French Feminisms 1975 and After

New Readings, New Texts

by Margaret Atack (Volume editor) Alison S. Fell (Volume editor) Diana Holmes (Volume editor) Imogen Long (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 268 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 127


This volume explores contemporary French women’s writing through the prism of one of the defining moments of modern feminism: the writings of the 1970s that came to be known as «French feminism». With their exhilarating renewal of the rules of fiction, and a sophisticated theoretical approach to gender, representation and textuality, Hélène Cixous and others became internationally recognised for their work, at a time when the women’s movement was also a driving force for social change. Taking its cue from Les Femmes s’entêtent, a multi-authored analysis of the situation of women and a celebration of women’s creativity, this collection offers new readings of Monique Wittig, Emma Santos and Hélène Cixous, followed by essays on Nina Bouraoui, Michèle Perrein and Ying Chen, Marguerite Duras and Mireille Best, and Valentine Goby. A contextualising introduction establishes the theoretical and cultural framework of the volume with a critical re-evaluation of this key moment in the history of feminist thought and women’s writing, pursuing its various legacies and examining the ways theoretical and empirical developments in queer studies, postcolonial studies and postmodernist philosophies have extended, inflected and challenged feminist work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Epistemologies, Politics, Fictions (Margaret Atack / Alison S. Fell / Diana Holmes / Imogen Long)
  • 1975 …
  • And After …
  • … reading and re-reading Simone de Beauvoir
  • … dur(e)s à queer
  • Women writing/women reading
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 1. Le Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (1976) de Monique Wittig et Sande Zeig : une entreprise littéraire du savoir féministe ? (Chloé Jacquesson)
  • Un dictionnaire ? ‘Ce n’est encore qu’un brouillon’
  • Parodier/Concurrencer le ‘savoir officiel’
  • L’histoire en question : la fiction plutôt que l’archive
  • Entreprises du savoir féministe
  • Bibliographie
  • 2. (Re)Reading Trauma and Schizophrenia in the Work of Emma Santos (Emma Murdoch)
  • Introduction: Emma Santos
  • A ‘mad’ female subject position
  • Reliving the trauma
  • The trauma of ‘castration’
  • The trauma of abortion
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 3. Hélène Cixous’s L’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves: Gendering Memories of Colonialism in Algeria and India (Beatrice Ivey)
  • Introduction: Cixous’s literary worlds
  • Gendering national belonging
  • The father in Dedans and Les Rêveries
  • Algerian memories in L’Indiade
  • Feminisation of Gandhi in L’Indiade
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 4. Looking Again at La Jeune Née: Feminine Poets in Hélène Cixous’s Voile noire voile blanche (Martina Williams)
  • Bibliography
  • 5. La scène ‘primultime’ de la mort : corps mourant, corps parlant ou les mécanismes de la greffe scripturale dans Homère est morte … d’Hélène Cixous (Maribel Peñalver Vicea)
  • Introduction
  • Dénégation et trahison : une mise en crise de la notion d’auteur
  • L’altérité textuelle dans Homère est morte …
  • La voix d’Ève : corps mourant, corps parlant : les stratégies discursives de la greffe textuelle
  • Écholalies incessantes (miroir des plaies)
  • Crases ou énoncés inachevés (miroir de la douleur et de la peur)
  • Termes fusionnés (miroir de l’amour et l’altérité)
  • Des néologismes (miroir des escarres)
  • En guise de conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 6. The Gendering of Space: A Study of Michèle Perrein’s Gemma lapidaire (1976) and Ying Chen’s Espèces (2012) (Gabrielle Parker)
  • Occupying space: Espèces
  • The haunting woman
  • Appropriated space: Gemma lapidaire
  • Public-Forbidden space
  • Dis/connected space
  • Dis/locations: Metamorphoses
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 7. Marguerite Duras and Mireille Best: A Forgotten Literary Legacy (Stephanie Schechner)
  • Bibliography
  • 8. Transgressing the Rules of Autobiography: Nina Bouraoui’s La Voyeuse interdite (Annick Durand)
  • Bibliography
  • 9. Body, Narration, History: Valentine Goby’s Occupation Novels (Margaret Atack)
  • L’Echappée: désirs, délires
  • Qui touche à mon corps, je le tue: Life, death and ghosts
  • Kinderzimmer: Writing death, writing life
  • Bibliography
  • Conclusion (Margaret Atack / Alison S. Fell / Diana Holmes / Imogen Long)
  • Bibliography
  • Websites
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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The editors wish to thank the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies of the University of Leeds for its generous financial support; Laurel Plapp of Peter Lang for her patience and unfailingly constructive help; and last but not least, the contributors for their collegiate commitment.

