Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2022

Les Parisiennes, by Anne Sebba (and how Lisa broke the law in Paris in 2005)

Here I am in Paris in 2005, at the Musee D’Orsay, unwittingly breaking the law…

Let me explain.  Apart from a wedding dress, I haven’t owned or worn a skirt since the late 1980s, and believe it or not, the [French] law against women wearing trousers, never enforceable since its introduction in 1800, was finally rescinded in February 2013, after 213 years. So until that date, every day of every time I visited France, four times from 2001 to 2013, I was breaking the law.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.

I learned about this absurd law from reading Anne Sebba’s comprehensive survey of Parisian life during the Occupation, Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris, Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s.  In the chapter called ‘Paris Divided’ I learned that the Vichy regime had adopted German notions about the role of women, because they believed that moral collapse was at the heart of the French defeat. 

The chapter begins with the 1941 counsel of Léontine Zanta, an intellectual who in 1914 was the first French woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy.  Here she is, reminding her students that it was their patriotic duty to marry, make babies and feel fulfilled in the home.

Let our young female intellectuals understand this and loyally examine their conscience.  I believe that many of them, if they are sincere and loyal… will admit that… if they didn’t marry since they had not found a husband to their taste or because they were horrified by household work, which means that the poor things, in their blindness or their obliviousness, did not see that this was merely selfishness, culpable individualism, and that it was this sickness that was killing France.  Today we need to accept this challenge and look life squarely in the face with the pure eyes and direct gaze of our Maid of Lorraine: it is up to you, as it was up to her more than five centuries ago, to save France. (p.73)

Joan of Arc miniature graded.jpgThe irony of invoking Joan of Arc as a domestic goddess seems to have escaped Zanta, but was probably not lost on her students.

Not surprisingly, the Vichy belief that women were inferior beings who should stay at home made intelligent young women extremely angry, and ripe for recruitment by well-organised communist leaders such as Danielle Casanova, a charismatic dentist who lived in the Left Bank. When the Communist Party was banned, Danielle went into hiding as her husband, Laurent, was a prisoner of war in Germany and they had no children.  She spent her spare time campaigning to help orphans from the Spanish Civil War as well as impoverished French workers.  She and her friends Maï Politzer and Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier were involved in running a pacifist, anti-fascist youth organisation called the Union des Jeunes Filles de France (UJFF), which aimed through sporting and cultural activities to help get working-class girls out of their cycle of deprivation.  At the outbreak of war they had more than 20,000 members, and many of these volunteered in autumn 1940 to distribute flyers or copies of banned news-sheets such as L’Humanité either by hiding them in prams, giving them to friendly concierges or dropping them into shopping baskets as women queued for dwindling food supplies. (p.75)

*chuckle* And I’m pretty sure that many of these valiant young volunteers would have been wearing trousers!  I say this because I am an avid fan of the French TV series, Un village français which ran for seven seasons from 2009 and was widely praised for its historical accuracy and authenticity.   The series features the people of Villeneuve, a fictional town in the Jura district in German-occupied France, starting with the first day of the occupation in the village and concluding with the trials and vilification of the collaborators after the war.  Postal worker Suzanne Richard wears trousers, and so does Marie Germain, a tenant farmer who ends up leading the local Resistance.

Culottes (divided skirts) were popularised BTW as an elegant way to ride a bicycle in a Paris without cars.  (Except German ones, of course).

Another snippet I learned from the book that’s relevant to the TV series, concerns ‘System B’.  At various times, the School principal Jules Bériot needs to be evasive with his rather naïve wife Lucienne Borderie.  The source of a cake for her birthday is, for example, a case of ‘System B’, which I now know is a joke that refers to ‘System D’:

Already in February 1941, just six months after the setting-up of the food-rationing system — or le Systeme D, as it was known from se débrouiller meaning ‘to get by or manage’, since it largely referred to the way various people got round rationing — women, now responsible as heads of family, became desperate at the hours spent queuing for so little and seeing their families suffering from hunger,  Many became ingenious in numerous ways, such as roasting barley and chicory as ersatz coffee, or keeping guinea-pigs in their apartments to be killed and eaten, or discovering country cousins with vegetables.  Making counterfeit food tickets was widespread but illegal, and anyone caught doing so was fined or called in for questioning. (p.75)

This book is probably on the reference shelf of all those authors churning out yet another piece of commercial fiction about WW2 in Paris.  But its real value for me, apart from these interesting bits of trivia, is the way in which it shows the variety of responses to the Occupation.  There are quiet heroines, like the librarian Rose Antonia Valland who documented every bit of artwork stolen from museums and art galleries, with the Germans never once suspecting the dowdy, bespectacled academic. There were courageous spies, like Jeanne de Clarens; there was Colette who lent her prestige as a notable author to collaborationist and pro-Nazi publications by continuing to contribute to them throughout the Occupation; and there were others who had no idea that they had family members in the Resistance.

The next chapters cover the despicable betrayal of the Jews, and then there’s the section about the Liberation: the jubilation; the return of women from the Nazi camps, the continuing food shortages and strikes, the posthumous awards for the brave young women of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the revival of the fashion industry.  And of course the judgements that were made and the notorious punishments dished out to women for dégradation nationale for committing what was called collaboration horizontale.

A fascinating book.

Author: Anne Sebba
Title: Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris, Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, (Hachette) 2016
ISBN: 9781474601733, pbk., 387 pages not including the Notes, Bibliography, Cast, Acknowledgements, List of illustrations, or Index which brings it up to 457 pages.
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99



  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I have this on my enormous to- be- read pile. I went to a discussion at Jewish Book Week on the book which as you suggest is an intriguing and informative read.


