Marguerite Thibert (1886–1982) was one of several women in an exhibition that was organized in 1982 by Yvette Roudy (then Mitterrand’s minister for women’s rights) and displayed in extra-large format in the foyer of the St Lazare station in Paris to commemorate the work of women in French history. The photo had been taken in October 1979 in the Geneva headquarters of the International Labour Organization (ILO) where the ninety-three-year-old Thibert was being interviewed by its employees for their newspaper Union in appreciation of her job as ‘la grande dame du BIT’. The illustrations in the centrepiece of this epic biography of a feminist, socialist and pacifist intellectual show several photographs of Thibert throughout her life, almost all in a formal official setting. From 1926 until well into her late seventies, Thibert worked for the ILO allocated to the team responsible for collating information and writing reports on labour issues for women and children throughout the world, particularly on issues of unequal pay, long working hours, lack of maternity benefits and lack of professional training opportunities. If there is a polemical issue that Françoise Thébaud wishes to resolve it is to offer a gendered history through a biography. She therefore presents an individual’s life in a collective setting. Thibert is a historical social subject through her upbringing as a young girl in a bourgeois household and through the challenge of the career she chose as a young professional woman in the 1920s. The treatment of women’s working rights across a century both in the French political setting and in international organizations is the substantial theme. Thibert had to confront gender tensions among ILO delegates to the question of women at work. For instance, Thibert was deeply committed towards gendered protective legislation such as the banning of female night work as opposed to feminists who wanted all such bans removed in the name of equality. Throughout her career, Thibert experienced discrimination and rejection for promotion at first hand, as working conditions for women within the ILO were tough when it came to obtaining permanent contracts, compassionate leave for family reasons, equal pay for equal work, opportunities for promotion and adequate pensions. However, Thébaud shows that her subject was tenacious, exacting in standards towards her colleagues, rigorous in the execution of her work and astoundingly efficient and energetic. The career of Marguerite Thibert was phenomenal in its length: she lived through momentous opportunities and significant restrictions for women, and in terms of professional and social mobility, with chances of becoming a career woman within and beyond her grasp, she was a beneficiary at the start of expansion of secondary and higher education in France for girls and women, although as a woman she did not get the opportunity of a university teaching appointment. Her ambitious search for career promotion coincided with new professional openings for women in international institutions for peace and justice from 1919 onwards, despite the lack of suffrage rights for women in France. Her remit of establishing reports and proposing measures to improve world conditions for female employment saw her at first in Geneva where she worked with Albert Thomas as her senior mentor until his sudden death in 1932. It was in the 1930s that she began travelling on official visits to European countries including Spain and Germany, then further afield when the office was in exile in Montreal from 1940 to 1946, and subsequently after she returned to Geneva to oversee the ILO under the tutelage of the United Nations. By then she was their most senior figure but was only given the status of head of section in her last year prior to her official retirement. Her expertise made her an ideal choice for official investigative trips to countries to meet trade union activists and collect data for the ILO on women’s poor employment conditions. Thébaud’s narration of the background context throughout her career, such as difficult travelling conditions—discomfort in the early years of air travel and the dangers encountered in war zones—highlights the indomitable spirit of Marguerite Thibert. She worked long after the official retirement age for the ILO on part-time contracts, struggling for financial remuneration from her employers, just as she had experienced when she was at the start of her career. A further chapter of her life beyond her retirement when she returned to France to settle in Paris was equally significant for the struggle for gender equality from the 1960s to the 1980s. Thibert continued to be politically active, vociferously insisting on equality at work for women as a core policy of any viable future socialist party: her activities offer a window into the old socialist party, the SFIO, on the wane and new groups forming in France under François Mitterrand who then went on to lead the PS to victory, becoming the first ever socialist president of the Fifth Republic in 1981. Thibert’s life story related by Thébaud the biographer illustrates in a specifically gendered manner how major developments in French history impinged on her life and shaped her public engagement: while she witnessed the social consequences of the second world war in relative safety as her work took her to Montreal during the 1939–45 conflict, she was heartbroken to leave her mother, daughter and grandchildren in France. She experienced personal tragedy first hand in 1915 during the Great War when tuberculosis took her husband’s life after only three years of married life. Widowed with one child, she threw herself into academic study and secondary school teaching in a Pars suburb. She shared an apartment with her sister who also chose a male-dominated profession requiring university studies to become a doctor. It was through her university connections while undertaking a doctorate on the history of nineteenth-century feminists and socialists around 1848 that Thibert gained a position as an employee in the permanent office of the ILO. It was not at the start of her career that she was ‘la grande dame du BIT’ but the end with the breadth of her experience and her skills and professional conduct accumulated. However unusual her story as an individual, the aim of the author is to place the emphasis on the day-to-day experience in a collective setting, to read Thibert’s life as a window into institutions and mentalities that otherwise would not be visible. Thébaud has been a major contributor to shaping of the discipline of gender history in France and beyond. She has asked the question: can Thibert be considered as a transnational subject? Is it sufficient she asks to have worked in the International Labour Office in Geneva, to have been multilingual (she could work in English, German, Italian and Spanish), written and overseen the publications of its investigation into women and children in the labour force across the globe in several languages and to have been on missions to many countries as far-flung as Vietnam and South America while in retirement? Thébaud’s retrospective glance of the commemorative context of 1982 that opens the book, and this review, is significant for the much wider narrative of her collective biography, for in addition to living for almost a century, Thibert had many ideological commitments. There is excellent coverage of the workings of what Thébaud names as multi-membership of pacifist, socialist and feminist organizations. The trouble is that there is a labyrinth of institutions and organizations in every chapter. To do justice as a biographer to a life so public requires great diligence and skill. Thébaud has succeeded in creating a complex study of the historical legacy of women and men campaigning for equality in an international setting that is as relevant today as it was a century ago. The length of the book is impressive, but it is so long that perhaps few readers will be interested in all of the sections. There is a tangle of organizations to navigate through, especially for those unfamiliar with the work of the Geneva-based League of Nations or the intricacies of the fragmented socialist movement in France in the 1960s. The use of Thibert’s private correspondence with her compatriots in France is a good contrast to the impersonal nature of the institutions to which Thibert belonged as they are the evidence of her personal feelings, opinions and accounts of her work. Other similar biographies of pioneering women of that era have been written: for instance, Ellen Wilkinson (1895–1947), a contemporary of Thibert, had an equally international profile and multi-organizational involvement with peace, antifascist, socialist and feminist movements. Unlike Thibert, who was a civil servant, Wilkinson was a lifelong full-time member of the British Labour party and saw in the first Labour government with a full parliamentary majority. Unlike Thibert, she did not live to a ripe old age, and relatives destroyed many of Wilkinson’s personal papers after her sudden death in 1947. As Thébaud stresses, the conventional Catholic upbringing contributed to the formation of the activist personality of Thibert: she had a missionary zeal about applying her pacifist, feminist and socialist principles to her work. She was the author of many reports that were unattributed: sadly, they are not included in the bibliography of works by Thibert as a historian. The correspondence: the letters of other women—fellow pacifist feminist activists in France, colleagues, victims of war and persecution whom she helped and those who welcomed her when she was on her many missions to countries on every continent—have provided invaluable material for the author, who suggests that there is more than enough material for other biographies, that of Marie-Louise Puech for example. Thébaud’s account is as multidimensional and rich as her subject’s life: she has delved into institutional and personal archives and admitted to the lacunae where they exist, particularly in personal and intimate details. She has adhered to her method of a gendered biography with a missionary zeal worthy of Thibert’s own. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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