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Introduction: Epistemologies, Politics, Fictions

In 2015, the Women in French UK conference was devoted to ‘Les Femmes s’entêtent: Feminism, writing, art and film 1975–2015: bilan(s) et avenir(s)’. Les Femmes s’entêtent,1 a major collective feminist text and an unexpected bestseller, with nearly 30,000 copies sold,2 was a powerful statement that combined cultural and social analysis with literary texts; 2015 was the fortieth anniversary of its publication in paperback, and the opportunity to celebrate an extraordinarily creative moment in French feminist work was too good to be missed. The aim of the conference was to take forward the social, political and cultural agendas of this important volume. From a broad range of disciplinary perspectives, speakers offered a critical re-evaluation of a key moment in the history of feminism and women’s writing, not only by revisiting this and other texts but also by pursuing their various legacies in French and francophone writing, film and society, examining the strengths and limitations of these approaches as new questions and new conjunctures have come into play. We wanted to explore how theoretical and empirical developments in queer studies, transgender studies, postcolonial studies and postmodernist philosophies might have extended, inflected and challenged feminist work.

Fifty papers were accepted from the large number of proposals received and clusters emerged as areas in which colleagues were interested in offering critical readings: intersectionality, differentialism, queer theory, feminist ← 1 | 2 → publishing and media strategies, art practice from video to street art, writing strategies from écriture feminine to autofiction, ageing, history and memory. Many addressed the contrast between ‘now’ and ‘then’, while others explored the trajectories and legacies of major figures such as Hélène Cixous or Monique Wittig. Two volumes of selected papers will be published, this being the first and concentrating upon imaginative writing; the second, Making Waves: French Feminisms and their Legacies 1975–2015.3

The story of French feminist theory and feminist writing and reading for the past forty years is a story of the construction of new problematics, of new configurations of theoretical, political and imaginative perspectives with which to analyse, understand and challenge the subordination, marginalisation or repressive categorisations of women. From a focus on sexual difference and the multiple structures of oppression in the 1970s, to issues of intersectionality and queer studies, there are breaks but also continuities, and throughout, feminist thinking has challenged, interacted with and built on other theoretical and philosophical frameworks. In the same way that Simone de Beauvoir’s magisterial philosophical analysis of women, Le Deuxième Sexe,4 was structured through the phenomenological perspectives of existentialism, so French feminist theories of the 1970s were forged in dialogue with existentialism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and deconstruction. In each case, it was not a question of adding ‘and women’ to existing analyses of being and action; feminist theoretical reflexions forged new paradigms. Christine Delphy put it well: ‘La lutte des femmes est un fait politique concret, qui ne fait pas qu’ajouter un élément nouveau au domaine politique, mais le bouleverse de fond en comble. On exprimerait la même chose en disant que la conscience des femmes d’être opprimées change la définition même de l’oppression’.5 To include that which had been excluded in order to elaborate the discursive structures that feminists were challenging is a disruptive move that necessarily reconfigures the foundations and presuppositions of those very structures. Simone de Beauvoir begins her preface to Les Femmes s’entêtent with a quotation, ‘Perturbation, ma ← 2 | 3 → sœur’, taken from Max Ernst’s surrealist ‘novel’ of images and captions, La Femme 100 têtes, that the special issue’s title explicitly evokes. She concludes by saluting ‘la lutte antisexiste’ and ‘la contestation’ that is at its heart: ‘elle détruira certaines de nos entraves, elle nous ouvrira à de nouvelles vérités’.6 What, we wondered, are the ‘nouvelles vérités’ of 2015 and beyond?

Focusing on imaginative writing has brought a number of interesting questions to the fore, not least in the intertwining of the theoretical and the creative across so many different kinds of texts, as well as the continuing interrogation of the nature and power of the textual and the fictional, that were so central to the major feminist works of 1975. In this introduction we use the multi-faceted nature of Les Femmes s’entêtent to explore the salient ideas of 1970s’ feminism and the ways they continued to inform later work and be inflected by it. There are so many paths one might take through the multiple riches of this material, but tracing some of the focal points of debate through the diverse engagements in the following decades with the work of Simone de Beauvoir seemed particularly appropriate in the context, engagements that continued, without being centre stage, in the shifts in paradigms and emphases associated with queer feminism in France. Furthermore, an awareness of the divergent understandings of the very term ‘French feminism’ inside and outside France, a divergence that indeed became the focus of some heated debate, means that the international reception of these ground-breaking works of feminism from France is paid due attention, especially in the light of the proudly international theoretical engagement of French queer feminism.

