The Young Women’s Movement (Mouvement Jeunes Femmes)

The Young Women’s Movement (Mouvement Jeunes Femmes) came into being when, at the congress of the « Young Women’s Christian Association » (Unions Chrétiennes de Jeune Filles) in 1946, some of the participants said they would like to set up a structure in which Christian married women could seek spiritual fulfilment, give support to each other and endeavour to deal with specific problems related to their situation.

The birth of the movement

The Young Women’s Movement soon became independent from the Unions Chrétiennes de Jeunes Filles (UCJF), and even from the Alliance Féminine, an association which had brought together under one roof, in 1949, the UCJF (YWCA), the UCJG (YMCA), and the Equipes Unionistes (French protestant girl scout movement).

This new movement became reality when it held its first congress in 1955 ; numbers quickly increased : there were 6,000 members in 1970 who were of varying age and social background. They were divided into three groups : Very Young Women from 20 to 35 years old ; Young Women from 35 to 45 years old ; Women’s Teams for those over 45 years old.

This association tried to deal with the problems faced by women in the period after the war

  • Un congrès Jeunes Femmes
    A Young Women's congress © Fédération Protestante de France

Women’s lives changed a great deal in the post-war years and this is one of the reasons why the Young Women’s Movement developed so rapidly at this time.

Just after the war, France had a poor infrastructure and an ailing economy – it was only little by little that the country became more prosperous and was able to recover fully in the “Glorious Thirty Years”.

The consequences of the baby boom were that women were overcome with the responsibility of bringing up children and doing household duties. As their husbands were away at work, they were often left at home alone to confront loneliness, endless chores and exhaustion, without any support. This situation came to be known as “the illness which has no name”. (Betty Friedan, La femme mystifiée, 1964).

Many women’s magazines published at this time dealt with the need to manage the business of running a home more efficiently and to have a happy, balanced family life.

Indeed, women’s political rights were improving : they were allowed to vote in 1945 and the equality of men and women was written into the constitutions of 1946 and 1958, thanks to the active support of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Another issue at stake was how much responsibility to give women within the Church. As many “Young Women” were pastors’ wives, they had studied theology and the question of women pastors came to the fore when exceptionally, Elisabeth Schmidt became a pastor in June 1949.

The Young Women's Movement was an intellectual one

  • Francine Dumas (1917-1998) et son mari André Dumas
    Francine Dumas (1917-1998) and her husband André Dumas © SHPF

Three books contribute greatly to the main ideas upheld by the Young Women’s Movement :

  • La Femme éternelle by Gertrude von Lefort 1947, which advocated woman’s redeeming power. This was a catholic doctrine and was largely rejected as being too conservative.
  • Le Deuxieme sexe by Simone de Beauvoir (Paris, Gallimard, 1949) ; this was really an atheist book, both scandalous and fascinating at the same time.
  • Découverte de la Femme by Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who was Karl Barth’s secretary. Placed between the extremes of the other two books, it underlined the differences between the sexes and put forward the case for femininity. The attitude towards sexuality was that it had its rightful place within a loving married couple.

All these studies, discussions and book reviews were published in “Revue de l’Association des Groupes Jeunes Femmes”, also known as the “Bulletin”. This review came out 6 times a year and did not, at first sight, look like a high quality publication. However, its contents were of a consistently high standard and it was a useful instrument of communication between members who wished to exchange ideas.

It also provided a structure for those who were leading the movement in which to express themselves.

The following women were remarkable for upholding the intrinsic values of their protestant faith while at the same time defending the feminist ideals of their time : Jeanne Lebrun, (1903-1996) who realized, after the 1939-1945 war, that married women needed astructure in which to express their hopes and fears, so she founded the Young Women’sMovement. Suzette Duflo, (1910-1983) was president from 1949 to 1966. Francine Dumas, (1917-1988) who received much support from her husband, pastor André Dumas, was vicepresident ; Christine Rigal, who had formerly worked as a journalist for Réforme, wasresponsible for editing the bulletin. Its approach became gradually more concerned with feminism as time went on. Its main themes were :

  • family planning,
  • the harmonious development of the couple,
  • women’s attitude to work,
  • women taking on responsibility in the Church.

The Young Women's Movement had a pioneering approach

  • Réunion du Groupe Orsay (mars 1997)
    Meeting of the Orsay Group (March 1997) © Jean Lods

The issue of feminism recurred constantly. As Christians, the Young Women’s Movement rejected the somewhat dubious feminist ideology in favour of a more moderate approach : women were, according to them, at the same time different and similar to their male counterparts. However, they considered that women did indeed have a separate identity which should be taken as a positive asset, enabling them to contribute constructively to their marriage, their social circle and to society at large.

In the 60’s, the Young Women’s Movement established a method of dialogue between women, also providing them with information, which did much to challenge old-fashioned, prejudiced attitudes which had been the norm until then. Various Catholic movements and the pioneers of “adult education” followed their example. In 1968, the national committee of the Young Women’s Movement took part in the discussions of the Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherche pour l’Education des Adultes (Study group for adult education) ; indeed, its aim was to be recognized as an association providing official adult education to its members. In 1969, it had the satisfaction of being given full approval in this respect by the authority.

The Young Women's Movement has always been concerned with the problems of modern society

The Young Women’s Movement has always fought for justice in society, supporting the weak and the marginal. This was a typically protestant attitude, especially amongst the followers of Barth, who were intent on social reform.

For a certain time, the Young Women’s Movement worked alongside the communist-inspired Union des Femme Françaises ; they took interest in the situation of women in the USSR and in France, the highly controversial issue of the war in Algeria also attracted their attention. They gave their active support to the Association “la Maternité heureuse”, (Happy Motherhood), which later became the Mouvement pour le Planning Familial, in which many members became heavily involved. They were also concerned by various legal questions : relaxing certain restraints on abortion, changing the way marriage settlements were drawn up and altering the nature pf parental authority so that both members of the couple were henceforth concerned and not just the father, as had been the case previously. In the workplace, the Young Women’s Movement fought for equality of pay and the professional advancement of women.

The Young Women’s movement followed with interest the activities of the new feminist movement of the 70’s, soon to be known as the Mouvement de la Libération de la Femme (Women’s Liberation Movement). But the latter had a more radical attitude, violently defending the fellow members of their sex when they were victims of discrimination and oppression. They also had a much freer attitude to sexuality and mores.

The leaders of the Young Women’s Movement modified the statutes in 1972, doing without the titles of President and General Secretary. Instead, they created a permanent committee.

In 1981, the Young Women’s Movement split into two associations, on the one hand a new secular movement under the same name which continued the tradition of feminism, and on the other, the Groupe Orsay.

Bibliography

  • Books
    • POUJOL Geneviève, Un féminisme sous tutelle – Les protestantes françaises 1810-1960, Max Chaleil éditeur, Paris, 2003
  • Articles
    • CHAPERON Sylvie, "Le Mouvement Jeunes Femmes (1946-1970) – De l’Évangile au féminisme", Bulletin de la SHPF, SHPF, Paris, janvier-mars 2000, Tome 127

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