Feminism and beyond in May 68

France’s May 68 not only created space for the emergence of a radical gay movement in the country (with the FHAR), but a parallel feminist movement as well, as expressed in the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF).  We share a history of the movement by Françoise Picq (however much we may disagree with her evaluation of the MLF’s radicalism, her account, that of a former member of the group, remains of value), and a contemporary reflection on the limits of the May 68 imaginary for thinking through “women’s liberation”, by Paul B. Preciado (in translation).

Feminism in France in the seventies : the MLF

Françoise Picq

(from archeologia.women.it)

The woman’s liberation movement sprang in France in nineteen seventy. MLF, Mouvement de Libération des femmes, was the name gave to it, and accepted as a common appellation by all the groups, which eventually added a specific name. In nineteen seventy-nine, the name MLF was appropriate by a single group, and that was the end of that movement I am talking of : the feminist movement in France in the seventies, the MLF. Twenty or thirty years have passed then, and taking this history into account is necessary and difficult. Memory and history have to collaborate and check each other.

A question was usual, in that time : “Where do you speak from?” I continue to think that it is a good question, even if it has been badly used sometimes. To say who you are to say what you say, and to inform your auditors about the point of view they will hear is just intellectually honest. So I shall begin by answering that question, which is not as simple as it looks like.

I have been an activist in the MLF. As so I have my part of experience to transmit. This personal experience is irreplaceable to know facts and persons, to understand the controversies. I have a duty to transmit this memory to young or “next genderation” and to restore truth about a story that have been so much distorted, forgotten and censured. But I am conscious of the dangers of that position. How could I help giving my personal interpretation about what I lived ? about this movement that was so important in my life?

But this is not my main purpose. I pretend to undertake a feminist history. I know the special difficulties that goes with studying a “past that is not dead”, that is still in the words and experience of living people, and they may be increased by my personal participation to it. Anyway I aim to understand the past, with the methods and criteria used for the History for actual time. History differs from memory in its relation to the past (not only remembered but put to a certain distance), in its taking into account of the sources (all the sources, and not only the ones that restore a threatened truth), in its systematic conduct to knowledge, building and checking social facts [Noiriel, 1999]. A feminist history is not a history of feminism, taking feminism as an object of study, without personal implication. Feminist studies, when accepting academic criteria in research, do not forsake feminist contributions to criticism of traditional knowledge. That is why it has to take personal implication and methodological distance as two complementary means. It is with that conception that I proposed to the CNRS a research about “The MLF and its social effects”[Picq, 1987] deciding to read again with new questions all the written, to interview participants with a critical approach, to confront words to facts, goals to effects, intentions to results. Transmuting fundamental statements of the Movement into research hypothesis reveals to be especially heuristic. They have to be understood on different levels : the political reason of the statement, the reality about it, the explication of the gap between what the women’s movement pretended to do and what it actually did. This helps to propose an analyse quite different of the process of the Movement. But, for me, it is the way to be faithful to a Movement that wanted to be conscious of what it was doing and to an engagement that has to face itself.

The first question that I shall take into account is that of history, and the place of the MLF in it. 1970 was proclaimed as “Year zero” of women’s liberation, ignoring the long history of women’s fight in France. Rebuilding this history needs to understand the reasons why this movement had to consider itself as a radically new movement, when it was beginning a new and historical step.

The second question is that of sociology. The MLF wanted to be the movement of “All women”. It was a political choice, necessary to give legitimacy to feminist fight, with women’s only group to express it and a new definition of politics to chose its agenda, including personal. Anyway the actual sociology of the MLF helps to understand the evolution of the society and the part of the MLF in it.

The third question is political. The MLF was a radical movement, imagining no other way to change women’s part than a complete change of the society. But at the end it helped to change women’s part while no “revolution” has been done and it helped the society to evolve and find a new balance.

On that three questions the gaps between words and facts are very useful to understand the reality of this movement and its part in the social change. We then will have to wonder on the specificity of the MLF, which was the French version of an international trend of the seventies, and the particular shape of feminism in that very particular moment that followed May 68.

1 The MLF and the history of feminism

The first journal by the MLF bore on its cover this shocking words : “Libération des femmes, année zéro”(Women’s liberation : year zero)[Partisans, 1970]. How can it be that the feminism when springing anew, ignored the history in which it was taking place ? Was it that this young women ignored the so long fight of their elders for their rights ? or was it that they did not recognise themselves in theses fights ?

