The History of Feminist Movements in France

Article publié dans Thinking differently, sous la direction de Gabriele Griffin et Rosi Braidotti, Zed Book, London 2002

The woman’s liberation movement in France began in 1970, after the student and worker revolt of May ’68. It was the time when large generations of the post-World War II baby-boom came to the age of entering university. Traditional universities were exploding under the push from young boys and girls, and there was a wide population likely to rebel.

Most of the first feminists were previously activists in other political movements. The older ones had been training during the 1960s in campaigns against the war in Algeria, then against the war in Vietnam. Then came May ’68 and the hope to « change the life ». The older feminists shared the younger generation’s vision of politics and commitment to change, but they rebelled against the sexism that was reproduced in the New Left organizations which arose.

Women felt unconsidered as individuals in the revolutionary movement, their problems put aside and held up to ridicule. In France, as in the States, they were fed up with playing a subordinated role. They denounced the sexual division of labour among activists: men did the thinking, formulated the theory, organised and made decisions; women worked the mimeograph machines, distributed leaflets. So they followed the example of the American feminists, breaking away from the New Left to form women-only groups. The MLF (Mouvement de libération des femmes [Women’s Liberation Movement]), wise to the criticisms levelled against the left, valued direct democracy, spontaneity and radicalism. Considering that it was impossible to imagine women’s liberation within contemporary structures, it intended to destroy these, and saw reformism as a danger because partial improvements might demobilise activists.

The MLF bloomed in the leftist culture of contestation, and it developed a radical critique of the leftists themselves. It highlighted the incoherence in their behaviour and the limits of their revolutionary projects. It denounced the vanguard’s authority as maintaining power relationships within the groups and over the people. It put into question all the revolutionary dogmas such as the primacy of class struggle and economic changes, the necessity of a Party to lead the Revolution (Picq 1993).



The first women’s movement :

1970 was proclaimed as « year zero » for women’s liberation (Partisans 1970), ignoring the long history of women’s fights in France. In fact a feminist movement developed within many social movements at various moments in France’s history, demanding the same rights for women as for men, arguing with the prevailing ethos of the time and pushing its boundaries. Feminism always looked ahead of its time. French feminism first arose in the revolutionary movement of 1789, as an intellectual protest against women’s exclusion from the principles of the revolution, pretended to be universal. It demanded equal rights for women, in the name of the Natural Rights from which women were unfairly excluded: « Either each human individual or none has the same right. » Later, feminism re-emerged from the utopian socialism and the revolution of 1830, then during the social revolution of 1848, the one which brought « universal » suffrage (excluding women once again from that « universal »), and during the Commune of Paris in 1871. When the Republic built a new society affirming the unity and solidarity of the Nation, progressively forging rules and democratic behaviours, a large feminist movement developed, with numerous associations, representing various political trends, whether liberal, radical or socialist, but aiming at unity and autonomy. It discussed and formulated concrete demands in its Congress and mobilisations: equal rights in civil life (reforms of the Civil Code), suffrage, education, the right to work.

It was only after World War II and the victory over fascism that French women obtained the equal rights that the feminists had demanded for so long. The new Republic proclaimed: « The Law guarantees to woman, in every domain, rights equal to those of man ». The long fight of women for equal rights was at last victorious, but the feminist movement had vanished, and history did not recognise its part in this tardy victory.


Continuities and ruptures between the first and the second women’s movements:

Most of the 1970s feminists ignored the history of feminism as it was not accounted for in the History of France. The latter told of the long and glorious struggle of the people for freedom, and for social justice, ignoring the exclusion of women at each step of this fight. The collective memory of women’s fights vanished because of the lack of a group to keep it alive. Even Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 doubted that women had ever tried to play a part in history as women. Feminism, she said, cannot be « an autonomous movement » (de Beauvoir 1949). It was only after the revival of feminism during the 1970s and after that the long story of women’s fights began to emerge from the void.

But proclaiming « women’s liberation, year zero » in 1970 was not only a matter of ignorance; it also announced a new way of thinking. The new generation no longer vindicated « women’s rights » because those very rights had hardly been won, but also because equal rights no longer appeared as the goal to reach. Instead the new generation claimed freedom, protesting against women being dominated, exploited, locked up in traditional roles. Born from May ’68, women’s issues as conceived of by the new generation were re-cast in the terms and the style of that movement.


Key figures in the new women’s movement:

The MLF decided to be a completely spontaneous and democratic movement without any power or hierarchy. Regarding liberation as a self-related process, it considered that no one can decide in place of another what to do or think. It claimed that each social group had to choose its goals and ways of fighting.

