Waves of male chauvinism roll along in history, one after the other, sometimes they resemble one another, sometimes not.footnote1 The most insidious of these at the moment is in the form of what I have called the denial of mixity:footnote2 the adoption of a language that symbolically ignores the existence of women where they work and exist, and in political structures where they should be. Of course a set of lexical choices only involves insinuation, something that operates on the margins of perception. But we know that, in advertising for example, the most effective manipulations are precisely those that operate outside the areas of clear awareness. So to describe the denial of mixity, one is obliged to pay attention to trivialities, to apparently insignificant choices of words which may nevertheless have far-reaching impact. To do this requires a certain resolution, because anyone who concentrates on minutiae always seems to be making a lot of fuss about nothing. But these fragile indices may be the warning signs of serious mutations to come.
I invented the concept of denial of mixity some time ago to challenge the ordinary vocabulary of my own professional milieu, research. The lexicon employed by union officials, as well as by the institution itself, when talking about the body of researchers, always implies that this body is not mixed at all, although in fact thirty per cent of its members are women. Thus a cliché in union gatherings at the National Centre for Scientific Research (cnrs) would be the observation that research is not only a matter of funds or resources but, in the first place, of ‘the men’ to carry it out. This is the language adopted by the Director too. The feeling that we women belong to the community is thus rendered even more insecure by a sort of verbal barrier which, in France, has become even more insistent in recent years.
Verbal barriers of similar type are also to be found elsewhere; indeed they are everywhere these days, even—and this is very paradoxical—in the rhetoric employed in the struggle that all of us, men and women alike, should be waging against xenophobia. To give an example from the very highest level—and from an unexpected quarter, for it would not be very revealing to cite the vocabulary of some football club chairman—following the abominable xenophobic remarks made by Mr Giscard d’Estaing, the then government spokesperson, Jack Lang, said he was going to create ‘a front for fraternity, consisting of intellectuals, churchmen and hommes politiques of all parties’.footnote3 Fraternity, male politicians and churchmen!!! How does a woman who wants to take part in the urgent struggle against xenophobia deal with a statement like that? Is she obliged to say to herself, ‘Well, I’m a woman actually, but it doesn’t really matter’? Or must she reverse even further back down the road and tell herself, ‘I am a non-man, but never mind, I’m going to make the effort to identify with this phallocratic discourse and forget the baneful attitude of the Catholic clergy towards my right to contraception’? When the spokesperson of a government then headed by a woman starts talking about fraternity—fraternity between male politicians and churchmen!—a woman like me becomes frankly scared. Are these gentlemen going to reach an understanding with one another once again, on the backs of women whose existence they do not even acknowledge? Of course utterances of this sort may appear to be improvizations generated, as it were, on the hoof, under pressure of circumstances.footnote4 But with such improvizations filtering into popular discourse, with human resources management jargon ending up as the ordinary language of decision-making, and with symbolic exclusion matching actual marginalization, it is hardly surprising that Women Citizens and their supporters should be afraid—afraid of our duly elected representatives, as well as of the extreme Right, which is known to supply muscle to certain groups that mount physical attacks on abortion clinics, and which would certainly like, if it could, to restrict some women’s access to contraception, in the name of—wait for it!—‘the future of the white race’ (a notion which had already been banished, except in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ where it had found its proper place, when I was an adolescent). Most women, and young women in particular, have immediate reasons for struggling against the extreme Right. Feminists have been among the most single-minded members of anti-racist movementssince the early nineteenth century, and there are fundamental reasonsfor this. But even after nearly two hundred years, certain prominent tenors have still to get the message. To set women linguistically aside while claiming to create an anti-racist movement is tantamount to not really wanting the movement to succeed.
Do not imagine that what is speaking here is only the common vernacular. Around the same time at a meeting in Strasbourg a group of writers, disdaining the classical term ‘people of letters’ (gens de lettres), came up with the curious neologism ‘men of writing’ (hommes d’écriture) to express their anxiety about the rise of hatred for the Other. When these same people, citing Rimbaud, Gongora, Hölderlin, Audric and Goethe, preach the idea of ‘an audacious opening to the awareness to other men’ (sic), what I hear is the declaration of a renewed wish for closure: closure on the basis of gender, eurocentrism and also caste narcissism. In the solemn, rather pompous, appeal signed by these people, it is made clear that no political opinion is being expressed; what the document does is condemn ‘fear of the Other’, Other with a capital o, something much easier to talk about in educated circles than, say, male or female African workers (especially in the same breath as Hölderlin). This text in my opinion is ineffective where its ostensible object—xenophobia—is concerned, but it does reveal a wish to make out that the only speakers, the only producers of messages, are men: men of writing from ages past, men of writing of today. Women are mentioned only once in the Strasbourg text, as recipients—along with what one assumes are ordinary men—of the message delivered by the ‘men of writing’: ‘May the menand women of Europe hear the message of Rimbaud and Hölderlin.’ It reminds one of being at Mass, with an exclusively male clergy retailing the Patristic message to an audience of silent men and also, incidentally as it were, of even more silent women. Soon, perhaps, these ‘men of writing’ will be apostrophizing all of us, men and women together, as ‘my brothers’, or sermonizing like Bossuet who always addressed his audience baldly as ‘gentlemen’, even when the queen was present. But what would happen if those who signed this text—such writers as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Luc Nancy—took the trouble to find out that in feminist groups (for example) there are solid friendships between women from here, women from elsewhere and women from elsewhere who live here, and that all of us are capable of speech? But then I suppose one has to admit that what we have to say about our fundamental liberties, we women from more or less every part of the world, is a bit common. No matter where we come from, we can think about freedom, reproductive rights, physical integrity, equality, dignity, the right to schooling and healthcare; in our way of reasoning we are drawn to a universalism so concrete, indeed, that it is earthy and downright commonplace. Nor are we especially keen to be identified as ‘the Other’. Hence we fall short of the criteria of ‘distinction’ and also fall out of the categories coined by the ‘men of writing’.
Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun? For in the first place, it can be said that the main form of contemporary anti-feminism is as old as the world, consisting as it does of denying women the right to speech and even the capacity for speech. I suppose it is ungracious of me to say this here (since I am being allowed to speak), but have you any idea of the huge volume of material submitted unsuccessfully to newspapers every year by women, concerning matters important to us as citizens? Later, needless to say, we are criticized for remaining silent. Looking at an issue of this sort—say the controversy over the withdrawal of the contraceptive pill ru486 —take a week’s sample of any newspaper and your tape measure. When you have established that the utterances of a few bishops sprawl over some 2,400 square centimetres of space, while only six square centimetres have been given to a fragment of text from, say, the Family Planning Group, you will understand that there are reasons for considering us globally censored, which is nothing new.