Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement , by Lisa Greenwald, is the story of French feminism between 1944 and 1981, when feminism played a central political role in the history of France. The key women during this epoch were often leftists committed to a materialist critique of society and were part of a postwar tradition that produced widespread social change, revamping the workplace and laws governing everything from abortion to marriage. The history of French feminism is the history of women’s claims to individualism and citizenship that had been granted their male counterparts, at least in principle, in 1789. Yet French women have more often donned the mantle of particularism, advancing their contributions as mothers to prove their worth as citizens, than they have thrown it off, claiming absolute equality. The few exceptions, such as Simone de Beauvoir or the 1970s activists, illustrate the diversity and tensions within French feminism, as France moved from a corporatist and tradition-minded country to one marked by individualism and modernity. Read an interview with Lisa Greenwald below.

Public Seminar [PS]: In Daughters of 1968 you meditate on the evolution of, and tensions within, French Feminism between 1944 and 1981. Can you talk about how you arrived at this project and about your primary motivations for publishing this book now?

Lisa Greenwald [LG]: In 1986 I went to Paris — parachuting midway out of a doctoral program in comparative women’s history and looking for adventure. Signing up for a beginning French course at the Sorbonne, I tried to find the university women’s center, much to the amusement of anyone I asked. Was this for “mothers”? Was this for “women’s health” sorts of things? It took weeks to find someone who directed me to the Paris women’s center. It was located up a dark staircase on a small dark street and frequented by a smattering of older women who spoke wistfully of the good old days. Their nostalgia seemed justified considering the Paris I saw around me. Almost every ad in the subway featured half-clothed women, sexist comments were commonplace, and reasonably educated women said that feminism was passé. All these experiences made clear to me that feminism in France, past and present, was different.

But it was different in ways I hadn’t expected — to wit: fewer women were complaining about access to childcare because there was a solid network of state-sponsored nurseries. And women weren’t strategizing to maintain contraception and abortion rights because they had been enshrined into law.

Thus began my journey to understand why. Searching for the roots of second-wave feminism, in all its multiplicity, took me back to the biggest social and political rupture of the modern period and that was WWII and Vichy.

I returned to American academia a year later and found it steeped in post-modern theory which it called “French feminism.” Historical narrative and political history wasn’t considered interesting or even an accurate depiction of what was happening with feminism in France and this was explained by France’s “difference.” It is hard to describe the extent to which I was faced with an academic brick wall when trying to explain that “French feminism” was not all about “representation,” “discourse,” and the three doyennes—Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva.

PS: What does it mean to study the history of French Feminism in the United States today? How can it help us rethink the present and mobilize for a more just future?

LG: France and the United States have had a romance for more than two hundred years. Yet as much as these two countries love each other, there is so much misunderstanding between them. France’s corporatism and America’s individualism; France’s Catholic culture and our Protestant one; France’s proud tradition of ideological secularism and America’s ideology of religious freedom; France’s modern institutionalization of the political left, and America’s rejection of the same — all these differences offer rich fodder for us to question our political and ideological sacred cows and how we study gender and society.

More specifically, France offers us excellent lessons in political action, in civic policy, in compromise. The way in which abortion was legalized in France is particularly important for us to examine. Women took to the streets en masse, yes, but prominent celebrities, intellectuals, and doctors all put their careers on the line to announce publicly their support for (and their participation in) abortion. The arguments addressed women’s insistence on physical autonomy and a public recognition that abortion was a fact of civilization and that it would continue regardless of France’s policies — the only question was if it would be performed under sanitary medical conditions or on dining room tables with knitting needles. The abortion law was (and is) relatively conservative to the chagrin of some but it is accepted statutory law and it needed a number of (male) centrists and conservatives to vote for it regardless of their moral squeamishness.

Parité (a law passed in 2000 and subsequently amended years later) which directs political parties to have electoral lists contain 50% female candidates (and corporate boards to have significant female representation) or pay a fine, is a lesson in forcing the issue on the social acceptance of women in government and the economy. This approach to gender inequality is another excellent lesson for the United States.

