The Past Has a Future for UH Professor Sarah Fishman

New Book Integrates Women, Family, Culture and Empire in Modern French History

Interviews with the wives of French World War II prisoners by University of Houston history professor Sarah Fishman led to lifelong research on the roles of women, gender and family, and an opportunity to co-author a well-received new book, "France and Its Empire Since 1870, " published by Oxford University Press.  


University of Houston history professor Sarah Fishman

"The political history of the French state gives the book its structure, but the authors make clear that understanding questions of culture, economics, empire and gender are necessary to make sense of the past, not mere add-ons. By giving appropriate attention to women and men, Right and Left, provinces and colonies as well as Paris, this book meets the needs of current scholarship," says Todd Shepard, professor, John Hopkins University.

Fishman collaborated with Ohio State University professor of history Alice Conklin and University of Houston French history professor Robert Zaretsky to co-author the book.

"I knew Robert Zaretsky, and I could address women, family, politics - and culture, but we needed an expert on the French Empire," says Fishman. "Alice Conklin is the leading expert on the French Empire. We were looking for somebody who would be compatible and bring expertise of research in the field. Each one of us has done years of research in our areas."


Fishman and University of Houston French history professor Robert Zaretsky 

Fishman is one of the first researchers to collect data on the roles of women as wives of French prisoners of war during the Vichy regime from 1940-1944. More than 800,000 French women were affected when their husbands were captured by the Nazis during the war in 1940 and held in captivity in Germany as prisoners until the end of the war.

She learned through personal interviews, questionnaires and restricted Vichy archives the details of these POW wives' daily life, their attitudes, and how they managed to support themselves and children with diminished resources. Many of the women experienced depression, fatigue and anxiety due to the added responsibilities and lack of communication with their imprisoned husbands.

"We usually think of World War II as a liberating period for women. I was interested in the prisoner's wife because the husband is gone and the women have to support themselves and children with shortages of food, clothing and supplies, as well as manage, in some cases, a small family farm or business," says Fishman. "I ended up interviewing former prisoner of war wives in France, which led to a dissertation in graduate school and my first book, ‘We Will Wait: Wives of French Prisoners of War 1940-1945'" (Harvard University Press, 1992).

Fishman found wives of POW from varying religious, economic and political backgrounds had the opportunity to organize and experience female solidarity by being brought together by their husbands' situations through a grassroots support group they formed, the Fédération des associations de femmes de prisonniers (FAFP), and publications of the time.

The findings from her research led her to question her original hypothesis. She found the roles of POW wives not as liberating for women as she anticipated.  Through the leadership of the FAFP, women served as their husbands' delegates or deputies and not as women emancipated by their sudden emergence from male control in marriage. She found the strength of social norms allowed the POW wives to adjust to the war and separation without challenging their ideas about the position of women in the family. When the husbands returned home, many of the women readjusted to their roles they held prior to the war.  

From Fishman's research with the POW wives came her interest in their children. French leaders were convinced the rate of juvenile delinquency was increasing because their fathers were prisoners of war.  This led her to the question of juvenile and youth crime during the war and the subject of her second book, "The Battle for Children: World War II, Youth Crime, and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century France" (Yale University Press, 2002).

"I researched juvenile court records because when a young person comes into a court situation, the court requires a study of the family. I became interested in what we can learn about families from these family studies," says Fishman. "During the war, social workers would go into these families. They would tell me how long the mother breast-fed, when the first tooth came out, when the first step was taken. We know a lot about the child and the mother."

Likewise, the juvenile court reports described the fathers and their respective roles in the family structure. Fishman's research revealed the social worker's evolving interested in the fathers' changing family role.

"Information regarding the roles of women, children, family and the economy existed in the family surveys conducted by social workers and census surveys taken every five years in France. They collect all kinds of data," says Fishman. "It wasn't until people became interested in what happened to women and women's history that they started to think about what it means to study family life."

Until World War II, French society was predominately rural and agriculturally based.  In 1940, it was still 40 percent rural.  In England, Germany and the U.S. the rural population at the same time was significantly less than 10 percent. 

"When you talk about a family farm or a small business, the wife is contributing in real ways to the family economy.  Women are helping on the farm in a lot of ways, taking in work, running the shop, sitting at the cash register," says Fishman. "If you look at female employment just by labor statistics, you might miss the fact that women are contributing an awful lot to the business and the production that's going on in France."


Fishman is the author of three books, including "France and Its Empire Since 1870" (Oxford University Press, 2010) co-authored with Alice Conklin and Robert Zaretsky; "The Battle for Children: World War II, Youth Crime, Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century France (Harvard University Press, 2002); and the prize-winning historical study "We Will Wait: Wives of French Prisoner of War 1940-1945" (Yale University Press, 1992).  She earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and has been recognized with both a University of Houston Research Excellence Award and a University Teaching Excellence Award. In addition to her teaching, she serves as associate dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at UH. Her current research explores the impact of France's rapid post-war economic transformation on ordinary people's lives, focusing on women, gender and family life. 

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