Sunday, May 3, 2009

Riding The Wave Of French Feminism

The following is a contribution written by: Colette Davidson. The same post is also posted on her blog, Kolet ink*. Colette lives in France and decided to write about feminism in her country. Thanks for the article, Colette! :)

Riding The Wave Of French Feminism

I have a bone to pick with Alain Soral, French sociologist and ex-Front National party member. It’s not his pretension or even his manipulation of his “followers” that bothers me, but instead his definition and loathing of modern feminism.
Soral claims there are two types of feminists: the “freaked out” feminist like Simone de Beauvoir, and the “bitches” such as Elisabeth Badinter. He claims that the modern feminist model only pertains to the plight of upper middle-class white women. At his debate in Bordeaux last Saturday, he openly admitted to detesting the “American neo-feminist.” I hate to break it to Alain, but being an American female today - or any female at all - means being a feminist. After all, what sort of gender would we be if we didn’t fight for our equal rights within a world run by men?

French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, circa 1955

In a televised program I watched recently, Soral claimed that the reason fewer homeless women were on the street than men was because they liberally took advantage of their ability to get government aid - and subsequently housing - by having a child. Do you mean to tell me that if I shoot myself up with drugs, run away from my family or lose my job and home, that I can simply have a baby and everything will turn out okay?
The idea in itself is ridiculous. This goes right along with those (mostly men or the religious right) who believe that birth control or the morning-after pill actually condone having unprotected, careless sex. Only a handful of women are dumb to the fact that having a baby is a lifetime commitment, not one to be taken lightly and certainly not a way to get out of a sticky situation. The fact is, having a baby usually is the most sticky situation a woman can find herself in. No matter how involved a man is in a pregnancy, those 9 months can only be fully experienced by the woman herself.
I’m not alone in opposing Soral’s views on the French homeless woman of the 21st century. On France Inter today, reporters announced the completion of a study as to the greatest risks of a woman on the street. Far and above was the issue of rape and sexual assault. So when Soral says that the reason we don’t see as many homeless women out there is because they are living comfortably in their government-owned apartments with their new babies, I have to disagree. Because the risks of being a woman and on the street are so high, most find shelter elsewhere - be that with friends, a boyfriend (even if he is abusive, this may be the more likable option) or at a homeless shelter. Being homeless is scary enough without bringing a child into the mix.
I think before anyone talks about feminism in France, the French language must change with the times. France has come a long way in terms of women’s rights, and soars high above U.S. legislation on the subject. French women get maternity leave for up to 16 weeks. If a French woman so chooses, she can take up to three years off (unpaid) from her job and come back to it afterwards with total job security. And she can ask for a one-month vacation from her job within three years of having her child, and be paid approximately 500 euros by the government-run CAF.

Gloria Steinem has been the face of American feminism for decades

So, then why are we still using terms such as “Husband and woman (mari et femme)” or “My woman (ma nana)” to refer to a man’s female counterpart? Of course these are but few feeble examples. But France has long explored ways to remove the sexism from its language and come up dry. In 1993, the University of California at Berkeley actually studied the relationship between the French language and gender in a course entitled, “Sexual Difference, Gender and the French Language.” As the course outlines:
“Though there is no necessary correlation between gender, as a grammatical category and sexism in language, for a variety of reasons, cultural as well as linguistic, it has been difficult for French, particularly in France (in contrast to francophone communities outside the Hexagon), to comfortably institute nonsexist usage.”
It seems, since 1993, that not much as been resolved. And Alain Soral’s sexist rhetoric certainly isn’t helping things. While Americans are already onto “third-wave feminism” (a movement led by Rebecca Walker, which challenges second-wave feminism and focuses on the rights of the non-white, wealthy female), the F-word is still a gros mot in France today and linked largely to homosexuality. It rests heavily in literary theory and philosophy instead of practice. As the scholar Elizabeth Wright points out, “none of these [well-known] French feminists align themselves with the feminist movement as it appeared in the Anglophone world.”
Feminism in France needs to start with women themselves. I wouldn’t say the situation here is grave, but it’s certainly urgent.


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