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An excerpt from Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair 1968-1981

Educated by ’68, workers at the Besançon watch factory developed a transformative workplace democracy. For female employees, a new working-class feminism was vital in the fight against sexual harassment and the patriarchal union structures of the era.

Verso Books16 May 2018

Lip workers at a meeting, 1973, photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

"The struggle of women is subversive. It questions the whole system.”

Women's Lip

The Lip conflict was characterized by a remarkable openness of discussion and practice, but not on issues of particular concern to women. As feminists from Paris reported after a visit in the summer of 1973, Lip women treated issues relating to their lives as women as secondary to the collective concerns of the movement: “what they especially put forward was the new consciousness of their belonging to the working class and not the place they are given in it.” They had experienced individual forms of liberation and acted collectively as workers, but, without a place to discuss issues particular to women, they addressed them individually. “Where we are wrong,” said Demougeot, “is when we think that the problems of women in the enterprise are secondary. This is still a woman’s way of reacting.”

Although women did much of the work preparing for the colloquium on employment in December 1973, the program did not originally include a session on women, like those on vocational training, school, housing and health. Danièle Kergoat of Les Cahiers de mai saw in (male) Lip militants at the time “a big difference between the extraordinarily refined level of reasoning about everything that concerned the struggle for the retention of jobs” and what they said about subjects like the relations of men and women or child rearing, where “their critical offensive capacity disappeared ... or was not yet formed: the discourse remained at the level of the usual stereotypes of ‘the average Frenchman’.” In this void, a committee of Lip women held meetings in preparation for the colloquium. This gave a project to women who had on occasion gotten together earlier. Kergoat attended one gathering, transcribed in the discussion, analyzed it, and presented the results to the women: “I have a good memory of these women sitting in a circle, at first looking at one another blankly (the ‘productives’ against the unproductives’), but who finally created a women’s group.”

Led by Piton, the women’s committee organized a session on women at the colloquium. Discussion dealt with a variety of issues at Lip, ranging from training and promotion of female workers to why solidarity characterized men’s workshops and jealousy those of women, as well as female workers who slept with their bosses. While feminists like Jeannette Colombel criticized the report that the committee prepared as making women’s issues a manifestation of class struggle, it recognized the struggle within the struggle: when women “demanded power with respect to their condition as women, they were frightening. To whom? To men and to society. The struggle of women is subversive. It questions the whole system.” That there was no childcare at the conference limited women’s participation and confirmed that women needed to organize autonomously to address problems specific to their situation in and out of the workplace.

Feminists in the PSU in Besançon not employed by Lip provided a catalyst for the formation of a longer-lived women’s group. Before the expulsion from Palente, PSU militant Madeleine Laude, active in the CCPPO, and another PSU militant, Jacqueline Betain, had gotten fellow party member Piaget to convince Demougeot to gather a few women workers to meet to discuss issues germane to women. The feminists’ insistence that the women workers examine the issues from their perspective as women initially made Demougeot uncomfortable, and they met only a couple of times during the conflict. After the signature of the Dole accords, and with the participation of the two PSU members and of Pascale Werner, a feminist from Paris, a cluster of close to twenty women set up the Women’s Group. It included fourteen Lip manual laborers, the Lip secretary Piton and the Lip social worker Plantin. Well over half of the fourteen were OS. Six of the fourteen were single, divorced or widowed, about the percentage of the female workforce in these situations at Lip.

Women had previously sought to get home quickly after work to take care of children and other household duties, but their experience in the conflict made many feel the need to meet outside work to maintain the solidarity they had developed. As one put it, “To have the contacts and the power to tell ourselves: ‘Warning, we are going back to individualism. Return to solidarity.’” The Women’s Group began meeting in March 1974. It engaged in consciousness-raising and elicited the participation of all. In the words of Group member Jacqueline Betain: “There is no longer the complex of those who know and those who do not know how to speak.” The Group met weekly at the Maison pour Tous until December 1974, and taped their conversations. The Women’s Group became a place where women went to be understood and supported when they spoke about issues affecting them at Palente, like working conditions for the OS and the lack of opportunity for advancement. The Group asked why women who raised these issues in the union were met with a patronizing “yes, you’re right,” but little else. The Women’s Group reported that the warm relations established between female workers in different parts of the factory and the offices during the conflict had continued, preventing one element from being played off against another. It blamed male managers for sexual exploitation rather than women for flirting. It came to feel that solidarity among women workers was the only way to counter the abuses inherent in the individual relationships that managers sought to establish with female workers. For Plantin, it was important “to find ourselves among women, because we were afraid that some would take up their old behavior, their habit of wanting to please the bosses. We’ll need to support ourselves, to help one another.” Before, an individual woman might talk back to a boss, but this was never effective; they now learned to confront him as a group. No, Demougeot added, did the Group restrict itself to workplace issues, discussing topics they had never spoken of before, like divorce and abortion.

A number of the participants in the Women’s Group had been engaged in the Action Committee and the new group had many of its qualities. Like the Action Committee it was a response both to the admirable qualities that made the union leadership seem unapproachable and the resulting anti-democratic and hierarchical nature of the union that led to exclusion from the leadership of important elements of the base. Reflecting forty years later, Piaget made this connection: “As there was the Action Committee to overcome the too strong imprint of the delegates, the Women’s Group was indispensable for facilitating emancipation, reflections particular to women, and promoting their best propositions for the emancipation of all women for the benefit of all.” The Group became the place to address issues whose importance the male-led union did not appreciate, but which, after discussion in the Group, the women fought to have the CFDT-Lip take up. One male Action Committee member lamented that after the Dole accords, women met to discuss issues, but the only male workers who did so were union delegates. Newly elected female union delegates participated in the Women’s Group, but some of the female delegates who had been elected before the conflict did not. The Group criticized them for being totally cut off from the mass of female workers. These delegates did not raise issues particular to women, which they accepted as peripheral, out of fear of themselves being marginalized. The Group accused these women of having accepted “this submission to the dominant group, this molding. They learned the discourse of others and were integrated into the union hierarchy.”

When rehired by the new firm, close to 100 women were moved to new positions. Women went to see the male union delegates, but they did nothing until the Women’s Group brought the issue before the union. Only then did the union take it up with management and defend the reassigned female workers’ interests. “This created big tensions in the enterprise,” Demougeot reported. However, what was more radical, she added, was the idea that what was needed in the union was not simply more women in leadership positions. “It is another form of militancy that these women desired and that they wished for”—democratic and non- hierarchical like the Women’s Group.

This is an extract from Donald Reid's Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair 1968-1981Until Sunday, May 20 at 11:59pm EST, receive 50% off this, plus all our 1968 reading! See our reading list for the complete selection of '68 titles.

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Opening the Gates
In the Summer of 1973, workers occupied the Lip watch and clock factory, sparking a national cause and controversy. The Lip occupation and self-management experience captured the imagination of the...

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