Women's Studies Encyclopedia
Helen Tierney
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France.?Feminism And The Women's Liberation Movement
 
 
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France.?Feminism And The Women's Liberation Movement
The contemporary women's liberation movement emerged in France after the student and worker revolt of May 1968. Women activists in "revolutionary" organizations rebelled against the reproduction of sexism within these groups, which were to have engendered their generation's vision and commitment to change. In May 1970, "Combat pour la liberation des femmes" was published in the new left journal L'Idiot International. Subsequently, all-women's meetings were held, disrupted at first when men tried to participate. On August 26, 1970, at the Arc de Triomphe, several women attempted to place flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in memory of his wife, who is even less known than he. This first public protest and successful media event is generally considered to mark the birth of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF).
The term "movement" reflects the MLF's theoretical and political diversity, the proliferation of groups in France's major cities, the multiplication of the themes of action and reflection, and the variety of publications. The MLF can nevertheless be characterized by several basic principles: male exclusion, rejection of hierarchy and leadership, autonomy of its groups, and independence from political parties.
In the early years, although there was a strong sense of unity in the MLF, it contained several different strands, formalized to varying degrees into groups or "currents."
Psychanalyse et Politique, a group constituted at the very beginning of the movement, set itself the goal of "eradicating the masculine" within women to create a veritable "female identity." This group has officially proclaimed its opposition to feminism. Feminism, equated with the demand for equality, was rejected as a phallocentric, reformist strategy. After years of conflicts, the vast majority of movement groups united to condemn Psychanalyse et Politique when it claimed possession of the term "women's liberation movement" by founding an association by that name and registering Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes and MLF as a trademark. Psychanalyse et Politique is the founder of "des femmes" publishing house, several journals and bookstores, and, in 1989, the Alliance des Femmes pour la Démocratisation.
The Lutte de Classes (class struggle) current was created by activists from far left, often Trotskyist, organizations. Each of its components, such as Le Cercle Dimitriev, Les Petroleuses, and Les Femmes Travailleuses En Lutte, was set up by women from a given organization. The Lutte de Classes current, as its name indicates, saw women's struggle as subordinate to class struggle, although, over the following years, many Lutte de Classes activists left their organizations, as had the early founders of the MLF. It spawned numerous neighborhood women's groups as outreach to working-class women, a series of national coordinating congresses, and several journals.
The Féministes Révolutionnaires, less structured than the other groups, exemplified the radical feminist current. They analyzed men's domination of women as that of one sex-class over another and insisted that the struggle against patriarchy could not be secondary to the fight against capitalism. This perspective has given birth to numerous groups throughout the history of the MLF.
In 1970, the Torchon Brûle, the first MLF journal, appeared as a joint project of the Féministes Révolutionnaires, Psychanalyse et Politique, and a number of unaligned women (seven issues, 1970 to 1973). A multitude of other publications followed—special issues of journals, collective works, publications of specific task forces or currents, mimeographed newsletters, monthly reviews sold at newsstands, theoretical journals, and so forth.
>>Abortion<< was illegal in France in the early years of the MLF, and feminists rapidly mobilized around this issue. The Manifeste des 343, in which 343 women (some famous, and others unknown) declared that they had undergone >>abortion<<s, was published in April 1971 in the left-wing, mass-distribution weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. In 1972, feminists organized support for a minor who was arrested for having had an illegal >>abortion<< and for her mother, who was charged with collusion. Protests were staged, celebrities spoke out at the trial in Bobigny, and the girl was acquitted. The struggle for free >>abortion<< on demand continued, including in cosexual groups, such as those that, despite the legal risks involved, performed >>abortion<<s. It culminated in 1974 with the adoption of a five-year law legalizing >>abortion<<. This law was made permanent in 1979 following an impressive feminist demonstration in Paris; after 1982, >>abortion<< fees were covered by the national health plan.
