- The Modern Protestant Girl: Education, Social Engagement, and Sexuality in Turn-of-the-Century France
In 1903, a writer for the Young Woman’s Journal, a French Protestant girls’ magazine, published two articles titled “The Modern Girl.” These articles described problems with the image of “modern girls” in popular culture and proposed a better ideal for modern Protestant girls. The “modern girl” of popular culture was self-absorbed, flirtatious, and devoted to the most scandalous contemporary novels. She played sports, ignored her parents, and only did what pleased her. In contrast, this writer encouraged modern Protestant girls to be selfless, kindhearted, and above all pure, especially sexually, although this was never explicitly stated.1 However, purity in the French Protestant community did not mean ignorance, and modern Protestant girls were also expected to be educated, independent, and engaged with contemporary social problems such as human trafficking and prostitution.
Turning girls into modern Protestant women required training that would prepare girls to reject sin and battle for a more moral world. During the mid-nineteenth century, British and American Protestant communities had created Young Women’s Christian Associations (YWCA) designed to strengthen girls’ religious devotion and engage them in a variety of social and religious outreach programs. French Protestants soon followed suit, creating their own Young Women’s Christian Unions (Unions chrétiennes de jeunes filles, hereafter UCJF) with similar goals. The development of Young Women’s Christian Unions across France in the late nineteenth century was one of the most important and widespread methods of providing girls with the values and skills that would make them successful, modern Protestant women. Through the UCJF, the French Protestant community involved girls in social work, educated them about sexual issues, and encouraged them to train for professional jobs. The Protestant community taught girls to become educated and informed modern [End Page 81] women who would struggle for the defense of other women and girls, fight to protect the Protestant faith, and wage war against the international sources of injustice such as human trafficking. In the process, the UCJF helped promote democracy, freedom, and equality for women within the Protestant community and in French society more broadly.
Young Women’s Christian Unions formed in the nineteenth century as Protestant communities in Europe and the United States looked for ways to protect their girls from growing physical dangers and spiritual alienation. It is not clear when the first UCJF section formed in France. The organization held its first national conference in 1891, but individual unions for girls may have existed as early as 1825.2 By 1914, there were over two hundred fifty Unions in France that brought together about nine thousand girls from a Protestant population of about six hundred thousand.3 The UCJF attracted girls primarily from the working and lower middle classes. Leaders often complained that girls from wealthy families refused to join. In 1900, E. de Fay, a writer for the Young Woman’s Journal, the magazine of the UCJF, noted that working-class girls made up almost the entire membership of many Unions. This had been evident at a recent UCJF meeting in the Paris region, during which young, upper-class girls “stood out by their absence.”4
As with many Protestant organizations, the UCJF was an inter-denominational association that welcomed women leaders from all Protestant denominations and girls from any faith background.5 The actual character of each UCJF section depended on local leaders and the conservative or liberal nature of the local Protestant church. That said, many of the women contributors to the Young Woman’s Journal engaged in the Social Christianity movement and feminist organizations. These same women often served as UCJF union leaders. Jeanne Sequestra, one of the founders of the Young Woman’s Journal, promoted scouting in France; participated in the White Star, a Protestant morality society; and at times when her pastor husband, Jean Sequestra, was ill, she presided over their church’s services in his place. Fanny André was a journalist who wrote for many Protestant and feminist journals including La Femme. Lucile Morin, founder of a hostel-restaurant for young women, attended the 1900 meeting of the Conf...