French Feminism at the Barricade
An Excerpt from “Daughters of 1968”
Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement is the story of French feminism between 1944 and 1981, when feminism played a central political role in the history of France. The key women during this epoch were often leftists committed to a materialist critique of society and were part of a postwar tradition that produced widespread social change, revamping the workplace and laws governing everything from abortion to marriage. The history of French feminism is the history of women’s claims to individualism and citizenship that had been granted their male counterparts, at least in principle, in 1789. Yet French women have more often donned the mantle of particularism, advancing their contributions as mothers to prove their worth as citizens, than they have thrown it off, claiming absolute equality. The few exceptions, such as Simone de Beauvoir or the 1970s activists, illustrate the diversity and tensions within French feminism, as France moved from a corporatist and tradition-minded country to one marked by individualism and modernity. Read an excerpt from the Introduction of Daughters of 1968 below.
Like the May 1968 generation, which rejected the traditional Left and redefined questions of power, second-wave feminism sought to reach beyond the claim to material equality toward a reformulation of equality itself. For example, rather than simply demand adequate child care so that mothers could be employed as easily as fathers, feminists suggested that society rethink the accepted definitions of motherhood and that fathers 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. The post-1968 feminists were willing to place these ideals in a political, not just theoretical, framework, and they sought to incorporate their politics into their daily lives. As the philosopher and novelist Françoise Collin 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.”
This definition of feminism and its history in France after World War II has not been sufficiently studied in the United States despite its significance to the building of the modern French state. In American universities since the 1980s, French feminism generally has been the purview of literature and philosophy departments and viewed as a postmodern, psychoanalytical, or deconstructionist product — more sophisticated and theoretical than its “pragmatic” American counterpart. By the early 1990s courses on “French feminist theory” abounded, featuring contemporary writers and philosophers such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. But this American analysis was a rarefaction of select ideas without much historical context. To take one small example, the 1997 Texas Tech comparative literature symposium entitled “French Feminism across the Disciplines” stated that the conference would “problematize French feminism as a discourse which cannot be contained by any of the normative disciplinary categories of American academia.” American interest in French literary theory and philosophy led some scholars of feminism to focus on just one element of a large political and intellectual movement and to brand it “French feminism.” But this portrait left out rich decades of feminist writing and politicking and the background against which these ideas and battles were fought. Women writers who cultivated notions of difference — the féminitude writers, as they are sometimes referred to — are only a small part of the “feminist” story post-1968. The feminist novelist Christiane Rochefort, who was one of the first to bring the women’s movement political visibility through street protest, clarified this problem when she said in an interview about feminist theory, “We’re seeing far too much literary theory being written today, considering that literary theory isn’t at all important. The last thing I find important is theory, whether it’s literary, philosophical, or psychoanalytical. Most of the time it’s just nonsense.” French feminists themselves had a more nuanced relationship to “theory” than American scholars have credited them as having (as activists on political parity have robustly demonstrated) and have been active in ways that do not privilege theory at all.
This book was written, at least in part, as a response to this truncated vision of French feminism that continues to hold sway in the United States. A political and intellectual history of the feminist movement in France that flourished in the 1970s, it attempts to clarify the narrative and the place of “French feminism” in France’s particular history. The understanding of this vibrant movement has been stunted by a lingering belief that women philosophers and writers were the prime representatives of second-wave French feminism. This is starting to change as American scholars become interested in parity politics, but the generalization still holds true. This ahistorical interpretation has had at least three pernicious effects: First, it has obscured feminism’s heterogeneous theoretical composition. It has severed the history of Third Republic (or first-wave) feminism, which was radical and political in a variety of ways, from that of second-wave feminism, which it deems philosophical and discursive rather than material. Last, it has served to decontextualize and depoliticize a complex and highly political movement, its internal conflicts, and its real-life impacts. The loss of political background is all the more misleading given that one theoretically oriented group — Psych-et-Po, self-identified as MLF — (for Mouvement de libération des femmes) spent its first decade repudiating the feminism that focused on concrete political and social change, calling it infantile, beholden to capitalism, and bent on reproducing masculine norms. The idea that French feminism was theoretically dominated appeared farcical to feminists who were dragged into courtrooms by Psych-et-Po and its representatives. Feminism in France, and certainly the French women’s liberation movement, have in fact been highly political and committed to action.
Nevertheless, French obsession over theory and ideology did mark the women’s movement in France as much as it did French politics in general. This is important for several reasons. First, it created an enormous cultural production — novels, academic journals, newspapers, and films — examining the “woman question” and publicizing debates. Without all this, many women throughout France would not have experienced feminism or participated in the women’s movement. Second, the feminist movement of the 1970s, like the Far Left groups from which it emerged, had a penchant for ideological purity — frequently at the expense of political expediency. For example, feminists (and women activists in the Mouvement de libération des femmes [Women’s Liberation Movement]) of the 1970s were committed to consensual decision-making, sharing power, and allowing every woman to speak as a matter of uniting theory and practice, but underneath these guiding principles lay an enormous amount of contention. Within the movement as a whole there were frequent rifts and never-resolved arguments about goals, theory, and strategy that undermined feminism’s political strength in France. These disputes weakened feminism’s political influence, for when feminist ideology moved too far away from the concerns of the majority of French women, the movement lost its base of support.
