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Feminist Writings$

Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, and Marybeth Timmermann

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780252039003

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.231) Introduction
Source:
Feminist Writings
Author(s):

Françoise Picq

, Marybeth Timmermann
Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.003.0030

Abstract and Keywords

In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir was not a feminist activist. She did not believe that feminism had ever been an autonomous movement. Noting in The Second Sex that equality between the sexes had been recognized in the United Nations and that many women had finally had “all the privileges of the human being restored to them” she concluded that “the quarrel about feminism” is “now almost over.”...

Simone de Beauvoir and the MLF (1974–79)

In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir was not a feminist activist. She did not believe that feminism had ever been an autonomous movement. Noting in The Second Sex that equality between the sexes had been recognized in the United Nations and that many women had finally had “all the privileges of the human being restored to them” she concluded that “the quarrel about feminism” is “now almost over.”1 But the movement that burst forth in the 1970s reflected her thinking so much that she couldn’t help but be touched by it.

Searching for their identity, women were seeking to define themselves, individually and collectively, in the terms that she had forged. The French Women’s Liberation Movement was Simone de Beauvoir’s child just as much as it was the child of May ’68.2 She recognized it as her own and followed its actions and debates with interest. She lent her support each time it was requested, putting her notoriety and her connections at the service of this movement of young rabble-rousers, without ever claiming to lead it in any certain direction. She took part in the Manifeste des 343 [Manifesto of the 343, 1971]; she sold an interview in order to finance the renting of a (p.232) room in the Mutualité meeting hall for the “public hearing denouncing the crimes against women”; and she sided with the young troublemakers when Gisèle Halimi judged the project to be irresponsible and left.3 She was there, from the beginning to the end, fascinated by the outpouring of multiple and convergent voices.

The winter of 1973–74 marked a turning point in the history of the feminist movement. The principal battle over legalized abortion was on the verge of victory, and the movement, which had gotten considerably more developed and complex, was searching for a second wind. The opposition was stiffening and the tendencies within the movement were solidifying. Even among the “revolutionary feminists,” who were closest to Simone de Beauvoir, the divisions were apparent when it came to putting their strategies into place.

For some, the time had come for a change in strategy: the incendiary actions of a minority that had allowed the movement to emerge were cutting it off from the great majority of women. The movement should now open itself up to those women through specific actions on concrete themes close to their daily lives. The image of feminists held by the general public must be corrected. Anne Zelensky, who published Histoires du MLF [Stories from the French Women’s Liberation Movement] under the name of Anne Tristan (with Annie Sugier, whose pen name was de Pisan), was one of the women who thought this way. She had been involved in all the struggles, starting in 1968 with the creation of the FMA.4 She was also one of the initiators of the Manifeste des 343, on which occasion she had contacted Simone de Beauvoir; and she had, with others, organized the public hearings at the Mutualité hall, taking charge of collective meeting places. She incarnated this new image of feminists that she wanted to promote. Anne and Annie, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in her preface to Histoires, were “thoughtful and poised women,” with “nothing extravagant in their outward appearance or actions, nothing outrageous in their language.” They were women like many others, who since their childhood and their adolescence had become aware of the alienation of women, which they had refused for themselves, choosing instead to be neither wives nor mothers, but to have careers that interested them and assured their independence. Simone de Beauvoir had to appreciate this itinerary that she had indicated in The Second Sex as being the “path to liberation.” But she also appreciated the collective and subversive character of their actions. Their testimony was precious, she emphasized, because it spoke of “the problems posed by the birth and development (p.233) of a revolutionary movement,” since “the decolonization of women implies a radical overthrowing of society.”

In Histoires, Anne Zelensky describes at length the context and reasons that governed the creation of the League of Women’s Rights. Tired of sterile polemics, she wanted to invest her energy in a smaller group that was “more serious” and “more efficient,” that would set reachable goals. Simone de Beauvoir had suggested a law against sexism, like the existing one against racism. A law would not be enough to make sexism disappear, no more than a law had made racism disappear, but at least it would be a useful strategic tool for reaction, at the disposal of concerned persons or legal entities devoted to this matter. This is the reason they decided at the same time to found an association with that as its objective: the League of Women’s Rights, presided over by Simone de Beauvoir, would be a legal instrument for the movement to use.

