The last time I asked myself the question, here with you, whether I was a feminist dates back to 2017. And I did not come up with a frank positive answer.
However, if I take a look at the numerous articles I have published since 2017 under the “Feminism” section of this website, if I recall my numerous academic or non-academic readings on the subject and if I finally think about my permanent dialogue with my dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman who studies feminist and gender issues, my feminist fibre is very present – and ultimately always has been thanks to a liberal mother driven by justice and fairness.
However, as in 2017, I still find it hard to call myself a feminist – even today – because before defining feminism, it would be necessary to define femininity. This term is not defined by itself but by its characteristics and its constant opposition to masculinity. If I believe the French Larousse dictionary, femininity is “the set of anatomical and physiological characteristics specific to women” and the feminine, which is an adjective and a common noun, is defined as “what is specific to women”. We discussed femininity here.
The constant opposition between man/woman, feminine/masculine, femininity/virility has been increasingly blurred for several years and feminism seen as a movement advocating equality between men and women therefore seems to me to leave gay and trans people too often aside.
Why include gay and trans people in the debate? Because the oppression women, gay and trans people endure in different ways is linked one way or another to what is called gender, sex, sexuality or all three. And they all clash with patriarchy.
I still find it difficult to call myself a feminist, quite simply because the word itself encompasses several historical waves and above all a thousand (sometimes antagonistic) movements. The themes addressed by the different feminist movements are not necessarily the same (the differentiation between men and women, universalism/intersectionality, the patriarchal and/or capitalist causes of the oppression of women), some are swept under the carpet for political reasons (abortion for the right-wing extremism) and others lead to contradictory conclusions according to the concerned movements (pornography and prostitution).
I fully hear the accuracy of the famous punchline “we should all be feminists” but it is complex to call oneself only and uniquely feminist when so many different parishes exist. It would be like asking someone if they are a believer, expecting a yes or a no, and that’s it.
My dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman recently threw me into deep dismay when she pointed out that I could potentially appear as a right-wing feminist – because of the lavish first impression that my photos alone could leave – without reading my texts. Dismay because even though I have read a lot since 2017, I did not fully realize the underlying political divide. I was unaware of the existence of left-wing feminism and right-wing feminism. It was however obvious, politics always being involved in major societal movements.
I have read a lot since 2017 but the remark of my dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman forced me to dive back into my readings to understand this political divide applied to feminism. I understood that my feminism, which had been shaped through my education, my life as a woman, my readings and my social exchanges, was very personal – accepting or rejecting certain points in this or that feminist movement and that it probably must be the same for other people.
In a nutshell, I understood that there were as many feminisms as there were people interested in the subject (and we agree, everyone should be interested in the subject, and that is why “we should all be feminists”).
To come back to the remark of my dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman, and contrary to what my photos might lead one to believe, my personal feminism is at the antipodes of right-wing feminism. Right-wing feminism, called liberal (in the political sense – the opposite of my mother, whom I call “liberal” in the educational sense) aims at an indifferentiation between male and female sexes. We often classify under this liberal adjective women who, by coveting positions of power, dress and behave like men in a conscious or unconscious desire to erase their femininity (provided that ones knows how to define femininity). As I already wrote here a very long time ago, I regret that women who wish to access powerful positions feel obliged to grab masculine attributes of power in order to feel credible. I don’t blame them, I blame the system that forces them to play by certain rules. However, if a vocal minority stopped playing by those rules, the system would probably change.
Far-right feminism leaves me even more disgusted since it takes up the rotten old cliches of American racism at the end of the 19th century stagging the white woman raped by the savage African-American. Far-right feminism indeed often plays the card of insecurity according to which women (preferably white) are the victims of immigrant men (colored, preferably).
Unlike liberal feminism, differentialist feminism (I am thinking in particular of Antoinette Fouque and her theory of a specific female libido or Marie-Jo Bonnet, author of the very good book “Simone de Beauvoir and women”, who advocates a feminism anchored in sexual difference) believes that patriarchy is so deeply internalized that it prevents real differentiation between men and women and aims to highlight the differences between men and women, the main one being sexual difference.
In addition to the legal basis which should allow a perfect equality of rights between both sexes, I remain absolutely convinced of the need for equity induced by the recognition of biological differences. But, even by doing so, I do not agree with Marie-Jo Bonnet, who believes that “equality is between different people, not between identical people” (in French newspaper “Marianne”, October 4, 2022). My inner administrative lawyer has learned the opposite: equality is the treatment applied to people who are in the same situation. Equity is the rebalancing of the treatment applicable to each category of identical people so that everyone has the same rights and achieves equality.
