The Purloined Gender : American Feminism in a French Mirror



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The Purloined Gender :

American Feminism in a French Mirror

Éric Fassin, Département de Sciences Sociales, École normale supérieure


“Uncle Sam and Love” : thus begins, with a droll though ominous title, an editorial by Jacques Julliard, in the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (2-8 January, 1997). In his essay on feminism and sexuality, the French historian focuses on America’s public enemy “since the days of the stagecoach : today no less than yesterday, it’s love.” He then goes on : “Everything has been attempted in order to eradicate it : first repression, i.e. Puritanism. Then trivialization, i.e. the sexual liberation, with its flood of scientific surveys and sexual prattle. And ultimately, the final solution, i.e. American-style feminism.” Of course, this could be irony — were it not for the allusion to the Holocaust, which is usually no joking matter. The shrill tone and radical rhetoric do strike the reader as unnecessarily extreme : when Julliard reports on “the hysterical climate that astonishes all travelers” in the United States, why should he use a hysterical tone in the supposedly gentler climate of France ?

Indeed, after a short visit to a New England college, this eminent intellectual can confirm the worst fears of his readers, and the darkest reports of his fellow travelers. “I can assure you that the unfortunate boys who ventured into enemy territory had a cowered look — while the girls could only talk about one thing. Moreover, in order to escape the alleged lust of these males, the women had managed to hide their secondary sexual characters so well that it felt like Mao’s China, and not the heart of Massachusetts.” After the journalist’s facts, comes the man’s opinion : “In my view, under the circumstances, the sexual assaults whose threat these women feared weren’t so much criminal as heroic.” Here is, according to Jacques Julliard, the logical consequence of the war of the sexes, understood as the war against love. If feminism is incompatible with eroticism, harassing sexually undifferentiated women would require a real sacrifice on the part of men. Such is Uncle Sam’s burden.


Gender and National Culture
What seems most remarkable in this frightening fantasy, composed by a historian and journalist, is neither its sweeping historical generalizations (cramming Puritans and feminists, not to forget Kinsey and Marcuse, into the same “stagecoach”), nor its somewhat hasty reporting (my personal experience, after teaching in the United States for a few years, is that I can distinguish between male and female students as successfully as in France). Even the rhetoric, after all, is not so new : a few years ago, in a diatribe against (so-called) “political correctness” within American universities, Jean-François Revel, in the right-of-center weekly Le Point (March 20, 1993), coined the phrase “concentration campus” — a French version of the infamous “feminazis”. But what remains perhaps most remarkable is that in France such a venomous critique of feminism is not to be found only (as would be the case in the United States) among conservatives, such as Revel, but also among progressives, such as Julliard. Nor is it a male prerogative : at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings, liberal philosopher Elisabeth Badinter used similar arguments in Le Nouvel Observateur against American feminists, denouncing this twentieth-century “witchhunt” (October 17-23, 1991). The considerable rhetorical power of her argument relied on the masculinization of the witch, and the feminization of the witch-hunters, but also on the conventional Americanness of the reference, from Salem’s Puritans to McCarthy’s anti-Communism. In the same way today, Julliard mixes gender rhetoric and national rhetoric, feminism and Americanness. Though anti-feminism and anti-Americanism do make strange bedfellows, to borrow a phrase from Judith Ezekiel, theirs is a “politically successful marriage.”1

The article is thus particularly interesting insofar as it is not idiosyncratic — on the contrary. This is no personal fantasy ; it plays on widespread stereotypes, and reflects, if not common sense, at least conventional wisdom. As a consequence, it cannot be explained away in purely psychological terms : it would not do to dismiss Julliard as Anita Hill’s critics once tried to do, by suggesting that “hell hath no fury like a Frenchman scorned.” It may then become tempting to interpret such a rhetoric, found across the ideological spectrum (right and left), and beyond gender divisions (including in feminist discourse), as an expression of “Frenchness”. This is how French reactions to “sexual harassment” (for example) are often analyzed in the United States : from newspapers to academic journals, the culturalist logic prevails. The very existence of the phrase “droit de cuissage” becomes an argument in its own right. And the specificity of the French legal definition of sexual harassment makes it possible “to measure the influence of national identity.” More generally, the reluctance (all too common in France) to resort to the category of “gender” (perceived as an American construct) is generally assumed to be rooted in French culture. The political risk, of course, is to confirm “the French” in their suspicion that, indeed, “gender” does not translate well (despite the “barely gallicized rendition, genre”), because the concept is foreign to their culture : “untranslatability” could ultimately justify “resistance” and “refusal,” “repression” and “denial”2. Paradoxically, the culturalist critique thus reinforces, rather than undermines, the cultural prejudice it purports to oppose.

