Women In Post-War France

By Faith Duval –

Many of the vintage ads on our site are selling products to women. A little historical context can help us understand why certain products were marketed to women and why certain visual styles were chosen in these 1940s and 1950s advertisements, rather than others. What was life like for women in post-war France?

Although French women achieved the vote in 1945, there was little corresponding challenge to traditional gender roles and inequality persisted. In fact, French women saw a reassertion of these norms, something which is shown by the ads for household goods from the period. It’s also shown in the changing fashions. We have already seen in a recent blog post how fashion developed in the post-war years- a change sparked most dramatically by Christian Dior’s 1947 show where a journalist coined the term ‘New Look’ as the name for this revivification of feminine style.

French women’s fashion from the late 1940s through the 1950s was highly feminine- stiletto heels, narrow waist, wide flowing skirts, an accentuated bust. As can be seen in this 1948 piece of vintage advertising art from illustrator René Gruau:

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Between 1943 and 1965, France experienced a baby boom. The number of births in those years were 14 million, exceeding the 9 million deaths in the same period. Rates of infant mortality dropped, too. This state of affairs had been actively stimulated by the French government. Many women were starting families at this time, finding their own homes with their husbands rather than moving in with their parents or in-laws. A variety of state benefits introduced after the war were used to encourage people to have children. These included family allowances, tax relief, housing allowances, cheaper transport and even cheap cinema tickets.

Immediately after the war, France was in poverty. There were housing shortages and a lack of provision of basic facilities like running water and electricity. Many had to share lodgings. While many couples wanted to have children, they were wary of doing so until they had their own home- so housing policy was directly tied to the demographic problem, and the government saw it as a priority. Raising the birth rate was vital to France’s post-war economic recovery, since it would increase demand- at this time Europe was following a Keynesian strategy of stimulating demand to create growth.

Low birth rate had been a perennial issue for France- all the way back to the mid- 1700s. In 1945 the head of the new, post-Liberation government, General de Gaule encouraged French citizens to produce “en dix ans, douze millions de beaux bebes pour la France” (“twelve million bouncing babies for France in the space of ten years”). More and more flats were built to aid this process.

The percentage of women in the work force fell after the war and only rose again in the 1960s. While many women became housewives, others worked in secretarial and administrative roles in the growing service sector, as can be seen in some of the vintage ads for stationary on our site.

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These historical facts shed light on the meaning of many of the vintage ads stocked on our site, which show a France changing economically whilst gender relations stayed the same. As the French say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.

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