Should Government Be Split By Sex?

Question: What is the parité movement and how has it affected \r\nFrance?
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\r\nJoan Wallach Scott: 
Most of my work is in nineteenth century French \r\nhistory and both the Veil book and Parité are on twentieth and \r\ntwenty-first century, and I had done work on feminist demands for voting\r\n rights.  Women get the vote in France in 1944.  I had done all kinds of\r\n work on that and then I began to read about this movement for… le \r\nmouvement pour la parité, and that was devised by a group of French \r\nfeminists who… many of whom were involved in politics and who felt that \r\nthey were just hitting a brick wall or a glass ceiling or whatever, that\r\n they was just so much toleration by the vast majority of men who were \r\nin politics for women coming in and one of the things they pointed out \r\nwas that since women had gotten the vote in 1944 until they started \r\ntheir movement in 1990 no more than 5 and at most 6% of the French \r\nParliament were women and this they seemed to them… this put France on a\r\n par with some of the most un-advanced countries of Europe and indeed, \r\nof the world and this was brought up over and over again as a way of \r\nthinking about what to do. 
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\r\nAt first they proposed quotas and quotas were struck down by the French \r\nconstitutional court as unconstitutional and then they proposed what \r\nthey called parité and this was where the thing we talked about before \r\nabout French universalism was this sort of wonderful turn on French \r\nuniversalism.  French universalism, the unit of universalism is the \r\nabstract individual who has no characteristics, no social \r\ncharacteristics, no religion, no race, no ethnicity, nothing except \r\nhistorically sex.  The reason women weren’t given the vote initially \r\nwhen men got the vote, which was in…  First they had the vote in the \r\nFrench revolution for a while, but in 1848 you have universal manhood \r\nsuffrage.  Women didn’t get the vote because they were thought to be \r\ndomestic, dependent, the sex.  They were outside of the political realm \r\nand so the people who supported parité argued that sex was the one thing\r\n that couldn’t be abstracted for the purposes of the abstract individual\r\n and if that was the case then why not say that the abstract individual \r\ncame in two sexes, male and female, but that all that that sexual \r\ndifference meant was anatomy.  It was anatomical difference.  It had \r\nnothing to do with social, cultural, political behavior, capabilities, \r\ncapacities.  Those were all culturally attributed.  And so they began to\r\n campaign for 50% representation for women and what they argued was that\r\n there should be a law that said that 50% of the parliament had to be \r\nall… 50% of all the seats in the National Assembly had to be for women \r\nand so on in all political offices, which didn’t fly terribly well, \r\nalthough that was the original plan. 
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\r\nSo this movement developed and they were ingenious in the kinds of \r\npolitical things they did, the demonstrations they would have, the signs\r\n they would… the posters they would hold up, all sorts of puns in French\r\n on the National Assembly being you know all male and I can’t really \r\nreproduce them in this, but in any case they moved along and as \r\ndifferent governments came into…  They created coalitions also across \r\nparty lines.  This was one of the really ingenious things, with women \r\nwho were leaders in very different political parties.  They also created\r\n a kind of grassroots movement by bringing together the heads of all the\r\n sort of voluntary associations, the Association of Graduates, women \r\ngraduates of technical schools, women lawyers, you know the kind of \r\nprofessional associations and farmer’s wives and whatever, grassroots \r\nassociations.  The leadership of that came together and supported, \r\nsigned the petition also in favor of parité and they created this sort \r\nof ground swell of public opinion such that at one point something like,\r\n I don’t remember the numbers now, but something like 70 or more than \r\n70% of the population surveyed both male and female thought that there \r\nshould be greater equality in politics and they could imagine a woman \r\npresident of France.  This was long before Ségolène Royal and you know \r\nher attempt to become president. 
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\r\nSo then the socialists came into power I think in 1997 and there seemed a\r\n real possibility for getting this law passed because Jacques Chirac was \r\ninclined to do more egalitarian sorts of things and this seemed like a \r\ngood thing to do and then the original movement, which was saying on the\r\n one hand there have to be… we have to take sex into account in \r\npolitical representation, but on the other hand saying that sex was \r\nirrelevant for the capabilities and the characteristics and the \r\nideologies and the outlooks of women and men that there weren’t… that \r\nthe differences were not deeply rooted or biological.  Then in 1990, \r\nwell, in the 90s, but in 1998, ’99 it came to a head.  This coincided \r\nwith the push for domestic partnership legislation in France and the \r\ndomestic partnership legislation unleashed a campaign that could only be\r\n called homophobic, although some of its representatives denied that \r\nthey were homophobic, of the most extraordinary sort in which everybody \r\nwas okay with the idea that there could be a contract, a domestic \r\npartnership contract, but not with the idea that gay couples could have \r\nfamilies, that gay couples could adopt or could have access to \r\nreproductive technologies of all kinds, in vitro fertilization and stuff\r\n like that and the law that passed did not permit adoption or the \r\nrecognition of a homoparental family. 
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\r\nThe debate that unfolded around that was one which reintroduced the \r\nnotion of sexual difference as a fundamental distinction that had to be \r\nmaintained.  Maybe it wasn’t biological, but it was cultural.  People \r\nsaid things like children have a right to know that they are born of a \r\nman and a woman.  This in the age of reproductive technology when, you \r\nknow, some children are produced in petri dishes and you know, \r\nwhatever.  That children would become psychotic if they were raised by \r\nsame sex parents and so on and so on, and there was a book published \r\nactually at the time called, La Politique du Sexe, The Politics of Sex, \r\nby the wife of ****, ****, a philosopher of sorts, and she argued in \r\nfavor of parité and against homosexual parenting by saying that couples \r\nthat… the sort of normal couple had to be a man and a women because \r\nthere was complementarity that had to be… come into play and similarly \r\nshe said in politics that complementarity has to be there, so no single \r\nsex legislatures, no single sex families and that became the kind of \r\ndominant discourse of the moment and when the law passed the law on \r\nparité, people kept saying I agree or many of the legislators who voted \r\nfor it finally said yes, I agree with **** that there has to be \r\ncomplementarity, that women represent a different sensibility, a \r\ndifferent set of concerns, a different set of interests and we need to \r\nhave those in the parliament as well, so on the one hand the law passed,\r\n but the underlying premises of it had changed in the course of the \r\nhistory of the movement for parité from one in which the goal was to \r\neliminate the notion that there were fundamental differences between men\r\n and women to one in which the fundamental differences were what indeed \r\nhad to be represented.
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\r\nQuestion:
Do you think democratic government would function better \r\nunder a parité system?