Beyond this political difficulty, such an argument raises at least three interrelated theoretical problems, all linked to the use of the notion of “culture”. The first can be defined as an expressive fallacy. Cultural facts are not the “expression” of some underlying culture : culture is not acting through us. “Culture” is an analytical construct, not a cause. In fact, culture is no explanation ; it is that which must be explained. The second I would call the synecdochal fallacy — mistaking the part for the whole, intellectuals for French society. Intellectuals are not the voice of France, and their reactions ought to be studied for their own sake. It will come as no surprise that this fallacy should be so alluring to intellectuals, who are naturally inclined to believe they “represent” (with both meanings of the word) society. The third one may be named the specular fallacy : we are trapped in a mirror game, when a discourse on Americanness is accounted for in terms of its Frenchness. The national “explanation” (the Gallic nature of the French) merges with the national “argument” (the Puritan nature of the Americans). We are thus confusing an explanation with what is in fact a rhetorical weapon.

But the question can be turned around : instead of addressing national character, French or American, it may prove more rewarding to start by analyzing the rhetoric of national character in its transatlantic applications. The question is no longer : “What does the French reaction to American ‘gender trouble’ reveal about the Frenchness of the French?” It becomes : “Why has gender today become a matter of national interest” — at least (though not only) between France and the United States ? This question is raised by Joan W. Scott in the context of the controversy surrounding French historian Mona Ozouf’s latest opus, Les Mots des femmes : essai sur la singularité française — a book combining ten literary portraits of women, from Madame du Deffand and Madame de Charrière to Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir, with a long philosophical essay opposing French feminism, and femininity, to an American countermodel. I want to address this question, taking the book, and the controversy, as the starting point of my argument — not in order to discuss the “French exception” itself, but so as to apprehend the recent reactivation of the “nationalization” of gender in transatlantic intellectual discourse3. What are we to make of the rhetoric of national character (both Frenchness and Americanness), in its application to gender ? Mona Ozouf’s essay is a crucial piece in the current debate, both for what it creates, and for what it reflects : it is important because of its impact, and interesting because it weaves together (to use a metaphor she might appreciate) all the threads of the current arguments. My purpose is first to disentangle them. How does this rhetoric work ? This leads to a second question : what is the function of this rhetoric ? My hope is thus to help decipher a double puzzle. If what we’re discussing is gender, why should national character play such a prominent role in the debate ? And if we’re discussing transatlantic matters, what’s love gotta do with it ?


The French exception : the empire of women
A recent American novel, with a French title, focuses on transatlantic love, and its corollaries : cultural stereotyping, and misunderstandings. Diane Johson’s Le Divorce handles with delightful irony, through the eyes of her Jamesian heroine (Isabel Walker) the sunny version of the Gallic singularity : this is a contemporary version of the “international theme” inherited from classic American novels. A husband deserts both his child and his pregnant wife, leaving her for another woman. He is (to her) quintessentially French : Charles-Henri de Persand is an aristocrat (with a family mansion in Chartres), whereas Roxy (to him) is not just an American : she is from California (indeed, from Santa Barbara). Despite her sad fate, sweet Roxy still believes in French exceptionalism :

She thought him the perfect husband, polite, helpful, and ardent. “The Anglo-Saxon male style is entirely different, all those obligatory football games and beer, their lack of interest in household matters, their notion that it would be somehow unmanly to take an interest in the dishes or tablecloths,” she said. “Charles-Henri is capable of appreciating a soup tureen.”

The word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ makes it clear : she has adopted a ‘French’ perspective. Her sister Isabel is sincerely willing to do just that :

She is right that French men seem to have a pleasant air of collaboration with women, an air of being in the business of life together — marriage, society. It is quite unlike the atmosphere of strained toleration or active dislike between the sexes we seem to have at home.

Paris is not Santa Barbara. But Isabel’s naïveté does not stop her curiosity : she also wants to hear a French woman’s point of view.

