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Feminism in France: May 68 to today

Article published on the 2008-05-24 Latest update 2008-05-28 13:00 TU

Marie de Cenival putting a beard on a statue, Place de la Republique, Paris(Photo: Mathilde Cannat/La Barbe)

Marie de Cenival putting a beard on a statue, Place de la Republique, Paris
(Photo: Mathilde Cannat/La Barbe)

Forty years ago when students and workers took to the streets, revolution was in the air. The general strike triggered changes in working conditions and a loosening of the binds of France's conservative society, as well as the emergence of the feminist movement. According to Anne Zelinsky, feminism was the only lasting change to come out of May 68: "May 68 was not for women, but it authorized them to fight," she says.

Anne Zelinsky has been involved in the women's liberation movement since the mid-1960s. She was in her 30s in 1968. Younger women were enthralled by the protests because they had never before challenged authority.

Annie Sugier was one of them. Before May 68, she says, "I thought I was the only one having the impression that women were not really as free and equal to men."

Women protested with men, and Anne Zelinsky says she organised some debates about the equality of the sexes, but the feminist movement really picked up steam a few years later, in the 1970s.

The soldier's wife

A symbolic event was when a group of women, including Zelinsky, put flowers on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. They said they were putting it on the tomb of his wife.

"This little action contained everything symbolically of feminism," says Zelinsky. They entered a "sacred space that glorified war. How audacious! And with a bouquet of flowers, a woman's weapon."

Zelinsky and Sugier founded the League of Women's Rights in 1974 with Simone de Beauvoir as the president. They fought for the right for abortion, which was won in 1975. By the 1990s the focus was on a parity law in the government, which passed in 2000. They now run the International League of Women's Rights.

These older feminists say that women today have lost the fight, and they despair that women don't like the word 'feminist'.

"By making the word taboo, women are ignoring a history that goes back 200 years," says Zelinsky. "These women are insufferable because they are moving back everything we worked for."

Feminist? Yes and no

It's true that many younger women today do not like the word feminism. But they don't completely reject what the feminist movement was (and still is) fighting for.

Diane, a 22-year-old communications student explains: "We're for equality, but we want to respect femininity." She says feminism comes across as being anti-men. Another student, Lea, says that 'feminism' seems aggressive, "and I'm not aggressive... I don't think I’m a feminist, but I do think it's important to have certain rights and to be considered an equal to men."

That is not to say that there are not feminist activists in France. The movement 'Ni putes, ni soumises' (Neither whores, nor submissive) has been successful in recent years. And according to Harriet Hirshorn, co-founder of the group La Barbe, last year's election galvanized some women into action when the socialist candidate, Segolene Royale, was criticized in a very sexist way:

"What some of us started to notice that when she was attacked, she would be attacked for being a woman," she says. "And a lot of the descriptions were basically standard, sexist French descriptions."

Hirshorn founded La Barbe with Marie de Cenival, after the election. 'La Barbe' means 'beard', and also 'enough'. They do 'actions' where they wear fake beards to satirically point out situations where there are few or no women, like on boards of big companies.

In their latest one, they showed up at a panel discussion in the Senate, entitled "Parliament: a mirror of French society."

La Barbe is not the mass movements of May 68, but things have changed in the last 40 years. Women do have more rights than they did then. But more rights mean women have more to loose now, and also a lack of impetus to act: if you don't face injustice daily, it's harder to get riled up and fight.


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