When mom emancipated herself

By retracing the trajectory of their mothers, two authors recreate the lifestyles of two teachers in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as their quest for economic and intellectual emancipation.

Our mothers is a confusing book, as well as fascinating. Christine, a sociology teacher who lost her mother Christiane at the age of five, and Karine, a secondary school teacher with a degree in gender studies, who was very close to her mother Huguette without really knowing her, joined forces to lead a unique investigation, both intimate and sociohistorical. Our mothers reveals the paths to the emancipation of two “ordinary” women (p. 6), placed in an era, a generation, a profession (that of a teacher). After a presentation of the project, its methodology and its collective dimension, the traces left by Christiane, at the normal school and in Tunisia where she was a cooperator, are explored. Then, the book devotes itself to Huguette, and in particular to her epistolary correspondence of more than twenty years with Simone de Beauvoir, before focusing on this generation of girls who became women in the 1960s and who fought to ensure that their bodies belongs to them. As a counterpoint, the book also analyzes the reactions of the husbands of Christiane and Huguette, “the men of these women” (p. 279), who are also the fathers of the authors.

Without returning exhaustively to the content of each chapter, this review synthesizes the book according to three transversal dimensions: the atypical nature of the work, the crossed experiences of Huguette and Christiane in teaching, and their relative emancipation from ” close domination”.

“A bit of a crazy project”

The book is neither ego-history nor genealogical approach. Based on life stories, he intends to differentiate Christiane and Huguette, and explain the biographical orientations and bifurcations in terms of gender, social origin, generation, socialization, without ignoring the effects of encounters. Concretely, it is a question of “thinking by case”, that is to say “taking into account a situation, reconstructing the circumstances – the contexts – and thus reinserting them into a story, the one which is called to account for the situation. “particular arrangement which makes a case out of a singularity” (Passeron and Revel, 2005, cited p. 13).

The project was born from a meeting in a bookstore, during which Christine and Karine talked about their mothers. Christine wrote a novel about her mother, whom she knew very little. For Karine, who was very close to her mother, a writer who left numerous documents and manuscripts, writing about her would be “too hard” (p. 6). So “Christine proposed this somewhat crazy project to Karine: we would use the excess of one to make up for the nothing of the other” (p. 7). Traces of Christiane’s life are scattered. The project, which is nourished by a personal quest, was carried out by inventing the path as it went along, and it was punctuated by numerous meetings: with respondents, witnesses to the lives of Christiane and Huguette, with colleagues researchers who became allies in the field, with authors, in particular Annie Ernaux who reread the book.

Christiane and Huguette were both born in the 1940s and are now deceased. “Two sleeping women” (p. 8), whose lives the investigation helped to reconstruct. They were schoolteachers and both married a schoolteacher at a very young age. However, a key difference in their backgrounds lies in their social origins.

Two beginning teachers in the mid-1960s

Born to a father who was a police officer and a mother who did housework to supplement her income, Christiane joined the girls’ normal school in Douai (ENF). Interviews with Christiane’s former classmates provide insight into the ordinary life in this institution. Most of them preparing to teach in the rural schools where they grew up, the normaliennes learn to stand out: “the dress, the morality, the language must be exemplary” (p. 39). Like most students from working-class backgrounds, Christiane prepares forENF the “science ex” baccalaureate. The study of the files of the student teachers in Christiane’s class reveals the social gaps: some students from the École Normale Supérieure, from more privileged social backgrounds, will take the “philosophy” baccalaureate (the most prestigious) and continue on to university or secondary education. The investigation manages to make Christiane “terribly lively” (p. 30): her reports say that she is “agitated, she is childish, she behaves badly, she speaks badly, she does not know how to organize herself. In short, she does not stay still: above all, she does not hold her place” (p. 42). “Her place”, that is to say that of teacher, representative of the Republic in schools, acquired at the end of an honorable school career, marked by successes (in the entrance exam to theENF, at the baccalaureate), far from what his parents and even more his grandparents knew. In this case, the inspector who visits her at her first post shows his confidence in her, proof that the years spent at the normal school have brought about a social transformation in Christiane, which distances her from her original environment.

Christiane also experiences cooperation in Tunisia, with her husband Jean-Luc, whom she met at the normal school. At the end of the 1960s, mass tourism did not yet really exist, and departures abroad were rare. Cooperation is an adventure, an “enchanted” parenthesis (p. 85). Cooperators experience boredom and idleness, but also new possibilities, for example leisure activities such as tennis and sailing which in France are reserved for an elite. “Doubled” salaries (p. 107), cheap luxury, the employment of domestic staff, change their lives.

