Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

8. France’s sad story



One of the paradoxes in the history of working-class women’s movements is the pathetic record of French socialism in organising women, despite their outstandingly heroic role in the Great Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871.

Small enterprises dominated the industrial economy of France at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. A census in 1896 showed that the 575,000 “industrial establishments” in the country employed on average 5.5 workers each. Only 151 of them had 1,000 or more workers, while over 400,000 had only one or two workers, and another 80,000 three or four. Of the 575,000 establishments, 534,500 had less than ten. [1] Even in Paris, the capital and main manufacturing centre, at the end of the nineteenth century most workers were employed in small workshops or on their own. [2]

This backwardness was reflected in pathetically weak trade unions, even in branches such as the mines and railways which in other countries were well organised. As late as 1900 only 2.9 per cent of the eligible workers were in unions, and in 1911, 4.9 per cent. [3] These figures include workers in Catholic or “yellow” unions which in 1914 made up some two-fifths of all organised workers. [4] The workers who were organised were dispersed in a large number of tiny unions (syndicats). The average membership of the syndicats affiliated to the CGT union confederation was only 100 in 1902, rising to 200 in 1914. In the Loire, 3,497 out of 17,663 were organised in 1897, and these were divided among ten different unions, the largest having only 1,127 members. [5] The 30,000 unionised building workers were organised in no fewer than 357 different unions. [6]

The French unions were not only small, but also poor and unstable; most, except for the printers, had barely sufficient funds for their administrative expenses. As late as 1908 regular strike assistance was assured in only 46 out of 1,073 strikes. Only in 36 of these was assistance in the form of cash. [7]

National federations of trade unions hardly existed until the end of the nineteenth century, and were correspondingly poor and weak. Only the printers had a really effective national organisation. The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) – the equivalent of the British TUC – was founded in 1895. It was a loose, feeble body. Each union, whatever its size, had the same voting rights. The six smallest, with a combined membership of only 27, had as many votes as the six largest, which had some 90,000 members. The Executive Committee of the CGT held about one-third of the votes by proxy, from small unions unable to afford to send their own representatives to congress. In 1910 its income was only about 20,000 francs (£800). To support the general strike of 1 May 1906 it had appealed for funds – and received the ludicrous total of 5,000 francs (£250). [8]

Women were badly represented in the trade unions. In 1911 they made up some 38 per cent of all wage-earners, quite a high proportion compared with other countries. [9] Although the proportion of women among trade union members was practically the same in France (8.7 per cent in 1914) as in Germany (8.9 per cent in 1913), because the whole trade union movement was much weaker in France, the organisation of women workers was tiny (only 89,364 in 1914). [10]

A significant number of these were in women-only unions: in 1900, 15.3 per cent, and in 1911, 24.9 per cent. [11] This compares unfavourably with Germany where there were practically no women-only unions. Where women and men belonged to the same unions – as in textiles – the women were no less militant than the men, but in general the proportion of women among strikers was considerably lower than the proportion of women in the relevant branch of the economy. [12] Where there were big strike movements, however, there was an increase in the number of women strikers. [13]



The dead weight of republican tradition

Ideological and organisational division was a hallmark of French socialism well into the 20th century. In 1905 the Second Socialist International tried to unite all the socialist parties and groups in France. As a result the six existing national socialist groups and a number of regional organisations fused to form the Parti Socialist Unifié – section française de l’International ouvrier (SFI0). It was very much under the influence of Jean Jaurés, and was through and through reformist. Jaurés summed up his own views thus:

It is not by the violent and exclusive agitation of this or that social faction, but from a sort of national movement that justice must emerge ... The masses and the working bourgeoisie must unite to abolish capitalist privileges and abuse. [14]

Accordingly, “a wide variety of social types entered the party; artisans as well as factory workers, even small shopkeepers (17 per cent of the party, nearly half of them publicans) and peasants (7 per cent of the party, one-third of them proprietors).” [15] Even after the fusion, the Socialist Party did not succeed in gaining a mass base. Between 1905 and 1914 its membership rose from 34,688 to 93,210. [16] This pales beside the German SPD, which had more than a million members by 1914.

The republican tradition out of which French socialism arose was fundamentally anti-feminist. Its basis was fear that women were under the thumb of the Catholic Church. The heroism of the revolutionary working women of 1789-93, 1848 and 1871 seems to have been blotted from memory by the counter-revolutionary, pro-Catholic rebellion of the famished women in 1795. Soon after this event, as early as 1796, Gracchus Babeuf, in his Manifesto of the Equals, had accepted sex as well as age as grounds for denying political rights in the communist republic he visualised.

A century later the woman Communard Paule Mink argued against women’s suffrage as long as women were subject to the influence of the Church. [17] The dead weight of the republican tradition dragged back the organisation of women in general.

The fragmentation of the socialist parties before 1905 constantly impeded the organisation of women even more than that of men. The early women socialists found themselves separated from each other by their affiliation to various of the splinter groups which characterised French socialism in its formative period. Each time a small women’s group was involved in a split, it cost it its existence, whereas for the parties it only cost members.

The social composition of the socialist parties also impeded the recruitment of women. The narrow horizon of a worker in a small workshop informed his attitude to women. Proudhonism [18] was the ideology that perfectly fitted these workers, and dominated the French labour movement many decades after the death of its author. The reactionary ideas of Proudhon regarding women dominated the French labour movement.