1975 …

Les Femmes s’entêtent was one of several iconic feminist texts published in 1975. Les Temps modernes had been running a section on ‘le sexisme ordinaire’ since 1973; opening its pages to women for a special issue was therefore a ← 3 | 4 → logical step, and very much in line with the widespread impetus at the time to hearing women’s voices.7 Fifty-five different items comprise the volume: articles of sociological, philosophical and cultural analysis; poems, dreams, personal experiences, comments and opinions. The volume’s agenda is expressed in its section headings, ‘l’encerclement’, ‘rupture du cercle’, ‘désirs-délires’, although elements of all three are spread throughout the volume. The breaking of censorship, of taboos, and the right to self-expression leaps out from page after page:

Nous, petites filles sages enfermées dans les pages du livre, il serait temps que nous changions la vie sans demander la permission aux maîtres de le faire. Ecrire, ce serait alors donner des informations sur ce qui se passe là où nous sommes: nous ne parlerions pas des autres, mais de nous, chacune et toutes ensemble. Nous dirions: ils me disent mère, et voilà ce que cela signifie. Ils me veulent écrivain et voilà ce que cela signifie. Ils me disent femme et voilà ce que cela signifie. Ils me disent sociologue et voilà ce que cela signifie.8

From women in cities, women in the countryside, education and inequality, the publishing industry, marriage and divorce, abortion, sexuality, motherhood, to the female body, celebration of menstruation, fears and hopes, there seem to be no aspects of women’s lives ignored. There is a renewal of the metaphors and thematics associated with femininity, as blood, milk, the moon, and the joys of sisterhood are valorised as positive in a move close to Mary Daly’s famous appropriation of Hags and Spinsters9 to counter what is denounced as the frequent denigration of women, and the reduction of women to domestic slavery and a series of menial tasks:

Laver. Repasser. Coudre. Fermer les volets. Les ouvrir. Chauffer. Nettoyer. Enlever. Remettre. Cirer. Limer. Laquer. Acheter. Manger. Jeter. Ranger. Déranger. Oublier.10← 4 | 5 →

While the very amusing short story ‘Histoires de la Ghéna Goudou’,11 a piece of science fiction relating the visit of women from an outer planet to the earth where they hear the story of life when ‘les ptitstuyaucrates’ dominated, before ‘la Grande Subversion des femmes’, shows inequality and power between masculine and feminine (every masculine noun, except those relating to men, is transposed to the feminine), the political debate over the relation between the struggle against sexism and the class struggle, is also prominent: ‘Limiter “l’action révolutionnaire” au seul domaine économique c’est supposer que les différentes autres formes d’oppression (sexe, race, âge …) sont réductibles à une seule d’entre elles: la classe’.12 This demonstrated not only the level of importance of political theory in feminist work at the time, but also no doubt the experiences of those active in established movements of the left, where women were often confined to subordinate roles; male activists of the left were a frequent target (‘les phallocrates révolutionnaires n’ont toujours pas pigé’).13 With great literary and rhetorical inventiveness, with humour, anger and passion, this is writing that is carrying its own new agenda: new kinds of knowledge and a new sense of the subjecthood of women: ‘Pas un seul des textes “théoriques” publiés ici ne peut être séparé de ses résonances fantasmatiques. Pas un seul rêve ne peut être isolé de la démarche collective de lutte des femmes’.14

This special issue did not appear out of a vacuum – the cultural politics associated with May ’68 had given great prominence to questions of personal liberation, of sexuality and freedom, and the aspirations to imaginative renewal, borne in the famous slogans: ‘sous les pavés, la plage’; ‘soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible’; ‘jouissez sans entraves’. Another slogan is explicitly recalled in Les Femmes s’entêtent: ‘nous qui voulions prendre nos désirs pour des réalités’.15 The fact that the final chapter of Marie Cardinal’s ground-breaking novel of 1975, Les Mots pour le dire, a bestselling exploration of feminist themes (the relation to the body, mother-daughter ← 5 | 6 → relations, language and self-expression), consisted of just one sentence, ‘Quelques jours plus tard, c’était mai 68’, clearly linked the narrator’s newly won feelings of independence and strength to the wider social overturning of accepted views that May represented for so many.16 However, while FMA (Féminin Masculin Avenir) was formed by a small group of women in the Sorbonne in May ’68, for many feminists in France the political upheavals of May were notable for their failure to include or even address the oppression of women, and 1970 is rather the key historical date signalling the beginning of the ‘second wave’ of feminism – August 1970 saw the famous event that provoked widespread media coverage when a group of women, including the novelists Christiane Rochefort and Monique Wittig and the sociologist Christine Delphy, laid a wreath to the unknown wife of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. The feminist issue of Partisans: Libération des femmes année zero,17 is for many the key foundational document, a major public statement of the new feminist politics, with thirty articles on sociological analysis, rape, abortion, women’s bodies, sexuality, prison, plus poems, drawings and images.18← 6 | 7 →

