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Reviewed by:
  • Legislating the French Family: Feminism, Theater and Republican Politics, 1870–1920
  • Roxanne Panchasi
Legislating the French Family: Feminism, Theater and Republican Politics, 1870–1920. By Jean Elisabeth Pedersen (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2003) 271 pp. $60.00

Pedersen's study of French family legislation and politics during the first half of the Third Republic is fascinating interdisciplinary history. Examining the intersections between parliamentary politics, feminist activism, and theater from 1870 to 1920, Pedersen draws on the archives of state and culture, employing the sources and approaches of both traditional historical and literary studies. Revisiting three crucial pieces of legislation familiar to historians of gender and the family in France—the 1884 Naquet law on divorce, the 1912 Rivet Law on paternity suits, and the 1920 Ignace Law on contraception—Pedersen traces "the ways in which appeals to conflicting forms of national identity, imperial identity, and [End Page 452] republican citizenship" worked to determine the nature and forms of debate over family legislation in the Third Republic (3).

Throughout the book, Pedersen uses the analysis of "social theatre" to show how culture and politics intersected during the period. Pedersen pays particular attention to playwrights, including Emile Augier, a man of letters whose controversial "plea for divorce in the guise of a play, Madame Cavarlet [1876]," became the subject of parliamentary debates over adultery and the legalization of divorce in France (13). According to Pedersen, plays mattered; playwrights and audiences participated together in a politically charged world of spectacle, dramatizing the social questions of the day, expressing and working to shape French public opinion. Reading critical responses to plays in the theatrical and popular press, as well as censorship of controversial productions, Pedersen's analysis moves beyond an anecdotal use of literary texts, developing a historical reading of the important and political role that the theater played in the Third Republic.

Pedersen's work draws attention to contests over definitions of French nationhood that included perceptions of a variety of foreign threats and influences, from German military (and demographic) strength, to external models of the family (legal divorce in England and Scandinavian social legislation) inappropriate for a "Latin" country such as France (42). Pedersen's discussion of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879) and the negative reactions to his oeuvre in France is another example of her argument that theater was a privileged site for the expression of French national anxieties about social roles and welfare. This reading might have been even more compelling had Pedersen linked the perception of Ibsen's work to how the French perceived social-welfare legislation and "maternalist" policies in Scandinavia during the period.

Pedersen's study also includes the analysis of the colonial context in these debates about divorce, paternity, and contraception in France. Exploring these questions in the French "West Indies" and Africa, Pedersen traces the ways in which metropolitan perspectives on the family, sexuality, and reproduction impacted French policy in the colonies. In the imperial context, issues of assimilation and association complicated debates about the application of legislation from metropolitan France. The uneven adoption of certain policies throughout the empire also reflected particular anxieties about racial and cultural difference in these contexts. Although Pedersen does not linger on these questions, her work points to exciting possibilities for future research on the family that understands France in more global terms.

Legislating the French Family makes an important contribution to the histories of the welfare state, gender, and citizenship in modern France. It is also an excellent study of the ways in which cultural and political issues, as well as historical and literary ones, must be considered as mutually constitutive rather than mutually exclusive.

Roxanne Panchasi
Simon Fraser University


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pp. 452-453
Launched on MUSE
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