First we must realise in what “black out” were maintained women’s fights in France in the sixties. The history of France, told the long and glorious struggle of people for freedom, and for social justice. The exclusion of women in each step of this fight was just ignored. The collective memory of women’s fight has vanished because of the lack of a group to keep it alive. Even Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 doubt that women have ever tried to play as women a part in history. Feminism, she said, cannot be “an autonomous movement” [de Beauvoir, 1949]. It is only after the revival of feminism that the long story of women’s fight began to come out of the nothing.

“Women’s liberation, Year zero!”: it sounds like a revolutionary declaration. In France, Revolution belongs to the political tradition. The great revolution of 1789 is printed in our collective memory as an archetype for history-making. It left revolutionary style as an heritage, preferring political breaking, pretending to be the very beginning and to aim at a complete change, demanding all or nothing [Winock, 1986]. In every moment of the revolutionary process, women were there, participating to the people’s fight with their own means, like women marching to Versailles in July 1789 to claim bread and to take the King and his family back to Paris (but the national history chose to remember the Bastille as the symbol of the Revolution). But through this revolution, women were also fighting for their own vindication. Women could think their own situation with the arguments of the revolutionists. No doubt that the themes of Human Right, of Natural Right helps considering equality between men and women. That can be said a feminist movement, before the word even exists [Rowbotham, 1972].

How could it be possible that women are excluded of these principles that were proclaimed on that “year zero” of the Rights of Man? “Natural Rights, said Condorcet, proceed from the fact that men are sensitive people, able to receive moral ideas and to reason upon them. Women, gifted with the same qualities, must have exactly the same rights”. When the National Assembly voted the solemn Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Olympe de Gouges asked it to proclaim the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen. This pretension was perceived as scandalous, and Olympe de Gouges learnt that women have the right to go up to the scaffold, but not to the tribune. The same way, the Club of Republican Revolutionary Citizens was forbidden and women prohibited to meet. Nature, they were said, gave rights to men but duties to women, they have to stay at home and take care of the family [Duhet, 1971]. This odd conception of a dual Nature, with two opposite destinies for men and women can be found in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, theorist of the Revolution and The Social Contract, who also advocated the relegation of women in the domestic sphere, under the law of the husband. The winning revolution invented a citizenship with two levels. Women (with children, servants and poor people) will be “passive” citizens, protected by the law but not allowed to participate in the decision making process by electing representatives.

French feminism sprang from that contradiction between principles pretending to be universal, and women’s exclusion from them. It is a protest about this exclusion within the conception of 1789. It demands equal rights for women, in the name of the Natural Rights, arguing women were unfairly excluded and that either each human individual or none has the same right. Later, feminism resulted from the utopian socialism and the revolution of 1830, but once again the proletarian Saint simoniennes were abandoned by their so-called allies. Once again, during the social revolution of 1848, the one who brought the “universal” suffrage, feminists gathered for the rights of women, but were betrayed by the winners, though women played a very important part in the mobilisation and the organisation of the people against exploitation and political exclusion. Let’s remember Flora Tristan pleading, before Karl Marx, for the working class union, and underlining the alliance required between those excluded of the democracy, woman (“the proletarian of the proletarian”) and workers. And the part of Jeanne Deroin in the first amalgamation of 104 Trade Unions in 1840.

Women were present and active in the Commune of Paris in 1871 and repressed like men. When the Republic built a new society affirming unity and solidarity of the Nation, progressively forging rules and democratic behaviour, a large feminist movement developed, with numerous associations, representing various political trends, whether liberal, radical or socialist, but aiming at unity and autonomy. It discussed and formulated concrete demands in its Congress and mobilisations : equal rights in civil life (that is to say reforms of the Civil Code), suffrage, but also vindication of education, the right to go to universities, to work, and even -yet- free motherhood. “Universalism” is the founding principle of citizenship and the republican pattern intends to reduce differences that could divide the Nation (as religions, social or ethnic origins), and to outdoor them from the Res publica as private choices. But the sexual difference was put apart of that principles. Like the Revolutionists of 1789, Republicans wanted to keep this difference as the guarantee of sexual relations between sexes. And feminism was perceived as a danger for that necessary intercourse. The Republic had excluded women from the “universalism” it was building, but feminists remained unwastingly attached to the republican principles and values [Klejman et Rochefort, 1989. Bard, 1995].