For others, this was not at all an obvious step. To constitute an association was to break with what had been the strength and originality of the women’s movement, which had been anti-institutional and extraparliamentary. Liliane Kandel, Cathy Bernheim, and Catherine Deudon were of this opinion. Anne’s initiative seemed to them to be a denial, an abandonment of what constituted the richness of the MLF: a spontaneous movement with no designated leader, no membership, and no delegation of power. By putting a “recognized, responsible, representative organization of women” in place, wouldn’t they be stifling and burying the women’s movement and its spontaneity, its absence of structure and power? By formulating a “demand for a law” within the framework of the existing system, which was bourgeois and patriarchal, wouldn’t they be collaborating with it and compromising themselves? Playing the institutional game would be to misunderstand the resulting effects of such an instrument on the movement and the women’s struggle. It would be to start the irreversible process of co-optation, the taking charge of women, if not regaining control over them.5

The creation of the League of Women’s Rights and the divergences among feminists that followed marked the end of a stage. As the first ones to take the position that social subversion was no longer called for, the founders of the League of Women’s Rights decided that it was better to ensure their gains rather than lose everything. They entered into a resolutely reformist perspective, aimed at bringing the MLF out of the left wing where it had been born.

(p.234) Simone de Beauvoir did not take sides in this quarrel. She supported the creation, on March 8, 1974, of the League of Women’s Rights, of which she was president. At the same time she offered a permanent place in Les temps modernes to those who preferred to fight sexism by denouncing it with perspicacity and humor, rather than demanding a legal tool. Hence the column “Everyday Sexism” was born.6

While the League of Women’s Rights, no longer afraid of reformism, deployed an effective activism, the “Everyday Sexism” team deepened reflections that were as humorous as they were subtle. It was not a matter of constructing a radical feminist theory, as Questions féministes [Feminist questions] would later do, but of deciphering immediate reality within a rich and original debate to which each woman brought her own style. Simone de Beauvoir appreciated the intellectual dialogue of this small group and their freedom of tone. She very readily agreed to put herself into question (“I myself have more or less played the role of the token woman”), and to see her schemas of rational thought shaken up. This is why, besides the monthly column “Everyday Sexism,” she allowed the team to produce a special issue of Les temps modernes called Les femmes s’entêtent [Women insist], which gathered together the questions and debates of the movement in that year of 1974: marriage and divorce, motherhood, homosexuality, rape, but also the difficulties of existing with these contradictions in a “Super-Ego Movement.” Sociological analyses of schools and the streets appeared right next to dreams and visions. As Beauvoir points out, this issue was presented “with disruption in mind.”

Other reports and special issues of Les temps modernes accompanied the deepening of feminist thought: Petites filles en éducation [Little girls in education] (May 1976) and Est-ce ainsi que les hommes jugent? [Is this how men judge?] (February 1979), which questioned the relationship between women and the law when feminists were criticized for appealing to justice for more effective prosecution of rape. The long history of feminism also found its place there: the history of the right to become a lawyer so difficult for women to obtain; the debates and demands for new laws by the feminist conventions at the beginning of the twentieth century; and the image of past feminism as moralistic and integrationist, which was echoed in the denigration of contemporary feminism. Indeed, the activists had discovered the history of feminism and the oblivion into which it had been thrust by official history. They endeavored to reestablish the facts, republish texts, and question men’s history. Around the same time, Jean-Paul Sartre was invited to construct a series of television shows called “Sartre, Witness of His Century,” (p.235) and Simone de Beauvoir included the feminists in this project. Several brilliant left-wing male intellectuals involved in the project, who were competing for the attention of the philosopher, could accept that “women” have a small part in it, but certainly not that they would give their opinion on its overall construction. The “Sartre Series” would never be completed because French television in 1975 did not have enough autonomy to allow the greatest philosopher of the century to express himself freely.

