From The Vaults

27 February 2023
Allez Les Bleus: Barrette Medal, 1928

The 1920s was an oasis for female participation in sport and physical activities in France. Along with the very popular women's Olympics, established by Alice Milliat, women's omni-sports clubs sprung up around the country. These venues provided safe locations for women and girls to participate in a variety of sports, from gymnastics to football, and even became the home of women's rugby teams.

Dr Marie Houdré and André Theuriet, former French men's rugby union international, adapted the laws of rugby to create a new sport specifically suitable for women. Calling the sport "barrette", which was sometimes written "barette" in newspaper reports, recalled the earlier sport that had developed in popularity during the late nineteenth century before the imported game of Rugby Football took root in France. This new 1920s version of barrette, however, was specifically reported as an adaptation of rugby union to make the game suitable for women, and barrette players can therefore be considered women's rugby players.

The first game was recorded at the Stade Elisabeth in 1922 between two teams from Fémina Sport, a women's omni-sports club in Paris. The Stade Elisabeth became an important space for women to practise and play barrette, especially after 1923 when the French Rugby Federation (FFR) banned women playing on FFR-affiliated pitches. Instead of halting the growth of barrette, as the ban had intended, women's rugby became more popular. The FFR even appear to have forgotten their own ban (it was never officially rescinded) by 1927, when a game of barrette was the curtain-raiser for the Paris vs Army match at Stade Jean Bouin.

Barrette's popularity declined during the early 1930s, as women's sports clubs came under greater financial pressures. The economic recession also brought a change in societal attitudes. The French elites and middle-classes regained a stronger sense of gender conformity, and women were discouraged from taking up sports and activities that could be considered masculine, such as contact team sports. Both association football and barrette teams declined during the 1930s. Despite no records of a barrette game taking place in France after 1935, the Vichy government explicitly banned the sport in 1941 and repeated the ban in 1942.

Most thought the sport forgotten by the 1960s, when women next took to the rugby pitches in France, but in 2019 the FFR selected barrette founder Dr Marie Houdré as the first person to be inducted onto their Wall of French Rugby Legends.

About the Author - Dr Lydia Furse is an expert on the history of women's rugby union and recently completed her PhD from De Montfort University. In 2022 she co-curated the special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words' at the World Rugby Museum and her forthcoming book will cover the social and cultural history of women in rugby union between 1880 and 2016.