But when I said this once to Roxy’s friend Anne-Chantal Lartigue, who lives near us across the Place Maubert, she sniffed. “Don’t be deceived,” she said. “They are cads, like other men, spoiled by their mothers, unfaithful and evasive.” Of course, being French she ought to know, but possibly she doesn’t understand what other men are like — the non-French ones, like Americans, or the Muslims, say, who are said to seem nice until they get you back to Turkey or Algeria.

The involuntary irony of the narrator’s tone is underlined by the deliberate irony of the situation, i.e. by the author’s tone : this is, after all, a book about a bitter divorce, not about the harmony of the sexes4.

Taken at face value, the theme of a natural harmony of French gender relations, in contrast to American acrimony, is the positive side of the singularity attributed to France in recent debates. According to Mona Ozouf, what foreign visitors such as David Hume (“France is the land of women” : 323) and Montesquieu’s Persans (“the familiarity of commerce between the sexes” : 331) witnessed and analyzed in the eighteenth century, which is also what women such as Madame de Staël and Madame de Rémusat praised after the Revolution (“a talkative, lively France” : 331), remains equally true today : even feminism has “in France a peaceful quality, either reasonable enough or too timid, depending on the perspective” (11). This irenic view was first developed in the recent years by Michèle Sarde, and more influentially later by Elisabeth Badinter5. It has recently become conventional wisdom in some intellectual circles. Not of course that everyone agrees with this soothing portrait of a kinder, gentler France : Michelle Perrot criticizes what she calls “a history without conflicts.” But at the same time, she has to recognize that such an optimistic vision is popular, and therefore credible, in France today :

This may in part account for the success of the book. Beyond its intrinsic qualities, the beauty of endearing portraits, drawn with superb style, it does reinforce the perception of a sexually pacific France, in which men and women, despite their disagreements, know how to talk about love.6

Whether this is an accurate picture, or not, the fact is that many in France, women as well as men, are willing to believe it is true : se non è vero, è bello. Such a belief may be founded on an illusion ; it is nonetheless a social reality.

What Mona Ozouf adds to this pretty picture is an explanation. For this, she relies in part on a short essay published in Le Débat by political philosopher Philippe Raynaud, in 1989, as a contribution to a dossier devoted to the commemoration of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. Raynaud did start with the same interrogation, namely, “why are the relations between men and women so different in France from what they are in other democracies ?”7 In fact, as is generally the case in this debate, “other democracies” tends to mean “Anglo-Saxon” countries, soon to be restricted to “America,” i.e. the United States — the rhetorical homeland of (the other) democracy since Tocqueville. Somewhat paradoxically, Raynaud’s answer turns the classical liberal analysis upside down. For Louis Hartz, “the liberal tradition in America” (as opposed to Europe, and in particular France), was defined by the double absence of Revolution and Counter-Revolution, in other words of socialism and reaction :

One of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition. [...] It lacks also a tradition of reaction : lacking Robespierre it lacks Maistre.8

In Raynaud’s argument, by contrast, the Old Regime redeems democratic society : for him, the heritage of an absolutist past does not make France more violent, but rather less vindictive. Modern French civility is inherited from the court and the salons of the past : hence (according to him) the importance, even today, of Gallic gallantry. This idea is further developed in the work of literary historian Marc Fumaroli on “conversation” in the Old Regime9 : in the same way, civility asserts the cultural power of women, as rulers of manners. Women are the instrument par excellence of the civilizing process. This is the foundation of Raynaud’s neo-tocquevillian contrast between America and France :

In the birthland of equality, feminism is the somewhat embittered spearhead of the democratic claim ; on the contrary, in the land of absolutist monarchy, women provide revolutionary passions with their most humane expression. (185)

The problem is of course that French “galanterie”, though it may be considered to bring forth “a particular form of equality” (as “it compensates for the inequality between the sexes”), can also be analyzed as “an attempt to refine male domination”as Raynaud knows all too well (182). Ozouf is faced with the same difficulty, though she seems less aware of it : for her too, “the art of women civilizes men” (326). And she may envision, if not (as the Persans do) “under the guise of equality, the reality of women’s supremacy”, at least, “a form of equality between the sexes” (327). But could it not be that the harmony of the sexes is purchased at the expense of equality ? And is the lack of a real answer in this book simply due to the fact that Mona Ozouf, as suggested by Geneviève Fraisse, “is more interested in the liberty of women than in equality between the sexes”10 ? In fact, Ozouf’s discussion of equality only becomes fully explicit as she moves from the Old Regime to the Revolution, from Montesquieu to Rousseau, from manners to politics. She cannot ignore the revolutionary paradox :

