Following the establishment of the Société d’émigration des femmes françaises (1897), a large body of emigration promotional literature made its appearance in the métropole to encourage metropolitan women to move to the empire outposts as it was believed that rare were those who were willing to leave the mother country. In these writings the colonies were said to have a great need for white women, in particular the unmarried ones, who would find there plenty of opportunities for work and matrimony. This paper proposes to investigate the presence and experiences of French women in Indochina at the turn of the century. In the first part, I will discuss what types of metropolitan women went to the Asian colony and why. I show that besides wives of colonial administrators, there were also a number of widows of former soldiers and settlers who decided to stay in the colony rather than returning to the métropole after the passing of their spouses. In the second half of the paper, I will examine the lives and experiences of these French women in Indochina, which presented a considerable variation due to their diverse backgrounds. In my conclusion, I show that there existed some significant differences between the situation of the French women in the colony and the rhetoric of the emigration promotional literature. My discussion draws on a wide range of archival sources such as periodicals, personal narratives, personnel dossiers of the colonial administration, emigrant passenger lists, and official correspondence.
Marie-Paule Ha is Associate Professor of History in The University of Hong Kong. She is the author of Figuring the East: Segalen, Malraux, Duras, and Barthes, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000 ; La Femme française aux colonies suivi de contes et Légendes de l’Annam by Clotilde Chivas-Baron, edited with introduction and notes by Marie-Paule Ha, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2009 ; Homme jaune et femme blanche by Christiane Fournier, edited with introduction and notes by Marie-Paule Ha, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2008.