PS: How did the project develop over time? Did your original suite of ideas, positions, hopes and questions go through many stages and changes? Can you describe them for us?

LG: As I tried to understand the gulf separating the materialist political feminists and the “differentialist” feminists of the 1970s, I focused on the rhetoric of gender and its historic construction. Shorn of post-modern language, I discovered real similarities between the post-war feminists who conceived of a special feminine consciousness to the way the 1970s “differentialist” women expressed “women’s power” and “women’s time.” In the years between Beauvoir’s Second Sex in 1949 and the political feminist movement of the 1970s, in contrast, material concerns — wages, education, jobs, contraception, abortion — repudiated a “feminine consciousness” and sought to reformulate both men’s and women’s social consciousness entirely.

When I first began studying the feminist movement in the late 1980s, it was in real disarray and those feminists who were left felt betrayed — by the government, the Socialist Party, and by other women’s groups. The more I studied the movement, the more I recognized the extent of the fissures and real betrayal. What was confounding was that American academia seemed disinterested in the hard politics of France which had earned and cost feminists so much. What American academics believed to be a special kind of feminism was literary, linguistic, and symbolic (and sometimes not feminist at all).

PS: What do you hope will stay with readers long after they’ve finished Daughters of 1968?

LG: French feminism was nothing if it was not political and about power. Power is real, it is material. It is the difference between earning a pittance and being able to support oneself independently; it is about having physical freedom and safety; it is about having an equal say in how one is governed. In 2019 — after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the #MeToo movement, and during the incredible scourge of gun violence in America — let’s remember what feminism has the potential to do and let’s work very strategically to enshrine rights and opportunities for all women.

So, my book is here to say: there were feminists, very well known in France and relatively unknown in the US, who were instrumental to changing laws, ideas, and institutions — and we need to understand how they played an integral role in the social and political change of the twentieth century. And for those who are interested in the political and intellectual debates of feminism in France that still echo today, this book should help to tease out the players and ideological threads and show that it’s always important to read actions and ideas together.

I hope this book will be an opening salvo for many more studies and books of this kind. The history of feminism in France in the second half of the twentieth century is extremely rich and varied and there is much more to uncover. Consider: Before 1945, women could not vote. Before 1965, married women could not control their earnings, decide where to live, regulate their fertility, or take their children on a trip without their husband’s permission. Yet a generation later, that conservative, patriarchal society legalized birth control and abortion, and created a women’s ministry largely due to the ideas and political pressure of a small, brilliant and passionate group of women.

I also hope this book inspires students of French feminism to read the French historians who have been writing about this history — Sylvie Chaperon, Bibia Pavard, Christine Bard, Janine Mossuz-Lavau, and Françoise Picq — to name a few, and that American presses will begin to translate their important works.

PS: What’s next? Do you have other book projects in the works?

LG: First, I’m looking to spread the word in American academia about the history of feminism in France. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time, so I am enjoying the platform that publishing a book offers. The paperback is coming out in September and I hope to be giving some talks on both sides of the Atlantic.

The generation of feminists who were crucial to the flowering of post-1968 feminists are growing old. I am considering circling back with them and recording their reflections on the past thirty years and a new generation of women who have grown up without the assumptions and restrictions under which they labored.

I will be giving a paper at the War and Social Movements Conference at The CUNY Graduate Center on May 10th concerning the influence of the Algerian War for Liberation (1954-1962) on two generations of feminists in France, and how it inspired their analysis of male domination and shaped their social critiques around gender in the 1960s and 1970s.

Daughters of 1968 is available for purchase on the University of Nebraska Press website here, and on Amazon here.

Read an excerpt from Daughters of 1968 here.

Lisa Greenwald, PhD, spent almost a decade working in and researching the women’s movement in France, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship and grants from the French government. She has worked as a consultant and in-house historian for a variety of nonprofits and foundations in France, Chicago, and New York. She teaches history at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.