Women’s issues were firmly in the mainstream too, as reform in relation to the situation of women was high on the political agenda. In 1974 Simone Veil, the outstanding minister of Health, had successfully piloted the legalisation of abortion through Parliament, and Françoise Giroud had been appointed Secrétaire à la Condition féminine in September 1974. Her title was greeted with derision by feminists alert to any naturalising perspective, which was what the term of ‘condition’ implied. The press saluted Veil’s achievements, and noted that not only were there quatre femmes (original emphasis) in the government,19 but that opinion polls placed Veil as its most popular minister, with Giroud not far behind.20 In Ainsi soit-elle, ‘une lecture enthousiaste de tout le féminisme contemporain’,21 Benoîte Groult gave a rather different view, pointing out that they were all in traditional female roles, including Veil who was eminently well qualified and might reasonably have been expected to have been appointed Garde des Sceaux, whereas her only qualification for the Ministry of Health was being a woman,22 and it did not stop there: ‘Trois mois plus tard, il faut ajouter à cette liste Françoise Giroud, la femme des femmes, ce qui ne sort pas, on l’avouera, du ghetto’.23 An advance nonetheless on de Gaulle’s reported reaction to creating such a post: ‘Pourquoi pas un sous-Secrétariat d’Etat au Tricot?’24 Ainsi soit-elle was a bestseller, as was Annie Leclerc’s Parole de femme,25 popularising the key themes of women’s access to language, self-expression, the authenticity of experience and the value to be accorded to women’s bodies and reproductive power, rendering visible, in order to reverse it, the extent to which representation and analysis of the human condition was grounded in metaphors of masculinity and the male body while the female body never stood, either metaphorically or metaphysically, ← 7 | 8 → simply for humanity. That ‘le sexe’ in French designated both ‘genitals’ and ‘the female sex’, overdetermining the inequalities intrinsic to gender representation, was a leitmotiv of feminist analysis of the cultural representation of women.

Françoise van Rossum-Guyon points out in her introduction to the 1977 special issue of Revue des sciences humaines ‘Ecriture, féminité, féminisme’, that there is hardly a journal without its special issue on ‘la question de la féminité et son inscription dans le discours social, y compris littéraire. Le sujet est à la mode’.26 This is not to say that all manifestations of it were well received. The United Nations had proclaimed 1975 would be International Women’s Year (l’Année de la femme). Feminists in France were not at all impressed by this capitalist institutionalisation, as they saw it, of the women’s movement and a large demonstration was held on 8 March, the first International Women’s Day, denouncing the hypocrisy of being asked to celebrate women within the very system that was so oppressive. ‘Cours petite sœur, la récupération est derrière toi’ was the warning in Les Femmes s’entêtent,27 putting images of the demonstration against l’Année de la femme in the collage of photographs on its cover.28 But Rossum-Guyon’s point that writing and literature were particularly prominent in the 1970s was well made: Sorcières, founded in 1976 by Xavière Gauthier, devoted its seventh issue to Ecritures; while it always had too many articles to fit into its sixty-four pages, it reported receiving ‘une véritable avalanche’ of texts for this issue,29 and the Cahiers du Grif, founded by Françoise ← 8 | 9 → Collin, had to double its size for its ‘Langages et femmes’ issue.30 At least eleven women-related series were created by mainstream publishers in the 1970s.31 The influential des femmes publishing house and bookshop, home of the collective Psychananalyse et Politique that published large numbers of women’s texts, past and present, and became closely associated with the development of écriture féminine, was founded in 1974 by Antoinette Fouque.32 This group was involved both in the publication of Libération des femmes année zero and the feminist newspaper Le Torchon brûle, that credited royalties from that Partisans issue for its funding.33

The 1970s saw an extraordinary flourishing, then, of thought and creativity in relation to women and to feminism, as well as an intense political activism. Literature was now seen, as Audrey Lasserre put it: ‘non comme un instrument de lutte politique mais bien comme le terrain de la lutte politique elle-même’.34 The list of intellectually important and internationally influential publications is indeed impressive; in addition to those already mentioned, there were major texts from Monique Wittig (Le Corps lesbien), Julia Kristeva (Des Chinoises), Annie Ernaux (Les Armoires vides), and Luce Irigaray (Speculum de l’autre femme; Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un) as well as noted essays such as La Venue à l’écriture, by Hélène Cixous, Madeleine Gagnon and Annie Leclerc; Les Parleuses, by Marguerite Duras and Xavière Gauthier; Autrement dit, by Marie Cardinal and Annie Leclerc; and Choisir: la cause des femmes, by Gisèle Halimi, all of which were arguing for new approaches to women, new approaches to what was discussed and ← 9 | 10 → how.35 Françoise van Rossum-Guyon listed key themes of this explosion of interest in women’s writing:

Réévaluation de la différence, en particulier de la différence sexuelle; reconnaissance et exploration de l’inconscient; redécouverte du corps; prise en considération de la situation sociale et historique; mise en cause de la culture et critique du théo-logo-phallocentrisme; attention portée, dans une perspective transformatrice, au travail sur la langue et les formes littéraires; invention de nouvelles valeurs (une autre sensibilité, un autre amour, une autre éthique).36

