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Women Alone: Widows in Third Republic France, 1870-1940

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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An examination of widowhood in Third Republic France intersects with many other key themes of political, social and women's history. The lot of poor widows in the Third Republic was often poverty and hardship, and will lead to a consideration of broader questions regarding several aspects of women's lives, such as work and old age. We will see that widows, like women in general. had very few viable options to choose from when it came to earning a living, and often could not afford the luxury of retirement before death claimed them. The different ways in which the government treated various categories of widows during the Third Republic will throw light on the complex evolution of the French welfare state. The slaughter of the First World War created hundreds of thousands of widows in a short period of time, with legislators deciding to provide these women with pensions and other forms of assistance. No matter how inadequate these were, they clearly differentiated war widows from "normal" ones and represented a marked increase in public welfare measures. In spite of this growing state interventionism, we will see that private charity (particularly of a religious nature) remained important to widows, demonstrating that the transition was slow, awkward and complex. The advent of war widows' associations during the 1920s highlights the difficulties faced by these women, and shows how people adapted to the state's new role and did not hesitate to make new demands of it. The study of widows will also reveal much about cultural notions of proper femininity and gender roles: the government, charities and associations all relied on a popular, idealized image of the eternally faithful widow that emphasized "traditional" roles for women, particularly that of wife and mother. This will lead us to a consideration of natalism, an ideology which also influenced new welfare measures; it will become obvious that legislators and civil servants were often preoccupied with widows because of their children. Ultimately, the difficulties and hardships of widows in the Third Republic reflected those of all women.
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