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The history of the French feminist movement is the history of French women’s claims to the individualism and citizenship already granted to their male counterparts, at least on principle, in 1789 and more realistically in 1848 with universal male suffrage. In trying to achieve the recognition or equality that many women believed matched their participation in society, they alternatively donned the mantle of particularism, advancing their contributions as mothers to prove their worth as citizens, or threw it off, claiming absolute equality with men. Until the Events of 1968, women who were fighting for equality never ceased to identify themselves as part of a collective (the family or the state) which had its own demands on them as individuals. Of course there were exceptions, of which Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering work Le deuxieme sexe is perhaps the best known. Louise Weiss, journalist, feminist, and pacifist, and Andree Michel, sociologist and author of dozens of studies of maledominated society, also stood out in the period between the Liberation and the beginning of the feminist movement.

The conflict between women’s personal freedom and their public and familial duty was never resolved. It was to reemerge in France’s debates over birth control, abortion, and equal opportunity in the 1970s, when a new generation of feminists took the baton from these exceptional women in order to achieve absolute justice at last. Not until the late 1960s, when a new generation of women came of age in a prosperous and confident country, did anger over women’s second-class status finally explode into concerted political action. Inspired by the politics of liberation and imagination that characterized the student protests, and by the force of burgeoning feminist movements around the world, women initiated their ovm shake-up, which would have as profound an impact on French society as the May Events. Women’s experience at the barricades and around the meeting halls gave birth to a rejuvenated and radicalized feminism that was intensely critical on the one hand and Utopian on the other.

This new feminism played a key role in France’s transition from a predominantly corporatist and tradition-minded country to one marked by individualism and modernity—a crumbLtng of traditional views, forced out to make room for other moral visions. The shape of post-1968 feminism both mimicked and contrasted with that of previous generations. Like the feminism before the Events, it was profoundly materialist. Many of its participants, most of whom came from leftist parties and groups, argued that concrete transformation of women’s situation was fundamental to any definition of women’s liberation. Post-’68 feminism believed it absolutely necessary to fight for institutional changes in law and the economy, for example. It considered feminism a struggle to be won for all women. Yet post-’68 feminism also pushed into previously uncharted territory. This was part of its success and its downfall. Despite feminism’s leftist roots, most French women within the women’s liberation movement repudiated the traditional French left and its theoretical canon. Their rejection illustrates the movement’s essential radicalism in stark contrast to a left that operated within the traditional political and intellectual elite. At the height of the strikes and protests during the spring of 1968, many women decided that neither Marx, Freud, nor Lacan addressed women’s experience or grievances. Instead, women workers, artists, and students drew 10 from a barely remembered history of women, both European and American, struggling for justice and self-definition.

In doing so, they invented a politics for a new standard of women’s liberation. Like the May ’68 generation, which aimed to do more than break the rigid confines of French culture and redefine questions of power, feminism sought to reach beyond the claim to material equality towards a reformulation of that equality itself. For example, rather than demand adequate childcare so that mothers could be employed as easily as fathers, feminists suggested that women rethink the accepted definitions of motherhood and that fathers be brought to recognize their responsibility to children. Feminists further rejected the simple “insertion” of women into society as it existed, along the lines proposed by government studies of earlier decades. Instead, many feminists envisioned a world in which men and women reframed what it was to be human in egalitarian terms. Most important, the post-’68 feminists were vdEing to place these ideals in a political, not just theoretical, framework. They sought to make the struggle part of their daily lives. As Frangoise CoUin said in an interview, “Feminism is not, for me, an ontology, or a metaphysics that would define woman as being, but a political and poetic movement that incites women and each woman to be.”^^ The genre of feminine writing (generally referred to as ecriture feminine) that became recognized as French feminism by American scholars emerged during this period. The social crisis at the end of the 1960s, which was only deepened by the feminist movement, broadened the contradiction between the complex reality of women’s lives and the uncomplicated “superwoman” in the 1970s so lauded by the feminine press. How could women articulate a modem but integral sense of self in this cacophony of voices?

Psychoanalysis was considered a potent tool for such a project, but, within the French academy, Lacan exerted over the discipline what Keith Reader refers to as an “overweening phaUocracy.” It is no wonder that women writers, philosophers, and psychoanalysts searched to create their own ontology—steeped in France’s respected and rich intellectual traditions but reshaping them at the same time.i® The “feminine writing” writers had a veiy different perspective on the changes French women needed and the ways to implement them than other women engaged in the women’s movement. Many of the writers, such as the critic Marcelle Marini, believed that women should aggressively define gender roles and reframe them in positive terms. Being a woman in society, Marini argued, is “essential, because it’s an act that is often refused, after aU. It is often toned down because you think that you will be better accepted by saying WeU no, 1 don’t write as a woman but in the universal arena.”‘ To try to deny one’s womanhood in order to “fit in” or, in other words, to sacrifice one’s womanness to the ideal of universaUsm, Marini and others suggested, was to become not only less of a woman, but also less of a person. Many women also felt the oppressive weight of centuries of misogynist criticism from the likes of Jean de Meung and Guillaume de Lorris, against whose ideas Christine de Pizan fought. To be woman was to be dirty, evil, and weak, and writers such as Helene Cixous tried to situate women within a new framework of identity and power.

She wrote in La venue d I’ecriture: It was in watching them give birth to themselves, that I learned to love women, and to sense and desire the power and the resources of femininity; to shock myself that such an immensity could be reabsorbed, recovered, in the ordinary. Since Pizan, intellectual women have argued against popular misogynist tradition on their ovm terms, refuting male authority whUe recovering a practical and powerful image of womanhood. Hence, these ideas were not new. They were certainly foreshadowed by women of the postwar period who tried to recover women’s true strength to face the Reconstruction: . . . The sense of maternity, until now ephemeral and obscure, will become clearer and larger until the human conscience-or this maternity—will become the blooming of Femininity and the most sound basis for the striving for perfection and the spirituality of the human gender. This dissertation will demonstrate that the “women’s cause” in France was more consistently associated with this type of polemic—one that sought to struggle within concepts such as “femininity” and “woman,” rather than eliminate them. The two generations of authors tackled these issues differently and the outcome of their analyses varied, but they were strongly linked by their interest in the body as a paradigm of social functioning. By contrast, the 1970s women’s movement—which took up Beauvotr’s challenge to focus on what the sexes had in common, rather than on their “little difference,”—was an anomaly in its long history. This ten-year peculiarity takes “feminine writing” off its avant-garde pedestal.


May 8, 2018

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