The French Republic and Women's Access to Professional Work: Issues and Controversies in France from the 1870s to the 1930s

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Abstract

While the French feminist movements campaigning to obtain the right to vote between the 1870s and the 1930s are well known, the struggles for women's access to higher education and professional work have not yet been studied in depth. Although the French Third Republic (1871–1940) claimed to adhere to the principles of equality, meritocracy and the ‘free competition of talents’, which translated concretely into the creation of a system of scholarships, competitions and professional degrees which provided access to many of the professional careers, these doors remained largely closed to the first women attempting to enter them. The controversies that this situation provoked are the subject of this article, which draws from professional, parliamentary, press and activist sources. More broadly, through examining this particular series of controversies, the article aims to give an account of the mechanisms and arguments that are generally used to make such discriminations publicly acceptable within institutional spaces that are formally governed by the principle of equal access.

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