Like Les Femmes s’entêtent, other texts of 1975, in the middle of this great decade of feminist work, were also taking forward at one and the same time this wide range of themes, demonstrating the commitment to plurality and an awareness of the multi-faceted interconnections involved in personal and political renewal. The juxtaposition of so many different issues, as politics, society, sexuality, art and literature, and different analyses and perspectives, both complementary and contradictory, jostled for attention without any pre-imposed hierarchy, was undoubtedly part of the excitement of the time, creating a powerful sense of intellectual change in language, representation and social and cultural analysis. The special issue Simone de Beauvoir et la lutte des femmes, where Catherine Clément called for new imaginaries – ‘Or c’est bien de cela qu’il est question, toujours, dans l’action féministe: modifier l’imaginaire pour agir ensuite sur le réel, changer les formes du langage’37 – included both Christine Delphy’s important article on materialist feminism, a feminist reappraisal of Marxist class analysis, and Cixous’s ‘Le Rire de la Méduse’, the famous manifesto for a new form of women’s ← 10 | 11 → writing to disrupt traditional discourses grounded in rationality and the Law, in the Lacanian sense of the Symbolic. Tel Quel was fiercely committed to these new forms of writing and theorisations of the Symbolic, but still included ‘Les Socialistes et les femmes’ by Dominique Desanti who had long been close to Sartre and Beauvoir.38

If Marxism is an all-pervasive feature of the 1970s’ intellectual landscape,39 so is psychoanalysis. ‘Mais u’est-ce u’elles Veulent’ is blazoned across the front of Les Femmes s’entêtent, on a banner carried by the marchers. Freud’s legendary phrase expressing defeat over his attempts to understand women’s sexuality became a great slogan of feminist defiance, registering women’s desire as exceeding all attempts to master it, and women’s desires being reclaimed for women. The introduction to the republication of Libération des femmes année zéro set out one of the major theoretical fault-lines:

Certains groupes posent le problème de la libération des femmes comme une pratique double interrogeant à la fois l’inconscient (le discours psychanalytique) et l’histoire (le matérialisme historique), pour tenter par là une articulation entre la politique et la psychanalyse.

D’autres groupes mettent l’accent sur le patriarcat et l’analysent non seulement en tant que système idéologique, mais d’abord et essentiellement en tant que système concret, économique et politique, responsable d’une oppression matérielle.40

The Psychanalyse et Politique group, undoubtedly being identified here, later provoked a major schism with its patenting of the acronym MLF, and its ever more marked hostility to feminism as a movement, a hostility it shared with Kristeva.41 Both argued that feminism was the mirror image of humanism, little more than a substitute for humanism and the power of men in the Symbolic, leaving its structures intact and thus changing ← 11 | 12 → nothing in terms of the situation and positioning of women. Cixous too distanced herself from feminism.42 But given the huge disciplinary range of subjects developing new feminist epistemologies, ‘des savoirs situés’, to quote a widely used phrase,43 and also the very diverse backgrounds and political histories of the women forging this broad and exciting area, it is not surprising that there were differences of opinion and of political and intellectual priorities that at times ran very deep. Resistance to women’s oppression was a key rallying point, as was the need for separatism (la non-mixité), and the accent on multiplicity and solidarity – the multi-headed movement of women found its expression in the large numbers of articles across all these publications signed only by first names or ‘des femmes’, ‘des militantes’.

The deep rift between Psychanalyse et Politique and other feminist groups was compounded and reinforced by the impact of ‘French feminism’ in the UK and the USA. The story of the friction between the external creation of ‘French feminism’ and feminist critiques within France has often been told.44 Less noted perhaps has been the fact that there was a dialogue with American feminism from the very beginning: the Arc de Triomphe demonstration took place on the same day as the Women’s Strike for Equality march, when thousands demonstrated in New York City; the first section of Libération des femmes année zero consisted of translated articles ← 12 | 13 → by American feminists; Tel Quel’s special issue on Etats-Unis included an article by French specialist and later co-founder of the feminist journal Signs, Domna C. Stanton, on American feminism; and Yvette Roudy, the translator of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and future minister for ‘les droits de la femme’, contributed an article on American feminism to the Arc special issue.45 It shows that second wave feminism has been influenced by and in close dialogue with American feminism from its earliest manifestations; feminism in France was never purely national in the first place.46 Conversely, within France, the great enthusiasm for writing and new theories of literature and culture meant that these, and the work of Cixous and Kristeva, were indeed very prominent in studies of feminism.47

