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  • Writing Women's and Gender History in France:A National Narrative?
  • Françoise Thébaud (bio)

Has the French women's history trajectory until recently remained resolutely francophone and national, as Karen Offen stressed in a very stimulating recent review essay?1 To answer this question, I cannot discuss here all of what has been done in the historiography of French women and gender in the past thirty years, but I would like to observe briefly some differences and similarities in comparison.2

First, it is necessary to present certain features about women's and gender history in France, to underscore French differences and paradoxes. There are differences in the vocabulary; in France, we do not say "feminist scholarship" or "feminist history," because doing so would appear to disqualify the research and its author. "Feminist history" is considered a point of view, a militant discourse, not a scientific one. Moreover, the use of the word "genre," which is translated from the English "gender," is very recent and has only been adopted in the past five or six years.3 We used "social relations between the sexes" (rapports sociaux de sexe) to refer to the masculine-feminine dualism, or we wrote about gender under the general title of women's history, as I did in 1998 when I published a book entitled Ecrire l'histoire des femmes. Today, "genre" is more frequently used by historians, both women and men, and by politicians, particularly in reference to European policies. But postmodernism, poststructuralism, and theory are not words used by historians who consider history as an empirical practice. Likewise, there are differences in academic structures. At our universities there are not women's studies and gender studies programs or departments, only some courses in some universities. Women's history is taught in less than ten universities out of eighty-seven, and it is almost always in an elective course.

But the situation is less serious than paradoxical. There has been in France for the last three decades a lot of research and publications in women's and gender history because there is interest in these questions in French society and a wide readership exists. For example, more than 20,000 books of the French edition of the multivolume History of Women edited by George Duby and Michelle Perrot have been sold over the past fifteen years.4 Similarly, last autumn, the Seventh Annual Historical Meeting sought to promote history for a general public and took as its theme "Women in History." It was very successful, attracting many people and many middle- and high-school teachers. There, the French committee of International [End Page 167] Federation for Research in Women's History (IFRWH) distributed a small book for the teachers entitled No History without Women: Resources for Researching and Teaching in Women's and Gender History. Therefore, we can say that today French women's and gender history has intellectual but not institutional legitimacy. We can say too that in France we have failed to obtain specific structures and positions in academia; however, the French strategies of diffusion have been and are, perhaps, easier and more efficient than elsewhere.

How can we explain these French features? French specificities—in comparison with the United States or with some European countries—lie both in the general structures of academic culture and in the specific development of women's and gender history. In France, students are numerous—everyone who has passed the baccalauréat can go to the university and the fees are very low—but they have no power to define the curriculum: the questions that are debated in society do not enter directly and quickly in the curriculum. University teachers define together the curriculum and hire their new colleagues: women's and gender history are almost never a priority and scholars in this field have a hard time getting academic appointments. Job security offers certain advantages but furthers conservatism and immobility: a teacher, who is a civil servant and has a tenure track position, can stay in the same university all of his life with a wage which increases with age. Mobility and intellectual exchange with other countries are not particularly valued. Moreover, French academic...


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