Fantastic ideas, memories of one kind or another, fleeting impressions, daydreams, castles in the air, unconnected images, that float past us in moments of passivity . . . We sacrifice much more time than we like to admit, to their idle play.

John Dewey, How We Think (1910)

In a valuable book on the social history of resistance, Honegger and Heintzfootnote1 argue that the absence of women in movements of social resistance cannot call into question their ability to resist as such, but rather raises the problem of defining resistance. If one recognizes as resistance only collective lawbreaking, then women do not appear in the accounts. Women’s resistance is individual. The editors of the book go on to suggest an expansion of the concept to include spontaneous refusals to act. This suggestion confused me. I had thought of resistance as being both individual and collective and had quite naturally understood collective action as political, and placed individual action in the domain of psychology—psychoanalysis above all—and the theory of education. These disciplines are full of studies of individual cases of resistance. Indeed, their boundaries have marked out the areas which allow the various kinds of resistance a valid meaning. For example, in psychoanalysis resistance means a defence against making unpleasant psychic elements conscious, perhaps in the form of repression. Problems of conscience play a large part in this context. In law, resistance is defined as actions directed against the authority of the state and the exercise of state office. But even electricity involves resistance. It can be observed when voltage is applied to an electrical circuit; it prevents the flow of current and can itself be used as a component. In mechanics, resistance is a force which prevents the movement of a body. And in the field of politics, finally, we talk about resistance when movements are fighting for self-determination against tyranny and outside control. The disciplines are drawn closer together, because even in politics legal resistance has to be defined. New disciplines are added: legitimacy can be considered in terms of ethics or of philosophy of the state. Here the principal debates are either based on Germanic feudal law—where political resistance is related to the sovereignty of the state; or they are placed in the church tradition—in which case resistance is a duty of conscience for each individual.

The definitions specific to each field are an interesting encouragement to more comprehensive considerations, and are also related to one another in an odd way. Having started with individual conscience in psychoanalysis, I end up with individual conscience, but defined as political resistance. The spontaneous order of my own mind has been quite muddled up. The distinctions between the various areas are clearly not upheld by the individual disciplines. However, they canalize the individual’s thinking, and as a result allow quite uncontrolled inroads of the so-called public spheres into supposedly private ones by producing and maintaining them as separate. Resistance clearly always seems to be an individual and a collective question, both personal and political. It would seem to be a matter of importance to investigate the relationship between the various resistances and their separation: that is, the separation of the individual and the collective, the private and the political, the individual and society.

I suggest, therefore, that the question of who resists and in what form should not be solved by altering the definitions. The question arises in an area—or several areas—occupied by a number of disciplines and authorities. But that makes the observation of discipline boundaries just as interesting as their transgression. The point is not to decide when individual resistance is political or political resistance is individual but rather, which politics pursues which resistance? And how does the position of the individual woman in society determine the form of her acquiescence or resistance?

If I am researching resistance and possibilities for resistance, I must pay attention to individual power relations (an aspect of psychology), which are themselves the result of the possibilities and realities of action for the individual in social conditions (an aspect of political economy). Such an approach conflicts with the attempt to think of resistance either as a simple problem of personal development or—as soon as social conditions are also taken into account—as a standing firm against forces conceived as quite external. To set individual relations of domination against those that surround them does not avoid the problem of almost automatically conceiving resistance as a question of character, of thinking in terms of ‘personal courage’, ‘incorruptibility’, ‘nonconformism’, ‘inner security’.footnote2

The field of ‘women and resistance’ may therefore be defined in the following way. Irrespective of whether women are to be found in movements of social resistance or not, everyday, private forms and practices are an important area for the investigation of feminine resistance. Since the personal and the private are also the site of the reproduction of the social relations of domination, this sphere and the way in which privacy is produced and maintained will tell us something about women’s social being, about their resistance and acquiescence. The fact signalled by Honegger and Heintzfootnote3—that women are less often to be found in movements of social resistance—means that we must look at women’s everyday practices to discover the specific shape of their forms of resistance.