The French Woman's New Ideal

By Marie Bourgain
(Professor in the University of France)

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]

Summary of an article contributed to Le Figaro by a widely known French writer on feminist questions.

What is going to be the intellectual and moral influence of women in our country, whose young manhood has been so cruelly decimated? Whether we wish it or not, the women are becoming an economic and social factor with which the leaders and the nation will have to reckon. Silently they are in evidence in all kinds of work, in all classes of society, and in the most diverse surroundings. They do not talk; they act. What a revolution in our ways, what an economic upheaval! How will it be possible to take from women on the morrow of victory what they have gained by disinterested labor, maintained not without a kind of heroism, too? Equal pay, equal civil rights, perhaps equal political rights—how many hints already of future demands!

The publicists are excited and question one another, but the women, gripped by tragic realities, seem to have forgotten the feverish discussions of yesteryear. Hence this multitude of charitable undertakings which have risen up on every side, and in which each woman generously pours forth her affection, zeal, and energy. However great the daily burden, there are few women for whom it is enough. With their eyes on the trenches and their minds fixed on the magnificent self-sacrifice of our soldiers, the desire to emulate them becomes an inspiration to still further effort. Nor are these endeavors of the kind which, being scattered and ambitious, fail through aiming too high. The women play their part gathering together, caring for, and nourishing children, comforting mothers, and devoting themselves in the nurseries and shelters to purely feminine among other tasks. Charity? Assuredly, but much more it is the urgency of preparing against the menace of depopulation as great as the losses in the war itself.

Family anxieties about the precarious days to come will no doubt raise a new crop of girl graduates, and there will probably be more lawyers and more doctors among women. But I know from the confidences of numbers of middle-class girls that it is to the family that they are thinking of applying this ardent renewal of energy. They are already looking forward to a modest and serious existence, a return to French traditions. Life outside the cities, far from frightening them, appears to many desirable, propitious to intimacy and family comfort. They know that frivolity and luxury are not essential to happiness. They declare frankly that they have thought it out, and that they feel sure in their choice. They will have little money, but they will live in the country and bring up strong and happy children.

Hence the schools which are being opened in response to this need, schools of agriculture founded by women for women, where they can acquire the knowledge and training to become farmers and managers of estates. Whether this experiment is or is not crowned with immediate success does not matter. The idea is bold and practical, and will certainly be fruitful. It is a sign of the times. According to the initiators, the school now open is only a beginning, and they foresee quite a swarm of them spreading out through our provinces, each school adapted to the needs and resources of our diverse regions. In this way social life will be, if not transformed, at least all the better materially and morally.

It means the reappearance of one of the most beneficent figures in the life of other days—the lady who, living on her estate, exercised around her a force for enlightenment, leading a useful and regular life and contributing to the enrichment of her family and the prosperity of the country. Is it not to the honor of present-day education that our college girls, armed with degrees and eager for learning, are no more afraid of the farm than the daughters of the Duchess of Montausier, for whom Fenelon wrote his treatise on the hardships of country life? In this ideal of health and simplicity there is a type both modern and classic, the capable woman of whom we have always dreamed, presiding over the household, neither servant nor mistress, but companion and associate, courageous in the performance and serene in the accomplishment of the day's duty, guardian of the dignity and honor of the home and the dispenser of all its benefits.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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