Each March, Michigan State University recognizes Women’s History Month, dedicated to honoring the impact women have made in the United States and at MSU. As part of this celebration, we are featuring the research of Elizabeth Tuttle, Assistant Professor of French in the Department of Romance and Classical Studies, which looks beyond our borders, across the Atlantic, to France and its suffragist print culture and to a leading French feminist who dedicated much of her life fighting for the right to vote for women in that country and who was inspired by the success of the suffragette movement in the United States.
Most Americans are probably aware that it wasn’t until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 that women in the United States finally won the right to vote. But did you know that women in France had to wait another 24 years before they could have a say in their country’s democracy?
It wasn’t until April 1944 when a measure in France was signed into law by Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government that gave women the right to vote in that country. Yet, they had to wait another year to cast their ballots for the first time — on April 29, 1945 — when France was liberated from German occupation.
Why did it take so long for France, considered by many to be one of the birthplaces of modern democracy, to follow the lead of the United States, England, Germany, Finland, Poland, and many other nations? According to Professor Tuttle, “There were reasons for blocking women’s votes coming from all parts of the political spectrum.”
“A lot of men weren’t opposed to women voting, per se, but they were afraid of what the women’s voting bloc could do.”
The political landscape in early 20th-century France was very contentious. You had monarchists who wanted the monarchy back, conservatives who simply didn’t want women to vote, staunch Republicans in favor of the Republic, and people on the left side of the political spectrum who feared that women would vote conservatively because they were thought to be more religious than men.”
“A lot of men weren’t opposed to women voting, per se, but they were afraid of what the women’s voting bloc could do,” Tuttle said. “Some politicians made this argument that ‘We have to protect the Republic. We can’t give women the vote because they’ll listen to their priests. Women are more easily influenced; they’ll listen to whatever anyone says to them. And they’ll vote super conservative, and it will threaten our political position.’”
It’s true that many women did turn to the church in the 1920s and 1930s, Tuttle said, and while they were politically disenfranchised, they were able to find other ways of having substantial influence on society through efforts that were often associated with the Catholic church, such as Temperance movements, charitable organizations, women’s and family groups, etc.
“Plenty of men also voted conservatively,” Tuttle said, “so it took away women’s agency to make these assumptions about women.”
Tuttle recently received a Carrie Chapman Prize for Research on Women and Politics, presented by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at the University of Iowa, for the research she is doing on French feminist Marthe Bray, who spent much of her professional life arguing in favor of women’s right to vote in France. Bray founded the League for Feminist Action (LFA), and she and her colleagues imported American suffragette tactics to France to influence French opinion to give French women the right to vote.
“She was attempting to find another way to make French feminists be heard, but she was also trying to avoid stereotypes…She tried to subvert that by saying, ‘We’re not going to give anti-feminists what they want. We’re just going to let the materials speak for themselves.’”
According to Tuttle, Bray is a less-known feminist of her time who tried to use humor and the concept of voiceless speech to recruit women and men, especially from the lower classes, to feminism. Bray was the only French feminist to use the term “voiceless speech,” a phrase that she borrowed from American suffragettes. She wanted feminist materials to “speak for themselves” and distributed them at marketplaces, factory entrances, and government offices. She toured the French countryside with the idea of targeting local officials instead of national politicians.
“She came along at a time when feminists were fed up,” Tuttle said. “Amendment after amendment had failed. She was attempting to find another way to make French feminists be heard, but she was also trying to avoid stereotypes because there were a lot of caricatures going around at this point. Suffragists were basically looked at as shrews, shrieking harpies, nags. She tried to subvert that by saying, ‘We’re not going to give anti-feminists what they want. We’re just going to let the materials speak for themselves.’”
According to Tuttle, the French frowned upon the word “suffragette” because they didn’t want to be associated with American or British women who were generally considered more militant. But Bray called herself a suffragette to act more forcefully. However, her embrace of more powerful terminology and voiceless speech didn’t catch on the way she hoped it would. One reason is that by the early 1930s people were starting to worry about the possibility of war. Women, in particular, became very concerned with pacifism.
“Many of them lost their husbands, brothers, and fathers in World War I, so a lot of the attention starts to go towards pacifism,” Tuttle said. “Bray herself led a campaign against war toys. She wanted stores to ban the sale of toy guns. She tried to get this public campaign going because she felt it encouraged violence and helped create a violent society. A lot of feminists agreed with her. You can see echoes of that in the ’90s over violent video games, but it was already happening then.”
“Winning the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize is crucial to the completion of this chapter as it will facilitate my return to Paris where I can spend time in the archives and continue unearthing the political ephemera that is central to my research project.”
The research Tuttle is doing on Bray is for a chapter, devoted to suffragist print culture, for a book she is working on. The chapter is the first in Tuttle’s book, which is tentatively titled “Distributing the Revolution: Interwar French Print Culture and Political Activism.” The book will explore political ephemera — pamphlets, fliers, posters, even umbrellas — in 1920s and 1930s France and how that shaped French feminists and anti-imperialists movements.
“Winning the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize is crucial to the completion of this chapter as it will facilitate my return to Paris where I can spend time in the archives and continue unearthing the political ephemera that is central to my research project,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle’s research has made her appreciate how women’s history continues to evolve. What Bray tried to impart through postcards and pamphlets is now spread via the Internet and social media. Tuttle points out that the feminist crusade was a global movement in the early 20th century, with women from various countries working together and borrowing from each other. Yet it is also national context that makes a movement either resonate or not resonate in a particular nation or region, which explains the long delay for women’s suffrage in France.
“We have this idea that movements are global, and they are because of the reach of the materials,” Tuttle said. “But at the same time, national and even local context really matters for how a movement is going to be received or how it’s going to spread.”
“We have this idea that movements are global, and they are because of the reach of the materials. But at the same time, national and even local context really matters for how a movement is going to be received or how it’s going to spread.”
Using the money from the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize, Tuttle plans to travel to Paris this summer where she will do research at the Historical Library of the City of Paris, which has dozens of boxes that contain documents relative to the many women, including Bray, who led the fight for suffrage in France.
The Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women and Politics is an annual competition designed to encourage and reward scholars embarking on significant research in the area of gender and politics. Scholars at any level may apply, from graduate students to tenured faculty members as well as adjunct faculty and independent researchers. Research projects submitted for prize consideration may address any topic related to gender and politics.
Written by Lynn Waldsmith and Kim Popiolek