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Playing cat & mouse with feminism in France

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Female suffrage – liberté, égalité, fraternité : playing cat & mouse with feminismLa Belle Époque was a Golden Age in France, dating from 1870 to the First World War. It was a period characterised by peace in Europe, optimism, economic security, and scientific invention. 

  • Literature, the theatre, music, and the famous painting schools flourished
  • Impressionism led on to post-impressionism, cubism, expressionism, dadaism, pointillism, and les Fauves
  • In 1889, the Eiffel Tower welcomed millions of visitors to the Exposition Universelle and Le Métro opened to passengers
  • Escoffier was busy making French cuisine an international phenomenon
  • The Can Can and female nudity made the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère world famous—or notorious and salacious, depending on your perspective

But throughout the Belle Époque, the women of France were denied the right to vote.

First-wave feminism in France

Hubertine Auclert was a French militant anticlerical first-wave feminist. In 1876, she founded La société ‘Le droit des femmes’ to push for female suffrage.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Female suffrage – liberté, égalité, fraternité : playing cat & mouse with feminismTowards the end of the nineteenth century, she launched a tax revolt, arguing that without voting rights, French women should refuse to pay their taxes.

I have no rights, therefore I have no obligations. I do not vote, I do not pay.

In 1908, she was arrested for symbolically smashing a ballot box during municipal elections in Paris. In 1910, she ran as a candidate for the French parliament.

This was illegal for women.

She was arrested and convicted of having led disrupting demonstrations on election-day. During the trial, she was gratified to be compared with the “violent suffragettes” of Britain.

Feminism across the channel

But across the Channel, militant British feminists campaigning for female suffrage were enduring brutal and degrading treatment at the hands of the law.

Some suffragettes went on hunger strikes to bring attention to their cause. The authorities resorted to force-feeding.

‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ was passed by an embarrassed government in April 1913 in an attempt to stop the resulting bad publicity.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Female suffrage – liberté, égalité, fraternité : playing cat & mouse with feminism

When the hunger strike affected the prisoners’ health they were released so that they could recover. They were then rearrested to serve out the rest of their sentences.

The nickname came about because of a cat’s perceived habit of playing with a mouse before finishing it off.

Playing cat & mouse: a cruel game

Force feeding was cruel, sadistic and uncivilised. Mary Richardson was forcibly fed many times. In 1914, she wrote:

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Female suffrage – liberté, égalité, fraternité : playing cat & mouse with feminism“They fed me (for) five weeks by the nose… it would not pass into the throat even though they bent it and twisted it into all kinds of shapes. Instead, it went up to the top of my nose and seemed to pierce my eyes…

Then they forced my mouth open by inserting their fingers and cutting my gums… and the lining of my cheeks…

When I was blind and mad with pain, they drove in two large gags. Then the tubes followed…”

The Bishop of London was asked to investigate women prisoners being force-fed. He made several visits to prison but concluded that he could find no evidence of ill-treatment.

In fact, he found that force-feeding was carried out “in the kindest possible spirit.”

Égalité for all: the gender pay gap

Compared with many Western countries, women’s right to vote came late to France.

Grâce à General Charles de Gaulle, French women voted for the first time on April 29, 1945.

Since then, although things have improved in recent years, the role of women in French politics has grown very slowly.

And the pay gap is closing at a snail’s pace.

President Emmanuel Macron has tasked thirty-four-year-old Marlène Schiappa—the youngest member of his cabinet—with tackling the gender pay gap.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Female suffrage – liberté, égalité, fraternité : playing cat & mouse with feminism

In France, women are paid about 25 percent less than men, according to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.

So, although in theory, the beacon of equality shines brightly, it’s still a long way off…

There are lots of arguments to win.

And there’s lots of work to be done.

In the meantime, perhaps the women of France—and the men who support the concept—should press for the word “égalite” to be removed from the French national motto. This would leave only “Liberté et fraternité” until the gender gap no longer exists.


What do you think of feminism & women’s rights in France? What can be done to reduce the gender pay gap? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the box below.


Image credits
1. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, via Wikipedia
2. Hubertine Auclert, via Wikipedia
3. British Suffragettes, via Wikipedia
4. The Cat & Mouse Act, via Wikipedia
5. Marlène Schiappa, via Wikipedia


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  1. Keith Van Sickle
    1 month ago

    Interesting article, thanks.

    When I moved to Switzerland in 1994 I was shocked to learn that women had only gained the right to vote in national elections in 1971. And in one canton, they had only gained the right to vote in local elections in 1991! That was just three years before I moved there.


  2. Ray Johnstone
    1 month ago

    Bonjour Keith, and thanks for your comment,
    Yes, English and French suffragettes might have beaten their Swiss sisters to the right to vote, but looking back from the twenty-first century it’s hard to believe that UK female protesters especially were treated in the most appalling and degrading fashion. Passing the Cat and Mouse act into law by male politicians sitting in the “Mother of Parliaments” is almost unbelievable today. These were really dedicated women with a very strong conviction in their cause. They deserve the admiration of men and women world wide for publicising the cause of democracy and blazing the way to a more equal society. But there’s still a way to go on some aspects of this multi faceted political concept. And of course there are still some unbelievable and anti democratic seeming goings on in the House of Commons today.
    Merci and thanks again.
    Ray