At each moment of the history of France, a feminist movement developed within the social movement, demanding the same rights for women, arguing with the words of the time and drawing its logic more further than the most advanced leaders of the social movement were ready to support. Every time, feminism looks ahead of its time.

It is only after World War II and the victory upon fascism that French women obtained the equal rights feminism has demanded for so long. In the end, the new Republic proclaimed: “The Law guarantees to woman, in every domain, rights equal to those of man”. The so long fight of women for equal right was finally victorious, but the feminist movement which demanded it had vanished, and the history did not recognise its part in this post-dead victory.

Most of the seventies feminists ignored the history of feminism. But proclaiming “Women’s liberation, year zero” was also announcing a new way of thinking. This new generation no more vindicated “women’s rights”, because those very rights were hardly won, but also because equal rights no longer appeared as the goal to reach. It then claimed freedom, protesting against women being dominated, exploited, locked up in traditional parts. Born from May 68, it stated the women issue using the words and the style of this movement. Most of the women who were at the beginning of the MLF were previously activists in other political movements. The elders have been trained during the sixties, fighting against the war in Algeria, then the war in Vietnam. They learned revolutionary yearning from the May 68’s movement, sharing with men of this political generation the hope to change society, its power structure and its values, pretending to “change life”.

But to initiate a feminist movement women had to become feminists. This is to say that they had to break up with theories and involvement that have always put women issues behind, considering it as secondary, subordinate or less urgent, asking women to be devoted to other causes (to colonised people or to the working class). Becoming feminists was not so easy, because they had no feminist références, they knew nothing about the history of feminism and believed in that caricatured image of feminists by the labour movement as “bourgeois”, and by the rest of society as frustrated prudish old maids. Simone de Beauvoir gave a new way of considering women (not born so, but made so) and a new way of thinking inequality (one is inferior when kept in inferiority, the question is : must that situation go on ?). But, in 1949 she did not indicate the way of a collective struggle to change women’s position. May 68, valuing liberation fights, brought the missing point. Marxism was then the way to analyse social structures, and it could explain why and how women were still inferior, thought supposed to be equal in rights. It gave a useful pattern to see the relationship between men and women (not yet called genders) from a sociological point of view. Women were not seen as a natural aggregate, defined by biological specificity, but as a social group defined by social relationship between women and men.

To become feminist is not to understand intellectually the dominated position of women in a patriarchal society, it is to feel personally concerned by the sex oppression, conscious to be a member of an inferior group and revolted by this depreciation.

The May 68 conception of politics allowed women issues to be raised in a new and subversive way. It stated that “everything is political”, aiming to redefine collectives issues, to enlarge political domain to everyday life and privacy. It scorned the traditional view of politics as a specific activity monopolised by representatives that are elected to decide instead of each citizen. The goal became deciding for one’s self, taking control over one’s life. The women statement that “Personal is political too” is part of that new definition. It states that private life, sexuality, and relationships between men and women are political issues, in a time when politics was valued as the way to a radical social transformation. Personal experiences, and not theories, were then the root-stock to understand women’s oppression. Women became the objects and subjects of their own struggle, choosing the means and ends of their own liberation. In their involvement in the collective fight, each one aimed to exist as an individual and as member of a collective. The campaign for free abortion was a successful illustration of that conception of politics. It asserted the absolute right to choose, denying any gender part. It put into question the sexual status, the assignation to biological destiny And it directly confronted the Law, challenging the State to repress or to abolish it.

Originated in May 68, the new women’s movement, went further in its conceptions, and challenged men while applying their political conceptions to women issues. Radical feminism simply applied Marxist analysis about class exploitation to women. It analysed patriarchy as a domestic mode of production which existed before capitalism and continued by its side. That conception shows women as a social group, sharing common interests, and men, personally or collectively, taking advantage of women exploitation.

Women felt to be unconsidered as individuals in the revolutionary movement, and their problems put aside and held up to ridiculous. In France, like in the States, they were fed up playing subordinated roles, they denounced the sexual division of labour among activists : men did the thinking, formulated the theory, organised and made decisions, women worked the mimeograph machines, distributed leaflets. So they followed the example of the American feminists, breaking up inside the New left to form women-only groups. The MLF, educated to the leftist criticism, valued direct democracy, spontaneity and radicalism. Considering that it is impossible to imagine women’s liberation within the current system, it intended to destroyed it, and it saw reformism as a danger, because partial improvements could demobilise activists.