This presupposes in my mind a recognition of purely feminine themes such as premenstrual dysphoric disorders, endometriosis – or purely masculine themes such as androposis.
Also, the purely differentialist reasoning is a bit short in my eyes on the fate of trans people, who are de facto excluded from it.
Finally, in my opinion, the risk is to reinforce a male/female binary (the famous femininity, so difficult to define) which does not necessarily make sense today in view of trans issues.
I am sensitive to anarcha-feminism which questions the articulation between patriarchy and capitalism. I remain convinced that the concomitance between the first human violences and the sedentarization that occurred during the Neolithic era is not insignificant. The possession of land and the desire to transmit said land to an heir that a man knows to be his (and not that of a rival) has established male domination. Paleolithic men and women were equally strong. Women hunted as much as men – but the changeover occurs in the Neolithic and I cannot help making the correlation between private property and patriarchy (in their archaic forms which will be refined from century to century with the politico-spiritual weapon of the Church).
And in fact, and not surprisingly, anarcha-feminism considers the fight against patriarchy to be an integral part of the class struggle and the struggle against the State. I’m not sure I’m convinced by the need for a fight against the State (rather by a need for education on the family, school, societal, political and legislative levels) but I perfectly hear the classist argument – because racism and classism often are transversally at the heart of the debate on the feminism fate.
On a similar theme, the radical feminism that appeared at the end of the 60s saw patriarchy as the system of power that governed human and societal relations. For some – radical materialist feminists inspired by Marxist feminism – the origin of patriarchy should not be sought in any biological or psychological nature specific to women (unlike the differentialists) but in the organization of society. Men and women are seen as antagonistic social classes and not biological groups and the desired revolution must lead to the disappearance of classes and therefore of genders.
Materialist radical feminism leaves me a little bit unsatisfied, for three reasons.
As I explained above, I am convinced that the organization of our society, as pointed out by this movement, has ultimately crystal clear sources in the archaic capitalism of the Neolithic period and it is indeed because women were bearers of the heir (in the patrimonial sense) that men have assumed rights over their bodies.
I am not convinced by the disappearance of sexes, genders or both, because that excludes from the social debate the purely feminine issues mentioned above (periods, PMDD, endometriosis, menopause), the purely masculine issues (androposis) and the purely gay and trans issues.
Finally, radical materialist feminism aims at the disappearance of classes and therefore of genders – but what exactly are we talking about? Genders, sexes – which are not quite the same thing? And besides, is it what we wish for? I have no idea.
If we must also speak about Marxist feminism, certain radical feminists like Silvia Federici believe that the economy of the patriarchal system is based on women’s force of reproduction and unpaid domestic work – drawing a parallel with the slave economy based on free labor. In the same vein of ideas, Colette Guillaumin considers that social gender relations are based on a physical appropriation of women’s bodies, reduced to the status of slaves by men. Colette Guillaumin evokes the sexual constraint applied to women. The sad trivialization of sexual assault, rape, prostitution, pornography – not to mention feminicides – perfectly reflects this appropriation of the female body by men.
In my opinion, there is also in a more insidious way an appropriation of the female brain, with the phenomenon of the mental load which I have already spoken about here.
Speaking of sex, other radical feminists (Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin) see pornography, sado-masochism and prostitution as degrading and humiliating practices for women, unlike the pro-sex feminist movement born in the 1980 (in particular supported today by French writer Virginie Despentes), who thinks that these practices must be invested by women who will ultimately find in such practices a form of empowerment. Pro-sex feminism sees sex work – prostitution and pornography – as a domain for women to take on, finally victorious.
If we talk about “sex work” when talking about prostitution (I ironically note the capitalist nature of the expression), we must then accept that prostitutes can receive unemployment allowances (which is good) but also that those people can be forced to return to prostitution (even if they would like to get out of it) by having to accept the job offers proposed in the field of the sex industry, under the constraint of losing said allowances (which is not necessarily desirable if one has an anti “pro-sex” point of view). The line is thin, if not non-existent, with human trafficking, when it comes to pimps practices and the overwhelming traumas that result for prostitutes, noted in the beginning of the 2000s by more than 450 mental health specialists (if you’re stronghearted, please read Judith Lewis Herman, “Hidden in plain sight: Clinical observations on prostitution”, which evokes what is commonly seen as “a victimless crime” and which leads to post-traumatic stress, addictions caused in order to obtain voluntary submission, dissociation of identity, not to mention the various violences experienced when the person wishes to leave prostitution).
Anti pro-sex, I line up behind the relevant arguments developed by Gloria Steinem in her feminist and intersectional biography “My Life on the Road”.
