Women in France did not have the right to vote until 1944. Arguments for women’s suffrage included the idea that France would be better able to fight its growing problem of alcoholism if women were to vote. The woman who prevents men from becoming alcoholics helps to keep families intact and thus preserves French society — would it not be beneficial for France to trust such a person with voting, especially when support is needed for creating and implementing better legislation to save the country from alcoholism? This lopsided, unfair, almost desperate, yet strategic idea countered the many, many misogynistic arguments against women’s suffrage in France.
A spike in the production and consumption of alcohol in the mid-1800s led to a lot of alcohol-related disorders, which gave France deep concerns about degeneration caused by alcoholism. This in turn led to the creation in 1872 of the Société française de tempérance, of which some founding members were scientists and politicians. In 1895 the Union française antialcoolique was created, and in 1896 there was the Association de la jeunesse française tempérante. Other groups created in the 1890s include the Croix bleue (Protestant) and the Croix blanche (Catholic). The Ligue nationale contre l’alcoolisme formed in 1903 favored women having the right to vote.
As temperance groups were being formed, the number of legal home distillers grew to around a million by 1900. In terms of places that sold alcohol, by 1914 France had more per capita than any of the other western countries.
The 1900 Congrès international des œuvres et institutions féminines, presided by Sarah Monod (1836-1912), viewed combating alcoholism as one of its priorities. The Conseil national des femmes françaises, formed in 1901 with Sarah Monod as its president, waited until 1906 to add suffrage to its list of subjects to tackle. Sarah Monod had also become a member of the Union française pour le suffrage des femmes, formed in 1909. As president of the Conseil national des femmes françaises, she had a considerable amount of influence in reforming laws related to women’s salaries and work-related issues, among other things. In 1911 she received the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.
Jacques Bertillon (1851-1922), statistician and demographer, saw how women voters in other (Protestant) countries were effective in controlling the problem of alcoholism, which convinced him that France needed its women to have the right to vote. For an overview of how pre-1944 legislative attempts to curb the production and consumption of alcohol were not very successful, see the entry “France, Temperance in” by Patricia E. Prestwich in Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia (2003).
In the 1908 essay “La Question du vote des femmes” by Madeleine Pelletier (1874-1939) for La Revue socialiste, she notes that “L’alcoolisme et la prostitution ont, de plus, grandement diminué dans les pays où les femmes votent” (206). Physician, psychiatrist, prolific writer, activist, Madeleine Pelletier created the journal La Suffragiste in 1907, which she ran until 1919.
In 1913 a published report by the Besançon branch of the Union française pour le suffrage des femmes has a section called “Le vote des femmes assurera l’établissement de lois sociales importantes” which begins with the line “Toutes les femmes voudront : Lutter contre l’alcoolisme…” (8).
A campaign poster for women who ran in the 1936 elections lists combating alcoholism as one of their missions. Louise Weiss (1893-1983) and Denise Lesage Finat (died 1950) had symbolic candidatures, unrecognized by the government. Such candidatures were not unprecedented, a similar example being when Joséphine Pencalet (1886-1972) had run for public office and won in Douarnenez (Brittany) in 1925. She served for a few months before the Conseil d’Etat invalidated her victory.
References & Suggested Reading
Auclert, Hubertine. Le vote des femmes. Paris: Giard et Brière, 1908.
Bertillon, Jacques. L’Alcoolisme et les moyens de le combattre jugés par l’expérience. Paris: V. Lecoffre, 1904.
– – – . “Un essai de vote féminin.” La Femme et l’enfant, no. 31, 15 Jan. 1920, 745.
Brion, Hélène. “Guerre à l’alcool.” L’Equité, no. 4, 15 May 1913.
– – – . “Les Femmes contre l’alcool.” L’Equité, no. 14, 1 March 1914.
Buisson, Ferdinand Edouard. Le vote des femmes. Paris: H. Dunod & E. Pinat, 1911.
Chauvin, Jeanne. “L’Alcoolisme et la question féministe.” Le Journal des femmes, no. 59 (December 1896), 1-2.
Congrès international des œuvres et institutions féminines, Paris. 2e Congrès international des œuvres et institutions féminines, tenu au Palais des congrès de l’Exposition universelle de 1900 sous la présidence d’honneur de M. Léon Bourgeois et sous la présidence de Mademoiselle Sarah Monod. Paris: C. Blot, 1902.
Daley, Caroline, and Melanie Nolan, eds. Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. NYU Press, 1994.
Foley, Susan K. Women in France since 1789: the Meanings of Difference. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
“France, Temperance in.” Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, 2003.
Frank, Louis. La femme contre l’alcool : étude de sociologie et de législation. Brussels: H. Lamertin, 1897.
Le Doeuff, Michèle. Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, etc. Translated by Trista Selous. Columbia University Press, 1991.
Le Verrier, Marie-Louise. “Les résultats du vote des femmes.” La Grande revue (10 July 1912), 129-147.
Maignien, Claude. “Notice PELLETIER Madeleine [PELLETIER Anne, Madeleine].” Le Maitron-en-ligne (Le Maitron, Dictionnaire biographique, Mouvement ouvrier, Mouvement social), version mise en ligne le 31 janvier 2009, dernière modification le 11 mai 2019.
McMillan, James. France and Women, 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics. Routledge, 2002.
Moalic-Bouglé, Anne-Sarah. Le vote des Françaises : cent ans de débats, 1848-1944. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, D.L. 2012.
Offen, Karen. Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870–1920. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Pelletier, Madeleine. “La Question du vote des femmes. ” La Revue socialiste, no. 285, septembre 1908. 193-206.
Prestwich, Patricia E. Drink, and the Politics of Social Reform: Anti-alcoholism in France since 1870. Palo Alto: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1988.
Read, Geoff. The Republic of Men: Gender and the Political Parties in Interwar France. LSU Press, 2014.
Union française pour le suffrage des femmes. Franche-Comté. Rapport sur la question du vote des femmes présenté au conseil municipal de Besançon par le groupe franc-comtois de l’union. La Soldidarité, Imprimerie Coopérative, 1913. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, https://www.gale.com/primary-sources/nineteenth-century-collections-online . Accessed May 2018.
Vernet, Madeleine. Le Problème de l’alcoolisme. 2nd edition. Paris: La Rénovatrice, 1913.
Zola, Emile. L’ Assommoir. Paris: G. Charpentier, 1877.