IT ALL SEEMS rather incredible in retrospect, but, for many Americans, among other foreign observers, Brigitte Bardot (sacré bleu) emerged as the face of the transformation of women’s roles in French society. This occurred following the collapse of the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. In 1950, no less an authority than Simone de Beauvoir portrayed the sex-symbol as “a locomotive of women’s history,” anointing her as “the first and most liberated woman of post-war France.” For some years, Brigitte Bardot has lent her face to the figure of “Marianne,” the image of the French Republic.

And yet, women in postwar France were no Brigitte Bardots. Their stories are important, and Sarah Fishman evokes and analyzes them in her original, lucid, and important study of gender and the family in modern France. During the Vichy years, there was much discussion about a perceived “crisis of the family,” triggered by feminism and the “decadence” of republican France. The Vichy regime even claimed that attempts at women’s liberation had contributed to the fall of France to German armies in 1940. Fishman explains how the authoritarian Vichy state, with close ties to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, relied on father-centered family life as a bulwark of “national values.” Like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, Vichy sought to keep mothers at home and make divorce virtually impossible.

For Fishman, the transition from war to peace in the mid-1940s contributed to “some rethinking of attitudes toward gender and family life.” During the war, women had played an essential role in managing the household economy in a time of shortages and the black market. Attitudes changed as “new horizons” gradually opened and the number of women working outside the home increased. Women’s roles as teachers and as doctors, among other professions, were increasingly recognized.

Books and magazines also reflected changing views of men. Husbands may have still been seen as breadwinners, but they were less often viewed as the kings of the household. A new vision of fatherhood gradually took hold — another departure from Vichy norms. Fatherhood “was becoming a relationship.” In 1946, the French government began to grant fathers a three-day paternity leave in the first two weeks after birth.

Economic growth and the emergence of the welfare state changed how many people lived in what was widely considered a more “modern” nation. The “Thirty Glorious Years” (“les trentes glorieuses”) of rising affluence lasted from about 1944 to the Arab Oil Embargo of the early ’70s. French women did not obtain the right to vote until 1944 — in contrast to British women, who could vote after 1918 — but Fishman concludes that material improvements changed their lives more than did the right to vote. Fishman identifies two life-changing “modern” appliances in particular: the washing machine and the frigo — refrigerator. The television set was, arguably, number three. By 1950, there were 37,000 television sets in France, and by 1959, 1,368,000. (In my village in southeastern France, older people today still debate which household owned the first television in the mid-1950s.)

“Family allocations” provided by the providential state added more to household economies, encouraging many couples to have a third child. Fishman cites a pregnant character in Christiane Rochefort’s novel Les Petits Enfants du siècle, who taps on her stomach and announces, “And my Frigidaire is here!” On top of that, more and more families could now go on vacation — 14.5 million in 1964 as opposed to 2.2 million just three years earlier. By the 1960s, psychologists were debating the consequences of greater affluence.

During these years of increased well-being, women’s magazines, with advice columns, reflected on “how and why ideas about gender and family life changed after the war,” and contributed to the change. In analyzing the evolution of views of adolescence as a “separate, transitional phase,” Fishman turns to juvenile court records and reports by social workers to show that new and more informed ways of investigating and aiding family life produced significant results. Following a “therapeutic” impulse, social workers and therapists now worked for the best interests of children.

Inevitably, perhaps, more and more women began to see divorce as acceptable. The number of divorces soared, as did the number of couples living together without being married, a phenomenon so common in today’s France (“union libres”). Under the influence of Sigmund Freud, Simon de Beauvoir, and Alfred Kinsey, magazines and therapists both expressed far more concern with sex and the individual family member. De Beauvoir challenged the idea “that men and women were different by nature,” while two of Kinsey’s books were quickly translated into French. And yet, while “sex and sexuality took center stage,” the stage remained crowded with artifacts and values from earlier eras. A 1957 survey revealed that 69 percent of women who responded believed that a woman’s place was at home, while in another we learn that young women still viewed a husband’s adultery as less serious than that of a wife’s.

New attitudes toward sexuality emerged in France, as in the United States and elsewhere, along with the rise of youth culture in the wake of the baby boom. Fishman offers a fascinating discussion of how young men and women interacted, and the arrival of the concept of “flirting” (thus “un flirt” and “il [ou elle] flirt[e]” joined the rapidly growing ranks of franglais, English words and terms adopted directly into French, despite the vociferous opposition of language traditionalists). Gradually more French men and women accepted the fact that young women (and, for that matter, older women) had the right to a sex life, whether married or not. In 1967, pharmacies were allowed to sell condoms over the counter, and eight years later abortions (up to 12 weeks after conception) were made legal.

Two fundamental changes in France must be considered as context for the evolution Fishman so ably traces. First, the role of the Catholic Church in the lives of ordinary French men and women had already declined considerably. That almost 95 percent of the population was then nominally Catholic (while five percent were Protestant and well less than one percent were Jewish) did not mean that anything like that number of people practiced “their” religion. By the 1960s, only 15 percent of adults took weekly communion. Second, during this period France lurched from a rural to an urban society. During World War II, about 40 percent of the population drew their living from the land. The growing flight of rural French into the cities, begun at the turn of the century, became a veritable exodus by the 1950s. While the French village remains the stuff of postcards, its landscape now rarely serves as a background to those who work the land. Today, only about five percent of the French population lives off the land.

Fishman’s account ends before the failed revolution of 1968, in which students and workers took on the Gaullist state. No doubt the sequel will examine, in equally expert and engaging fashion, that upheaval — an event whose roots are buried deep in the decades immediately after World War II, and which rendered Bardot as archaic as the Ancien Régime.

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John Merriman teaches French and Modern European history at Yale University.