When the first French Workers’ Congress was held in Paris in October 1876, the question of women’s work was the first item on the agenda. The men at the congress made it clear that they thought women should be dependent on their husbands: “Man being stronger and more robust ought to earn enough to support his household.” Since, however, they recognised that men could not earn enough, they thought it permissible for women to work, but only at home, doing piece-work. The committee on this question (which included two women) thus resolved that for women to work in factories meant “the destruction of morals, (which are) the veritable religion of workers.” [19]

The second congress, held in Lyons in February 1878, came to the same conclusions. A woman should be able to support herself in order to be independent, but only “until the day when, embracing a new role, she becomes wife and mother, that is a woman by the hearth (femme au foyer), to which she brings care and work which are at least equivalent to man s work and for whom the (entire) day will be needed for housework.” [20]

Ten years later, in 1888, the Fédération national des syndicats passed a resolution calling industrial work for women a “monstrosity”. Another ten years later, after the formation of the CGT, nothing had changed. At its 1898 congress the CGT voted in the principle that “men should feed women”. [21] Only in 1935 did the CGT accept the principle of full equality.



The weak challenge of bourgeois feminism

The organisation of women by the German SPD was spurred on by the challenge of bourgeois feminists, whose organisations boasted hundreds of thousands of adherents. In Britain too, the suffragettes could mobilise hundreds of thousands in demonstrations. This had no equivalent in France, where the bourgeois feminist movement was tiny.

The first feminist organisation, Société pour la Revendication des Droits de la Femme (Society for the Demand for Women’s Rights) was founded in 1866. Four years later it was superceded by the Société pour l’Amelioration du Sort de la Femme (Society for the Improvement of Woman’s Lot), with a membership of between 150 and 160 and meetings averaging an attendance of a mere 10 or 12. The authorities suppressed it in 1875. In 1882 the society was relaunched under the new name of Ligue Française pour la Droit des Femmes (French League for Women’s Rights), which by 1883 had only 194 members, of whom 96 were men, and these played the major role in its activities. In 1885 the only branch outside Paris, in Nantes, defected, and many of the men left. By 1892 the League had 95 members, 33 of them men. [22]

Another more radical organisation was launched in 1878 by Hubertine Auclert, called Société pour le Suffrage des Femmes (Women’s Suffrage Society), but by 1880 it had only 18 dues-paying members. [23] In 1904, according to a police estimate, it had 125. In 1909 a new bourgeois feminist organisation was founded – Union française pour le Suffrage des Femmes (French Union for Women’s Suffrage). It claimed a membership of 10,000 in 1913, but the numbers covered a coalition of a number of societies and included temperance associations and trade unions of women clerks and post and telegraph workers. The branches of the Union itself were mainly composed of female students and, by its own admission, in more than one town of little more than isolated individuals. [24]



Puny results

In the half century between the beginning of socialist parties in the late 1870s and the end of the First World War, the achievements in recruiting women into the socialist movement were negligible. C. Millard, historian of the POF, the largest socialist party, counted 20 women members in the years 1890-1893 and 53 in the years 1894-1899, representing 3 and 2 per cent of the membership respectively. Half of these were wives and daughters of members. [25] There is no reason to believe that other socialist parties included a greater percentage of women. On the contrary, the POF was more attractive to women than the others.

The historian Boxer states that at the beginning of the twentieth century the total number of women socialists active in Paris would be no higher than one hundred, and no more than five hundred in the entire country, “excluding wives and daughters whose names appear on membership lists or amid delegations to congresses.” [26] In 1912 “a young socialist woman” complained that there were no young socialist women in the provinces and so few in Paris that “one would be ashamed to cite the number.”

By 1932, when the Socialist Party took its first formal count of women members, this had risen to only 2,800,2.1 per cent of the total membership and the lowest in Europe. [27] The history of socialist women in France is largely a history of isolated individuals, who never managed to build large, stable organisations, let alone a mass movement. [28]

The odds against success in France were overwhelming: stacked against them were the extreme weakness of the trade union movement and the damaging burden of anti-feminist republicanism and Proudhonism. Women workers, being part of the working class – and a weaker part at that – cannot on their own overcome all the obstacles impeding the advance of the class as a whole – and one of the chief of these is the sexist division of the class itself. Women s separatism – a natural reaction to Proudhonist anti-feminism – was a sign of weakness and in no way helped to overcome the obstacles to organising women in the socialist movement.


1. J.H. Clapham, The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815-1914 (Cambridge 1928), p.258.

2. T. Zeldin, France 1848-1945, Vol.2 (Oxford 1979), p.379.

3. M. Guilbert, Les femines et l’organisation syndicale avant 1914 (Paris 1966), p.28.

4. As late as 1935 only 6 per cent of workers in private industry were organised in trade unions (Zeldin, p.xi).

5. Zeldin, Vol.1, p.222.

6. Zeldin, p.229.

7. Ridley, p.17.

8. Ridley, pp.234 and 239.

9. Guilbert, p.14.

10. Guilbert, p.29.

11. Guilbert, p.38.

12. Guilbert, p.206.

13. Guilbert, p.207.

14. Zeldin, Vol.2, p.399.

15. Zeldin, Vol.2, p.383.

16. R. Wohl, French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924 (Stanford 1966), p.290.

17. C. Sowerwine, Women and Socialism in France 1871-1921 (PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin 1973), p.46. This is by far the most useful work used in the present chapter.

18. See chapter 3.

19. Sowerwine, p.5.

20. Sowerwine, p.7.

21. Sowerwine, p.113.

22. R.J. Evans, The Feminists (London 1977), pp.129-30.

23. Sowerwine, p.28.

24. Evans, pp.133-4.

25. C. Willard, Les Guesdistes: Le mouvement socialiste en France, 1893-1905 (Paris 1965), p.367.

26. J.M. Boxer, Socialism Faces Feminism in France 1879-1913 (PhD thesis, University of California 1975), p.190.

27. Sowerwine, pp.197-8.

28. [This note is missing in the book. – MIA]


Last updated on 29.8.2002