The strength of feminisms

This collective work, which studies feminisms through the prism of intersectionality and gender, recalls the dynamism of struggles from the Revolution to current debates, for example around non-mixedness and means of action.

Questioning feminist struggles from our present is the ambition of the history written by Bibia Pavard, Florence Rochefort and Michelle Zancarini Fournel. This beautiful work, which includes color facsimiles and numerous transcriptions of important texts, punctuates the story in four moments: the emergence of feminist struggles (1789-1871); the conquest of civil and political rights (1871-1944); the feminist revival centered on the question of the body (1945-1981); contemporary feminisms (1981-2020). The surprise of this division comes from the authors’ desire to continue the story through its most recent developments.

The plural of feminism

Feminism is plural in its currents (radical, moderate, secular, Christian, reformist, universalist, differentialist, decolonial, etc.). It is also plural thanks to the shift in perspective operated by the authors: feminisms outside the Parisian scene, in the overseas territories and former colonies. It is especially plural because of the diversity of women who have carried out these fights.

The entire book can be read as a tribute, insofar as it lists the portraits of those who are the subjects of this story, the essential icons, but also the forgotten figures whose memory must be recovered. Because history itself, by only listening to certain struggles to the detriment of others, has been able to participate in the recovery of the multiple dominations suffered by women: political and civil, but also geographical, social, sexual and racial.

Yet, beyond the plural claimed by its subtitle, the work is far from digging into the divergences or renewing the outraged oppositions that most often serve to discredit the movements of revolt. Unity is first achieved through the negative: all these fights come up against hostile reactions. The antifeminist backlash is never long in coming: feminism is constructed and deconstructed in the face of the reactions it provokes.

But unity should not be understood in a solely reactive way. Without subsuming feminisms under too general a category, the unity of the struggle is conferred on it by those who take hold of it, refusing to let men think and act in their place, taking charge of the discourse and the struggle, in a dynamic that is that of emancipation. Until the end, “the feminist subject “women” resists, including its own divisions” (p. 485).

The prism of intersectionality

The principle of sociohistory, according to the authors, is to “place oneself in a problematic inspired by the issues of the present in order to restore its genealogy” (p. 6). The main thread of the work is that of intersectionality. It is the charge against any relationship of domination that is put forward, from the origin of feminist struggles. The connection between the different types of domination denounced first takes the form of an analogy: the slavery of Blacks is compared to the submission of women (p. 23).

We then see the emergence of a convergence of struggles, such as, as examples among many others, a “proletarian feminism” (p. 45), the “intersectional” struggle before the time of Jeanne Deroin in 1848 (p. 66), a feminist press in the Antilles in the interwar period (p. 169), Beauvoir’s commitment to anti-colonial struggles (p. 246), the coordination of black women from 1976 contributing to the “birth of an intersectional feminism crossing gender, race and class” (p. 333) or even Afro-feminism at the turn of the XXIe century (p. 438). Ultimately, we are witnessing a theorization of the concept of intersectionality that integrates race, class, gender and sexualities, and calls for a “new historical narrative” (p. 444).

If the authors always want to emphasize the convergences and refuse to lock themselves into a “class struggle” or a “race struggle” that would divide women – for example regarding Jane Misme’s place as a “bourgeois” in 1914 – they never avoid the tensions that run through the history of the convergence of struggles. The question of equality was for a long time, at best deferred, most often disqualified, within insurrectional or progressive movements themselves – as shown by the Proudhonian heritage and the divisions of trade unionism.

Not only does the intersection of struggles encounter many hostilities, but it also includes the risk of dissolving the “differential involvement of women” within a movement that encompasses them (p. 79). The tensions are also internal to the feminist struggles themselves. The figure of Hubertine Auclert is representative of this. She bluntly links the fight against “gender privileges” to that against “class privileges” (p. 109); but, faced with political divisions, she dissociates herself from revolutionary struggles, “the struggle of the sexes prevailing for her over the struggle of classes”. In addition, the authors subtly restore the ambivalences of her “colonial feminism” (p. 115).