As I am mentioning the glorious Gloria, let’s talk about intersectional feminism. The movement is based on the work of the American lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw, who highlighted the different discriminations that can simultaneously apply to the same minority, the most blatant example being that of a poor colored woman, a victim of classism, racism and patriarchy. Intersectional feminism, from which Afro-feminism and Chicana feminism were born, often criticizes traditional feminist movements, focused only on white women.
Gloria Steinem is one of the leading figures of intersectional feminism. Her fascinating biography “My Life on the Road” retraces her many years spent traveling throughout the US, discussing, interviewing and bringing together all female voices against patriarchy, racism or classism. Universalist feminism often criticizes intersectional feminism for prioritizing the types of oppression and crystallizing identity clashes, while intersectional feminism criticizes universal feminism for being idealistic and abstract, for concealing racism, classism or colonialism.
As a matter of fact, the intersectional debate, which was born in the US, has developed very differently in Europe. In France, the debate was inspired, at the end of May 1968, by Marxist theories, certain feminist movements theorizing on the sexual division of labor. In the 80s, the concepts of “consubstantiality” were put forward: according to French sociologist Danièle Kergoat, “social relations are multiple and none of them determines the totality of the field that it structures. It is together that they weave the fabric of society and drive its dynamics: they are consubstantial”. To put it simply, the intricacy of dominations, of divisions due to inequalities of sex, class or ethnicity has long been studied in France, even if it is not called intersectionality.
Universalism, on the contrary, starts from the common character of all human beings, beyond their cultures and ways of life, to affirm the principle of universal rights applicable to all. The best way to avoid to discriminate would therefore be to favor an abstract vision of citizenship, ignoring race, class, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
In my opinion, such a vision – “indifference to differences” – results in erasing the various discriminations applicable to minorities and it does not satisfy my need for equality and equity – even if I fully understand the beauty of the ideal pursued by universalist feminism.
The “He for She” movement launched by the UN in 2014 is based on the idea that gender equality affects everyone and has sought since its creation the active involvement of the male population. This movement has been criticized for being political or even worse, cosmetic, for making the aggressors appear as victims or saviors, or even of being carried by an ultra-privileged white woman – Emma Watson. However, it’s a good example of inclusion – I am strongly convinced that men must be included in the fight for equality and equity for all.
As you will have understood, there are a thousand feminisms (I have only evoked a few).
The feminism of each person is built day by day, year by year, decade by decade – simply because each person evolves and society evolves. In addition, feminism is particularly complex to grasp because it requires setting aside personal experience to understand the societal schemes – the key phrase being “it is not because it has not happened to me that it does not happen to others”. And yet, even by repeating this mantra, the fact remains that the resonance of certain feminist themes will depend on the experience of each and every one.
My personal feminism has cherry-picked here and there in all these movements. I remain firmly convinced that feminism cannot be achieved without men who must be educated and that family, school, social and ultimately legislative education is necessary to crush gendered behavior, sexism, sexual violence, homophobia, transphobia, racism and classism.
I remain firmly convinced that capitalism and patriarchy have grown hand in hand since the dawn of time, since the Neolithic era.
The gendered roles at home or at work born from a rewritten version of the Paleolithic era where the man hunts and the woman stays in the cave (please read Alain Testard on the subject, “The Amazon and the Cook”), the invisible and unpaid work of women who bend under the domestic mental load are today the bases which allow a capitalist economy to be maintained. What would happen to our economy if women were paid for their invisible domestic work?
In many cases, the couple is often an economic unit that allows a household to pool its resources to the detriment of the development of the woman, who is generally expected to be home-oriented, giving and sacrificing. Many women do not leave their spouses for fear of losing their financial stability (relative or not), their social position or the advantages that maintaining the couple entails. And I come to what I call “legal prostitution”: how many women feel obliged to give in to the desire of their male spouse to ensure domestic tranquility? How many women prefer not to leave their spouses for fear of losing the advantages that the economic unity of the couple gives them? And I’m not even talking about women victims of domestic violence who often have no choice but to stay. There is no judgment about these women, I only note that the question rarely arises for men.
On the other side of the spectrum, the women who wish to remain single or child-free still raise today a thousand questions in the eyes of third parties (and in this regard one should read the excellent work by Mona Chollet, “Witches”).
It also comes to the commodification of the body.
Prostitution and pornography, in my opinion, only perpetuate the dominant/dominated pattern that women have suffered from for centuries – and I am, definitely, anti “pro-sex”. The current scandals concerning Dorcel – a French film production company for pornographic films – show that we talk more about rapes than women who take power – complaints have been filed for sexual assaults.