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\r\nJoan Wallach Scott:  Well I think you know what parité now is \r\nit’s a requirement that all the ballots… rather than that the \r\nlegislature has to be half and half that the ballots, that on most \r\nballots and not all ballots women have to be half the candidates.  I’m \r\nnot sure that would work here.  I think it would be dismissed as another\r\n form of quota, as a secret form of quota creeping in, but I do think \r\nthat the best sorts of situations are one in which sexual difference \r\ndoesn’t matter anymore and those happen the more women, because they are\r\n the ones who are usually excluded, the more women you have in the group\r\n just as the more African-Americans you have in a group, the more of \r\nothers become part of what you get used to you stop thinking about the \r\ndifferences of sex of the differences of race.  You just deal with them \r\nas people and you disagree with their ideas.  You say no, I don’t like \r\nthat idea rather than reacting to them as women or men or black or white\r\n or whatever.  I mean I think those are in my experience of having at \r\nthe beginning of my career being the one woman in the Department of \r\nHistory at the university I first taught at to being part of a group.  \r\nWhen I was at Brown University under a court order Brown increased, \r\ndramatically increased the numbers of women who are on its faculty.  \r\nAfter a while you know nobody can say well all women are like her or she\r\n is the embodiment of what I hate about women because the variety is \r\nlarge enough so that it becomes a kind of irrelevant consideration or if\r\n not irrelevant because it is never completely irrelevant, a minor \r\nconsideration in the institutional dealings, in the practical matters, \r\nin the kinds of politics and sorts of decisions that you have to make, \r\nso I think the more mixing you have the more democratic and in fact, the\r\n more egalitarian things become.  Again, it is never perfect.  I mean \r\nthere are always going to be deep psychological issues about who is \r\nmale, who is female, men, women, this, that, but those become less and \r\nless significant in situations in which you have a fairly large \r\nrepresentation of the varieties of groups that are possible.
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Recorded April 26th, 2010

\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

The history of the French "parité movement," and its lessons for U.S. democracy.

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash
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