A combination of factors, including the impact of French theory (structuralism, poststructuralism and the works of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) on departments of literature, the strength of women’s studies in the United States, and the number of articles and books on French feminism written by American specialists of French literature, meant that by the 1980s there was a ‘synecdochic reduction’48 of feminist thought in France to just three names: the psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. While New French Feminisms, in 1982, replicated the format of many of the 1970s’ French feminist publications, with multiple articles across disciplines ← 13 | 14 → and from many different perspectives,49 the influence of Toril Moi’s groundbreaking 1985 study, Textual/Sexual Politics,50 can hardly be overstated in relation to the development of the notion of ‘French feminism’. Published in the Methuen ‘New Accents’ series, that was already established as a crucial vector in the development of cultural studies and the introduction of French theory, it offered an extensive critique of women’s studies grounded in empiricism, particularly the work of Elaine Showalter that was very well known for its part in developing new agendas and retrieving important but neglected writing by women, and contrasted it unfavourably with the theoretical frameworks of Cixous, Kristeva, already famous within ‘theory’ for her work on semiotics, and Irigaray, whose feminist critique of Lacanian schemes had had a major impact. So while the fact that feminist work in France largely exceeded the work of these three, and that the rejection of écriture féminine as a form of essentialism by Beauvoir, Wittig and those around the Questions féministes journal were well known, as were Delphy’s critique of Leclerc’s Parole de femme,51 and the extent of the anger directed at des femmes and Antoinette Fouque over the MLF controversy, it is undeniable that in the Anglo-American context French feminism meant French feminist theory meant these three thinkers. Delphy wrote her angry denunciation of the phenomenon in 1996, arguing that ‘French feminism’ was an American discursive construct, where theory was prioritised over activism, poststructuralism over materialism, literature and philosophy over social and historical work.52 And there were reverberations in the United States, too. Toril Moi revisited her work and the reaction to it at ← 14 | 15 → length in What is a Woman?,53 highlighting in particular comments made in conference discussions and published in Conflicts in Feminism,54 and Elaine Showalter’s reaction to what she perceived as a dismissive attitude to her work,55 although in the American backlash against Moi’s focus on theory, Pascale Molinier’s comment on the rejection of theory as foreign could also be pertinent.56 The factors at play in national and international receptions are complex indeed.

The distinctions between these conceptual positions, between essentialism, sexual difference or ‘le différentialisme’, and the oppressions of patriarchy and of class, reverberated theoretically and politically. Challenges would continue to be made to a purely woman-based feminism, so to speak, arguing that this rendered invisible the oppressions of class and also of race, which positioned women of the middle-class and white women as oppressors, and furthermore disavowed this positioning. Some thought the revolution in the Symbolic and in the constitution of the subject would engender a social revolution; others that political and ideological revolution, including for women, could only happen with the overthrow of the class structure, but however significant these important distinctions were, and they were significant, nonetheless the emphasis on self-expression and experience, and the recognition of the role of the materiality of language, discourse and representation in the oppression of women, were common to all. ‘Féminin futur’ was the name of the 10/18 feminist series, referencing, as Audrey Lasserre points out,57 Rimbaud’s utopian vision: ‘Quand sera brisé l’infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, l’homme, ← 15 | 16 → jusqu’ici abominable, – lui ayant donné son renvoi, elle sera poète, elle aussi! La femme trouvera de l’inconnu! Ses mondes d’idées différeront-ils des nôtres? – Elle trouvera des choses étranges, insondables, repoussantes, délicieuses; nous les prendrons, nous les comprendrons’.58 Cixous’s stunning transformation of Medusa, the monster of myth (‘Elle est belle et elle rit’),59 encapsulated the liberating power involved in reversing the conventional, the taken for granted, the status quo. The new epistemologies were inseparable from these new discursive practices. L’écriture féminine was mobilising a very particular view of women and writing, but it is not surprising that Cixous was such a towering figure and has continued to be a focus of extensive critical attention, for the writerly practice of breaking generic boundaries in the name of freedom was exhilarating, and to be found across feminist initiatives. With its famous metaphorisation of ‘voler’, to steal and to fly,60 La Jeune Née tears up negativity and scatters it to the winds. Already in 1969, Marguerite Duras and Monique Wittig, in very different ways, had written texts embodying new conceptualisations of women in new forms of expression. Duras was close to Cixous and Kristeva in her positioning of female as other and subversive,61 as elaborated in Détruire dit-elle, while in the same year Wittig and her warriors, Les Guérillères, blasted away the discourse of male-centred normativity.62 There was a reversal of norms, exposing as intolerable the soul-destroying nature of the imposed limitations of femininity and domesticity that were invisible and taken for granted, but by this very exposure their normative nature was placed on display and undermined. That oppression is lived ← 16 | 17 → through everyday experiences, taken for granted in the texture of daily life, was theoretically important to a range of political analyses of the time, from Henri Lefebvre and Herbert Marcuse to Roland Barthes; the way women were confined to and defined by domesticity meant that a focus on the detail of women’s lives became politically urgent. ‘Comment pouvions-nous comprendre la domination masculine si ce n’est qu’à travers le détail?’, commented Geneviève Fraisse in relation to the Temps modernes ‘Sexisme ordinaire’ column.63 Chantal Akerman broke with cinematic conventions in the famous 360-degree shots of Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) in her kitchen in Jeanne Dielmann, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles to make these confines visible: new perspectives required new forms. Commenting on this scene in detail, Agnès Varda found that the lengthy real-time filming of washing up and peeling potatoes, far from being boring, drew spectators in to the underlying anguish precisely because the conventional cinematic portrayal of anguish and suspense was spurned.64

