The French women’s liberation movement celebrates its 50th anniversary


                Il y a 50 ans, mercredi, une poignée de féministes ont tenté de rendre hommage à «l'épouse du soldat inconnu» à l'Arc de Triomphe de Paris.  Elle a marqué la naissance du Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) dont les campagnes pour le droit à l'avortement et contre les violences sexuelles ont profondément changé la société française.

Le 26 août 1970, neuf Françaises entreprennent de déposer une gerbe au pied de l'Arc de Triomphe. Son inscription disait: «Il y a une personne plus inconnue que le soldat inconnu, sa femme».

The date had been carefully chosen to coincide with the United States where women marked the 50e anniversary of their right to vote. Their French feminist counterparts wanted to mark this day with aplomb.

“We said to ourselves that we really had to strike a blow,” writer Cathy Bernheim, one of the nine women, told France 2. The famous monument was a good place “to try to get the message across that ‘one in two men … is a woman'”.

This slogan, inscribed on their banners, has gone down in history. But that baffled the police at the time.

Speaking to one of the women who had just returned from studying in the United States, they said: “Do you really believe that one in two French people is not manly?”

The media were fascinated, but also ignorant of what to do with these young feminists singing songs as they walked the Champs-Elysees.

“It was so unexpected for women to just assert themselves as women, that journalists and the police couldn’t understand anything,” Bernheim said.

She remembers being taken to the police station where they continued to sing.

“It was so different from any other form of serious political action. That’s why it had such an impact on people. ”

It was August, there wasn’t much going on with the news. The media told the story. The MLF had released its media.

Mise à jour de mai 68

The MLF was not a structured movement, but emerged in May 68 which, despite the liberation of sexual mores and the upheaval of political institutions, remained very male dominated.

“Feminist organizations have tried to bring women’s issues to the fore, but they have not been heard and have remained very marginal,” historian Bibia Pavard told Inrockuptibles.

“There was a structural sexism in political organizations, be they unions, political parties or extreme left movements. Leadership was a masculine thing and the women who joined the [May ’68] the movement received only subordinate roles. This led women to think of an independent, all-female movement. ”

There were feminist movements in France such as the Women’s democratic movement, which encouraged reflection on the status of women on the left.

But the MLF activists were different. “They were part of this revolutionary and Marxist thought and their vision broke away from the established social order,” said Pavard, author of a recent book on the history of feminism.

Key struggles

Over the next decade, the movement brought forth new feminist voices.

Antoinette Fouque, key figure, although controversial of the MLF, founded the collective “Psychoanalysis and politics” which defended a specifically feminine libido, in opposition to the Freudian theory.

They campaigned tirelessly for the right to abortion, free contraception, against rape and denounced housework as a form of exploitation.

The book convers of “MLF, psychoanalysis and politics” and “Rebellion”. © Editions des Femmes – Antoinette Fouque
Pour diffuser leurs idées révolutionnaires, ils ont lancé Le Torchon Brûle (Le chiffon à vaisselle brûle) en 1971: un jeu de mots utilisant la notion de chiffon à la fois comme journal et torchon.

MLF opened Europe’s first female publishing house in 1973 and the first female bookstore in Paris the following year.

The right to choose

The MLF has undoubtedly played a key role in the decriminalization and then legalization of abortion in France.

In 1971, an MLF demonstration drew some 2,000 young women to the streets of Paris, echoing other protests for the right to abortion in the United States, Canada, Italy and Germany.

La campagne de MLF a suivi la 1971 Manifestes de 343 dans lequel des personnalités comme Catherine Deneuve et Simone de Beauvoir ont admis publiquement avoir subi des avortements illégaux.

In 1972, the Veil law, named after then health minister Simone Veil, decriminalized abortion and in 1975 it became legal.

In 1974, the contraceptive pill became available free of charge and reimbursed by the state.

Paris, November 25, 1972, the MLF demonstration calls for
Paris, November 25, 1972, an MLF demonstration calls for “abortion and contraception to be free and available free of charge”. AFP
Défendre les femmes

In 1971, the MLF supported pregnant teenagers in Castle of Solitude near Paris which had started a hunger strike. Most of the young girls had become pregnant after being raped.

Bernheim remembered the shock of discovering the conditions the girls found themselves in.

“Girls as young as 14 or 15 were taken out of school when they got pregnant and placed in institutions like this, little better than prisons. They gave birth and were marginalized.

Alerted by MLF, Simone de Beauvoir visited the establishment and her criticisms contributed to its closure in 1976.

Housework is work

The MLF raised awareness about the thorny subject of housework, which they saw as a form of submission and slavery. “The private is political” was one of their slogans.

But they also used humor to get their point across by asking “Workers of the world, who washes your socks?” “

“MLF’s image is sometimes distorted, seen as a very radical and hard movement,” Pavard said. “In reality, members often reflect on happy times, the joy of being together and taking collective action. There is a lot of humor and humor is a way of destabilizing the established order.

Although the principle of equal pay for the sexes was enshrined in law in 1972, household chores remain unpaid.

The legacy of MLF

According to a recent BVA poll, the personalities who most embody feminism for the French are Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai. Members of the MLF were not named.

“The movement is largely unknown to the general public and to younger generations of feminists,” Pavard explained. “The history of this movement is not taught. It has failed to transmit itself. ”

And yet, “MLF has succeeded in transforming French society in a very important way”, she continued. “The mobilization around contraception, abortion and rape has led to changes in the law.”

Meanwhile, the younger generation of feminists who use social media so effectively to advance their causes, most recently around the #MeToo movement and the fight against domestic and gender-based violence, may well be more influenced by their predecessors than they are. they don’t think so.

Femen, La Barbe and Les Colleuses (who put up shocking slogans against domestic violence in public spaces) have all learned that strong visual actions, like laying a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe, can contribute to social change.