The MLF bloomed in the leftist culture of contestation, and it developed a radical criticism toward the leftists themselves. It underlined incoherence in their behaviour and limits within the revolutionary projects. It denounced the vanguard’s authority as maintaining power relationships within the groups and over the people. It put into question all the revolutionary dogmas : the primacy of class struggle and economic changes, the necessity of a Party to lead the Revolution.

For itself, the MLF decided to be a completely spontaneous and democratic movement without any power or hierarchy. Regarding liberation as a self process, it considered that no one could decide in place of another what to do or think or how to liberate oneself, that each social group have to chose its goals and ways of fighting. And the MLF born from May 68 pushed far away the changes in political conception that this movement has initiated.

2 The MLF : whose women?

Though not pretending to represent other women, the MLF wanted to be the movement of all women. That is to say not only the one of women who joined its meetings or demonstrations but also of women in their houses, feeling oppressed, exploited, angry, and even of women who were not conscious of the oppression. The legitimacy of the feminist movement needed to see women as a social group sharing a situation of oppression and common interests, in spite of the social divisions between them. The fight for liberation had to be a fight for women as a totality, opposing them to men, in the same way that Marxism used to oppose the struggling classes. It refused any partition between those who were beginning the action and the group that was giving a sense to the mobilisation.

Years after, it is more interesting to wonder which women were involved in this movement and where the lines were drawn. It could help to understand peculiarities of this movement, actual aims of mobilisation and influence it exercised over society. Yet we initiated an inquiry within women who had begun the MLF in Paris [GEF, 1991]. We asked them many questions about their social origin, their family cultural traditions, their political experiences, their choices in private life, their professional and personal itinerary before and after their participation in the movement. This has helped us to consider a feminist movement very disparate by the age, social origins or familial situation : neither the leftist anathema of “bourgeois'”, nor the images by the media could explain the feminist involvement. But we found several particularities that could illustrate their engagement. They often came from families with a tradition of humanism, social or political engagement. They often had mothers and grand mothers in advance upon their time, with personal independence or cultural will. Several of them came from large families of girls where gender’s divisions has to be reformed

Comparing their social, cultural and personal itinerary with socio-economic trends of this period is very instructive. The feminists illustrated with emphasise the democratisation and feminisation of university before and after Mai 68. They also portrayed the decreasing of traditional middle class, tradespeople and craftsmen and the growing of a new one : “medium and upper wage earner strata” grew between 1954 and 1981 from 9 % to more than 20 %. In their personal and professional choices, they showed peculiarities. Their investment in university seems exceptional (compared with the one of women of their generation, their social origin or even their family), so do their preference for public sector and intellectual professions. Their attitude toward marriage and motherhood was also special in that time : less marriages, more divorces, homosexuality. They had children (when they had), later than women at this time and often out of marriage. Those choices seemed very coherent with the MLF claiming. Prolongation of studies, preference for intellectual professions and the refusal of marriage and traditional motherhood appeared like strategies to avoid positions of dependence or to delay the moment of taking up a definitive status. Often the initial refusal turned into an adjournment, but it was the way to change norms that were disputed. They often turned their activism into professional engagement.

What is interesting is not that the feminists are different from “all women”, it is that these particularities became a wide trend in the whole society. Statistics showed that marriage had decreased in France after 1972, (from 416.000 weddings to 265.000 in 1987), that cohabitation became usual in every social groups, that birth out of marriage increased (from 6 % to 40 %). Marginal choices of the feminists revealed as announcing evolutions in the family patterns, which splat in several configurations: free union, with or without cohabitation, single motherhood, recombined families, homosexuality…

Actually the MLF was not the movement of “All women” but the feminists figured a sort of cultural vanguards. The active minority could lead a greater number of women because what it said and what it did could be heard by women looking for a new way to live their life. The most likely to hear were the women who had chosen to carry altogether a working career and a family career, and wanted to succeed in both of them. Especially in social groups that grew in the sixties and were up to define a new family pattern.

