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Reviewed by:
  • Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914–1945
  • Philip Whalen
Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914–1945. By Kristen Stromberg Childers ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. xii + 261 pp. $39.95).

Kristen Stromberg Childers examines "public manifestations" of fatherhood to underscore the centrality of gender to "issues of citizenship and nationhood in early twentieth-century France" (11 and 44). She examines how diverse reformers collectively produced a language of civic paternity that organized beliefs concerning fatherhood into a coherent set of beliefs that ideologically promoted perceived and French national interests. Childers traces legislative debates, social reform agendas, political struggles, and popular perceptions concerning paternal authority and responsibility to underscore their symbolic centrality in a discourse concerning nation, state, and citizenship and to argue that there existed "a vibrant and critical discussion of paternity in the French state among participants from all across the political spectrum." (11)

Representing a new generation of scholarship1 , Childers seeks a "more complex and politically revealing relationship between gender and the state." (3) Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945 adopts a disposition of cultural analysis not easily dismissed by social historians who cut their teeth on statistical distributions or thick description. She finds that rather than viewing "male citizens as gender-neutral beings against whom they contrasted women," (3) the French state hosted, instead, an "animated conversation" on paternity between 1914 and 1945. (9)

Childers' approach may be distilled in how she interprets the un-named "Husband" in Guillaume Apollinaire's "Les Mamelles de Tirésias" (The Breasts of Tirésias) as emblematic of the complex and frequently ambivalent relationship between gender roles and gender politics that constitutes the "silent historiography" of modern French paternity wherein the "links between gender identities and the public good were at the forefront of French debates on national decline, war, population growth." (2) Following his wife's abrogation of her civic duties—spectacularly represented when her bosoms surrealistically fly off like a set of balloons—the now hermaphroditic Husband heroically bears the Nation's children parthenogenetically. The audience is relieved when Tirésias' beard falls off and the family bosom returns home. Thus, Janet Flanner reminds us, sterile, weak, and emasculated France was "repopulated, and indeed, rearmed, to music."2

Resting on the extensive use of rich sources that include government debates, court records, reformists' rhetoric, and legislation stretching from the code civil [End Page 504] to the Code de la famille, Fathers, Families, and the State in France addresses the impart of Napoleonic reforms on family regulation and paternal rights (chapter 1). This sets up an interesting discussion of representations of paternity in popular imagery (mass advertisements, family magazines, the legislative proposals of social reformers, public debates, pro-natalist propaganda, lesson plans, and religious treatises) through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and how these were, in turn, challenged by the national malaise that followed the devastations of WWI (chapter 2). The result was a renewed debate concerning the links between paternity, military defeat, and national virility during the years leading to WWII. Childers then draws on newly available Vichy archives to scour the literature of women's groups, family manuals, worker's organizations, and numerous associations to build the crux of her thesis concerning the (dis)continuities between Interwar Vichy (1940-1945) and post-war French welfare policies (chapter 3). She agrees that the Vichy Government sought to transform the perceived threat of "voluntarily sterile bachelors" (vieux garçons) who pursued selfish interests into reassuring "proper family men" (père de famille) who partook in "uplifting" pastimes (such as reading and gardening) and sacrificed themselves to husband families and, by extension, the Nation (57). Recognizing that Vichy's struggle "to reconcile paternal power and governmental authority" is readily taken as a marker for "the apotheosis of reactionary measures to reinstate fatherhood as the litmus test of good citizenship" Childers highlights, instead, that in its efforts to refashion the symbols of state control over "nothing less than the nature of government, the shape of the modern family, and the future of the nation," that Vichy's contradictory policies undermined the authority of the same fathers it sought to support...


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