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.footnote1 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?

It is important, first, to lay to rest any notion that social change has made a women’s movement and feminist politics either inevitable or irrelevant. There were as many women in the crowds at the Sorbonne and in the streets in 1968 as there were in the strike of lycéens in 1986. Yet, in 1986 there were many more young women in the leadership of the student movement, just as there are in the anti-racist movement and on the electoral lists of Left political parties. Social change putting girls into higher education predated the women’s movement, but it took a decade of mobilization by their mothers and/or older sisters before the girls of 1986 could claim places as leaders. At the same time, many of these young women face a much less promising future than that of the earlier generation, just as their mothers and sisters now face an economic system which is restructuring around the ‘marginal’ work of women. Economic crisis and restructuring have been hard on women. Female unemployment rates are higher than men’s and the wage gap continues. Young women entering the labour force face a longer period of unemployment than do young men and they are more likely to have to take part-time and/or temporary work. Two decades of feminism have thus not made it possible to counteract the gender biases regenerated in the current economic crisis.

Given this story it is important to locate the women’s movement politically. And in order to do that it is necessary to think more generally about politics and representation. Politics, as broadly defined here, comprises actors’ efforts to carve out a constituency for themselves by mobilizing support for their preferred formulation of their own collective identity (and often that of their protagonists) and for the enumeration of their interests, which follows from that collective identity. This definition depends upon an understanding of the dual aspects of representation. One type denotes actors’ representation of self to others, via a collective identity. A second type, familiar from the language of liberal democracy, is the representation of interests—a process which, since the emergence of the modern state, has included representation to the state through more or less stable organizations. These two senses are closely linked by the fact that both involve power, the power to give meaning to social relations and thereby to represent ‘interests’.

Representation of self—that is, a collective identity—involves, among other things, naming oneself, since only an actor with a name is recognizable to others. As a consequence, social relations become visible and a range of political strategies emerges. Since the birth of the labour movement, for example, workers in many countries—but not all—have striven for the right to be named the ‘working class’ and a fundamental protagonist in the struggle of man and nature. In those places or times where struggle has not formed classes, the names differ and the perception of social relations is very different.footnote2 In some places organizations of workers have engaged with capitalists to represent a social relation which is one not of antagonism but of co-operation, one not of polarization but of diversity. The particular outcome, in each place and time, has resulted from a process of negotiated mutual recognition, in a conflict over naming which has depended on the power of each actor in the social relation to impose a name or to push the other closer towards a preferred formulation. From this example we see the importance of representation in the first sense, as it relates to collective identities.

Representation of interests is also part of this process, of course. Resolution of basic questions about who the main protagonists are to be in turn places broad limits on the definition of interests, on disputed claims about who gets what, when and how. For example, whether workers make claims simply for amelioration of their wages or whether they encode their demands in strategies for revolutionary transformation does not depend simply on the objective interests of workers but on the ways in which they depict their situation in their representations to employers and the state.

Because actors with a variety of collective identities co-exist in the universe of political discourse, their practices and meaning systems jostle each other for social attention and legitimacy.footnote3 At any moment an advanced capitalist democracy has only a limited number of meaningful ‘political discourses’, that is, sets of salient ideas which organize debate, communication and action within and among political organizations and between those organizations and their constituencies and /or clients. Political discourses are packages of four connected clusters of ideas—those providing a map of the contours of the social world; practical schemes to change that world in the immediate; utopian visions of an improved world; and, finally, understandings about how to do politics.

At issue are conflicts over the representation and reproduction of power relations based on difference. In any social formation a multitude of relationships of difference exist. Age, sex, race, property ownership, workplace activities and language are but a few of the differences which might take on social meaning. In many cases inequality of power accompanies recognition of difference. For example, the recognition of childhood is usually accompanied by the subordination of children to adults. The recognition of racial difference has led to all the evils of racism. Nevertheless, it is also obvious that the mere existence—or even recognition—of difference does not automatically lead to congealment of a system of unequal power. Such a system is socially constructed. Thus, progressive social forces have struggled against the divisive effects of racism and property ownership in the name of equality, positing a universality of human dignity against inequities of power structured around these differences. Similarly, sexual difference may cross all other relations, such that things ‘female’ are subordinated to things ‘male’, or such a process of differentiation may be effaced through political actions of resistance in the name of equality in difference.