More and more women were working in the sixties, especially qualified women, but the idea about “woman” had not follow. This one was supposed to be first a mother, a wife, a housekeeper. Women were bearing the family responsibilities, and had to conciliate working life and family life. And that was especially difficult because they risked all the time that an unwanted pregnancy make them loose their delicate balance. Nadine Lefaucheur showed that the “new family pattern” (the ideal of equality between sexes et relative autonomy instead of necessary complement between “breadwinner and housekeeper”) was adequate with the situation of the new middleclass where women worked all life time, where marriage had not to be valued because there was no patrimonies to transmit, where fecundity had to be under control to permit women to carry together “professional and procreative carrier” and to improve their part in the gender relationship, in family and in society [Lefaucheur, 1982]. The MLF, with the abortion issue have found a sensitive point. In spite of what media called the “excess of women who don’t want to be women anymore”, humour and scandal were the best weapons to be heard by other women who shared the idea that it couldn’t continue this way, even if they did not go as far as the feminists.

Those ones said “I will have a child when I want, if I want”. Motherhood is my choice, not women’s destiny. It is women who bear and rear children , it is up to them to decide”. And many women agreed, wanting only to chose the best moment to have a baby and not lose their job. The MLF spoke of domestic exploitation of women, and it sang : “Let’s marry never more, let’s never stay home, their love is like a jail…” And many women agreed that family, children, housekeeping were not the natural duty of women but a useful work that was not paid and considered as it might. They considered women as individual and not as relative creatures.

The greatest victory of the MLF was the new law, liberalising abortion. This had been the principal fight of the new women’s movement in every western countries. In France this battle was especially heroic and mobilising. At the end all society was mobilised, the State had to give up. This issue pushed the political parties to reorganise themselves with new divisions. This battle, although not clearly conscious of it, was another stage of the so long conflict between “the two France”. The battle that was won was that of secularisation over the pretension of Catholicism to govern morals. Republicans, democrats, liberals, modernists supported women’s fight, because at that moment it was the symbol of freedom of choice and social progress.

3 Feminism and revolution

The contrast between reform and revolution is important in France because of the weight in our political tradition of the great Revolution of 1789, and because of the violent conflicts about that question in the labour movement which was the most important reference for the intellectual youth in France after May 68. Reform was supposed to be the opposite of Revolution, the betrayal of revolutionary hopes, accepting to renounce to the final goal. The MLF clearly claimed to be a radical movement, it pretended to uproot women’s oppression and for that purpose to change the whole society. The MLF was sincerely afraid that reforms could help the system to adapt itself and to become stronger.

Women’s mobilisation was very original and extreme. It reproduced the spectacular and provocative stylethat had been so efficient in May 68, with transgression, insolence and caustic humour to win the media’s attention. There were scandalous demonstrations, as women deposing a sheaf of flowers under the Triumph Arch, for the wife of the unknown soldier (more unknown than the unknown soldier himself), efficient provocations (like 343 women signing in a newspaper that they have had abortion), public disobedience to the law (like charters carrying women to have an abortion in more liberal countries, and even performing the practice illegally in France). The government was challenged and at the end it had to change the law. It changed the law about abortion and contraception, but also about other issues where the feminists could obtain the support of public opinion (like family laws, divorce, rape). Many laws that gave more freedom to women, more power and more equality (in the family, at work, and in society) were voted.

The MLF did not formulate demands, it did not want to discuss and negotiate. It refused any law or progressive changes. After asserting absolute principles that could not be denied, like :”Our body’s ourselves“, it did not enter in bargaining. When the government began to adapt the law, it cried that it was “co-optation”, aiming to demobilise women’s struggle and save the system. But, in spite of denunciation, “Co-optation” may be seen as an actual strategy. When you want to stay “outside”, when you protest, and refuse to negotiate, what can you expect but co-optation? For the women’s movement, abortion was not a final goal, it was a link in the patriarchal chain. But in fact, this very battle had been won because many others, women and men, thought that birth-control was possible, useful, necessary. Many countries had already liberalised abortion, without disaster, France was at the end of the class. The doctors wanted to lighten the pains of women and use modern techniques for abortion and contraception. The technocrats wanted a modern and dynamic France. The businessmen wanted a feminine “manpower” more available. The Young wanted a sexuality without fear and constraint. Most of them were not fighting patriarchy, they just wanted to ameliorate the relationship between the sexes, to help women conciliating their job and family duty or to modernise society. And that was the real outcome of the women’s movement. The new family pattern, pretending to equality between the sexes and share of the domestic responsibilities overcame as a modern ideal.

