France, Modern

by Paula E. Hyman

Jewish women in modern France experienced both the changes in the status of Jews and the changes in the status of women in the two centuries after the French Revolution. The emancipation of the Jews of France during the Revolution marked a significant shift in the civic and political rights of Jews: France was the first European country to accord citizenship to its Jews. The career open to talent became a reality for many Jewish men in nineteenth-century France, but Jewish women began to play a public role in French life only with the opening up of opportunities for women at the turn of the twentieth century. Their being women determined their fate, more than their Jewishness, except for the Holocaust years.

Political emancipation affected Jews differentially, depending on their place of residence and their socio-economic status. Of the almost forty thousand Jews who lived in France at the time of the Revolution, the most acculturated were the Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardim of the Southwest, descendants of Spanish and Portuguese conversos. However, the vast majority, more than three-quarters, of the forty thousand Jews in France, were the Yiddish-speaking Jews of European origin and their descendants, including most of North and South American Jewry.Ashkenazim of the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Living for the most part in villages, they supported themselves as peddlers and cattle dealers, or commission agents, lending money on the side. Jews saw emancipation as an opportunity to free themselves of the economic restrictions of the ancien régime (the period before the Revolution). The most ambitious migrated to cities, especially Paris.

Jewish women were primarily concerned with their domestic obligations. In the first three generations after the Revolution, they continued their traditional roles, maintaining the household and raising their children. They also played an economic role in the family, as they had before emancipation. A talent for efficient and thrifty domestic management was recognized as a valuable asset in a prospective bride. Wives assisted in commercial dealings, in stores located in or near their dwellings, or in petty crafts. Treating them as virtual partners, their husbands often granted them considerable legal economic autonomy. Married women also lent money and held mortgages. Wives who had participated actively in the family’s support—like Alfred Dreyfus’s mother Jeanette, who had worked as a seamstress—retired as their husbands prospered. The two Dreyfus daughters, like their peers, were raised with the goal of entering into advantageous marriages that would free them of economic responsibilities.

Although most French Jews did not qualify financially for the bourgeoisie until the end of the nineteenth century, French Jews adopted bourgeois gender rôles a generation earlier. Jewish communal leaders considered education for girls an important component of the project of “régénération,” the moral and economic improvement of the Jewish population. Although Jewish schools for girls were established somewhat later than those for boys—whose first school was established in Paris in 1819—they reflected the recognition that mothers were deemed responsible for the moral development of their children. This was a central tenet of the bourgeois gender ideal, which held that men and women had different character traits and distinct and complementary roles to play in society. A popular French-language prayerbook, written by a rabbi and published in 1848, clearly expressed this point of view. A prayer for the male head of household went as follows:

My God, in your goodness you have given me a wife, the inseparable companion of my passage through this life…May I never forget that if strength and reason are the perquisite of my sex, hers is subject to the weakness of body and the feeling of the soul; do not permit me, Lord, to be unjust toward her and to demand of her qualities that are in no way in her nature…May her weakness even be her support against my strength; for it would be cruel to take unfair advantage of it toward a weak and delicate being whom love and law have conferred to my protection.

These sentiments did not guarantee specific behavior on the part of either sex, but they lent religious authority to the bourgeois ideal.

Jewish elites who sought social approbation also realized that modernizing the communal treatment of women signaled to the larger society that Jews had adopted French ways. They were aware, in particular, that the segregation of women in public Jewish rituals was a visible reminder of the Oriental origin of Jews and Judaism. Beginning in the 1840s, the moderate reformists who dominated the Consistories, the government-recognized organizations of French Jewry, called for the enhancement of women’s role in the synagogue and introduced confirmation for adolescent girls as well as boys.

Jewish women were publicly visible in nineteenth-century France in a milieu that was not quite respectable, the theater. The actress rachel (Elisa-Rachel Félix, 1821–1858) was celebrated during her brief lifetime as a major interpreter of the French classics at the Comédie Française, and Rosine Bloch (1827–1912) also had a following. At the end of the century, Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), always seen as a Jew despite her conversion to Catholicism, became the most famous actress in France. The Jewish actresses contributed to the stereotype of “la belle juive,” the beautiful Jewish woman who incarnated femaleness that was both seductive and potentially threatening. The Jewess was exotic and at the same time the quintessential female; she was a sorceress with the potential to do good or bring harm. The Jewish courtesan was a frequent figure in the works of Balzac. In actual French society, Jewish actresses and courtesans were relatively rare. Equally rare, but far more respectable, were the few upper-class Jewish women, like Geneviève Straus (1849–1926), wife of the composer Georges Bizet, who conducted a salon and served as muse to Marcel Proust.