The social gap that separates Huguette from Christiane is revealed in their paths to accessing education. On Huguette’s side, an engineer father and a mother employed in PTT, paternal grandparents who are teachers in public education in Lozère. Already a mother, Huguette obtained a “philosophy baccalaureate” from high school, like her husband Gaby, who is from a social but popular background. The couple turned to teaching under the encouragement of Huguette’s family, two “forced vocations” (p. 116). Furthermore, Huguette does not leave the “royal road” that the normal schools then represent, she is not integrated into the network of her former students and feels isolated in her profession. With Gaby, they teach in Lozère, where teaching conditions are difficult. Huguette works in an unsanitary “slum school”. Huguette suffers (more than her husband) from her material condition, to which her childhood did not accustom her. Sensitive to injustices, Huguette sends a letter to Simone de Beauvoir, who responds.

It’s the beginning of a new life: a first article published in Modern timesthen a book published by Mercure de France, Village teacher, published in 1969. The book was a success, which still resonates today in the valleys of Lozère. Articles in the press, a passage to Fluoroscopy, “monument of the audiovisual landscape of the time” (p. 130), give Huguette a certain notoriety. Writing does not make her life as a teacher easier: Huguette is criticized for being a spoiled child, for belittling the teaching profession, and for despising peasants. Furthermore, this writing success is the only one: his later manuscripts, although reread by Simone de Beauvoir, were refused. Nevertheless, writing is not only for Huguette a way of rehabilitating a downgraded social condition, it is also an emancipation in relation to her condition as a woman.

Thinking about the emancipation of women by case

The trajectories of Christiane and Huguette demonstrate the undermining of “close domination” (Memmi, 2008), between children and parents, husband and wife. In the 1960s, women left the home through studies, work, and youth culture. However, the contradictory injunctions made to “modern” women are numerous: “to work, to marry, to have children, to be beautiful – but with moderation, elegant, but without spending too much, while continuing to take care of everyday life and the domestic » (p. 252). Through daily, underground resistance, Huguette like Christiane will question the constraints and try to reinvent their condition. However, they do so in distinct ways.

If at the normal school Christiane creates friendships, discovers Sheila and Françoise Hardy, flirts, cooperation constitutes a decisive escape. In Tunisia, it is “the liberation of morals far from the constraint of the family gaze” (p. 107): Christiane would have had a lover there, or perhaps not, but certainly wanted to divorce, to leave custody to Jean-Luc. of their two children, and above all no longer having any. “Abandoned mother” (p. 273), she had her tubes tied, a practice then encouraged in Tunisia. Christiane dies in a car accident in Tunisia at the age of 26, Jean-Luc decides to no longer talk about her, and many questions will remain unanswered.

If Christiane’s modes of resistance are individual, those of Huguette are more collective. At high school, Huguette flirts with boys whose ideas are close to hers. Huguette is socialized into feminism, through her readings, her correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir, in whom she confides. Her book brings her a journalist lover. Pregnant with a fourth child, she aborted, a “crime of maternity injury” (p. 272), which in 1972 could constitute a militant act. Huguette joins the Movement for Abortion and Contraception Freedom (MLAC). If she changes her first name and returns to her maiden name, Huguette will never truly feel “dislodged” (p. 216), unable to divorce or “compensate for the original downgrades” (p. 206). She then describes in her letters to Simone de Beauvoir an “appeasement, which we can hope is not only renunciation” (p. 149).

A book in balance

Our mothers is a book balanced on several registers. The fruit of “detective work” (p. 86), it reads like a novel, creating effects of expectation, rendering the life of an era through the details of written letters, canteen menus, outfits and hairstyles, borrowing from the style of Georges Perec. This book, teeming with details, is a mine of information, for example on “pedagogical families”, intended to facilitate unions between student teachers and mistresses, on romantic relationships between girls in normal schools, on “schools -slum”.

A sociohistorical investigation based on unequally abundant biographical resources, the book assumes imbalances, which may seem to be missed in the analysis if the book is read out of interest in its “sub-themes”, the condition of teachers or that of women. Thus, few elements of context are given on the experience of the replacements who, like Huguette, joined mass teaching in the 1960s. At the height of four ordinary lives (the book devotes many pages to Jean-Luc and Gaby), gender norms of both feminine and masculine are explored. But the book makes you want to know more about these men who would have liked not to have children, to have fewer children, or to have them differently. And what can we say about these teachers who, like Jean-Luc and Gaby, very early on harbor the desire to move on to another profession?

This book, built on emotion, also arouses it: throughout the pages, when the authors (re)discover their mothers, a deep empathy is felt for this astonishing field experience. But the book is not a novel. If the authors hide nothing from the “heartbreaks”, they recount “the investigation which takes over” (p. 301) and which makes the emotion less intense. The investigation which creates new links, renews existing links and makes it possible to rebuild families, proof that the relationship with the field in social sciences is also a life experience.