The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement (January 2019) by Lisa Greenwald.
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—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.