When groups that had followed the women’s movement in its fight for free motherhood felt rather satisfied, the MLF became more and more isolated, whereas the revolutionary movement from which it came had long ago disappeared. Actually the women’s movement, with its radical pretensions, helped the society to adapt itself. Reform proved to be, not the antithesis of revolution, but its true outcome. This movement was so efficient inducing reforms, may be because it pretended to make a revolution. Relationships between women and men were stabilised at a new level, may be because they have been threatened of breaking up. The radical criticism of revolutionary dogmas by the MLF may have helped leftism to get rid of the idea of revolution.

Radicalism is a comfortable position, that permits to keep pure one’s ideas. But it has its wrong sides : inside intolerance and outside incapacity to react when the situation changes. Over the years, the very principles that gave the women’s movement its initial strength may have hardened into dogmas, prohibiting criticism as unacceptable back-sliding. The MLF has refused any sort of organisation, control or delegation, refusing power and masculine principles. It denied the existence of relation of power between women, that were then hidden and uncontrollable. It pretended to unity and permanent debate inside the movement, but after the time of discovery, contradictions drove the MLF in a bustle of breaking up and treason. Each tendency tried to impose its point of view, considering it as the truth. And the movement was unable to manage with contradictions and to protect itself against manipulations. The deliberate choice of trust between women led the MLF to become the private property of a single group, without any mean to avoid it [Picq, 1993].

Radicalism also went with incapacity to compromise and negotiation when they become necessary. The movement’s radicalism has certainly opened unexpected possibilities and triggered sweeping reforms. Utopia helped to imagine changes and to find a way out of the realistic constraints. After the period of direct confrontation to the State, the preservation of revolutionary purity became a handicap. Fear of reformism may have kept the Movement from taking control over social reforms that it spearheaded. Changes in the general political situation called for changes in the ways the Movement functioned but it was unable to hear. It went on refusing to discuss with institutions and let those use the contestation for their own purpose.

Weakened by internal contradictions and hindered by principles that were out-of-date, the MLF was no longer able to challenge the State or to influence it. Feminist ideas spread through channels that the movement did not control. Protesting against co-optation was of no avail. Active minority has opened the road when social atmosphere was dynamic, but it was not able to find a new way of acting in an anxious society where unemployment became a fear for men and women. Being outside was no more a strength, but feminists could not define a new strategy for here and now, or select precise and restricted goals that could be achieved or just preserved. The MLF could not find an agreement to form an alliance with the new socialist power.


What in that history of the MLF is specific and can be identified as the “French exception”, this cultural tradition of confrontation, which likes intellectual controversy and refuse compromise ?

What part is shared by all or most of feminist movements of the sixties and seventies ?
What is constitutional to feminism whenever it may form a movement ?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I hope that together we will be able to go on within this reflection about women’s movements, then and now.

The waking up of feminism was everywhere an enthusiastic discovering. Recognising one another, the women’s movements in the seventies had the feeling to participate in a global historical phenomenon and they easily adopted ideas and way to organise from a movement to another. “Women-only” groups, “Consciousness raising”, Spontaneity and “grass-root” movements, lack of hierarchy, centralisation and permanent structures appeared as the pattern to adapt according to national situations and issues.

But thirty years later we can wonder what was the part of unity and what was the part of diversity within the feminism of the seventies.

We can agree, I think, that feminism was an international phenomenon that affected most occidental societies in that period, that it generally sprang out of the New left, in the revolutionary perspectiveopened by May 68, but broke up from this movement where women and their issues could not find their place.

We can agree, I believe, that everywhere the major goal of that “second wave” of feminism was the same (after the first wave won the “formal rights”). Denouncing women’s assignation to motherhood and home, it claimed free choice for individuals. Abortion was the symbol of that fight, just as suffrage has been for the first wave, but its purpose is much larger, questioning the parts of women, relationships between genders, and at the end women’s identity.

We must also ascertain that everywhere, after a time of victories, came a decline or back lash. The feminist movement has decreased before attaining its goals.

On the other hand, we can notice many differences between feminist movements of the seventies, depending on the cultural traditions where they were born, the history and socio-political context, the capacity of the political system to take women’s demands into consideration or to women’s movement to find powerful allies in left parties or Trade Unions.

All feminist movements knew contradictions, between radical feminism and socialist feminism, between the lesbians and the heterosexuals., between universalism and particularism. Those debates are unavoidable and useful. Some may be intrinsic to feminist mobilisation, because women have to vindicate as a specific group but to demand the women’s place in the universal. However it seems that many feminist movements were able to manage with contradictions, letting points of view quietly cohabit. Nowhere violence and breaking up where as absolute and destructive as in France.