The May ’68’s conception of politics allowed women’s issues to be raised in a new and subversive way. It stated that « everything is political », aiming to redefine collectives issues, to enlarge the political domain to include everyday life and privacy. It scorned the traditional view of politics as a specific activity monopolised by representatives who were elected to settle matters in the place of each citizen. The goal became deciding for one’s self, taking control over one’s life. The feminist statement that « the personal is political too » was part of this new definition. It maintained that private life, sexuality, and relationships between men and women are political issues, in a time when politics was valued as the way to a radical social transformation. Personal experiences, and not theories, were then the root-stock to understand women’s oppression. Women were the objects and subjects of their own struggle, determining the means and ends of their own liberation. Involved in the collective fight, every woman should aim to exist both as an individual and as a member of a collective.

Feminists who were part of the beginning of the MLF were very disparate in terms of  their age, social origins and familial situation. This diversity could not be explained either by leftist anti-bourgeois sentiments, or by the images of feminists offered by the media. But studies of these women (Ringart 1991; Picq 1991) show several particularities. They often came from families with a tradition of humanist, social or political engagement. They often had mothers and grandmothers in advance upon their time, with personal independence or cultural will. Several of them came from large families of girls where gender divisions had to be reformed due to the family configuration.

Comparing their social, cultural and personal itinerary with socio-economic trends of this period is very instructive. The feminists illustrated the democratisation and feminisation of the university before and after Mai ’68. They also portrayed the decrease of  the traditional middle class, tradespeople and craftsmen, and the growth of a new one group: « medium and upper wage earner strata » grew between 1954 and 1981 from 9 % to more than 20 %. The feminists of the period show peculiarities in their personal and professional choices. More invested in university than other women of their generation, of their social origin or even of their family. They tended to choose public sector and intellectual professions. They were less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. If they had children, they tended to have them later than women of that time and often out of marriage. Lesbianism was usual and valued among them.

Those choices are not particularly strange. They cohere with the aim of feminism for personal autonomy. What is most interesting, however, is not that these feminists differed in a number of respects from other women but that their differences became a wider trend in the whole of society. Statistics show that marriage decreased in France (from 416.000 weddings in 1972 to 265.000 in 1987), that cohabitation became usual in every social group, and that birth out of marriage increased (from 6 % to 40 %). The seemingly marginal choices of the feminists of the 1970s reveal themselves as announcing evolutions in family patterns, which manifest themselves in several configurations: free union with or without cohabitation, single motherhood, recombined families, homosexuality…

The MLF was not in fact a movement of « all women » but the feminists figured as a sort of cultural vanguard. As an active minority these feminists could lead a greater number of women because what they said and did could be heard by women looking for a new way to live their life, especially women who had chosen to combine a working career and a family career, and wanted to succeed in both.


Campains and networks:

The term « movement » reflects the MLF’s theoretical and political diversity, and the multiplication of the themes of action and reflections. At the same time the MLF shared several basic principles: male exclusion, rejection of hierarchy and leadership, autonomy of its groups and independence from political parties (Lhomond, 1991). Women’s mobilisation was very original and extreme. It reproduced the spectacular and provocative style that had been so effective in May ’68, with transgression, insolence and caustic humour to win the media’s attention. There were scandalous demonstrations such as the one when women laid a wreath of flowers under the Triumph Arch for the wife of the unknown soldier (even more unknown than the unknown soldier himself), effective provocations (such as 343 women signing an article in a newspaper declaring that they had had abortions), public disobedience to the law (like charters advising women to have an abortion in more liberal countries, and even open performance of this illegal practice in France).


Key issues/arguments/debates:

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. But its greatest victory was the new law liberalising abortion. This issue had been one of the principal fights of the new women’s movement in every western country. In France the battle was especially heroic and mobilising. In the end the whole of society was mobilised, and the State had to give up. This issue pushed the political parties to reorganise themselves with new divisions. This battle, although not clearly conscious of it, was another stage of the long conflict between « the two Frances ». It was that of secularisation over the pretension of Catholicism to govern morals. Republicans, democrats, liberals, modernists supported the women’s fight because at that moment it was the symbol of freedom of choice and social progress.

The government was challenged and in the end it had to change the law. It changed the law on abortion and contraception, but also on other issues where the feminists could obtain the support of public opinion (like family laws, divorce, rape). Many laws that gave more freedom to women, more power and more equality (in the family, at work, and in society) were voted in.


From women’s movement to Women’s Studies:

Feminist studies came directly out of the women’s movement. During the mid-1970s activism turned into intellectual controversies and active researches. Feminist issues such as abortion and contraception, rape, family and motherhood, women’s work and exploitation, social and sexual relationship, lesbianism became the subjects of theses. History and the social sciences were the fields for a new contest. Women challenged male-dominated disciplines, underlining women’s exclusion, and identifying the social construction of sexual difference. That’s why they usally speak about « feminist studies », naming an approach more than a field of research. That’s also why the accademic institutions often resist this new and inventive work. With the early 1980s and a new government, feminist studies began to gain a shy legitimacy in several universities and the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique [National Center for Scientific Research]). Courses were taught, a steady flow of conferences was held, and research programs established. A national feminist studies association ANEF (Association nationale des études féministes) brought together students and scholars. ANEF participates in the European Women’s Studies Network (ANEF 1995).


