Friday, May 8, 2009

French Women and 'Pouvoir' in its Many Senses

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I spent yesterday at an all day seminar for women concerning their relationship to power. Remember, the French word "Pouvoir" is not just power in the sense of strength, but can also be defined as ability, and to be able.

I'm participating in a fully subsidized program for women to help get their lives together, their finances under control, find balance in their lives, put together their resumes, re-evaluate their abilities, find the right job, or put into motion the project that best fits them . . . and much more. It is fascinating. It is run (and the funding was put together) by a team of psychologists who work for a structure called the CIBC (Centre Interinstitutional de Bilan de Compétence), of which there are 100 or so in France. The CIBC is at the root of the "bilan de compétences" which is the program into which both the unemployed, never employed, employed and more can work closely with a professional to figure out what they know how to do, what they want to do, what they have the aptitude to do, etc.,. In general, the CIBC likes to work with people who have outside entities paying for them (your job, the various funds into which employees pay yearly, the unemployment office, etc.,). I stumbled upon their offerings when I attended a meeting with JP who'd done a full bilan de compétence there a few years back. After speaking with a couple of the women who work there, we decided that as I didn't have an institution to pay for a full bilan, that wouldn't be possible, but that they have two programs that are fully funded into which I would fit.

The first is a program for women. And the second is a program designed to accompany me in putting my business project together, finding the information, classes, seminars, advisors, legal structures, eventually funding. I'm still working with the business ideas I've had (and I've put into motion) over the past 10 years with Erick, but this would be, if you will, perhaps more firmly built, and structurally more coherent. And hey, I never refuse advice freely and intelligently offered.

So. Women and Pouvoir. A fascinating subject, no? We began the day discussing key dates in the history of women's rights in France.

The date whereby women were granted the right to vote in France: 1944

(By comparison: New Zealand 1893, Australia 1898/1901, Finland 1906, Norway & Denmark 1913, Russia, Canada, Germany and Poland 1918, Holland, 1919, USA 1869 [Wyoming Territory]-1920, Britain 1918) by the UN to all women 1948.

The date whereby women were granted the right by law to run a business in France by themselves (without the husband's permission): 1965 (If there is an equivalent in British or US law, I'd be curious to know when it is, I'm having a hard time on the internet googling this).

However, as an interesting tidbit, in 1902, an English woman, Rosa Lewis bought the Cavendish hotel in London and ran it herself.

The dates whereby women were granted the right to open their own bank accounts without their husband's permission: 1962

The date when the discussion of equal pay for equal work first was initiated: 1946
The French still do not have an equal pay act, though in the US we passed it in 1963, although few would dispute that it is not always observed.

The date when women were granted the right to take the baccalaureat exam: 1919
The date when women were granted the right to take the same baccalaureat exam as the men: 1924
The date when women were granted the right to take the exam without their husband's permission: 1938

And across the Channel:

At the beginning of the 20th century it was very difficult for women to obtain a university education. In 1870 Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon helped to set up Girton College, the first university college for women, but it was not recognised by the university authorities. In 1880 Newnham College was established at Cambridge University. By 1910 there were just over a thousand women students at Oxford and Cambridge. However, they had to obtain permission to attend lectures and were not allowed to take degrees.

Without a university degree it was very difficult for women to enter the professions. After a long struggle the medical profession had allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers. However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges.

(found on the web site:

The date when women were permitted on the French stock market floor: 1967. However, they had been banished from it by royal decree since 1724. In the US, women were permitted from 1943 onwards, whereas for the English, this date came later, 1973.

Money = Power

You can imagine that these questions -- as we were asked to guess in each case -- provoked quite a bit of discussion amongst the 40 some odd participants. France is not Scandinavian. The senate is not half women and half men. Parity is an idea, but far from the reality. Salaries for the same position tend to be 20-25% less for a woman than for a man. Women are less likely to get funding for a business project, be it from a bank or from family, etc., We are a long way off.

But what is power to a woman? Power to change the status quo? Power to flaunt and shock? Power to earn and invest money? Political power to govern and affect the public sphere? Power over her own body (the right to abort is a big one, the right to have children how and when we choose to do so). So much is so recently gained. There is no question that women have power over the domestic sphere. And yet that is not considered "work" and the choice to stay at home to raise one's children can result in financial disaster and professional jeopardy. Certainly there is no country in this world that guarantees a woman a decent retirement fund for choosing to spend her strongest working years raising and educating her children. Society benefits when she does so, but it does not reward the woman.

Power is choice, and belief. Power is finding the perfect balance that works for each woman, and ideally, not being punished for your decisions. If you work full time, and love that, and do it well, power means finding people to help you keep the house in order, pick up your kids from school, get meals on the table, and as necessary, educate and raise those kids. If you stay at home and raise your kids yourself, power is having some level of external respect and recognition for your choice. Both should be possible.

I was reminded of a colleague of my mother's, a woman in her 70s who juggled raising her kids, mostly as a single mom, worked part-time, then full time, and finally, when the kids were grown, was able to truly concentrate on her career. She worked her way to the top of her profession, running foundations that focused on education grants for high school programs. A powerhouse in her field, she nonetheless came to it relatively late compared to my generation. But what I remember very clearly was her telling me that she knew how to read a woman's CV. She knew how to interpret the skills honed by a life juggling limited finances, carpooling, initiating group activities, running the PTA, organizing home-work groups, getting every member of the family to each of their multiple after school activities on time. Simply being organized and on the ball enough to keep a complicated household running efficiently. When you really look closely, why couldn't these women transfer these validated skills in budget management, scheduling, people management, time management and multi-tasking into running a corporation or a foundation, or a school or ???

I tried to convey this point of view to the women with whom I lunched yesterday. I think they were rather mystified by what I put in the air. And yes, I know I come across as a rather eccentric, enthusiastic and a bit naive American. And, I realize that they will rarely have in front of them women like Joan, who know how to read a woman's resume. And what a shame that is. Women need mentors to advance, and they seem (from my biased eyes) to be few and far between here. However, I correct myself, the team at CIBC are, and are quite marvelous: positive problem solvers, seeking to bring to the fore these women's skills and attributes as few others in their entourage know nor are willing to do. May they succeed.

Somehow nothing touches me more than wasted resources. And smart and capable women are only too often in this category.

One promising element: my young boys are mystified by stories about little girls whose fathers won't let them inherit a thrown, or who need to be saved by princes. If we could let their generation inherit the earth without the historical baggage we're bringing with us, would they see things differently? For them, at least now, of course girls are as smart, nearly as fast, as adept at climbing trees, bicycling, tossing a ball, what-have-you as boys are. But of course! How silly the past was, and how strange and unfamiliar. And no, I've not yet spoken to them about the Taliban, nor have we particularly discussed veiled muslim women. That will come.

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