Student Blog: A Fortnight in Paris

IMG 6448 2If you’d have told me this time last year that I’d be spending a fortnight in Paris, researching my final year thesis, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. First of all, who would be cooking my meals? Never mind the fact that my last real use of French was during my A levels…

But one year on and here I am. Thanks to the enormous help of Brasenose College — for making my trip possible through a grant — and to Dr Rowena Archer — for having some extremely fortuitous French connections! — I found myself living in the 13th arr. in Paris, within walking distance of the National Library (or, the ‘Bibliothèque Nationale de France'), for two weeks this summer.

History at Oxford has an immense variety of courses and periods from which to study over your three years, and I have already had the privilege of experiencing an incredible range; from the first British settlers in America, to the French Revolution, to Alfred the Great, way back in 9th century England, it’s been a wonderful romp through time. The most exciting element to the degree, however, must be the fact that in your third year, you are expected to write a thesis on a topic which isn’t to be chosen from a list, but is instead based around something interesting that you have studied during your time here; something creative, original, and completely personal to you.

After a lot of thinking (/despairing) about what on earth I’d pick for my topic, I decided to focus on the position of women in the post-war period in Europe, since I’d previously written an essay during a module on the Cold War about how far and in what ways women were ‘liberated’ following the war. I eventually settled on France for two main reasons; the first, that since women were granted the vote shortly after the war, I imagined this period would make for an interesting case study regarding women finding their new status in post-war society; the second, that my thesis had to use primary sources that I could read — and aside from English, my rusty French was the only other language I knew!

Slightly apprehensive about my reading ability but excited at the possibility of being a “real” historian, I chose to follow the movements of a Catholic women’s organisation through their monthly journal, “La Femme dans la Vie Sociale”, or slightly less elegantly, “The Woman in Social Life”. From 1941-1975, I concentrated on reading these journals to discover what messages were being sent to women about their expected behaviour and their duties throughout this period; duties to themselves, to their families, and to wider society. Cast as a traditionally conservative journal, espousing the necessity of a mother staying at home, educating her children and being the “perfect wife”, I hoped to see a change across the period, leading to a more flexible view, and an acceptance of the fact that wives and mothers were indeed capable of working “au dehors du foyer”, or ‘outside the home’ - shocking, non?

It’s been an incredible experience living in Paris, taking the Metro, eating baguette and admiring le ‘Tour Eiffel’ from my bedroom window. I’ve already been asked for directions by tourists, so I must be doing something right! For anyone with language skills, no matter how rusty they may be, I encourage you to try and exercise them alongside your degree, since it truly adds a completely fresh perspective to whatever you’re working on. I’ll be sad to leave, but Parisian weather isn’t really experienced from the depths of the subterranean library and I look forward to escaping the aggressive air-conditioning. Above all, spending hours in the library every day reading magazines in a different language doesn’t half frazzle your brain…

By Esme Ash (Second Year Historian)      

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