What we have here is a mystery that can only be compared to the one Quinet analyzed : the illuminating promise of liberty, on the threshold of the Revolution, opened the way to the Terror ; and after the promise of emancipation for women came a new servitude. (342)

Why this aborted emancipation ? And is not the political exclusion of women, as studied by Fraisse, an integral part of the revolutionary project ?
The French exception : the power of men
This is in fact the other, darker side of the French exception : as the empire of civility gives way to civic power, women are excluded from democracy. As “secret agents of the past” (346), women are confined to tradition, if not treason. The brotherhood of citizenship is not open to sisterhood. And as we know, from contemporary discussions of “parité,” this “démocratie exclusive” (Fraisse) is not only a thing of the past. But Mona Ozouf, who is first and foremost a historian of the Revolution, does not accept the radical critique developed at the time of the Bicentennial, “the idea that the Revolution, in which the freedom of women as well as men was supposed to prevail, should have ended in the historic defeat of women” (14) This indictment is ascribed to “American historians”, or rather “historiennes” (and here we may have a clue to the nationalization of the gender issue):

According to Joan W. Scott and Carole Pateman, the scandalous paradox of the French Revolution is that universality should be embodied in the white male’s particularity. (352)

In reaction against this negative vision, Ozouf insists on the importance of time : it may be true that “a Republic that will not acknowledge its past does, at least temporarily, entail the defeat of women.” (347). But more importantly (to her), the Revolution definitively delegitimizes inequality. Even if it temporarily reinforces it, “it does announce that, at least in the long term, it will be stopped” (352). “Au moins provisoirement,” “au moins à terme” : with these qualifications, we are in a logic of postponement, difference accounted for by deferment (“différance”).

The Revolution has just introduced into the lives of women, alongside the idea of Progress, the musical phrase : “some day will come”.[...] This is not only a delay, but also a promise (352).

Equality is simply a matter of time— for women, of patience, and for society, of delay.

This is where the classical question of the French “retard” for women’s suffrage becomes crucial. And this is where Ozouf’s restoration of the Old Regime, derived from Raynaud, is counterbalanced by her rehabilitation of the Revolution, based on Rosanvallon. In his history of French citizenship studied through the prism of suffrage, Pierre Rosanvallon discusses women’s fate in comparative terms in order to understand French “specificity” :

How can we explain that a century should separate male universal suffrage (1848) from women’s suffrage (1944), while this delay is much shorter everywhere else ? How can we explain that the political rights of women should have been recognized in France much later than in countries with an uneven democratic tradition and an unlikely feminist culture, such as India (1921), the Philippines (1937), or Turkey (1934), not to mention the major liberal democracies ?

Rosanvallon’s answer (based essentially, once again, on the transatlantic contrast) is striking (though puzzling) in its beautiful simplicity. According to him, we need not look at specific historical circumstances, such as the weight of Catholicism and the opposition of the Republican Senate. We need not resort to the problematic notion of mentalités , or culture. The key is the universalist model of citizenship that prevails in France, in contrast to the utilitarian model of representation adopted in America.

In France, Rosanvallon argues, group interests (and interest groups) have no legitimacy — the Republic will only recognize abstract individuals : “women are deprived of the right to vote because of their specificity, because they are not pure abstract individuals” — whereas by contrast, in America, “they are called upon to vote not as individuals, but as women”. It is because of their social difference that in the United States women were granted the vote, while in France it was denied to them for the same reason :

The French delay can thus be explained mostly in terms of the resistance of Gallic political culture to the utilitarian philosophy of the representation of interests. The idea of legitimating a “women’s sphere” has long been identified with a kind of archaic resurgence of the old organic conception of society. For this reason, the political emancipation of women could only follow the beginning of their civil emancipation, by contrast to what happened in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries.

In America, women could feminize democracy, whereas in France, femininity had first to be democratized. The paradox is thus that the delay in women’s suffrage is not due to some French cultural archaism, but to the form political modernity takes in the wake of the Revolution :

Paradoxically, it is the universalist definition of an abstract political link that delayed women’s suffrage in France.11

The other French exception, or rather the downside of the French singularity, is thus accounted for in positive terms : in matters of gender equality, France turns out always to have been modern — not only in the realm of manners, since the Old Regime, but even in the republic of citizenship, since the Revolution.