The women’s movement experienced a sort of renewal during the years 1977–78. Many journals and magazines came out, such as Histoires d’elles [Women’s history] (March 1977), La revue d’en face [The magazine from the other side] (May 1977), Questions féministes (November 1977), Parole [Speech] (Spring 1978), Le temps des femmes [Women’s time] (March 1978), and Femmes travailleuses en lutte [Working women fight back] (new edition at the end of 1978). Des femmes en mouvement [Women on the move] became a weekly publication.7

Simone de Beauvoir became the Publication Director of Questions féministes, a radical feminist theory magazine founded notably by Christine Delphy, Emmanuelle de Lesseps, Nicole Claude Mathieu, and later joined by Monique Wittig in 1979. After the split in the collective,8 Beauvoir became Publication Director of the new journal, Nouvelles questions féministes [New feminist questions]. Not reserving her support only for “revolutionary feminists,” she did an interview in La revue d’en face in order to help launch the new journal.

The Urgency of an Anti-Sexist Law

The project for an anti-sexist law meant a lot to Simone de Beauvoir, as she explained in her La revue d’en face interview: “I do not at all believe that a law prevents struggles outside of State institutions and independent of them. … The fact that it would be against the law to publicly insult women … would not prevent women from leading struggles on their own against sexism.”9

She called attention to its urgency on the occasion of a tragic news item, since sexism is responsible for violence against women, including murder. She emphasized in “The Urgency of an Anti-Sexist Law” that although violence originates essentially with men, it is not some “unchangeable given of nature” that makes men violent (since “one is not born, but rather becomes, a man”) but a cultural and social environment that tolerates discrimination and sexism. Well before the concept of gender had been forged, Simone de Beauvoir was using it.

(p.236) With the change of political power in 1981, the new government took up many feminist proposals, including the anti-sexist law. Yvette Roudy, Secretary of Women’s Rights, wanted to complement her important law on professional equality with a bill “regarding the fight against sex-based discrimination,” which would extend the stipulations of the law banning racism to include sexism and would give an association the legal right to fight against public ads and signs that attack the dignity of women. The uproar against this proposed law was impressive. Advertisers posed as heralds of freedom. The press, with Libération in the lead, stood in the way, fearing neither self-contradiction nor bad faith, and distorted the project, denouncing the Puritanism and hypocrisy of this “G-string law,” in the name of the alleged mission of sexist advertisements to express fantasies. It pretended to believe that vast sections of literature were threatened. Simone de Beauvoir, in “La femme, la pub et la haine” [Women, ads and hate], attempted in vain to let the voice of reason be heard in this overheated public debate: it did not concern literature; only advertisements that, “instead of being offered to [individual] freedoms, are imposed upon all eyes that are subjected to them, willingly or not.” The fact that this proposed law was abandoned but especially the terms of the debate showed the depth of sexism in French culture. Advertisements, along with the fantasies evoked by their abusive use of images of women, remained untouchable. Thirty some years later, it has hardly changed, and feminist associations such as Mix-cité [Mixed city], Encore féministes [Still feminists], and the Chiennes de garde [Female watchdogs] continue to denounce, without much success, the objectification of women’s bodies.

Marriage, Divorce, and Freedom for Mothers

Simone de Beauvoir’s opposition to marriage, the patriarchal institution par excellence, is well known. For herself, she chose and made official a mode of free and egalitarian union that also allowed for secondary, contingent liaisons. This life choice may have caused outrage in her day, but for the generation of 1968 and the feminists emerging from that generation, it presented itself as an alternative model that many women (and men) would adopt. Marriage was profoundly reformed by the 1965 law on marriage settlements that notably permitted women to work and open a bank account without their husband’s authorization, as well as the 1970 law instituting “parental authority” instead of “paternal power,” and the 1972 law on filiation giving equality to children born inside and outside of marriage. But this “modernization” (p.237) of the institution of marriage that extensively challenged the patriarchal principles of the Napoleonic code was not enough to make it an attractive option: the number of marriages decreased (25% in 10 years), and the divorce rate doubled (tripled in the big cities).

