Housewife writ large: Marie mécanique, Paulette Bernège and new feminist domesticity in interwar France

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Abstract

In January and February 1939 three vast banners featuring the monumental image of a domestic worker were suspended from the imposing portico of the Grand Palais, Paris, as more than 600,000 people passed beneath on their way into the sixteenth annual Salon des arts ménagers. Frontal facing with one imaginary hand on hip, the other bearing a broom in the manner of a standard, one might consider this a public female allegory for the mid-twentieth century. In the early 1930s this domestic worker had also dominated the public spaces of Paris in the form of thousands of lithographic posters displayed across the city's streets and transport networks. The V-belt and cogwheels printed into the torso of the poster figure reveal this domestic worker to be an automaton. Marie mécanique, as the salon’s mechanical housewife quickly became known, was conceived and first designed in 1929 by Francis Bernard as the logo of the Salon and, crucially, as the mass symbolic vehicle by which the identity ‘housewife’ was extended in the interwar period to incorporate bourgeois femininity. Bernard’s housewife-automaton was also designed in part to synthesise the discourses of France’s new rational domesticity movement that had emerged most profoundy in the contemporary campaigning and publishing activities of Paulette Bernège, But Marie mécanique conveyed a series of simplifications, including the mechanical ease of housework as carried out by a mindless female automaton that Bernège would have rejected. Instead, Bernège offered a competing, explicitly feminist, version of the housewife writ large to that proposed by Marie mécanique. Moreover, this pragmatic feminist facilitated the coming to consciousness of what women might now share between and across the experience of living the identity ‘housewife’. Bernège thereby brought to the fore a number of crucial but otherwise invisible feminist issues that project her politics beyond interwar maternalism and forward in feminist time.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7–26
JournalOxford Art Journal
Volume40
Issue number1
Early online date1 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2017

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