Women in Public Spaces, past and present

Holly Ashford

Whether it’s rape threats for remainers, the constant commentary on Theresa May’s shoes, or the misogyny that seems to follow Dianne Abbott wherever she goes, the public sphere is not a welcoming space for women in 2019. But why are we surprised? When has it ever been? Well, according to a fascinating paper by Cambridge University’s, Harry Mace, given at our workshop last week, there was a brief moment in the 1920s and 30s in which it seemed like French women were going to have an –albeit proportionately limited – place in diplomatic life. It was short-lived. By the 1940s, women were routinely being called back to Paris and demoted. So was the interwar period an anomaly? Why did things change for French women in the public sphere after the Second World War? By exploring these questions, Harry says, we can better understand the challenges that face our public and political establishments today.

Harry looks at the lives of French women diplomats through a method called prosopography. I have to admit, previous to hearing Harry’s paper last week, I’d never heard of it, but it sounds enlightening. Because these women haven’t usually left behind autobiographies, or much written material at all about their lives, Harry has collected data from a series of biographies. He has also interviewed some of the younger women in his story, which led to a lively discussion of how to choose and allocate pseudonyms! This is more complicated than it might first appear … most of Harry’s French diplomats did not just want to be referred to by a forename, as they didn’t feel this reflected their status. Meanwhile, methods such as labelling participants ‘diplomat 1, diplomat 2’ and so on, feel decidedly inhuman, although it’s standard practice in other disciplines.

French women did not get the vote until after WW2, and the matrimony bill, which allowed women to open bank accounts and so on, was not passed until 1965. Women were expected to be feminine, but never feminist. Women’s rights were therefore extremely limited for large portions of the twentieth century. However, as Harry shows, they were allowed to take up high ranking positions in the Foreign Ministry for two brief decades between two world wars. They played an important part in the bureaucratisation of the institution in this period. Suzanne Borel is celebrated as a pioneer – and lone – women diplomat in this period. This image of her uniqueness comes mainly from her own efforts – she published two books about her struggles as a woman diplomat, much later in the 1970s. However, Harry was able to introduce us to a whole series of women who had similar roles in that period.

However, come the 1940s and Borel had resigned, and other women diplomats were recalled to France’s capital and demoted, mainly to secretarial level. One can only imagine the frustration of these highly educated and experienced women. So what changed after WW2? Harry explained that the shift was all to do with rebuilding the country after the devastation and humiliation that war had brought. A display of masculinity within the Foreign Ministry was called for, the figure of the diplomat as the hero abroad was seen as necessary to recapture France’s status in the world. Women were not suitable to be representing France, they could undertake the work in the Foreign Ministry in Paris, but they could not take credit for it. Moreover, rebuilding the nation meant the narrowing of gendered roles, which affected women as well. Women were expected to me married, have children, work on recovery for the domestic sphere.

Harry explained that the ramifications of the demotions of the 1940s had an effect on women’s roles in public life in France for decades following this. He even went as far as to link the discriminatory attitudes reinforced by this period to the fact that France is yet to see a woman President. Whilst the public sphere continues to privilege masculinity, work like Harry’s remains invaluable.


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