Another double discourse of an exquisitely sardonic nature is to be found in the feminist video film Maso et Miso vont en bâteau,65 a fitting closure to 1975, with a title recalling the magical adventures of two women in Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bâteau of the previous year. Yet there is nothing magical about the journey of Bernard Pivot, already known for the television programme Apostrophes, and host of a special programme on 31 December 1975 entitled ‘Encore un jour, et l’Année de la femme, ouf … c’est fini’, and his guest Françoise Giroud. He had promised her misogyny, ‘des fieffés misos’, and the other guests certainly delivered, as did he, the Miso of the title; Giroud’s style here, and probably more generally in this role, was not confrontational, although as a journalist she had been extremely forthright in her condemnations of sexism. Possibly trapped into ‘lightheartedness’, she seems to take the view that she would ← 17 | 18 → deflect misogyny and sexism with a studied reasonableness and charm accompanied by a would-be sophistication of superior amusement faced with naughtiness. Rerunning the programme with interventions and comments, Maso et Miso denounced the masochism of this strategy, if strategy it was, by dubbing her ‘Maso’ and subjecting the programme to a range of techniques of subversion, derision and ‘détournements’. The demolition job by the four directors is magisterial, interrupting the programme with, for example, multiple inserted captions (such as ‘hein?/ quoi?/ plaît-il?’; ‘Est-ce qu’elle est / – Sincèrement maso? / – Hypocritement maso?/ – Franchement vendue?/ (si oui, à quel prix??)’; ‘C’est Maso qui tombe à l’eau / gloup gloup’); and with a devastating use of multiple quickfire replays of Giroud’s comments that turn her into a kind of inane mechanical automaton.

And After …

… reading and re-reading Simone de Beauvoir

After this great explosion of work by women and the excitement of the paradigm shifts in feminist epistemologies, accompanied by much media interest, the contrast with the next decade could hardly be greater. Feminism seemed to disappear in the 1980s: asking for the feminist section in a bookshop would elicit the response ‘mais c’est fini tout cela, madame’. The publication of Choisir’s second international conference on ‘Féminisme et socialismes’ had the confusing title Fini le féminisme?; confusing because nowhere in the actual text does this question seem to have arisen. Even though the extensive conference discussions are devoted to feminism in its historical, theoretical and practical relations with socialism, nationally and internationally, it is as if the book can only draw readers in by acknowledging the outdated nature of its topic.

In response to Margaret Simons’s comment, that she had heard it said the feminist movement in France was over, Simone de Beauvoir’s reaction was immediate: ‘That’s not true’. She explained that the Ministère des droits de la femme had taken this work into the public sphere, so it was not over, but it was being done differently.67

In 1981, then, with the election of François Mitterrand to the presidency and the establishment of the Ministère des droits de la femme replacing the Secrétariat à la condition féminine, a major political shift had taken place. Although the denomination ‘de la femme’, rather than ‘des femmes’, and the failure to appoint a full minister (this would only change in 1985), grated, the shift from ‘condition’ to ‘rights’ was also an epistemological shift,68 and the influence of the major themes of the 1970s upon the programme that Yvette Roudy sought to implement was clear, as issues of language and representation were placed alongside multiple social reform programmes. Beauvoir accompanied the work of the Ministère,69 and particularly championed the ‘loi anti-sexiste’ on public representation of women which drew unprecedented levels of vitriol and provoked one of Beauvoir’s classic pieces of journalism, ‘La femme, la pub et la haine’.70 But it is saddening to see that, in the ‘bilans’ and retrospectives of Mitterrand’s first term, the aspirations and achievements of the Ministère are often passed over completely.71 It is hardly surprising that the historiographical impulse ← 19 | 20 → features so strongly in feminist writing, as a record of the place of the feminist here and now needs constantly to be re-established, or so it seems.72

Sylvie Chaperon has identified 1945 to 1970 as ‘les années Beauvoir’73 but also chronicles her role in the 1970s’ feminist movement74 when she shifted politically from supporting the primacy of the class struggle to recognising and supporting the need for an autonomous women’s movement.75 As both Simone de Beauvoir et la lutte des femmes, and Les Femmes s’entêtent show, Beauvoir had been a major protagonist of 1970s’ feminism. She worked with Delphy and Wittig at Questions féministes, and, after the acrimonious split in that journal over the politics of lesbianism, took on the role of director at the newly founded Nouvelles questions féministes. She remained steadfastly opposed to the theoretical perspectives underpinning l’écriture féminine, since the very notion of an ‘être-femme’, even if founded in exclusion rather than in nature and endowed with a revolutionary potential for subversion, ran counter to her argument that the female and associated values and characteristics were constructed in and through society. While Catherine Rodgers suggests it is difficult to determine the extent of the influence of Le Deuxième Sexe on the French feminist movement,76 it is undeniable that Beauvoir herself and her work ← 20 | 21 → have continued to be part of the feminist intellectual landscape in France. Her work was at times eclipsed in studies devoted to l’écriture féminine and poststructuralist analyses, but the continuing importance within French feminist theory of the relationship between sex and gender mean its paradigms have remained a point of reference, both endorsed and challenged.