The May Events and the Feminist Attack on the Left
The French feminist rejection of the Left was sweeping and forceful. Echoing the May 1968 general insurrection, in which students and workers accused the major parties on the Left of “Stalinism,” women rebelled against the patronizing authority of the men at the barricades and the double standard for men and women. The May events shaped new attitudes toward individuals, social participation, and even the human body, challenging France’s proud national myths. Feminists joined in the challenges and pushed for political analysis and change. The various feminist groups would remain politically marginal, but feminism itself was able to chip away at a conservative culture and help inaugurate a new era of socialist politics. The feminism of the 1970s revolutionized the way French society approached the “woman question.” No longer would the discussion revolve around “the insertion of woman” into society; rather, it would explore and challenge the definition of what women were and what they could do. To fight against the status quo, soixante-huitards (1968ers) had created a practice of improvisation, theater, and individual action, and the women’s movement drew upon this practice in its own demonstrations.
Much of the movement’s power came from a generation of young, rebellious women committing what many viewed as outrageous acts. Their rhetoric underlined the stark contradiction between the greater freedom and opportunity women supposedly enjoyed and the eclipsed reality they actually faced. Many of these young women were high school and university students and progressive-minded female instructors who had arrived at the vanguard of women’s professional success by way of France’s teacher-training schools. A leaflet distributed around a high school questioned:
When will our liberation happen? You are not allowed to go out at night, have sex, and choose certain professions. But you are directed to do your homework, clean your room, and help your mother (dishes, errands, household cleaning). Do you have the impression you are living?
You get married: you will be the maid for your husband in the kitchen as in the bed; you will have kids; you will abandon work in order to take care of them as you should. Or you will reconcile your professional life to your home life. That means 90 hours of work each week minimum.
These young women gave voice to a sentiment widely felt but unexpressed by middle-class women in their teens and twenties. The women most drawn to women’s liberation groups in the 1970s were urban and educated, generally from upwardly mobile families. They were frustrated by their limited professional options, by the hostility they endured from leftist men, and by a sense that the contradictions between their ideals and their lives were becoming untenable. It was these women’s recognition of what sociologist Margret Maruani calls “social specificity” (as opposed to “natural differences”) that made feminism so popular and gave it its polemical force. Women began to view their oppression as having no natural justification; rather, they saw their continued second-class status in the private sphere as directly responsible for discrimination against them in the public sphere. A pamphlet entitled “This Isn’t Called Work!” listed seventeen jobs that women did daily — preparing meals, washing up, shopping, cleaning, ironing, and so on — and continued:
They tell us that we don’t earn a living; that we are just fed and housed and so we should say thank you. If we work outside, it’s all that [domestic work] in addition to eight hours of work a day and then rushing in the metro to try to shop before the stores close.
Us = 110 hours; them = 48 hours of work per week. And they tell us that we earn pin money!!! Yes, this is love; yes, this is the family. Change them! Love should not be slavery.
Working-class women, who had less education and who started working at a younger age, suffered similar frustrations. Their protests also revealed traditional gender prejudices against women acting in a public capacity — their occupation of factories, for example, was seen as creating sites of debauchery rather than as serious political action. Socialist and Communist propaganda associated feminism with bourgeois frippery, but working-class women’s feminism was key to changing the social and political landscape of France. In the late sixties the main Communist union, the CGT, did not question the socioeconomic role of women’s part-time work, which satisfied the interests of men and families as well as many women. The CGT’s women’s magazine, Antoinette, did cautiously criticize part-time employment in its September 1969 issue: “It might seem like a good solution to balancing domestic work and balancing a budget, but it is a superficial solution. The pay is low, there are no benefits, no unionizing, and little security.” But until 1972, when Chantal Rogerat took over as editor, Antoinette shied away from attacking men’s refusal to equally share domestic tasks and childrearing, which made women view part-time work as the only realistic alternative. Shared frustration with these compromises fostered political collaboration between working women and female university students in the heady days of 1968. The May revolutionaries’ denunciation of traditional politics and parties challenged the traditional forms of revolutionary expression and created a political space for women to voice their ideas. After the May events, the Left, including Far Left Maoist and Trotskyist groups, endured savage mockery at the hands of revolutionary women. Feminists were angered by Gaullist paternalism and by their leftist comrades, who had spoken so eloquently of human liberation. In a flyer from one of the earliest MLF meetings this anger was on display:
Who cooks when you speak of revolution? Who takes care of the kids when you go to your political meetings? Who types the memos while they [sic ] direct and organize the future? Who takes notes when they have the microphone? Who always sees these initiatives co-opted at the level of speech and of action? It’s us, always us. This sexual, economic, and political oppression is one of the pillars of the capitalist system. It’s these pillars that oppress us. It’s these that we attack. You tell us: “There will always be time to approach that later.” Later: after the revolution; but which revolution, made by whom? Now is the time. A party of people. Power to all people.
Many women who had been at the barricades during the nights of street fighting, who had participated in the factory strikes, or who had in other ways worked with male revolutionaries were nevertheless denied access to important meetings where strategy was discussed. Instead they found themselves required to serve coffee and to take care of the children of busy rebelling fathers while the men formulated policy and held forth on Engels’s theory of women’s oppression. With all the discussion of personal liberation, with all the denunciations of capitalist oppression and the mediocrity of bourgeois society, most men remained entirely uncritical of their own sexism.
Excerpted from Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement with permission from, and gratitude to, University of Nebraska Press. Daughters of 1968 is available for purchase on the University of Nebraska Press website here, and on Amazon here.
Read an interview with Lisa Greenwald here.
Lisa Greenwald, Ph.D., spent almost a decade working in and researching the women’s movement in France, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship and grants from the French government. She has worked as a consultant and in-house historian for a variety of nonprofits and foundations in France, Chicago, and New York. She teaches history at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.