The demand for bodily self-determination went much further than rejecting compulsory motherhood. The fight against rape, the extreme form of physical coercion to which women are subjected, was another landmark for the MLF. As early as 1970, feminists denounced all forms of violence against women, but only after 1976 did the issue go public through a host of actions such as conferences, speak-outs, take-back-the-night protests, and public support of rape victims in court. The debate on rape brought out theoretical rifts. A part of the Lutte de Classes current opposed involvement in the "bourgeois" criminal justice system and refused to sanction a "policy of repression" that put rapists in jail; for the Féministes Révolutionnaires, rape was an integral part of the system of social control of women and should be seen and punished as a crime. Several years later, the Lesbiennes Radicales directly challenged heterosexuality, as their slogan, "All men are rapists, all men are men," shows.
The first lesbian group in the MLF, the Gouines Rouges (Red Dykes), started in 1971 (and led to the forming of the Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire, which rapidly became a male organization). Rarely involved in the gay movement, which they denounced as misogynist, lesbians were never, on the other hand, fully accepted in the feminist movement, which they criticized for heterocentrism. From 1975 on, several lesbian groups were created in different cities, and a journal, Quand les femmes s'aiment (1978-1980), was produced by the Groupe Lesbiennes in Lyon. The Lesbiennes Radicales' critique of heterosexuality, considered to be women's collaboration with men as a class, led to the creation of a movement outside the MLF and a split in the radical-feminist journal Questions féministes.
The impact of the MLF was also felt in labor unions, where feminists organized women's caucuses. In left-wing political parties, feminists created their own groups, which were critical of their party's positions (in 1978, the Courant G in the Socialist Party and Elles Voient Rouge in the Communist Party).
After the socialists came to power in 1981, a Woman's Rights Ministry with a small, but significant, budget replaced the previous government's advisory commission on the status of women. While most officials were Socialist Party politicians, adding to feminists' ambivalence, cooperation was established on a number of projects. The ministry was responsible for various legal changes and educational campaigns.
Today, while the MLF no longer exists in its early form, numerous feminist and lesbian groups remain engaged in the movement for women's liberation, even if the connections among them have weakened. Some run alternative institutions such as battered women's shelters, women's centers, feminist archives and information centers, women's cafés, and film programs. Some work against specific facets of women's oppression such as legal discrimination, sexual mutilation, sexual harassment, and rape. Some publish journals, such as the Cahiers du féminisme, Cahiers du GRIF, Nouvelles questions féministes, and Lesbia. Feminist studies have gained legitimacy in several universities, and, despite the lack of enthusiasm from governmental and academic institutions, courses are taught, conferences are held, and the number of research programs continues to grow. Since 1989, a national women's studies association, Association Nationale de Etudes Féminists (ANEF) has brought together students and scholars and links the regional associations that were started after the first national women's studies conference in Toulouse in 1982. With the advent of the European Community, French feminists are participating in the European women's studies networks currently being created. In all these initiatives, theoretical research as well as feminist practice continue to be marked by the tensions between the different feminist currents of thought—Marxist feminism, feminitude (stressing women's natural differences with men, la différence), and radical feminism.
Contributed by: BRIGITTE LHOMOND, with aid and translating by JUDITH EZEKIEL
Related Links
References
For French feminist documents translated into English, see Claire Duchen, French Connections: Voices from the Women's Movement in France (London, 1987), companion volume to Claire Duchen, Feminism in France: From May '68 to Mitterrand (London, 1986), and Feminist Issues (Berkeley, Calif., a radical feminist journal). Féministes (Catherine Guinchard, Annick Houel, Brigitte Lhomond, Patricia Mercader, Helga Sobota, and Michèle Bridoux), Chronique d'une passion, le Mouvement de Libération des Femmes à Lyon (Paris, 1989); Annie de Pisan and Anne Tristan, Histoires du M.L.F. (Paris, 1977); Monique Remy, Histoire des mouvements de femmes (Paris, 1990); Marthe Rosenfeld, "Splits in French Feminism/Lesbianism," in Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Julia Penelope (eds.), For Lesbians Only, a Separatist Anthology (London, 1988).
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