Whereas the MLF proved unable to turn from utopia to reformism and was left on the margin, some grass root movements could convert and enter the main society, assuming co-optation of leaders in the state machine. Being outside was a condition of a radically new thinking, but then it is inside it that it is possible to influence public policy [Dalerup, 1990]. The decreasing may has not been everywhere as brutal as in France, but nowhere the New women’s movement has attain its goals. The Revolution of feminism stayed unfinished [Anderson, 1991]. The second wave of feminism has calmed, leaving important changes in the representation and situation of women, but also regrets and hopes for the future.

Feminism, however is not finished. Is history of this feminism, especially in France, useful to help new generations to fight and to avoid traps ? It is doubtful that one’s experience serves to others. Feminism cannot be taught, it is a consciousness to be part of a unfairly discriminated group and a personal revolt against this disqualification. But let’s try to avoid “reinventing the wheel” at each generation.

History shows that feminism is a long fight, with a bumping course. It never disappeared completely but was sometimes deeply repressed in memory. Then it has sprung again with new opportunities, defining new issues and new ways of expression. Each wave focalised on priorities that in a period symbolised women’s exclusion from a complete human status, and won a part of the fight.

Feminism differed from time to time, more than it differed from one society to another, but through an issue to another it continued the same fight.

The first wave has demanded equal rights, and has finally obtained a formal recognising of those. The feminists who were not satisfied by what was said “equality within difference” were pushed to the margins and their action was forgotten by history.

The second wave has revolted against that limited status, claiming for freedom to choose one’s life. It has deeply changed representations about women’s part. Those are now supposed to be socially equal to men, and satisfied of that balance. The feminists who protest against that theoretic equal valence are said to exceed women’s will and to be dangerous for the harmonious relationship between sexes (and for the French “Art de vivre”).

However the gap between supposed equality and actual subordination will become clear and unbearable. A new generation will define goals and strategies, eventually very different from those of the seventies. It may ignore the experience of a radical feminist movement that was the product of a very special historical moment, just as this movement has ignored history of their predecessors.

Anyway feminism is a yearning that continues from time to time. It takes various shapes, mobilise for different issues, with new arguments. But fundamentally feminism, now and after can accept the definition and ends gave by Nelly Roussel in the early XX°th century. “Feminism, she said, declares natural equal valence and asks for social equality between both parts of human kind” [Roussel, 1906]. After two waves of feminism and important progress, we can see that it is still a long way to true social equality. Moreover, equal valence is a far-off ideal, that could indicate the necessity of rebuilding society which is said grounded on “differential valence of gender” [Héritier, 1996.Rubin, 1975].



Anderson, Doris, The Unfinished Revolution, the status of women in twelve countries, Doubleday Canada Limited, 1991.

Bard Christine, Les filles de Marianne.Histoire des féminismes 1914-1940, Fayard, 1995.

Beauvoir de, Simone, Le Deuxième sexe, Gallimard, 1949.

Dalerup, Drude, The New Women’s Movement, Feminism and Political Power in Europe and the USA, Sage Publications, 1990.

Duhet, Paule-Marie, Les femmes et la Révolution, 1789-1791, Col. Archives, Julliard, 1971.

GEF Crise de la société, féminisme et changement, Liliane Kandel, Nadja Ringart, Françoise Picq, Tierce-Revue d’en face 1991.

Héritier, Françoise, Masculin / Féminin. La Pensée de la différence, Odile Jacob, 1996.

Klejman Laurence et Rochefort Florence, L’Egalité en marche. Le féminisme sous la III° République, PFNSP / des femmes, 1989.

Lefaucheur, Nadine “De la diffusion (et) des nouveaux modèles familiaux”, Recherches économiques et sociales, n° 2, 1982.

Noiriel, Gérard, Les origines républicaines de Vichy,Hachette littérature, 1999.

Partisans, “Libération des femmes, année zéro, juillet-octobre 1970.

Picq, Françoise, Le Mouvement de Libération des femmes et ses effets sociaux, ATP CNRS Recherches féministes et recherches sur les femmes, (with collaboration of Liliane Kandel, Françoise Ducrocq, and Nadja Ringart), 1987.

