On April 21, 1944, French women received the right to vote. Shocked that it took so long? Me too, but women in Switzerland had to wait until 1977 and those in the United Arab Emirates just got the vote in 2006!
France’s relatively late entry into women’s suffrage is particularly ironic when one considers that this right was proposed at the time of the French Revolution. Olympe de Gouge, a feminist writer, composed the “Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens” in response to a certain other famous declaration. She argued that women not only had the right to vote, but to an education, to serve in the military, and to obtain a divorce. She was guillotined for treason in 1793.
Suffrage was debated in 1846, but the “wise ones” decided that giving women the right to vote would interfere with their domestic duties, disrupt family life, and undermine society. In 1871, women actually did have the right to vote under the Paris Commune, but when that government fell after a few months, away went women’s suffrage. Feminist Hubertine Auclert argued at the close of the 19th century that women would, in fact, bring a “civilizing effect” due to their more “peaceful” natures. Eugenie Niboyet trumpeted these views in her newspaper “Voix des Femmes.”
The intervention of two World Wars that were largely fought on French soil may have put the issue on the back burner, although other European countries did adopt women’s suffrage in the war years. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the decree of Charles de Gaulle, at a time when half of France was still occupied, that women got the right to vote. They were eligible to participate in the first national election of October 21, 1945. A woman came close to winning the French presidency in the 2007 election and several women hold top cabinet positions in the current cabinet, including the extremely impressive Christine Lagarde. (Note: Since this was written, Lagarde was named as the head of the International Monetary Fund.) We’ve come a long way, bébé.
Today’s expression vouloir, c’est pouvoir (voolwahr seh poovwahr) means “to want is to be able” or, as we would say, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” Women like Olympe de Gouge died so that women can vote. Their will made a way for the rest of us.
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