In popular discourse the Jewish woman was perceived more as a woman than as a Jew. With the development of political antisemitism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and especially at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, Jewish women appeared in caricactures that stressed not their allure but their negative Jewish traits. They were presented as fat, ostentatiously rich companions to their stockbroker or banker husbands, and, like them, they spoke French with thick German accents.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, most from Poland-Lithuania, became a substantial component of French Jewry. About forty-four thousand settled in France in the years 1881–1914, the majority arriving after the failed Russian revolution of 1905, contributing to a total Jewish population of some eighty thousand in 1900, which grew to one hundred and fifty thousand two decades later. (With the loss of Alsace-Lorraine as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the number of Jews in France had declined significantly). About one-third of the east European immigrants were female. Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews who concentrated in Paris and a few other cities, were primarily working class, laboring in large numbers in various sectors of the garment industry and in other artisan trades. Married women, whose contribution to the family economy was not likely to be noted in census data, assisted in the family’s support by taking in piece work at home, caring for boarders, or helping out in the store. In the interwar period more than twenty percent of job applicants at a communal charitable employment agency were women. Women participated in all the cultural and political activities of the vibrant immigrant Jewish community, which flourished until World War II. They took their place as novelists and poets in the Yiddish cultural world. They also participated in a variety of political movements—Bundist, Communist, and Zionist—which were largely independent of French and French Jewish organizations.

There were also young east European immigrant Jewish women who were drawn to France by the possibility of studying in French universities. In the decade before World War I, for example, Russian and Romanian women, most of them Jewish, comprised more than one-third of all the female students at the University of Paris and about two-thirds of those of foreign origin.

A smaller group of Jews, from the Levant as well as North Africa, also settled in France, often in southern cities as well as Paris. Their numbers grew somewhat after World War I, with the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike the Jews from eastern Europe, they concentrated in mercantile occupations. In the interwar years about a quarter of women of working age were employed in commerce and the garment industry, and, by the 1930s, increasingly in clerical work. Because they had been educated in schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and were familiar with French culture, although they maintained their own synagogue (the Association Culturelle orientale israélite de Paris, created in 1909), they tended to participate more freely in already existent Jewish organizations than did Polish immigrants.

In both the native and immigrant communities women took part in philanthropic activity. Bourgeois women's roles included charitable work, and traditional Jewish society had sponsored associations that were the responsibility of women. In the first part of the twentieth century Jewish women participated in a secondary role in Jewish communal charities, even while their own charitable associations proliferated.

World War I expanded women’s horizons, affirming their philanthropic role and leading to their involvement in political issues. Native and immigrant women even cooperated during the war to establish the Aide fraternelle au soldat and to organize a benefit for war widows. French Jewish newspapers reported in the 1920s and 1930s on such Jewish women’s associations as Paris’s “L’Oeuvre des Femmes en Couche,” an organization founded in 1850 to help mothers with their newborn children, and Mulhouse’s Société des Dames, which held sewing classes to respond to the economic crisis of the Depression. In 1930 the wife of the rabbi of the Sephardi consistorial synagogue in Paris established the organization Protection de l’Enfance Sépharadite. In a 1926 internal report on the Paris Jewish community’s extensive charitable and educational ventures the Consistory affirmed a gendered division of labor, pointing out that each philanthropic institution “appeals largely to the practical aptitudes and the qualities of devotion particular to each sex.” The administrative decision-making of the umbrella group, the Comité Israélite de Paris, for example, was exclusively in the hands of men; the subcommittee that distributed charitable assistance to poor families was entirely female.

Local work, though, was not merely a continuation of women’s charitable work of the mid-nineteenth century. French Jewish women took the initiative to establish new associations, such as one in Paris dedicated to the physical education of Jewish youth. They used an established organization such as the Association Israélite pour la Protection de la Jeune Fille to deal with a contemporary concern: persuading immigrant women from Eastern Europe to have civil marriages in addition to religious ones, to mitigate the misfortune of abandoned wives.

The arena in which Jewish women established the greatest number of new organizations in the interwar period was Zionism. But women’s Zionist activism often mirrored traditional women's philanthropy, simply applied in a new context. In 1924, for example, women founded the Union des Femmes Juives pour la Palestine, which donated money to a women’s agricultural school in Nahalal and became the French section of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). In the 1930s both the Paris-based Union des Femmes Juives and the Union des Dames Juives of Strasbourg sent regular donations to WIZO in Palestine for a childcare center in Tel-Aviv called Mothercraft Training Centre.