It is particularly in the contemporary period that the authors excel in restoring the tensions between an institutionalized feminism and a radical feminism, or even the contrasting positions of feminists on secularism, while nevertheless allowing a glimpse of their affinities with the denunciation of the “mythologies of republican universalism” by the American historian Joan Scott, and dismissing feminism without “contextualization or nuances” by Élisabeth Badinter.

The gender prism

The second common thread of this sociohistory is that of the critique of gender norms. Here too, it is a question of revealing the dominant prejudices, including within progressive movements that feminist demands are trying to shake up – the “gender ideology of the triumphant Republic” or the “reaffirmation of the gender order” after the Second World War.

“Feminisms are always pioneers when it comes to thinking about and proposing a more egalitarian society in the area of ​​gender” (p. 130), of which Madeleine Pelletier would be one of the first thinkers. The authors support the usefulness of the distinction between “a moderate feminism”, which defends equality while extending a traditional conception of the family and femininity, and a “radical feminism”, which places at the center of its reflection “a critical position on gender” (p. 131). This dividing line allows them to contrast “lace feminism” reconciling commitment and codes of feminine seduction with the refusal of any mark of femininity advocated by certain figures of the Belle Époque, the opposition of the materialist current to the differentialist and ecofeminist current, or that of feminism advocating the abolition of prostitution in the face of “prosex” feminism embodied by Virginie Despentes.

The work gives pride of place to the pioneers of the deconstruction of the feminine essence (Beauvoir, p. 243), of the “evolutions queer » of the movement (Wittig, p. 330) or of the introduction of the queer theory in France (Bourcier, p. 399). While returning to its source the recurring debate between those who maintain that only the oppressed can theorize their oppression and those who are in favor of opening university institutions to these questions – a debate present since the issue of Supporters from 1970 – the authors defend the consolidation of the institutionalization of feminist studies (p. 377).

Non-mixing and means of expression

The ambition to renew the history of feminisms by re-examining it based on current issues is particularly fruitful on two points. The question of non-mixedness which gave rise to the most outrageous positions, notably during the workshops reserved for black women at the University of Paris VIIIis illuminated by the genealogy of which this claim is the object.

From the Saint-Simonian journals which affirmed the unity of a “we, women” (p. 45) to the non-mixed nature of the Union of Socialist Women created in 1880 (p. 110), from the journal of Marguerite Durant The sling At the beginning of XXe century to non-mixedness having become an “identification trait” of the Women’s Liberation Movement after May 68, it is still the need to free speech that is at stake. While, in the 1990s, non-mixedness was considered outdated, its usefulness was reaffirmed by collectives such as Mwasi, which did not prevent aspirations for unity, as in the demonstrations organized by #NousToutes.

Because social networks and the #MeToo moment are renewing the question of the relationship between feminism and communication, the attention paid to the means of expression and the evolution of terminology is particularly interesting. From the retrospective description of the feminists of 1789 to the change in meaning of the “knitting women”, from the verve of little-known feminist figures like Léonie Rouzade to the neologism “feminist” invented by the misogynist Dumas fils, from the novelists who heralded the literary movement of negritude like Suzanne Lacascade and Paulette Nardal to the Algerian activist writers in a colonial situation, from the difficulties of introducing the notion of queer or the concept of gender to the transformation of the term “intersectionality” into an adjective and the emergence of the term “racialized”, to the current work of redefining the notions of harassment and femicide, language and expression are an integral part of this history.

“History is a battleground in itself,” wrote Christine Delphy in 1980 (quoted p. 352). She feared that the history of the feminist movement would be forgotten, as well as that some of its principles would be called into question, due to their incomprehension. The genealogical effort pursued by this work fights in a salutary way against an amnesia that has the effect of exacerbating tensions and weakening emancipation movements.

However, we will regret the lack of theorization of the promised genealogy. While we understand the desire to “not conclude” a history that is yet to come (p. 484), the very short introduction is not enough to give the reader a conceptualization of the chosen prisms, nor a sufficiently precise vision of a sociohistory that announces its preference to “avoid the metaphor of waves” (p. 9), yet reaffirmed as a “temporal marker” and “identity” (p. 470). There is no doubt, however, that the work will be useful and stimulating for the students to whom it is addressed.