Recently I came upon a great set of photographs and postcards showing the first female coach drivers in Paris in the early 20th century. They were called les femmes cocher, les femmes cochères or simply cochères. The French language was trying to come to terms with this new phenomenon. You can see many of the photos here. According to this website, the novelty of women drivers created a media sensation in Paris. The women drew more journalists, photographers and crowds than customers, and inspired a range of jokes, music-hall sketches, even a movie.
I was of course curious to see what some of the newspapers were saying about these pioneers in 1907, the year when the first women passed the coach driving exams. So I did a little digging in BnF/Gallica’s newspaper archives. Rather predictably, the conservative and Catholic newspaper La Croix was anything but positive and saw these women as yet another threat to traditional gender roles, to the family, to society, and the universe. On 6 April 1907 satirical magazine Le Rire – never very subtle in its sense of humour – said the whole thing was funny at first, but now worried about the inevitable increase in deadly accidents with children. A woman would never be strong enough to control a horse. The magazine was joking, but only half-joking. It was not exactly known for its progressive views when it came to women, something the cover, entitled ‘what to do with our baby girls?‘, of that same issue on April the 6th illustrates. It wasn’t all doom and reactionary backlash in the papers though. Positive sounds in the press came from Le Radical, where the editorial simply states that Parisians should just get used to seeing women in different professions, since women in other countries as well as in the French countryside are doing all sorts of jobs and manual labour already. Le XIXe siècle considered women taxi drivers an inevitable development of modern society. The paper backs this opinion up by drawing from history, arguing that women were already driving carriages in Ancient Rome. So there. If it was good enough for the Romans. By 1909 the profession of cab driver seemed to have become accepted enough to be presented as a valid job choice in an official career guide for women, the Guide pour le choix dune profession à l’usage des jeunes filles et des dames, which you can find here on Gallica. The guide lists the requirements for the job. You had to be over 18 and be a resident of Paris. Women had to register with the Préfecture de Police and have a thorough knowledge of all the streets in order to pass the theoretical exam set by the Préfecture. This was then followed by a practical exam. It is, the guide warns, a tough job, earning on average only 6 francs for long, 16-hour days. Also, beginners are often not hired by the larger companies. Honest advice, though not very encouraging.
On 4 February 1907 Le XIXe siècle had already given an enthusiastic account of one of the first practical exams for women cab drivers. The first two women to pass the rigorous tests were Mme Charnier and Mme Dufaut, or Duffaut, who impressed the newspaper’s reporter. Other women would follow, though they would remain very much a minority over the years. Mme Dufaut was not just met with curiosity from the public, but also with harassment it seems. Le XIXe siècle reported that a man pretending to be a customer had attempted to cut the leashes of Mme Dufaut’s horse as a sort of practical joke. Luckily Mme Dufaut had been unimpressed, informed the police and continued doing her job. The press meanwhile moved on to the next hype.