The Union des Femmes Juives demonstrates, however, that women’s organizations were not merely philanthropic. It was headed by the lawyer Yvonne Netter (1889–1985), a fully acculturated French Jew, who was active in both Jewish and general philanthropic, political, and feminist issues. In the interwar years, she combined her Zionist work with the presidency of the Société pour l’amélioration du sort de la femme, which was established in 1876. In 1926 the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the Union des Femmes Juives to send a representative to the ministry’s bureau of religious affairs. Although Jewish women in France could not boast of significant victories for women within their own communal institutions, they mirrored the situation of women in French politics; France was a country which introduced women’s suffrage only in 1945. In the interwar period Jewish women did at least succeed in raising the issue of women’s right to be elected to the consistory in the pages of L’Univers israélite, a major communal periodical.

French representatives also participated in the two World Congresses (the second was called a World Conference) of Jewish Women that took place in Vienna in 1923 and in Hamburg in 1929. The Congress saw its tasks as dealing with religious and educational as well as social and economic issues that affected women, exploring the potential use of the League of Nations to protect women and girls, and supporting the endeavors of Jews in Palestine. The resolutions of the 1929 conference dealt primarily with specifically Jewish issues of education, Palestine, equal rights for women in all communal institutions, and the need to educate Orthodox rabbis to address the problems of women in Judaism. It also expressed support for the general issue of peace activism, which attracted Jewish women in France as well as many politically active women worldwide.

As women took more prominent public roles in France in the twentieth century, Jewish women whose Jewishness was incidental to their identities were prominent in local and international suffrage and peace movements. Perhaps the most ubiquitous woman of Jewish descent in France was the political journalist Louise Weiss (1893–1983), who was active in public life even in old age. In 1979, when she was eighty-six years old, she was selected to deliver the opening remarks at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. A strong advocate of women’s equality and of democracy, in 1918 she created the weekly L’Europe Nouvelle and later the Ecole de la Paix, which sponsored lectures on the peace movement. In 1934 she founded the feminist association, La Femme Nouvelle, which she served as president. Another Jewish activist, Cecile Brunschwicg (1877–1946), was secretary-general of the pr-eminent French suffrage organization, the Union française pour le suffrage des femmes, founded in 1909. In the 1920s and 1930s she served as its president. Her entry into the highest echelons of the state when she became one of three female undersecretaries of state in Léon Blum’s 1936 Popular Front government was considered a sign of the growing respect for female equality in France. Another feminist activist, Suzanne Schreiber-Crémieux (1895–1976), the daughter of a senator, was active in Radical Party politics, becoming vice-president of the party in 1929. In 1931 the Radical Party enabled another Jewish feminist, Marcelle Kraemer-Bach (1896?–1990) to be appointed to a responsible position in the Ministry of Public Health.

Christine Bard, a historian of French feminisms of the period 1914–1940, has pointed out that the Jewish women who were so prominent in French feminist life were discreet about their Jewishness. They were aware that the Right regarded feminism as enjuivé (Judaized). Still, none denied their Jewishness, and some, like Cécile Brunschwicg, married in a Jewish ceremony.

Jewish women were also active in cultural fields. Several, such as the opera singer Lucienne Breval (1869–1935), made their mark in the world of music; others, like Marthe Brandes (1862–1930), achieved prominence as actresses. A few Jewish women, among them the sculptor Chana Orloff (1888–1968) and the painter and textile designer Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979), were part of the avant-garde circle of Montparnasse, the international movement of artists in Paris.

About three hundred thousand Jews lived in France at the outbreak of World War II. Like all Jews, Jewish women became vulnerable to Nazi and Vichy persecution during the war. They were subjected to racist laws, wore the yellow star, and accounted for about 43 percent of the seventy-seven thousand Jews deported, of whom fewer than two percent survived. Their lower percentage among the deportees suggests that they were able to be hidden more easily than men and that they may have had more ties with non-Jews in the larger society. Women participated in providing relief to those interned in camps in France and were particularly prominent in caring for and rescuing children, tending them in group homes and placing them with Christians who agreed to hide them. Women like Anny Latour and Paulette Fink (b. 1911) also fought in both the general and Jewish armed Resistance.

In the postwar years, the face of French Jewry was transformed with the mass migration, beginning in the 1950s, of North African Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Sephardim became the majority of the French Jewish community. According to a sociological study conducted in 1972, more Jewish women of Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian origin defined their Jewish identity as “religious” than did their male peers. However, of the one-third of the community who saw their Jewishness in non-religious terms, again, more were women, perhaps a reflection of the lesser Jewish education given to females than males. With the destruction of most of European Jewry, France’s Jewish population, estimated at six hundred thousand at the end of the twentieth century, became the largest Jewish community in Europe (with the exception of the Soviet Union and its successor states).