In spite of these reforms, the conjugal bond remained a form of “slavery” for many women, and those who sought to escape from it ran up against an “inhuman, bureaucratic, often absurd judicial system,” as Simone de Beauvoir explains in her preface to Divorce in France. This is why she displayed her indignation, in “My Point of View: An Outrageous Affair,” when the courts upheld “the legal fiction that the father of a child conceived during marriage is the husband” despite the “biologic and sociologic reality.” This is why she wrote the preface to a book about divorce that testified to the obstacles and injustice of a system that “systematically puts women at a disadvantage,” ignoring the violence done to them and refusing divorce by mutual consent. But the book is also a testimony of liberation for the woman who escapes from hell and for her child who can be “assassinated” by parents determined to live side by side in disunion. Claire Cayron’s book is a plea for divorce reform. And this reform was voted into law in 1976, permitting divorce by mutual consent in order to simplify and decrease the trauma of divorce.

Trickery and Counterrevolutions

The 1970s ended in betrayal and confusion. The Iranian revolution started an upheaval whose scope was grasped by few at the time. The Cold War had become entrenched in passive coexistence and the principal struggle would no longer be between East and West, between capitalism and Marxism. A new battleground was opening, where religion gained ground over politics, where dogma was asserted against individual freedom. The Iranian revolt was incontestably a popular movement in search of justice, with impressive determination, despite the repression, and with an anti-imperialistic character that might seem attractive to some. But how could one not be worried by the reclamation of a faith from another age, incarnated by the old Ayatollah hidden away in the Parisian suburbs. As soon as morals came into play, it was clear that women would be a central political pawn. Would women be unveiled and westernized, or would they be veiled again, like flags signaling the return to a tradition reinvented according to the needs of the moment, and diffusing throughout the world a model opposed to that of the “liberated woman”? The feminist counterrevolution had begun.

(p.238) In March of 1979, women who had participated in the demonstrations against the Shah’s regime and contributed to his fall, once more took to the streets of Tehran for five consecutive days. They were protesting against the obligatory veil. Attacked by counterdemonstrators, they were accused of playing into the hands of counterrevolutionaries and being manipulated by foreign agents. International feminist solidarity had to be shown, in spite of the hesitations from the Left. On March 16, a demonstration was organized in Paris with the slogans: “No Shah, no chador, no Russian tanks,” “The Right veils women; the Left veils its eyes,” and “Sails/veils unfurled … toward terror?”10

Simone de Beauvoir, who had been engaged in all geopolitical conflicts where freedom and human dignity were at stake, must have felt particularly concerned when it had to do with women. “We must denounce the outrages without allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the fact that we are Westerners,” she declared in La revue d’en face. “There are interests of women and feminism that surpass all the differences between nations and regimes.”11 She therefore accepted the position of president of the International Committee for Women’s Rights, whose objective, as she explained in her opening statement at a March 15, 1979, press conference, was to inform themselves and the global public of the situation of women in each country throughout the world, and to support the actions and struggles of women for their rights. On March 19, the Committee sent an “information gathering mission” to Tehran made up of female celebrities, journalists, writers, and artists: more of a publicity initiative than an effective one. In spite of the reassuring promises of the Ayatollah Taleghani, all women in Iran were soon forced to wear the veil. This attack upon the freedom of women was only the first sign of human rights violations. And the international feminist mobilization, which was a powerful symbol, was well justified.

The “feminism of the 1970s” symbolically came to a close in the year 1980 with its victory—the law on abortion was enlarged and made permanent—but also with its failure as a spontaneous movement founded on trust among women. An association named Mouvement de libération des femmes [MLF or French Women’s Liberation Movement] was legally formed and shortly after became a commercial trademark registered with the National Institute of Industrial Property. The name MLF had legally become the property of a group that forbade any one else to use it and sued anyone who dared to publicly denounce this outrage. This time Simone de Beauvoir took a stand and in her foreword to Chroniques d’une imposture, du mouvement de libération des femmes à une marque commerciale [Deception chronicles: From the (p.239) Women’s Liberation Movement to a commercial trademark], wrote “To reduce thousands of women to silence by claiming to speak in their stead is to exert a revolting tyranny.”

Notes

(1.) Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Folio (Paris: Gallimard, [1949], 1976), 29; trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2010), 15, and Le deuxième sexe, 11; The Second Sex, 3.

(2.) [Tr. The widespread civil unrest and rioting in May of 1968 involved students and workers across France who showed their discontent by erecting barricades in the streets and refusing to work for several weeks.]