    • Indeed it is. I’ve made some splendid finds at Jewish book Week. I’m still tossing up whether to go this year, maybe by the time it comes along the Omicron wave will be under control, that would be good.


  2. Hi Lisa

    Sounds like a fascinating book which I must look for. On a related theme, I am currently reading “French Fashion, Women and the First World War” Yale University Press 2019, a set of symposium proceedings which documents the
    emancipation of French women during WW1, and covers many parallel issues one generation earlier than your book.

    I also noticed your mention of Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, one of the most heroic Frenchwomen during WW2. She was the daughter of the French publisher/ journalist Lucien Vogel who amongst other things was the first journalist to reveal to the world the horror of Dachau camp in 1933 in her father’s anti-Nazi magazine VU, became a stalwart of the French resistance, survived captivity in Auschwitz and became a leading left wing French political leader after the war, including becoming the first female vice-president of the French Senate. An absolutely remarkable woman who deserves to be better known and celebrated. I don’t know of a book about her in English, but am avidly looking for one in French.



    • Hi Chris, it’s good to hear from you as always!
      Some time ago I went to an author talk by a local who, it turned out, was systematically working her way through women members of the Resistance… but I had a bad feeling about what she was doing and escaped without buying her book/s as I had intended to do. So I’m guessing that’s not the kind of book you’re thinking of, about Marie-Claude.
      There is, however, a book about one of the other women mentioned: Agnes Humbert. Resistance, Memoirs of Occupied France, by Agnes Humbert, translated by Barbara Mellor was reviewed on this blog back in 2009 and my first paragraph is “The author is so naïve and reckless, it’s a miracle she lived through the war!”
      That’s one of the things about the Resistance that is portrayed in Un village français. The British films we see about the SOE give the wrong impression. Resistance was, in the beginning, naïve, reckless, chaotic, disorganised, politically fragmented and uncoordinated. It was unarmed because the Brits in the early stages wouldn’t supply them because they didn’t know who the leadership was and they didn’t trust them. Symbolic actions cost hundreds of French lives when the Germans responded with reprisals. Many people didn’t support the Resistance because of that and also because they thought they had no alternative but to accept collaboration, restore order and get the economy going again.
      It was only as the Occupation progressed, and became more oppressive that the disparate political cells were forced to cooperate and coordinate what they were doing. But significantly, it was the hope of liberation that motivated people, and alongside the Russian victory at Stalingrad and the rumours of an impending Allied landing, women were crucial to fostering that hope.


  3. This does sound fascinating. I think I had vaguely read somewhere about the skirt law but had no idea that it was valid until so recently


  4. Hi Lisa, my first visit to d’Orsay was also in 2005 (March) –in pants no less! Love this recommendation by Sebba. Enjoyed your post. Robyn


    • What fun it would have been to cross paths! But we always travelled in the European autumn (our spring) after the summer crowds had gone. I think you’d find this book fascinating:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well this sounds a delight, rich in anecdotes and snippets of info but equally rich in insight.

    I’m thinking back to all those trips to France and I can’t remember a single occasion when I wore a skirt or dress.


    • Exactly. My travel wardrobe consists of washable black pants, black tops, black flats and an overshirt, blazer or scarf in some other colour. That leaves plenty of room in the suitcase for books.
      Actually, it’s also what I wear every day even when I’m not travelling. I am much too disinterested in clothes to be bothered with anything else.
      But I would arc up big time if any government tried to control what I could wear.


  6. My first visit to the Musee d’Orsay was in 1991 and I would have been wearing skimpy shorts, no bra and the merest scrap of a sandal on my feet! But so was every other 20-something running around Paris that hot summer. Although not many Americans. It was the summer of the Gulf war and American tourists in particular stayed home that year.


    • Our first trip to Paris was in 2001, barely a fortnight after 9/11. There were hardly any tourists anywhere, and especially not Americans. In fact the conference my husband was there to attend was cancelled because they were too afraid to fly. Lots of people questioned our decision to travel, but we thought it was the safest time to go because all the authorities were on high alert. And there were no queues and all the tourism operators were so pleased to see us (and our money).


  7. This does sound like an enjoyable read! Apparently I have breaking the law many times as well 😄


  8. There appears to be at least one young woman behind you in the pic also breaking the law, Lisa!
    I do remember when I only skirts dresses were acceptable corporate wear for women here – I remember an American woman doctor started working at my hospital in Sydney and was horrified to find she was the only woman on the staff wearing long pants – she actually went and bought herself dresses so she would fit in, despite our reassurances – that must have been in the 1980s I think.


    • Goodness, I do remember when it felt a bit risqué to teach at school in trousers, but that was a long time ago!


  9. Fascinating Lisa! The book itself sounds wonderful, but the law against trousers running so late!! I know when I was at Grammar School we weren’t allowed trousers and some of us got into bother for protesting the ban. If I recall correctly, George Sand had to get special dispensation to go round in men’s clothing.


    • Indeed, I thought of George Sand when I read that… and I bet she was only the most prominent of a good few other women who did the same.
      Thinking back, I think that the first time I wore trousers I must have been about ten. We arrived in Australia expecting warm weather, and found we had timed our first day on the coldest day Melbourne had had for 40 years. My mother took the three of us shopping that very day and we all got a pair of plaid trousers… and some cute little gloves with sparkles on them.

      Liked by 1 person

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