So often, people ask us why their ancestors left France and we must respond that the archives and documents rarely give reasons, only blunt statements of facts. However, if your grandmother or great-grandmother were a widow of a man who fought for France in World War One and she left France, the reason will be glaringly obvious: poverty.
The First World War left France with some 600,000 widows and close on a million fatherless children.1 In most cases, these newly fatherless families lost their breadwinner. The laws enforcing the customary oppression of women in force at the time made survival difficult if not impossible:
- Upon marriage to a foreigner, a woman automatically lost her French citizenship and her children were not French.
- Girls received primary education but young women were not allowed to pass the baccalauréat, the basic education requirement for employment in any managerial position.2
- A woman could not have an identity card or passport without her husband's permission.3
- From 1871, in the Alsace and Lorraine regions, (which were returned to France in 1918) the law forbad women being the legal guardians of their own children. A male relative, such as a grandfather or uncle to the children took the role and, sometimes, the money.4
- The work available to women in the early twentieth century was monotonous, long and poorly paid.5
- The system of military pensions to widows nearly collapsed during the First World War.6
- Our own research has shown that many war widows who did find work had to pay to place their children with families, often far from where they lived.
Very quickly, as the numbers of widows climbed during the war, the French government began to attempt to change the situation, in 1917 making orphans wards of the nation and, in 1919, granting better pensions to the war widows. In 1927, widows of foreigners could apply to regain their French nationality, and hundreds did so. The excellent study by Michael Lanthier (see notes 5 and 6) discusses in detail just how and why their lives were so very difficult. Suffice to say that they were and quite a few left. If your war-widowed grandmother left France during the inter-war period, you may now have a better understanding as to why.
©2017 Anne Morddel
1 "Veuves et orphelins de la Première guerre mondiale", Chemins de Mémoire, https://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/fr/veuves-et-orphelins-de-la-premiere-guerre-mondiale , accessed 3 Sept 2017.
2 Malnory, Camille, "Quand les Femmes ne Pouvait pas ouvrir de compte en banque", Liberation, 13 July, 2015, https://www.liberation.fr/france/2015/07/13/quand-les-femmes-ne-pouvaient-pas-ouvrir-de-compte-en-banque_1347300, accessed 2 Sept 2017.
4 "Enfants naturels", Archives départementales du Haut-Rhin, https://www.archives.haut-rhin.fr/search/home, accessed 2 Sept 2017. N.B. :This is one of those PDFs, orphaned and alone, lost, floating on the internet like a soul seeking a body and without a clear link to its origins, so we give it directly here, with apologies to the AD of Haut-Rhin. It will be discussed further in a future post.
5 Lanthier, Michael, "Women Alone: Widows in Third Republic France, 1870-1940 : Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History, Simon Fraser University", 2004, https://summit.sfu.ca/item/2275, accessed 3 July 2017, p38.
6 Lanthier, "Women Alone", p68.