Feminity and France

When The Newly Bom Woman, by Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, was published in the United States in 1986, many readers believed they were witness to a startling new kind of feminism being pioneered at that moment by women in France. It was a feminism that was psychologically astute, grounded in a sophisticated knowledge of literature, philosophy, and linguistics. It was a feminism that combined American academics’ challenge to the standard intellectual models of Marxism and humanism with the feminist commitment to change society by understanding they way men and women thought and felt. In France, however, this feminism was not new, nor was it at all startling. In the first place.

La jeune nee had originally been published in 1975, eleven years earlier, and much had changed in the intervening years. And in important ways, the book was part of an unbroken discourse about women—who they were and what their relationship to the world was and should be—that had occupied French intellectuals for centuries. To their credit, French intellectuals have frequently broken new theoretical ground and, as a result, have long enjoyed a certain mystique. Yet these theories have tended to take on a life of their own once departed from native soil and ferried over water. Such has been the fate of French feminism. The women’s Liberation movement hit France in the early 1970s with as much force as it hit the United States. But the weight of the movement and its impact was considerably different from its image in La jeune nee. The women who formed the driving force behind the movement in France for the most part came out of the left and were thus committed to a materialist critique aimed at changing laws, policies, and institutions, and to taking concrete action: marching in the streets and storming the National Assembly. The movement was fueled by the radical individualism that burst into fuU expression during the May Events. It was loud and brash and often in disagreement with itself.

The feminism of the 1970s by all accounts, was considerably different from what had come before—or would come after.^ In contrast, feminism in France since the end of the Second World War has been predominately particularist in its analysis of women, emphasizing the distinctiveness of their sex and their special roles and abilities. It has been matter-of-fact in its activism: directed towards concrete ends, politic, and willing to compromise. In its moderation, it also has been reasonably in agreement. Before the 1970s, especially, women campaigned quietly in their respective groups and were not known to have a tremendous amount to argue about. The Events triggered a break from the past, and feminism, or in the broader sense, the women’s cause, followed suit. It emerged out of its cocooned state into two largely separate strands, the traces of which remain today. One became contemporary feminism: hostile to entrenched political power, uncompromising in its demand not just for women’s equality, but for the reinvention of social roles, ideologies, and institutions. It was intensely activist and individualist.

The other became an amalgam of contemporaiy theory and a traditional metaphysics of sexuality and the self which distanced itself from feminism. It was less activist—sometimes anti-activist—and it was particularist, or, as it has come to be termed, essentialist. It argued that the relationship between the sexual body and consciousness should be expanded into realms of knowledge and social organization, rather than transcended as the individualists claimed. It is this second strand that American intellectuals interpreted as French feminism. They point to a theoretical emphasis on “difference” among certain women writers to explain what makes French feminism French. The connection of these writers with feminism is not only pure sophistry, as this dissertation vdU demonstrate, but it is ahistorical. Similarly, looking for differences between French and American “feminist theory,” usually without much historical or social context, obscures a more important difference between French theorists and the prevailing ideas of their time. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le deuxieme sexe, a testament to the supremacy of the individual and to godless universal principles, her cohorts were straining to convince the public that the key to both women’s improved status and to the future success of French society lay in women’s “natural” feminine qualities. Almost thirty years later, amidst a political movement that was trying to destroy the social construction of gender—and the eternal association of women’s minds and bodies-Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and others posited that women’s liberation would emerge from women’s embrace of their bodies and its inherent knowledge, or through exploring “femininity. There are not many social revolutions in recent history which have so profoundly affected Europe—its institutions, politics, social roles, and ideas. In the case of France, the women’s movement forced a socially conservative, institutional patriarchy to rethink the position of women in every facet of public

and private life. It took to the streets and won the destruction of long-standing patriarchal law and the safeguard of women’s legal autonomy. It was as ideologically radical as it was pragmatic, aiming to destroy the social hierarchy as it was then understood and to transform society by popular support. Finally, most of the movement’s energy went to fighting a long tradition that exalted the notions of difference and women’s “special role” in society, demanding that justice be indiscriminately applied. All this has almost vanished from international memory. This amnesia is all the more astonishing since by some measures, the movement in France surpassed the achievements of women’s movements in other countries. This dissertation retrieves that vanished memory in order to restore the history of French feminism as an intellectual and political movement to its national roots. For what mattered most about feminism in France was not sophisticated philosophy and theory that laid claim to women’s issues, but the material and cultural changes it wrought. Just as Vichy’s National Revolution and the 1968 May Events transformed French society, so did the feminist movement. Contemporary feminism’s roots lie buried in the postwar period when Charles de Gaulle decreed universal suffrage and had an equality clause written into the new constitution.