(3.) [Tr. The Manifesto of the 343 was a declaration signed by 343 women publicly admitting that they had had an abortion. It was published in the spring of 1971, first on March 31 in Le nouvel observateur and then on April 5 in Le monde. For more details, see Sylvie Chaperon’s introduction to Chapter 9 in this volume.]

(4.) Féminin Masculin Avenir [Feminine masculine future].

(5.) “For a MLF-Renewal, or for women’s sake, silence.” Undated, unsigned tract (1974, League of Women’s Rights file, Marguerite Durand Library).

(6.) Selected articles have been compiled in a book called Le sexisme ordinaire [Everyday sexism], with a preface by Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Editions du Seuil, “Libre à elles,” 1979).

(7.) See Liliane Kandel, “L’explosion de la presse féministe” [The explosion of feminist publications], Le débat, no. 1, 1980.

(8.) See Françoise Picq, Libération des femmes, Quarante ans de mouvement [Women’s liberation: Forty years of movement] (Brest: Editions Dialogue, 2011), 376, and following.

(9.) “Sur quelques problèmes actuels du féminisme: entretien avec Simone de Beauvoir” [Some current issues in feminism: An interview with Simone de Beauvoir], La revue d’en face 9/10, 1st trimester (1981): 9.

(10.) [Tr. The slogans in French include plays on words referring to the obligatory veils. When spoken in French, the words for “shah,” “chador,” and “tanks” in the first slogan all sound similar: “Ni shah, ni tchador, ni chars russes.” The second slogan, “La droite voile les femmes, la gauche se voile la face,” uses the expression “se voiler la face” to mean “look the other way.” The last slogan plays on the words “le voile” (veil) and “la voile” (sail): “A toutes voiles (meaning ‘full speed ahead under full sail,’ but also sounds like ‘veils to all women’) … vers la terreur?”]

(11.) La revue d’en face 9/10 (1981): 5.

Notes:

(1.) Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Folio (Paris: Gallimard, [1949], 1976), 29; trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2010), 15, and Le deuxième sexe, 11; The Second Sex, 3.

(2.) [Tr. The widespread civil unrest and rioting in May of 1968 involved students and workers across France who showed their discontent by erecting barricades in the streets and refusing to work for several weeks.]

(3.) [Tr. The Manifesto of the 343 was a declaration signed by 343 women publicly admitting that they had had an abortion. It was published in the spring of 1971, first on March 31 in Le nouvel observateur and then on April 5 in Le monde. For more details, see Sylvie Chaperon’s introduction to Chapter 9 in this volume.]

(4.) Féminin Masculin Avenir [Feminine masculine future].

(5.) “For a MLF-Renewal, or for women’s sake, silence.” Undated, unsigned tract (1974, League of Women’s Rights file, Marguerite Durand Library).

(6.) Selected articles have been compiled in a book called Le sexisme ordinaire [Everyday sexism], with a preface by Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Editions du Seuil, “Libre à elles,” 1979).

(7.) See Liliane Kandel, “L’explosion de la presse féministe” [The explosion of feminist publications], Le débat, no. 1, 1980.

(8.) See Françoise Picq, Libération des femmes, Quarante ans de mouvement [Women’s liberation: Forty years of movement] (Brest: Editions Dialogue, 2011), 376, and following.

(9.) “Sur quelques problèmes actuels du féminisme: entretien avec Simone de Beauvoir” [Some current issues in feminism: An interview with Simone de Beauvoir], La revue d’en face 9/10, 1st trimester (1981): 9.

(10.) [Tr. The slogans in French include plays on words referring to the obligatory veils. When spoken in French, the words for “shah,” “chador,” and “tanks” in the first slogan all sound similar: “Ni shah, ni tchador, ni chars russes.” The second slogan, “La droite voile les femmes, la gauche se voile la face,” uses the expression “se voiler la face” to mean “look the other way.” The last slogan plays on the words “le voile” (veil) and “la voile” (sail): “A toutes voiles (meaning ‘full speed ahead under full sail,’ but also sounds like ‘veils to all women’) … vers la terreur?”]

(11.) La revue d’en face 9/10 (1981): 5.