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(For an archival website of the MLF, click here. For an anarchist reading of the MLF, in french, see the Alternative libertaire.)

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle

Paul B. Preciado

(Le nouveau magazine littéraire, nº 3, March 2018)

If anything characterised the practices of May 68 and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it was the transformation of the imagination into the central faculty of political thought.  As Ursula Le Guin said, the impossible must be imagined so as to be able to hope to change the unacceptable.  The slogan, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”, rests upon a curious ontology of sexual difference.  Woman is a vertebrate (its true), but aquatic and ectodermic (sorry?), covered with scales, possessing fins and gills, capable of freely moving in an aquatic milieu.  Femininity is defined by metonymy and disqualification: its sex, understood as a fish, extends to the totality of its being.  For its part, the masculine body is mechanical and de-subjectivised.  The male is a two wheeled vehicle, equipped with a handlebar at the front, a seat for the driver and two pedals transmitting the movement of the legs to the wheel by a chain and a sprocket.  Darwin and Linnaeus have only to rise from their tombs if they wish to affirm the contrary.  The interest in the formula resides in the de-anthropomorphisation of the body and sexuality: neither the men nor the women are human beings.  It is in the relation with the animal and with the machine that the definition of gender and sexuality is played out.  Femininity is the effect of a social and political process of animalisation (which then conflates women with their reproductive function), while masculinity is the result of a social and political process of mechanisation (which then valorises the masculine body exclusively as a productive body – whether the production is capitalist or spermatic is of little importance).

The opposition fish/bicycle, feminine/masculine reproduces the binaries organism/machine, nature/culture, reproduction/production, wet/dry, living/dead, that articulate western metaphysics.  Man and woman are not, as in Plato, a body cut in two (two halves of a fish or a disassembled bicycle) that love reunites, but two bodies whose organs and functions are described as irreconcilable and upon which society imposes a burlesque agency.  Like the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table, heterosexuality will be, in this feminist slogan, a social assemblage and a surrealist, of not dystopian, politics.  If we think that the bicycle, in contrast to the fish, is a vehicle that moves solely by the energy and the propulsion of the user who pedals, then the critique of the relation fish/bicycle implies not only an anatomical discordance, but also a theory of power.  Inspired by the marxist reading of the relation between the sexes, the slogan denounced the exploitation of the fish for the benefit of the production of surplus-value (motorised, sexual, reproductive) for the bicycle.

This description of the process of emancipation would be useful on the condition that women and men are two types of distinct ontological beings, and that they inhabit – as the distance separating the aquatic from the terrestrial seems to indicate – two parallel and almost incommensurable universes.  But things appear clearly more complex.  What has happened in these last fifty years seems to have overtaken the limits of the imagination of 1968.  The commercialisation of the pill marked a point of inflection in the history of the political management of the relation between sex and reproduction.  Heterosexuality ceased to be natural and obligatory to become a “life style” (the “fish on bicycles”), an aesthetic that – even though still supported by the dominant morality and sponsored by the State – can no longer be legally imposed.  The extension of pornography (with Playboy, then with domestic videos, and now exponentially via Internet) has transformed victorian repression into constant incitation to masturbation.  In a good part of the Occident, homosexuality, even gay marriage, is authorised; the intentional use of hormones allows opening up the process of becoming trans, which leads neither to normative femininity or masculinity; it is possible for a transexual man to be pregnant and to give birth; there are sperm banks; it is possible to envisage for two lesbians – or more – to transplant the ovule of one into the uterus of the other; surrogate pregnancy is debated as a possibility; recently a uterus was transplanted with success (which in the medium term will allow women without a uterus to bring a child into the world, along with men without uteruses); experiments have begun with extra-corporal uteruses, as well as the 3D copying of organs from stem cells …  Our social landscape is made up of a multiplicity of hybrid and mutant beings.  There are not two sexes.  There is an irreducible multiplicity of bodies, desires, organs and fluids fighting to be recognised within an epistemology of sexual difference.

Our current problem resides in our incapacity to see these conditions as revolutionary possibilities.  We persist in naturalising and we continue to see and to produce fish and bicycles.  I remember a joke of the philosopher Alenka Zupancic.  Someone asks a waiter: “A coffee without cream, please”, and he answers: “I can serve you a coffee without milk, because we don’t have any more cream”.  We continue to call for “women without men” and “men without women”, when these two conditions are the political spectres that impede us from seeing the revolution underway.

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