‘I hope feminists don’t stay polite. In this society that’s absolutely useless.’
Fifty years after the foundation of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes, the sociologist and feminist Christine Delphy looks back at the history of the movement that she co-founded, and the battles she believes are still to be fought.
A feminist activist and former researcher at the CNRS, Christine Delphy was one of the founding members of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) in 1970 and has been involved in the struggle for gender equality ever since. In 2011 she co-authored Un troussage de domestique [A Housemaid’s Kit], in which she analysed reactions to the arrest and prosecution of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and in 2019 L’Exploitation domestique, where she writes that the sharing of household chores does not exist. At 79 years old, the author has lost nothing of her militancy and salutes the young feminists of today, who ‘have a tremendous nerve’ and ‘no longer have any fear or inhibition in relation to men’.
On 26 August 1970, you led a group of women who laid a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe in homage to the ‘wife of the unknown soldier’, even more unknown than her husband. This action pointed a finger at the invisibility of women in society and marked the creation of the MLF. Fifty years later, what do you remember about that day?
When we knew that there was going to be this day of action in the United States [on 26 August 1970, the Women’s Liberation Movement planned to commemorate in New York the 50th anniversary of winning the right to vote, by demonstrating for equality between men and women and against ‘conjugal duty’], we decided to do something ourselves. We were helped by a journalist, who reported our plans in L’Aurore. Nothing was happening in August, the newspapers were struggling to fill their pages.
There were nine of us, eight holding four banners and myself holding the wreath. We crossed the Place de l’Étoile towards the fence around the monument. When we reached this, a policeman rushed towards me and led me and my comrades to a police station, located in one of the bases of the Arc de Triomphe. We were manhandled and pushed inside. The reaction of the police superintendent stuck in my mind. ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ he said. We went through three different police stations and were released about three hours after our action, which began around noon.
We were very uplifted and very cheerful. Locked up in a small cell, we started singing songs from summer camps. The police were baffled, they didn’t know what to do with us, they didn’t understand. Some of them felt insulted by the banner ‘Every other man is a woman’: they thought they were being called homosexuals. There was a lot of bad faith in that, but that was because they weren’t used to being criticized.
How long had discussion of feminism existed in this group before this action?
We were a small group of young adults, teachers and researchers… It was Jacqueline Feldman [a researcher in theoretical physics and mathematics applied to the social sciences, co-founder of FMA – initially Féminin Masculin Future, then Féminisme Marxisme Action] who introduced me to this collective during the events of May 1968. We held sessions in the occupied Sorbonne. There were a lot of people interested, we collected the names of about forty, some half of whom were men. Afterwards it was the vacation, and everyone left.
We met again in the autumn, but we were already a lot less. Only a dwindling number of men came to our meetings, and fewer women too. As a result, at the start of 1970 there were only four of us left. Other women’s groups also existed at the time, such as the one led by Antoinette Fouque [who subsequently registered MLF as a trademark, which led to disagreements and the break-up of the movement]. After the action at the Arc de Triomphe, once the summer was over, we held meetings at the École des Beaux-Arts, and more women came to see us.
What were your main demands?
We didn’t have ‘main demands’. At these big meetings at the Beaux-Arts, things were all over the place. We decided to campaign for the right to abortion, along with Anne Zelensky [professor and co-founder of FMA], though many others didn’t want this. Some said it wasn’t enough. My own position was that you can’t do everything at once. You had to go step by step. I thought it would be easier to tackle this subject because many people in France were in favour of it. Many families had had to deal with this. Illegal abortions were happening, and the only result was that women were dying from them.
I think that was one of the main arguments of Simone Veil, who was called every name in the book, including ‘Nazi’, when she defended her law [for the legalization of abortion, passed on 17 January 1975]. She was admirable, and in the end we won.
One thing on which we agreed was that we didn’t want men in our meetings at the Beaux-Arts. Every fortnight, however, a young man would appear. He spoke in front of two hundred women and didn’t mind telling us what the truth was, ‘teaching us’.
That’s an example of what might be called ‘mansplaining’ today...
It was very common at the time. What is happening today is that it’s being denounced. That’s something I find extraordinary.
What progress do you think has been made since then?
There has been some. For example, with regard to abortion, marriage for all, there have been changes. Certainly, for example, lesbianism and homosexuality in general are no longer condemned in the same way as they were fifty years ago. There are also more women in the sports world who are claiming their place, even if some are very badly treated, harassed and raped by their coaches.
What are the new feminist struggles?
A lot of time has passed. I am a co-editor of Nouvelles Questions Féministes [a journal that has been published since 1981], and together with some friends on the editorial board we thought it would be good to do a special issue on young feminists. Because what I see is that there are a lot of very young women and they have a tremendous nerve. They no longer have any fear or inhibition in relation to men, they take to the streets. I find them extraordinary.
I’m thinking above all of the mobilizations against sexual violence, against violence in general. They are not shy about this. If you compare what they say today with what we used to say before... There was still a taboo. But for all that, only 1 per cent of rapists are prosecuted. That’s very few. The fact that the rapist is blamed rather than the raped woman is quite a reversal. It’s like changing your clothes, you turn everything inside out. It’s very difficult to do.
The oppression of women covers a lot of things. You wonder where to start. In reality, you have to start with everything.
There is certainly a degree of progress, but there are always also, if not setbacks, then threatening periods for feminism. At the moment, the most salient issue is violence against women. But there are a lot of subjects. There is not a single problem. People often discuss what the priorities are, but in my opinion there is no priority. In other words, the oppression of women in general covers a lot of aspects. You wonder where to start. In reality, you have to start with everything. People would like feminists to remain polite, but I hope they don’t stay polite. There is absolutely no point in being polite in this society.
What do you think of the #MeToo movement?
I think it has gone very well. It was very good that women who were not in any feminist group recognized themselves in it. It gave them the opportunity to denounce what had happened to them. To become aware of it. There are different ways of grasping a subject, for example the posters put up in Paris to highlight femicides. It’s something that wasn’t done before, but it’s a good thing, it gets on the nerves of the male supremacists. ‘Masculists’, we say now, a newly invented word.
‘Mansplaining’, ‘femicide’, ‘masculism’... These new terms make it possible to give concrete meaning to phenomena that women are victims of, to put words to them.
Of course, and this makes it possible to introduce new concepts. The term ‘femicide’ existed in Spanish-speaking countries, but it took a long time to become widespread. Women recognized themselves in it. There are new words, because there are new things that are denounced that were not denounced before.
What remains of the MLF today?
What remains of the MLF is that a large number of groups have been created on themes that we didn’t address, I think because we didn’t dare. For example, denouncing sexual harassment, that’s new. We didn’t see a way of attacking it, as if it wasn’t serious enough, as if it was a fatality that we couldn’t do anything about.
What remains to be done?
The only thing left to do is to continue the struggle.
Translated by David Fernbach