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New Left Review I/180, March-April 1990


Jane Jenson

Representations of Difference: The Varieties of French Feminism

As so many other theories originating in Paris in the postwar years, ‘French feminism’ enjoys a high profile in the international marketplace of ideas. Psychoanalytic and linguistic theories, celebrations of ‘difference’, the conjunction of the sexual and the symbolic, essentialism presented in the terms of poststructuralism, all appear in the Anglo-Saxon world as a highly exotic import. Yet the Cixous, Kristeva and Irigaray known abroad are only a minuscule sample of the French feminisms which developed in the 1970s, and to understand the women’s movement it is necessary to look far beyond the texts of a few Parisian thinkers. This article maps the ways in which the women’s movement, as one of the most important legacies of the events of May–June 1968, brought an efflorescence of analyses and politics that influenced the thought and practice of the Left as a whole. Yet in recent years the media—especially around March 8th or in the doldrum months of summer—have frequently announced the end of feminism, even as feminists themselves reassess their experiences. [1] A number of important recent collections have assessed the decline of the women’s movement and attempted to look to the future. See, for example, the collective book, Ruptures. . .et féminisme en devenir, Paris, voixoff, imprimerie de femmes put out by the Collective Ruptures and Le Féminisme. . .ringard?, special issue of Bulletin d’Information des Etudes Féminines (bief), #20–21, 1989. The latter is a series of essays in response to the question of whether feminism has become ‘ringard’, a word which can be translated alternatively as valueless or out-moded. The issue includes a report of a colloquium held in Paris in April 1988, a collective reflection by yet another group of feminists. For the views of two féministes historiques on the situation see Françoise Picq, Le Mouvement de libération des femmes et res effets sociaux, atp, Recherches Féministes et Recherches sur les Femmes, 1987, pp. 94–100, and Maya Sarduts, ‘Itinéraire’ Cahiers du Féminisme, #41–42, 1987, pp. 17–18. There has been a substantial decline in the visibility and activity of anything which might merit the name of ‘movement’. This experience of decline, in the face of substantial social change as well as of major initiatives by capital to reorganize the conditions under which women and men live in and outside the paid labour force, compels us to present some theoretical propositions about new social movements. What is the legacy of the movements which appeared in economic crisis and were important actors in the political crisis of the last two decades?

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