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In the backwoods women are very much second-class citizens. Far too many still dance to a man's tune

There is a smallholding not too far from me run by a couple I guess to be in their 80s, the quintessential French stone farmhouse found often on postcards.

Chickens and ducks scurry and waddle around courtyard and step, dust scratching in summer, mud bathing in winter.

The potager stretches half a field's length ending in a cutting-flower garden, and a forlorn black dog surveys life from a link chain tethered to a kennel.

All year round the pair of them tend to flock and field – she welding hoe and wheelbarrow, he digging the hard earth that throws up vegetables in their season.

Despite their age they have the lean, muscular frames of those who have worked long and hard in all weathers and all of their lives.

I presume they sell their produce at markets as they yield far too much for just themselves.

Like many of the old women, though, she will keep up the traditions of killing, cooking and storing ducks in their fat, bottling rillettes, fruit in eau de vie, stacking vegetables in ventilated racks.

No matter what the day may bring, she knows her role in this rural life, and it is firmly in and around the house. Life outside is filled with male rituals of hunting, drinking sessions and agricultural fairs.

There are many still like her around here, an area famed for the longevity of its inhabitants, and in the main their daughters – now in their 60s – will continue in a similar vein.

In many ways, because of our remoteness, life for these farming women has changed very little over the years.

It's that sort of apparently idyllic scene which captivates tourist and expat alike, bringing wistful remembrances of times past, of a perceived gentler and kinder time, a time when each man and woman had their place, their role, and were satisfied, even happy with their lot in life.

Once even I found a comfort in such thoughts and felt at times that I was back in the Ireland of my childhood.

One should know better. My memories are thankfully sweet and good but, as we now know, untold misery was being visited behind many a door.

And so it still is in several "unspoiled" areas in France. Women still flee from a brutal, drunken back-hander, or even if not physically punished, they flee from the relentless chipping away at their very essence.

For in our backwoods women are still very much second-class citizens, and far too many still dance to a man's tune, told what to wear, where they can go, what they can drink and left in little doubt what duties are expected of them.

In numerous cases a man still has to act as guarantor on credit agreements and permission has to be elicited from him for his wife to have a cheque book in her name.

Her place is in the kitchen cooking. Her place is, above all, in looking after him and his friends.

Thankfully today's teenage girls will stand for none of that, their eyes opened by the twin windows of television and internet, but they will co-exist beside mothers who still do.

Yesterday I opened my door to a woman who worked for me in the early days of my time here. Her face was contorted in unhappiness, tears streaming from already reddened eyes, her once groomed hair wild and uncared for.

This woman lives five villages from me with her adolescent son from a previous marriage and her much older partner of 12 years.

Between the many jobs she has to pay her way, she regularly cooks for and feeds the man's large family, tills the potager, entertains his hunt friends and in the summer worked hard into the night on the harvest. The furniture in her house has been bought by her labour.

Two days earlier she had returned home to be told she was no longer loved and that she and "her brat" were out. They were literally turfed out on to the road.

Friends took her in and she has to negotiate a return for her belongings. She was not married or in an official civil partnership so she has no rights, no claim to his financial help, no court to appeal to, nothing.

"I did everything he asked," she said. "I cooked, I cleaned, I worked the garden, I never shamed him in dress or manner. I never went out without him after dark. I never asked him for a sou – all I asked when he bought this house was that we have a civil document to protect me if he died.

"He wouldn't, so what could I do? I was never the mistress of the house, only the servant. I'm a good woman. What did I do wrong?" Her very words could have come from that rose-tinted past we all wax so nostalgically about.

Beyond platitudes and confidence building, I knew I'd bring her no comfort from my very different life in answering her question, so I didn't. "Nothing," I replied.

I've heard too many similar tales now to gaze with uncritical eye on picture-postcard cottages. Now I just wonder what the shutters hide.

cookfidelma@hotmail.com

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