The story of feminist thought in France after the 1970s is a story of breaks and continuities. Le Deuxième Sexe was itself an epistemological break from the naturalising discourses that preceded it,77 providing, as Ursula Tidd has argued in relation to Beauvoir’s often criticised chapter on lesbianism, a framework that has continued to be productive.78 That ‘le féminin’ was a social value, not an innate characteristic of women, that understanding female identity meant understanding the changing social dynamics of limited choices, identifications and oppression, were demonstrated through lengthy and detailed analyses, and summed up in the iconic phrase ‘on ne naît pas femme, on le devient’. However, although Beauvoir’s arguments insisted upon the fact that the values associated with woman are socially and historically contingent, her lengthy analysis of women’s biology, often read as hostile to the female body, left open the question, for some theorists, as to whether socially constructed gender was articulated with a naturalising understanding of the physical. Gender might be constructed, but was this the case of the biologically lived experience of sexuality and the sexed female body?

The impact of the work of Judith Butler from the 1990s onwards gave a new impetus to these debates around sex and gender, the social and the biological; she offered a very influential reading of the sex/gender distinction in Gender Trouble seeing a naturalising and anchoring move in the structures of Beauvoir’s argument. Butler’s view of Le Deuxième Sexe is hardly a positive one, arguing that Beauvoir was negative towards the female body, and in effect did no more than replicate the Cartesian mind-body ← 21 | 22 → dichotomy, a view that is quite widely shared.79 In a detailed discussion of Butler and the sex/gender debate, Toril Moi has pointed to the difficulties of the role of language and translation in such interpretations, given that féminin and femelle do not correspond directly to feminine and female, creating all sorts of confusion.80 Furthermore Beauvoir’s extensive and complex use of irony is frequently misread.

Contemporary feminists have continued to engage with Beauvoir, not least because the issue of maternity has remained a major component of feminist thinking in France, and central to many thinkers’ formulations of the question of sex and gender. Wittig was close to Beauvoir’s views81 that motherhood did not constitute a privileged biological relationship for women: ‘Le matriarcat n’est pas moins hétérosexuel que le patriarcat: seul le sexe de l’oppresseur change. Cette conception (…) maintient de plus l’idée que ce qui seul définit une femme, c’est sa capacité de faire un enfant (biologie)’.82 Sylviane Agacinski, for whom maternity is a ‘passion singulière’83 and central to her defence of the fundamental nature of sexual difference, reads Beauvoir as expressing hostility and revulsion towards motherhood.84

The same is true of the issue of the stance to take towards the question of universalism, politically and theoretically. Le Deuxième Sexe identified ← 22 | 23 → the way gendered inequality in language and culture operated through a false universalism that masked its gendered nature. Man is denoted as a neutral term, embracing men and women, which has the consequence of giving men access to and identification with an ungendered language, whereas women are confined to the female and femininity. In a move that would be reiterated in much later theoretical work on language, ideology and society, Beauvoir insists that neither men nor women have access to a place outside language or outside society from which to pass judgement on these matters. Her critique of the constraints of the gendered restrictions of female and femininity is absolute: women are ‘the human’ as much as men are, and the theorisation of the individual and the collective, the singular and the universal, pertain for women as much as they do for men. Writers as different as Annie Leclerc and Monique Wittig in their conceptual frameworks of women and womanhood attacked the false universalism of masculinity, in Wittig’s case by rewriting universalism into the female:

While differentialist feminists reject universalism and certainly consider Beauvoir and other feminists to be doing little more than aping male language and men’s place in social structures, a further complication lies with the importance of universalism as a key value of the French republic, which itself has been a focal point of debate from Olympe de Gouges onwards, for universal, secular republicanism is argued to be a formal universalism which cannot accommodate the real political demands of the diverse groups constituting it:

Et ce qui est frappant, c’est que, comme en ce qui concerne les femmes, et les homosexuels, c’est au nom de la république, au nom de ses valeurs, parmi lesquelles l’égalité ← 23 | 24 → figure en bonne place, que toute mesure pour assurer une égalité réelle, substantielle, était et continue d’être dénoncée.86


VIII, 268
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (December)
French feminist theory women’s writing French cultural history
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 268 pp.

Biographical notes

Margaret Atack (Volume editor) Alison S. Fell (Volume editor) Diana Holmes (Volume editor) Imogen Long (Volume editor)

Margaret Atack is Professor of French at the University of Leeds. Alison Fell is Professor of French Cultural History at the University of Leeds Diana Holmes is Professor of French at the University of Leeds Imogen Long is Lecturer in French at the University of Hull.


Title: French Feminisms 1975 and After
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