1La Fabrique des garçons is an illustrated social history by Anne-Marie Sohn, professor emeritus in contemporary history at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon specialized in the history of gender, private life and youth. Richly garnered with images, it is reminiscent of the history textbooks used in secondary school in France. Like them it presents historical analyses organized chronologically and by topic and supported by historical documents, often iconographic. The book draws on a wide variety of sources: ethnographic studies, private correspondence and photographs, advertising material, press articles and illustrations, literature, archives on public places such as schools, barracks, public spaces and areas for social gatherings. It is a good work of popularization, instructive and attractive. The text is as pleasant to read as the images are to look at.
2The work is presented as the “exact counterpart” of La Fabrique des filles: L’Éducation des filles de Jules Ferry à la pilule [Manufacturing girls in France: educating girls from the time of Jules Ferry to the birth control pill] by Rebecca Rogers and Françoise Thébaud, published in 2010 by Textual and drawing on the same kinds of materials. In fact, the period covered by Sohn’s book is twice as long (1815 to our time), and the chronological sections – of which there are also three – are longer.
3The book undertakes a synthetic overview of the social construction of masculinity in France during what is called the contemporary period, using both a diachronic and topic-centred approach. The process was revealed later than femininity, as the masculine continued to be confused with the universal, and men, despite their “monopoly over the spoken word”, were “not very talkative about their fate”. And yet, men are not born men any more than women are born women: they become men, and at the cost of a “long, often painful march”. Masculinity was and is constantly being questioned and challenged through tests sanctioned by “multiple judges” present in all spheres of society. And because masculinity depends on the social milieu and historical context in which it develops and is enacted, it too is multiple and changing. But the author emphasizes “dominant models”; that is, the model perceived to be the most legitimate in a given period. The three parts of the work correspond to three distinct periods; each discusses topics as diverse as the body, the family, sociability, leisure activities, school, work and politics. Here I shall just note the most salient components.
4The first part focuses on the period from 1815 to 1879 and is entitled “From combative masculinity to the decline of same”. France at the time was mostly rural, and even children were put to work. Except during very early childhood, there was strict segregation of the sexes. Homo-sociability fostered “flamboyant, not to say combative, offensive”, masculinity. Violence was present in all aspects of everyday life, and in private and public life alike. Older boys brutalized younger children in the family at both school and work. In the political sphere, instability went together with the use of force – the popular imagination was still dominated by war and revolution. The French population tended to approve of conscription. Going before the draft board that examined conscripts’ bodies became a rite of passage that validated these young men’s masculinity: they and their families hoped they would be judged “fit for service,” which would also make it easier to start a family. With time, however, this model of masculinity declined, due to several factors: young boys began to attend public elementary school; the economy improved; democracy and individualism developed. Society began moving toward a “civilized” model of masculinity, one key feature of which was self-control.
5The second part covers the period 1880 to 1950 and is entitled “Shaping well-behaved, educated citizens devoted to their Patrie [country, homeland]”. During this period mores and behaviour became gentler; the use of violence receded and progress was made in social gender mixing. Schooling played an important role in these changes, and during the Third Republic it came to occupy centre stage. The stated aim of schooling was to promote the good of both the individual and the nation by way of such values as order, work and discipline. Moreover, when the laws named for the republican statesman Jules Ferry established free, compulsory schooling for both sexes between the ages of 6 and 13, education came to be perceived as a source of upward social mobility. The primary education certificate, which acquired national status during the period, was a means of promoting scholastic excellence. Girls attended school and their level rose. Education programmes focused on the masculine, however; the great male authors and heroes dominated. Public vocational schools and institutions of higher education, specifically France’s grandes écoles elite training schools, were largely restricted to boys and young men. While gender mixing did spread, masculine still dominated feminine. But the masculinity model was no longer of the combative variety; it was more intellectual, and was constructed in situations where men were in contact with and potentially exposed to the judgment of girls and women, the effect of which was to moderate the degree of violence.
6The third part covers the period from 1950 to our time and is entitled “Manufacturing boys: between gender mix and masculinity”. In a context of economic prosperity, longer education and the liberalization of mores and behaviours, gender mixing continued to develop and spread, but sexual equality could not be said to be achieved in all areas. While boys were increasingly confronted with girls’ strong academic performances, men were still the ones to obtain the lion’s share of positions in highly regarded educational disciplines, occupational fields and leisure activities; also in politics. At the same time, norms about the body became more flexible and girls’ and boys’ sexual behaviours more similar. Moreover, granting women the right to vote in France (1944) and putting an end to compulsory military service worked to reduce the number of exclusively masculine areas of activity while increased mechanization of production and information technology reduced the need for physical strength at work, further undermining the specificity of masculinity. However, the end of the Trente Glorieuses 30-year economic boom and the casualization of employment hit working-class men hardest. Without the framework and guidance of political parties and unions, their masculinity became agonistic once again. While masculinity overall continued to become more peaceful, a segment of the French population has readopted older, more virile attributes and markers.
7Masculinity thus underwent major changes over two centuries in France. Despite variations, some of them specific to particular social milieus, we can discern a general movement toward the “pacification” of masculine mores and behaviours. Thanks to the democratization of society, the development of schooling and increased gender mixing, masculinity evolved from an “offensive” model to a model of self-control, resulting in finer boundaries between it and femininity.
8La Fabrique des garçons enables us to better understand how current masculine codes developed, making it fascinating reading. In this connection it would have been helpful to include a bibliography so that readers could pursue the interest thus sparked. After enjoying the book, readers will want to discover more about the history of masculinity and to have some guidance in doing so. Another point that would make the work easier for readers not necessarily familiar with the social sciences would be to include a glossary, or footnotes with definitions. This would clarify the meaning of scholarly and/or sociological terminology, making the book accessible to a wider public.