Religion and Gender in Modern France
In Divided Houses, Caroline Ford examines how the so-called feminization of religion in France from the French Revolution to the First World War contributed to the formation of a distinctive secular (laïc) republican political culture in France. She also reveals the effect of women's close association with religion on their civil and social status, which gave rise in France to heated debates about the limits of female agency, women's property rights, and women's role in the family and in society. She argues that religious women were often far more than the passive instruments of a male ecclesiastical hierarchy. In showing that these women could dispose of their bodies, souls, and properties in ways that were unimaginable to their secular counterparts, Ford's book obliges one to rethink the categories of tradition and modernity that have structured most thinking about this subject.
Ford's book is centered on a set of microhistories and causes célèbres whose narratives are fascinating in and of themselves. They include conflicts within religious orders, the cults of some latter-day female saints, and riveting legal disputes involving women who converted to Catholicism. Perhaps most intriguingly, Ford brings current debates concerning pluralism and cultural difference in France into sharp historical focus. The fact that women have been portrayed as the quintessential carriers of religion ever since France embraced laïcité sheds light on problems faced by the secular French state today as it attempts to regulate religious expression—including emblems of Islam—in the public sphere.