At the same time women became ever more visible in public life as they entered the educational institutions that prepared individuals for careers in academic and in civil service. Jewish women, too, participated fully in French life. Initially, they were for the most part not drawn from the new North African immigrants, but in the last two decades of this century Sephardi women also achieved mobility. Sephardi immigrants have educated their daughters as well as their sons in secular studies, and in their aspirations for their children they express preference for them to enter the salaried professions, the civil service, and the liberal professions rather than commerce. Their daughters have realized their dreams.

In the academic world Jewish women became professors in a variety of fields. Annie Kriegel (b. 1929–1995), Elise Marienstras, Lucette Valensi, Françoise Basch, and Claudie Weill have written important works of history. Annie Cohen-Solal ( b. 1948), born in Algeria, is best known for her biography of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, but, with a Ph.D. in literature from the Sorbonne, she has taught at both French and foreign universities and has also published on American art. The burgeoning field of Jewish Studies, in particular, has drawn a number of women scholars: Renée Bernheim-Neher (b. 1922), Rachel Ertel (b. 1939), Annette Wieviorka (b. 1948), Sylvie-Anne Goldberg, Esther Benbassa (b. 1950), American-born Nancy Green, and Rita Thalmann (b. 1926), all in history, and Doris Bensimon (b. 1924), Dominique Schnapper ( b. 1934), and Blondine Barret-Kriegel (b. 1943), in sociology. Beginning in the prewar years, Jewish women also achieved significant positions in science and medicine, particularly in the fields of molecular biology, biochemistry, and chemistry. They also expanded their presence in law, a field which became open to women in France early in the twentieth century.

Jewish women have also been visible in entertainment, in broadcasting, and in politics. Although antisemites have attacked the presence of Jews in public life, Jews seem to have achieved widespread acceptance. Simone Signoret (1921–1985) was one of the most popular actresses in France and internationally during her long career. Anouk Aimée (b. 1932), too, has been seen as one of the stars of French cinema. Behind the scenes, a number of Jewish women, among them Diane Kurys ( b. 1948), have served as film directors and screenwriters. A Jewish woman, the television journalist Anne Sinclair (b. 1948), was even selected in 1989 to represent Marianne, the symbol of republican France. In addition to her academic work, Annie Cohen-Solal served as the Cultural Counselor at the French Embassy in the United States from 1989–1993. Perhaps the single best known French Jewish woman in politics is Simone Veil (b. 1927) who first attracted much attention when she was appointed Minister of Health in 1974 and was internationally acclaimed after she was chosen to be the president of the European Parliament in 1979.

Well-educated and generally middle-class, Jewish women in France now partake of the rights accorded to Jews and women as citizens of the French state. Their access to virtually all positions in society reflects the gradual extension in the twentieth century of full civic and political rights to women. As women, they were fully emancipated more than a century after France proclaimed the liberation of the Jews.


Benbassa, Esther. The Jews of France. Princeton: 1999; Bensimon, Doris and Sergio Della Pergola, La Population juive de France. Jerusalem: Institute of Contemporary Jewry of Hebrew University and Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris: 1984; Bensimon-Donath, Doris. Socio-Démographie des France et d’Algérie, 1867–1907. Paris: POF, 1976; Berkovitz, Jay. The Shaping of Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century France. Detroit: 1989; Birnbaum, Pierre. The Jews of the Republic. Stanford: 1986; Green, Nancy. The Pletzl of Paris. New York: 1986; ibid., Ready to Wear, Ready to Work. Durham, NC: 1997; Hyman, Paula E. The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace. New Haven: 1991; ibid., From Dreyfus to Vichy. New York: 1979; ibid., The Jews of Modern France. Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1998; Klein, Luce. Portrait de la Juive dans la littérature française. Paris: 1970; Poznanski, Renée. Jews in France during World War II. Hanover, NH: 2001; Zucotti, Susan, The French, the Jews, and the Holocaust. New York: 1993; Bard, Christine. Les filles de Marianne. Paris: 1995; Bertin, Célia. Louise Weiss. Paris: 1995; Reynolds, Siân. France Between the Wars: Gender and Politics. London: 1996.


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Simone Veil receives a Hagaddah from Yeshiva University President Norman Lamm at an International Student Scholarship Fund dinner.
Courtesy of Yeshiva University, New York.

How to cite this page

Hyman, Paula E.. "France, Modern." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 19, 2021) <>.


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