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French Historical Studies 26.4 (2003) 727-767

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French Women's History:
Retrospect (1789–1940) and Prospect

Karen Offen

France and Women, 1789–1914: Gender, Society, and Politics, by James F. McMillan (London, 1998)
Paroles oubliées: Les femmes et la construction de l'Etat-nation en France et en Italie (1789–1860), by Christiane Veauvy and Laura Pisano (Paris, 1997)
Femmes dans la cité, 1815–1871, edited by Alain Corbin, Jacqueline Lalouette, and Michèle Riot-Sarcey (Gr�ne, 1997)
For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s–1930s, by Mary Lynn Stewart (Baltimore, 2001)
Bodies and Souls: Politics and the Professionalization of Nursing in France, 1880–1922, by Katrin Schultheiss (Cambridge, Mass., 2001)
The Rise of Professional Women in France: Gender and Public Administration since 1830, by Linda L. Clark (Cambridge, 2000)
Maternité et droits des femmes en France (XIXe–XXe siècles), by Anne Cova (Paris, 1997)
"Au service de l'église, de la patrie et de la famille": Femmes catholiques et maternité sous la IIIe République, by Anne Cova (Paris, 2000)
Les femmes dans l'action sanitaire, sociale et culturelle, 1901–2001: Les associations face aux institutions, by Evelyne Diebolt (Paris, 2001)
Un siècle de vie associative: Quelles opportunités pour les femmes? Colloque international tenu à l'Assemblée nationale et au Centre historique des Archives nationales les 14–15–16 mai 2001 pour la commémoration du centenaire de la loi 1901, edited by Evelyne Diebolt and Christiane Douyère-Demeulenaere (Paris, 2002)
French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front, by Margaret Darrow (Oxford, 2000) [End Page 727]
"Woman, Your Hour Is Sounding": Continuity and Change in French Women's Great War Fiction, 1914–1919, by Nancy Sloan Goldberg (New York, 1999)
�crire l'histoire des femmes, by Françoise Thébaud (Fontenay/St.-Cloud, 1998)

France indisputably possesses one of the richest legacies for writing women's history of any modern nation. The documentation available, covering centuries, is virtually unparalleled anywhere else in Europe, and more sources are being unearthed and archived every day. Although many pathbreaking books and articles have been produced to date, primarily by an ensemble of francophone and anglophone scholars, the possibilities for future work in this emergent field remain wide open. What, then, is the state of this developing historical field? And what are its prospects and ambitions for the future, as we enter the twenty-first century?

Once upon a time we were led to think that "women's history" was a contradiction in terms. In her landmark book Le deuxième sexe (1949), Simone de Beauvoir observed that women "have no past, no history, no religion of their own," and thus "no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat." 1 In order to become subjects in their own right (and thereby worthy of historians' consideration), Beauvoir insisted, women must decline to be "the Other." Only then, in her view, could women's history be written.

For members of my graduate school cohort in the early 1960s, some of whom had read and pondered Beauvoir's remarks on women's history, this statement was haunting. Was it really the case that women had no history? This seemed hard to believe: after all, in Beauvoir's own country Madame de Staël and George Sand were extremely well known, active, even famous figures, and they were not alone; Juliette Adam could hardly be ignored, and what about that national icon Jeanne d'Arc, claimed as a figure of symbolic importance by political factions with widely differing political positions? Or what about Christine de Pisan, writing at the French royal court in the early fifteenth century? Many consider her to be the very first European feminist, raising questions about the balance of power between the sexes that we are still discussing today. Was it, rather, that women (even these noteworthy types) and women's conspicuous historical actions and concerns were left out of (or obliterated from) a resolutely male-centered curriculum? Surely, a group that comprises...


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