Identity Politics

Certain strands within the women’s movement, on both sides of the Atlantic, have blazed the trail of identity politics. Cultural feminism (bom of identity politics) has emphasized the essential link between the way women think and act and the fact of their sex—which, in turn, separates them from men. Its theorists speak of forging a world in which this connection would be strengthened, and some of them have seen the act of writing as a viable strategy towards this end. Precisely because of the changing politics within the academy, the retelling of French feminism hinges on its definition. And, in some measure, this effort to define French feminism serves as a backdrop for the dissertation. In researching this dissertation I have had, for example, to question the extent to which theory is a form of political engagement or a set expression of politics. How precise must a definition of feminism be in order to clarify the word’s meaning? Too narrow an interpretation has allowed it to be belittled and summarily rejected, too broad a one leads to the dissipation of its inherent radicalism and potential political influence. In the end, I decided that it is not merely a question of semantics to argue, as Toril Moi has done, that women who have denied the label “feminist”—Helene Cixous in this instance—may nevertheless be considered feminists because their ideas and behavior conform to the “accepted English usage” of the term.^


We cannot transform the meaning historical actors give to their lives and beliefs without doing them and the world we are trying to describe a disservice. When we do so, the specific ideas of writers such as Cixous, as well as feminism itself, get lost in a speculative fog. Unquestionably, the novelists. Literary critics, and psychoanalysts who came into prominence in the 1970s have their merits, as does feminine writing. We have a need for poetic visions in the largest sense of the word, and there is joy to be found in writing that tries to include the body rather than just the mind in the act of reading. We also have a need for critical challenges to the disciplines of literature and psychology. But these legitimate issues cannot be confused with politically engaged feminism, which has as its primary goal and responsibility the future reality of women’s lives.


Without historical and political context, studying ideas has little value. Feminist ideology—any ideology—is always attached to some sort of activity in the concrete world. It is this relationship, as much as the ideas themselves, that must be accounted for in intellectual history. The dissertation, therefore, shall establish these peculiarities and their impact on women’s lives, on France, and on feminism itself. I do not pretend to draw a complete, detailed picture of a movement so diverse and at times ephemeral that some of its changes went barely recorded. Instead, the dissertation adopts a more schematic approach, signaling the most important intellectual and institutional signposts of the last fifty years. In researching and writing this intellectual history, I have benefited from a handful of monographs on the 1970s feminist movement and the history of women in France. Claire Duchen’s Women’s Rights and Women’s Lives in France, 1944-1968, is not a history of feminism, but rather establishes the condition and experience of women before the 1970s movement started.


Duchen’s first book, Feminism in France, From May ’68 to Mitterrand, written soon after the movement had begun to dissolve, remains one of the clearest summaries of the major trends in the women’s movement. When 1 began this project, the book helped situate me among dizzying confusion and later helped to confirm my own hunches. William Gueraich’s recent dissertation, Les Femmes de la vie politique Frangaise, de la Liberation aux annees 1970-1992, offers a comprehensive account of feminist political organizations before 1970 and serves as an excellent reference. For the 1970 movement itself, Frangoise Picq’s Liberation des femmes. Les annees mouvement weaves a full history out of a plethora of minute details.^^ All these books are extremely valuable for the student of French feminism. Because of their detailed interests, however, they do not emphasize the relationship between the movement and its historical and intellectual context. I have been fortunate, with the existence of these works, to be able to focus on redefining feminism in France. Rather than write a long and detailed account of the movement, 1 have concentrated on some of the crucial debates, as well as certain key laws and economic changes that were either instituted by feminist pressure or which precipitated the movement to alter itself. The dissertation ultimately does teU a stoiy of theoretical originality, legal wranglings, political jockeying, and acrimonious personal battles, but above all, it attempts throughout to examine the impact of the social and political landscape on women, and the way this interaction helped shape feminism into a radical social movement in the 1970s.


Unlike the above mentioned studies, it eventually argues for one kind of feminism over another, not merely because of the specific players involved (although this was important), but because 1 regard certain ideas and political movements which pass as feminism to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. I have focused on feminist activities in Paris. This is less limiting than it might seem. The feminist movement did thrive in the large metropolises of France—Grenoble, Lyon, and Marseilles, for example—but since France’s centralization compels much of its political and cultural life to revolve around Paris, the majority of the movement’s biggest players lived there and its most important events took place there. This Parisian analysis is therefore representative of the larger movement, and need not be considered merely a regional study. Most of the research was performed in 1991 to 1992 on a grant from the French government. I have tried, in so far as possible, to gather written accounts, testimony, and documents, as well as a variety of published sources, to form the basis of my research. Monographs on women’s issues in the 1950s are as difficult to find as unpublished papers from the heady days of the 1970s movement. I profited greatly from the collections at the Mbraiy of the Musee Sociale (CEDIAS), the BibHotheque Marguerite Durand, and the BibUotheque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC), as well as from the ministerial libraries (of education, health, and labor), and libraries of other research centers such as the Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques (INED) and the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes (INSEE). I also made extensive use of the unpublished personal notes, letters, and original pamphlets and manuscripts from some of the major contributors to the women’s movement.

February 21, 2018


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