecretaries to the state government of the Third Republic in 1936, though they were not elected but rather appointed to those positions.

Still, the ultimate role suffrage movements played in accomplishing the vote remains questionable. According to Professor Richman, de Gaulle decided to grant women the right to vote in 1944 in part to recognize the sacrifice of women during the Resistance in World War II. However, he may have had other political motivations. At the time, women were believed to be more conservative than men and thus more likely to vote for the right wing de Gaulle. In the second round presidential election in 1965, de Gaulle gained 61 percent of female votes and only 49 percent of male votes.

Despite 70 years of progress since female suffrage became a reality, women are still underrepresented in French politics. In 2012, 27 percent of deputies in the National Assembly were women. This percentage ranks France No. 8 in Europe and No. 38 globally. Female political representation is 32.9 percent in Germany, 36 percent in Spain, 44.7 percent in Sweden, and 18.5 percent in the US. The global average is 19.7 percent.

To increase female representation in the National Assembly, the French Constitution was revised in 1999 to establish “parity” between men and women in public office. A 2000 law further encouraging parity requires that political parties have equal numbers of women and men on candidate lists. Female representation in the National Assembly rose 6.4 percent and 8.4 percent in the last two elections as a result, but France is still far away from true “parity.” This begs further questions: how long do we have to wait for equal representation of men and women? Or is this political gender gap simply insurmountable?

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