Nimisha Barton discusses Gender and Immigration in early 20th Century France at First Friday Lunch at the Nassau Club
Nimisha Barton, a finishing graduate student in the history department discussed her study of gender and immigration in France between 1900 and 1940, emphasizing the years 1914 to 1940, at the Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey, on March 7, 2014.
Ms. Barton is from southern California. She received her undergraduate education at the University of California at Berkeley in 2006.
During the period that she researched, France was the principal country receiving immigrants in Europe. The French were highly favorable to immigrants, especially immigrant women. Although a country with continuing high rates of immigration, the fact was not admitted publicly until the 1980s.
Armenians were a significant immigrant group after World War I, because of war, the Turkish genocide, and economic problems. Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. In addition, general upheaval in Europe following the Great War set Italians, Spaniards, Romanians, Russians and many others in motion across the continent during the interwar period.
Several factors created favorable attitudes toward immigrants. France continued to face a decreasing birth rate, a challenge that had been recognized for many decades, and the consequent need for more workers, and the French continued to worry about the higher birth rates enjoyed by what were then their traditional enemies, the Germans. The relatively high birth rates for immigrants made them all the more desirable to the French. Indeed, their high birth rates were regarded as appropriate models for native French families.
France was an early welfare state, and, thus state assistance importantly supplemented private efforts to aid immigrants. Immigrant men were well served by the system of social services, but there were even greater benefits for women immigrants. Support, such as family allowances and children’s summer camps, were among the entitlements. There was a strong support network, especially in Paris. Social workers and their organizations had a high commitment to helping immigrants.
Although France became a multi-cultural nation, the native French tended to resist multiculturalism as a concept. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the official French stance toward their immigrants, many of them lived what might be termed "hyphenated" lives. What seems to have occurred was acculturation rather than total assimilation.
As the depression deepened during the 1930s, immigrants became more visible to the French. What might be viewed as "disciplinary paternalism" evolved to force unmarried male immigrants into desired social patterns rather than allowing them to live rootless existences as wanderers.
By the 1950s and 1960s immigrants came to be regarded as burdens for the French social services structure. Muslim immigrant women came to be viewed as barriers to assimilation, in part because of their dress that identifies them as immigrants. This view is not entirely new. At one time, Jewish immigrant women were noticed, owing to their often shabby clothing.
Immigrant Muslim women are now often regarded as barriers to assimilation for their families and themselves. But Nimisha Barton’s research suggests that this owes more to a shift in environmental factors – namely the end to fears of depopulation and the rise of fears of global overpopulation – as well as postcolonial legacies stemming from French entanglements in Algeria. If researchers were to study the networks of community and systems of state assistance that continue to play an important role in the lives of immigrant women and families, they may well uncover a more supportive story than that which is traditionally told.