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Michelle Perrot, née Roux, was born into a middle-class family in Paris. After returning from service in World War I, her father became a nonconformist and treated her more like a boy, encouraging her to play sports, read American literature, go on to higher education, and live an independent life. She attended the Lycée Fenelon and then studied history at the Sorbonne from 1947 to 1951. She passed the agrégation (civil service exam) for high school teacher while preparing her doctoral thesis on the workers' strikes of the 18th century. In 1953, she married Jean-Claude Perrot, also an historian. At Caen in Normandy, she worked with her husband and Jean Cuisenier to investigate the religious practices, demographic and cultural factors of metalworkers. She joined the French Communist Party in 1955 to show opposition to the war in Algeria, but left it three years later, chilled by reports of Soviet atrocities. In 1960 she helped found the journal Social Movement, a leading journal on labor history and social movements. She was appointed professor at the University of Paris VII-Denis Diderot, where she is now professor emerita. She has written extensively on the history of labor movements, including Les Ombres de l’Histoire. Crime et châtiment au XIXe siècle (Shadows of History: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century, 2001). She is renowned as a pioneer in the emergence of women's history and gender studies in France, having created --with Pauline Schmitt-Pantel and Fabienne Bock -- the first course on women's history at the Sorbonne in 1973. With Georges Duby and Pauline Schmitt-Panel, she co-edited the 5-volume Histoire des femmes en Occident (Women's History in the West, 1991–1992). Her writings appear in periodicals such as Libération, and she has produced and presented "History Mondays" on French radio. In 2009, she won the Prix Femina Essai for her book Histoire de chambres.
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