In addition, study after study, it becomes difficult to dispute that pornography, easily accessible since 2007 in France via platforms, has a harmful impact on the sexuality of young people (at the age of 12, one child in three has already been exposed to pornographic content, a quarter of young people believe that pornography has had a negative impact on their sexuality and 44% of young people reproduce practices seen in pornographic videos – if I believe the women’s rights delegation set up in France in May 2022).
Not to mention the body issues developed by young men who watch pornographic films which feature stallions of virility.
I absolutely do not believe in the prohibition of pornography but a super tight legal and judicial framework seems to me more than necessary. And I don’t believe, in the process, in a form of empowerment by women – alas. The same goes for prostitution, which is generally very oppressive for prostitutes. Moreover, prostitution is at the heart of intersectionality, since people who work in prostitution often come from minorities and/or poor backgrounds.
The commodification of the body revolts me in general, and I include surrogacy in it, probably because I am a lawyer. One of my first university lessons in civil law (30 years ago) dealt with the unavailability of the human body, which is “out of business”. I’m going to play the devil’s advocate: what is the difference between surrogacy and a kidney’s sale? We cannot, on the one hand, fight for the recognition of physical integrity in cases of sexual assault where the consent is absent and, on the other hand, accept a violation of this physical integrity by way of commodification when a proper consent is undermined by a lack of choice often linked to financial problems. To put it simply, a woman often carries someone else’s child because she needs the money and I don’t know where proper consent is when financial issues are at stake.
Knowing that bearing a child modifies the mother’s hormone levels and neural structure to prepare her for motherhood (you can read the studies of Elseline Hoekzema of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Pilyoung Kim from the University of Denver and Ann-Marie De Lange from Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland – but that also goes for two fathers with a child, but one of them feels responsible for the needs of the newborn and sees his brain change – neuroplasticity is therefore not the prerogative of pregnant women), I therefore do not know how a surrogate mother lives serenely the fact of separating from a newborn she has delivered.
Again, I don’t blame the players but a system which monetizes newborns.
Finally, beyond the commodification induced by surrogacy, the injunction to motherhood that it supposes deeply troubles me. Parenting can be lived in so many ways and non-parenting can be so fulfilling.
And how not to see a glaring parallel with this terrible dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” which foreshadows the current decline of the white birth rate in our Western societies and the need to ensure white supremacy at all costs? Women are legally raped in this dystopian novel in order to procreate – and it is a nightmare.
Am I a feminist? Yes of course. My feminism is a puzzle that was built by cherry-picking from the different movements, but the one that resonates most with me is intersectional feminism because it includes any type of discriminated person because of their gender, sex or sexuality. I always read Gloria Steinem’s writings with great pleasure, because she has spent her life, not in studies or books, but in real life speaking to real people and I like her temperance, her openness, her inclusiveness, her relevance.
I still remain doubtful about Simone de Beauvoir and Elisabeth Badinter, whose lives seem to me inconsistent with their writings – and at 48, I am in great search of consistence.
One trafficked young women to Sartre (I again recommend “Simone de Beauvoir and women” by Marie-Jo Bonnet and “L’Invitée” by Simone de Beauvoir herself – both give a good idea of the lack of sorority of the feminist philosopher).
The other, who theorized the idea of resemblance between the sexes, is a billionaire and has, whatever she says, the power, as the chairwoman of the supervisory board and the reference shareholder of Publicis, the most powerful advertising and PR agency in France, to influence and direct Publicis advertising campaigns towards less sexist content – but does not.
I’m probably a little anarcha-feminist because I question the link between patriarchy and capitalism, I’m probably a little differentialist because I like the idea of taking into account purely feminine and masculine issues, but I’m above all fully intersectional because I like the idea of inclusion – and that’s why the transphobic discourse of the TERFs (“transexclusionary radical feminists”) displeases me deeply.
I hate the categories and hierarchies that can sometimes limit intersectional discourse when it comes to oppressed groups or types of oppression.
I also hate the essentialization of groups sometimes induced by universalist feminism because not all women, all homosexuals, all trans experience the same thing and should in no case to be reduced to this characteristic of being oppressed.
My inclusion probably goes beyond what is commonly accepted by intersectionality since it includes men, without whom equality and equity will not occur.
Let’s ask ourselves questions, educate ourselves, do our research. Honestly.
And the next time you are asked if you are a feminist, turn the question around and ask what feminism your interlocutor is claiming: Liberal? Marxist? Materialist? Universalist? Intersectional? The answer will quickly allow you to understand whether you are engaging in a substantive or purely cosmetic discussion.
Bonâme blouse – Vionnet trousers
February 17, 2023