Paradoxical differences
A major difficulty remains. How can Ozouf combine the two arguments, Rosanvallon’s and Raynaud’s, and reconcile the two models, the Old Regime and the Revolution ? How can the two French exceptions (or the two sides of the same singularity), one positive (the harmony of the sexes), and one negative (the democratic delay of women’s rights), be integrated ? Here we need to take a closer look at the paradoxical use of difference in Mona Ozouf’s argument, linked to the contradictory use of difference in the arguments of Raynaud and Rosanvallon. The history of citizenship in France is founded on the rejection of gender difference, whereas the history of civility embraces it : “difference” is French, in manners (according to Raynaud); in politics, it is American (according to Rosanvallon). Ozouf is aware of the problem, and offers a theoretical solution : just as, according to Louis Dumont, in contrast to the German national, “the Frenchman sees himself in the mirror as human [homme], by nature, and French, by accident” (381), in the same way, by contrast to Americans, gender difference is secondary in the definition of French women : universality comes first — although it does not eliminate difference.

It is indeed somewhat simplistic to oppose equality feminism (supposed to be the genuine version of French feminism) to difference feminism (essentially Anglo-Saxon). While it is true that French women experience their specificity without the anguish and recrimination expressed by American women, is it not rather that differences are in France subjected, and not opposed to equality ? (381)

In order to understand fully this complex theoretical construct, we need to retrace a double logical movement. On the one hand, following Tocqueville, Ozouf argues that the democratic movement towards equality is a threat against social, and specifically sexual differentiation, thus creating “the widespread fear (shared by women as well) of a world without qualities, of a gray, inhuman abstraction” (351). This is why she can interpret the revolutionary exclusion of women, against the grain of democratic modernization, as an attempt at conjuring this new fear : “The men of the Revolution obscurely felt that the movement they had initiated led to the loss of differentiation.”(ibid.)

But on the other hand, and in opposition to Tocqueville, Ozouf does not find in the American solution of the “separate spheres” a modern ideal : ironically, segregation leads to “the early emergence of a radical feminism in America” (360), whereas for her, the French “métissage” (passim), far from leading to the disappearance of sexual difference, is the only way to preserve gender as a civilizing agent. In fact, according to her, both the sacralization of difference, and its demonization, the sexes segregated, or undifferentiated, are the two sides of the same (American) coin, and against this double peril she defines what we could call a French “juste milieu”, in which you can enjoy differences while remaining “deeply convinced that the abstract equality between individuals will prevail over differences no matter what” (381). According to this picture, in France, difference is harmoniously integrated, i.e. subordinated.


Hence the absence of homosexuality from the French picture, and its presence on the American side : “American women [...] elevate the homosexual intercourse between women as the model of pleasure without domination” (p. 387). By contrast, once French femininity, and feminism, are defined by the “mixité” of “métissage”, homosexuality becomes unthinkable, as it is defined, according to Ozouf, by the double stigma of radical democratization — a lack of differentiation, and an excess of segregation. Homosexuality, or rather lesbianism : only women, through the politics of feminism, carry the power to undermine the harmony of the sexes, since they are invested with the responsibility of preserving it. This appears clearly in Ozouf’s presentation of Colette : Sodom is no Gomorrha. Men may well disregard the other sex — lesbians cannot : without men, they are “orphaned”.

The ‘ladies in jackets’ remain spurious, hostile critics of men, which only proves they never forget them. Ultimately, there is but one homosexuality — that of men. Between women, the love impulse rises after they have been hurt by men, and in the hope they will heal. (246)

This may be free indirect speech, but the next two sentences clearly demonstrate the convergence of Colette’s with Ozouf’s perspective :

This also shows that, however foreign they may be, between the worlds of men and women, there is sometimes an encounter. However brief, perilous, and unluckyit may be, nevertheless, it bears the resounding, though perhaps overrated, name of love. (ibid.)

In France, according to this analysis, heterosexual love conquers all — even the modern democratization of gender. The traditional theme, criticized for example by Geneviève Fraisse, of “the alleged incompatibility of love and feminism,”12 thus becomes with Mona Ozouf the incompatibility of American feminism with heterosexual love.





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