The 1950s and 1960s gave rise to a serious debate in France about the role of women and spawned a slew of reforms which, together with economic changes, catapulted women into the public sphere and made their claims to independence aU the more pronounced. French feminism took on its contemporary radical shape when the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes, formed in 1970, began marching in the streets, circulating petitions, and disrupting official functions to demand that abortion be legalized. It quickly expanded its goals to include the eradication of rape and domestic violence, the absolute equalization of women’s salaries relative to men’s, the abolition of laws or policies that discriminated against women, and the complete transformation of gender roles as they were then understood. From 1970 to 1979, feminist activism flourished in numerous journals, meeting places, book stores, publishing companies, and groupuscules (small political cells). By the end of the decade, the movement’s public force and superficial unity had broken apart when one group, led by the publisher Antoinette Fouque and dubbed Psychanalyse et Politique, legally trademarked the name and abbreviation Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes—MLF for its own commercial use. In many ways it was only a symbolic rupture, as other factors—loss of momentum after their electoral victories and diverging idealswere eroding the energy of the movement. By 1981, with the election of a Socialist government, feminism as a vibrant independent political force had dissolved, and feminists set off in other directions.

During the 1970s, however, feminism established new foundations for rebellion which permanently affected the way in which politicians framed their appeals to at least half the electorate. It influenced the way the right confronted women’s inferior position in society and the way the left analyzed women’s oppression and sought to end it. Experience in leftist parties and cells meant that many feminists not only were fluent in Marxist theory, but were able to expand and distort it in order to analyze more fully the relationship between reproductive and productive labor. The majority of feminists concurred that fundamental changes needed to take place on an institutional and social level. 4 Without these changes, they believed, there would be no transformation of consciousness or “status.” Feminists helped create a new field of political engagement. The slogan of the 1970s movement, “The personal is political,” opened up the reahn of the private to political analysis and established a parallel terrain of conflict. Casting off traditional party scenarios of a Utopian future, feminists argued that only women themselves could understand and speak of their oppression, and that they would no longer let their politics be defined for them. The right became hard-pressed to invoke women’s maternal instinct without recognizing women as individuals. And the left could no longer smugly appeal to women’s good nature, asking them to sacrifice their needs for the revolution. The fiction that socialism would bring an end to women’s oppression by men had thinned to the point of transparency. “The personal is political” proved to be the most useful theoretical tool for unmasking women’s second-class status in society. As the following chapters will show, however, it could also prove to produce a solipsism that had no limits. When personal comportment became synonymous with politics, the field of battle rapidly shrunk to individual experience.

“Far from being a guarantee of authenticity,” one sociologist from the movement has noted, “the subjective approach opened a field of partiality, dishonesty, and falsification. The dissertation begins at the Liberation because the war and its aftermath created a separation from the past: At the end of the war the left emerged triumphant and the right, discredited and weakened. France’s dramatic upheaval and the popular desire to build a new and stronger nation facilitated the reconsideration of gender roles. Advocates of the women’s cause were quick to bend such circumstances to their ovm struggle by emphasizing that their country’s reconstruction should include women at its very center. The war and occupation had helped to ciystallize the inequities in French life, and subsequent governments made efforts to ameliorate them. Despite the greater radicalism of the 1970s women’s movement, its more sophisticated repudiation of male domination and its ideal of female solidarity as a political position—the context in which it fought, and the ideas that it gradually reshaped—were hammered out in the postwar period. Amid hardship and economic boom, confusion and modernity, the contemporary feminist movement in France took root.

April 18, 2018


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