The Republic of Men: Gender and the Political Parties in Interwar France

By Campbell, Caroline | Canadian Journal of History, Spring-Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Republic of Men: Gender and the Political Parties in Interwar France


Campbell, Caroline, Canadian Journal of History


The Republic of Men: Gender and the Political Parties in Interwar France, by Geoff Read. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2014. x, 289 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Geoff Read's history of the eight major political formations of the French interwar period makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of French political culture at a critical moment. Analyzing each group's major newspapers and the private papers of key leaders Read argues that gender and race were intermixed and drove many of the central political questions of the time. This included debates over women's suffrage, immigration policy, how French women and men should act in the face of Stalinism and Nazism, and the regressive impact of pronatalism on the promising ideas of the left. Read contributes to an exciting trend in French history that examines convergences and divergences between the political left, centre, and right. The story that emerges will be disappointing for those interested in emancipatory politics yet insightful for scholars who examine the fundamental hierarchies of gender and race.

The Republic of Men is the first book to examine the gender discourses of powerful political groups in comparison to one another. Giving equal space to masculinity and femininity, Read analyzes the discourses of groups that he defines as leftists (the Communists and Socialists), centrists (the Radicals), centre-rightists and rightists (the Alliance democratique, Parti democrate populaire, the Federation republicaine), and fascists (Croix de feu/ Parti social francais and the Parti populaire francais). While some may take issue with this mode of categorization, one of Read's major arguments is that such categories were not set in stone, but demonstrate trends across the political spectrum. Perhaps most importantly, Read traces how changes in Communist views of gender led the left to support conservative initiatives on pronatalism and measures to undermine women's work. This method of categorization reveals how the political groups emulated one another and why some of them underwent fundamental transformations.

The book is organized thematically and divided into three parts with two chapters each. Part I, entitled "Gender," explores how the concept of virtue dominated all political groups as they sought to create New Men and New Women. There were more commonalities than differences across the political spectrum when it came to masculine virtue and its defining characteristic, selflessness (although it was used by the right and left for slightly different ends). For early 1920s women, a variety of tropes were embraced by the Socialists and Communists who rejected biological essentialism. By the 1930s the left had shifted to embrace conventional ideas about femininity, conflating womanhood with motherhood. Read argues that they did so as part of the Popular Front strategy of working with France's "most retrograde political formation of significance" (p. 37), the Radicals. These shifts revealed what Read calls "the totalitarian drift," which was defined by a move from "the political center to the totalitarian margins" (p. …

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