Published in 2019 and selling 500,000 copies, Laetitia Colombani’s novel Les victorieuses tells the story of Solène, a brilliant lawyer who decides to do voluntary work after a burn-out. She is recruited as a volunteer public writer at a shelter for women in precarious situations called the Palais de la Femme, where she meets a number of women whose fates have been tragic. Travelling back a century to the 1920s, the story follows the life of Blanche Peyron, a member of the Salvation Army and founder of the Parisian shelter, whose ambition was to give refuge to all those excluded from society. Drawing up portraits that are as unique as they are moving, Les victorieuses is about women who fight for their lives and the women who give their lives to help them.
Solène – recognizing your privileges
The character of Solène invites readers to become aware of their privileges. Although the young woman is suffering from depression as a result of difficulties in her love life and career, she is also horrified to discover that there is a considerable imbalance between her privileged position and that of the residents of the Palais. In fact, it seems that everything contrasts between Solène and these women: for the most part, they have not had access to a fixed abode, a stable family environment, or even an education, which is why Solène has been recruited as a public housewife. Worse still, these women have been confronted with violence in all its forms, whether from their spouses, from war or from the traditions of their countries of origin. Through the fictional characters portrayed by the residents of the Palais, Laetitia Colombani becomes the spokesperson for all these rejected women: homeless women, single mothers, battered women, excised women, etc.
Blanche – The Palais de la Femme
The Palais de la Femme (“The Palace of the Woman”) is a real institution. Laetitia Colombani went to meet the women who live there in order to write the novel. She learned the story of Blanche Peyron and her husband Albin, who were behind the creation of the Palais, which was officially inaugurated on 23 June 1926. During the story, the author explains how Blanche’s tenacity and determination enabled the home to come into being. This Salvation Army establishment, located in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris, is designed to accommodate women in precarious situations. Since 2014, it has also welcomed men and young people. However, 80% of Le Palais de la Femme is still for women. A former convent, the building was first used as a popular hotel before being bought by the Salvation Army thanks to the commitment of the Peyron couple who, in January 1926, launched a fund-raising campaign to raise the 11 million francs needed to buy the building. The site has been listed as a historic monument since 25 June 2003, giving it legal status and a label to protect it. Between 2006 and 2009, the Palais de la Femme underwent major renovations. It now houses five permanent accommodation or supported housing facilities.
The growing feminisation of poverty
Poverty is often presented as a generalised problem that affects women and men in the same way. In reality, a number of factors expose women to a higher-than-average risk of precariousness, particularly when it comes to employment.
“Women are the first victims of poverty, the first recipients of the RSA. They account for 70% of the working poor. More than half the people who use food banks are single mothers. This figure is rising steadily, doubling in four years. There is an exponential increase in requests for women with children to be taken into shelters1”. (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses)
According to the latest official INSEE statistics, published in 20122 :
- Two out of five homeless people are women.
- Young women aged between 18 and 29 account for 48% of the homeless population.
- Women aged over 50 account for 31% of the homeless population.
- 38% of the homeless are women.
Throughout the novel, the precariousness of women is presented as a vicious circle. Indeed, it is one of the many areas in which gender inequality is illustrated: while precariousness and dehumanisation affect the entire population living on the streets, women are particularly vulnerable. In particular, they have to contend with the perpetuation of gender-based violence on the streets: 90% of them have been victims of violence at least once. The growing feminisation of poverty is also indicative of the wage and pension gap between men and women. Low pay accounts for a disproportionate share of employment for women and men, affecting more than one in four women employees, compared with barely one in ten men. At present, almost 80% of low-paid workers are women. However, women’s relationship with employment is determined by the fact that they still have to try to juggle their family and professional responsibilities. As a result, they have to accept unattractive jobs, hence the higher proportion of women in so-called unstable occupations. According to the Observatoire des inégalités, 61% of the 5 million low-skilled workers are women. 30% of jobs held by women are low-skilled, compared with 19% for men. There are also inequalities between women: single mothers, immigrant women and retired women are more severely affected by economic and social insecurity. The consequences are terrible: there are more and more homeless women, sometimes accompanied by children, who are often insulted and assaulted. In Les victorieuses, Laetitia Colombani sets out to denounce the female dimension of precariousness, which receives very little coverage in the media:
“The media rarely mention it, the rape of homeless women is not a presentable subject. It’s not smart enough to appear on the 8 o’clock news when France is sitting down to dinner. People don’t want to know what’s going on downstairs when they’ve finished dinner and gone to bed. They prefer to close their eyes3’’. (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses.
An eminently contemporary novel, Les victorieuses asks us about our current lifestyles and our relationship with others in an increasingly individualistic society. Although this novel is not a revolutionary feminist work, it does have the merit of denouncing precariousness as a feminised phenomenon and paying tribute to Blanche Peyron, the forgotten heroine who saved the lives of many women. A veritable hymn to sisterhood, Les victorieuses above all conveys a message of hope: it shows that the fight against gender inequality begins with solidarity, both among women themselves and through voluntary initiatives. Indeed, while the fight against insecurity and gender inequality is a political struggle, it is also illustrated by action on the ground, thanks to initiatives such as the Palais de la Femme:
“We mustn’t underestimate the power of small gestures and smiles. They are a bulwark against loneliness and despondency4”. (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses)
To go further…
- In 2013, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council’s delegation for women’s rights and equality published a study entitled Women and precariousness.
- A children’s album called Les Victorieuses ou le palais de Blanche was published in 2021.
Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses, Le Livre de Poche, Paris, 2019.
Translated by Marie Chapot
|Free translation: « Les femmes sont les premières victimes de la pauvreté, les premières bénéficiaires du RSA. Elles représentent 70% des travailleurs pauvres. Plus de la moitié des personnes faisant appel aux banques alimentaires sont des mères célibataires. Le chiffre est en constante augmentation, il a doublé en quatre ans. Les demandes d’accueil de femmes avec enfants dans les foyers sont exponentielles. » (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses, page 76).
|Numbers from the INSEE (2012): https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1281324
|Free translation: « Les médias l’évoquent rarement, le viol des femmes sans-abri n’est pas un sujet présentable. Pas assez chic pour passer au journal de 20 heures, lorsque la France est à table. Les gens n’ont pas envie de savoir ce qui se passe en bas de chez eux lorsqu’ils ont fini de dîner et vont se coucher. Ils préfèrent fermer les yeux. » (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses, page 184).
|Free translation: « Il ne faut pas sous-estimer les petits gestes et les sourires, ils sont puissants. Ils sont autant de remparts contre la solitude et l’abattement. » (Laetitia Colombani, Les victorieuses, page 181).