The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Women’s Defiance of French Colonial Policing, 1919–52

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On Wednesday, December 7, 2021, Demos21, a series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted guest speaker Professor Jennifer Boittin from Pennsylvania State University. Boittin led a discussion on her forthcoming book, Passionate Mobility and Women’s Defiance of French Colonial Policing, 1919–1952. The hybrid event saw audience members attend both in person in CCDS’s conference hall in AUP’s Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons and online. 

In her lecture, Boittin explored the capacity of the French state in the early 20th century to control women in its colonized regions, then known as French West Africa and French Indochina, with a particular focus on women who were at least in part independently mobile and who ran up against social censure. She laid out her research methods in detail, which included her experience using French colonial archives. During previous research, she had discovered that the French state habitually collected very intimate information about the women she studied, recording a great number of details about their personal lives. 

Boittin drew on narratives of particular women, but also presented aggregate data representing women’s collective experiences, such as maps of their movement throughout French colonial territories. Many women moved more than half a dozen times in their lifetime. She also discussed the ways in which race factored into women’s experiences, exploring the hierarchies and vocabulary used in the archives. Overall, Boittin positioned her work as filling a gap in the current study of women in empires, which largely examines the mobility of women that occurred with the explicit or tacit consent of society. Her subjects broke from conventional identities like “wife” or “missionary,” and their experiences of agency and “undesirability” had been overlooked in previous research. 

She also discussed other themes in her book, including policing and privacy, sexuality, prestige, and fluctuations in the concept of belonging. She detailed a number of anecdotes she encountered in her archival research, such as when an officer was sent to spy on a woman who had been chastised for her promiscuity and the occasional violence perpetrated by mobile women against local men who they regarded as beneath them. She contextualized her work within a conversation between herself and other historians, as well as the work of legal scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw. Following her talk, the audience raised questions about how emotion was expressed in the source material and asked for further clarification of Boittin’s methodology.