What in that history of the MLF is specific to France? What is shared by all or most of feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s?

The rise of feminism was greeted enthusiastically by women everywhere. Recognising one another, the women’s movements in the 1970s had the feeling of participating in a global historical phenomenon and they easily adopted ideas and ways to organise from one movement to another. « Women-only » groups, « consciousness-raising », « grass-root » movements were common everywhere. A lack of hierarchy, centralisation and permanent structures appeared as the pattern to adapt according to national situations and issues. But thirty years the commonalities and differences among the women’s movements of the 1970s in various countries have become clearer.

We can agree, I think, that feminism was an international phenomenon that affected most occidental societies in that period, that it generally arose from the New Left, in the revolutionary perspective opened by May ’68, but broke away from this movement as women and their issues could not find their place within it. We can agree, I believe, that everywhere the major goal of that « second wave » of feminism was the same (after the first wave won the « formal rights »). Denouncing women’s assignation to motherhood and the home, it claimed free choice for individuals. Abortion was the symbol of that fight, just as suffrage had been for the first wave, but its purpose was much larger, questioning women’s roles, the relationships between the genders, and in the end women’s identity. It is also the case that everywhere, after a time of victories, came a decline or back lash. The feminist movement decreased before attaining its goals.

On the other hand, there are many differences among 1970s feminist movements, depending on the cultural traditions where they were born, the history and socio-political contexts, the capacity of the political system to take women’s demands into consideration, and the individual women’s movement to find powerful allies in left parties or trade unions.

The MLF can be seen as another example of the « French exception », this cultural tradition of confrontation which likes intellectual controversy and refuses compromise (Picq 1997). In France, Revolution belongs to the political tradition. The great revolution of 1789 is imprinted in our collective memory as an archetype for history-making. It left a revolutionary style as an inheritance, preferring political breaking, pretending to be the very beginning and to aim at a complete change, demanding all or nothing.

All feminist movements knew contradictions, between radical feminism and socialist feminism, between lesbian and heterosexual women, between universalism and particularism. Those debates are unavoidable and useful. Some may be intrinsic to feminist mobilisation because women have to vindicate themselves as a specific group at the same time as demanding the women’s place in the universal. Many feminist movements were able to manage these contradictions, letting diverse points of view quietly cohabit. Nowhere was the violence and breaking up among political and feminist groups as absolute and destructive as in France.

While the MLF proved unable to turn from utopia to reformism, and was left on the margin, some grass-roots movements could convert and enter mainstream society, their leaders co-opted into the state machine. Being outside was a condition of a radically new thinking, but it is, of course, from the inside that it is most possible to influence public policy (Dahlerup 1990). The decline of feminism may not have been as brutal as it was in France everywhere, but nowhere did the 1970s women’s movement attain all its goals. The feminist revolution remained unfinished. The second wave of feminism has calmed, leaving important changes in the representation and situation of women, but also regrets and hopes for the future.

Feminism, however, is not finished. History shows that feminism is involved in a long-term battle, with a bumpy course. It never disappeared completely but was sometimes deeply repressed, not only and not least in cultural memory. Then it has sprung up again with new opportunities, defining new issues and new ways of expression. Each wave has focalised priorities that in that period symbolised women’s exclusion from a complete human status, and won a part of the fight.


References :

ANEF (1995) Etudes féministes et études sur les femmes en France en 1995, [Feminist Studies and Women’s Studies in France in 1995], supplément au Bulletin de l’ANEF n°18, Toulouse.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1949) Le Deuxième sexe, [The Second Sex], Paris: Gallimard.

Dahlerup, Drude (1986) The New Women’s Movement, London; Sage.

Lhomond, Brigitte (1991) ‘France: Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement’,  Women’s Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney, London: Greenwood Press.

Partisans  (1970) ‘Libération des femmes année zéro,’ [Women’s Liberation, year zero], jul october  1970, Paris.

Picq, Françoise (1991) ‘Stratégie de sexe ou destin de classe?’ [Gender strategy or Class Destiny] in GEF, Crises de la société, féminisme et changement, [Crisis of the Society, Feminism and Change],Tierce-Revue d’en face, Paris.

Picq, Françoise (1993) Libération des femmes, Les années mouvement, [Women’s Liberation : Years of the Movement], Paris: Seuil.

Picq, Françoise (1998) ‘Le MLF, exception française ou modèle?’ [The MLF, French Exception or archetype ?], in Y.Cohen et F.Thébaud, Féminismes et identités nationales, [Feminisms and National Identities], Programme Rhône-Alpes Recherches en sciences humaines, Lyon.

Ringart, Nadja (1991) ‘Quand ce n’était qu’un début… Itinéraires de femmes à Paris’, [When That it was just the beginning…Women’s ways in Paris], in Crises de la société… op.cit.