Should Government Be Split By Sex?

The history of the French “parité movement,” and its lessons for U.S. democracy.
  • Transcript


Question: What is the parité movement and how has it affected France?

Joan Wallach Scott: 
Most of my work is in nineteenth century French history and both the Veil book and Parité are on twentieth and twenty-first century, and I had done work on feminist demands for voting rights.  Women get the vote in France in 1944.  I had done all kinds of work on that and then I began to read about this movement for… le mouvement pour la parité, and that was devised by a group of French feminists who… many of whom were involved in politics and who felt that they were just hitting a brick wall or a glass ceiling or whatever, that they was just so much toleration by the vast majority of men who were in politics for women coming in and one of the things they pointed out was that since women had gotten the vote in 1944 until they started their movement in 1990 no more than 5 and at most 6% of the French Parliament were women and this they seemed to them… this put France on a par with some of the most un-advanced countries of Europe and indeed, of the world and this was brought up over and over again as a way of thinking about what to do. 

At first they proposed quotas and quotas were struck down by the French constitutional court as unconstitutional and then they proposed what they called parité and this was where the thing we talked about before about French universalism was this sort of wonderful turn on French universalism.  French universalism, the unit of universalism is the abstract individual who has no characteristics, no social characteristics, no religion, no race, no ethnicity, nothing except historically sex.  The reason women weren’t given the vote initially when men got the vote, which was in…  First they had the vote in the French revolution for a while, but in 1848 you have universal manhood suffrage.  Women didn’t get the vote because they were thought to be domestic, dependent, the sex.  They were outside of the political realm and so the people who supported parité argued that sex was the one thing that couldn’t be abstracted for the purposes of the abstract individual and if that was the case then why not say that the abstract individual came in two sexes, male and female, but that all that that sexual difference meant was anatomy.  It was anatomical difference.  It had nothing to do with social, cultural, political behavior, capabilities, capacities.  Those were all culturally attributed.  And so they began to campaign for 50% representation for women and what they argued was that there should be a law that said that 50% of the parliament had to be all… 50% of all the seats in the National Assembly had to be for women and so on in all political offices, which didn’t fly terribly well, although that was the original plan. 

So this movement developed and they were ingenious in the kinds of political things they did, the demonstrations they would have, the signs they would… the posters they would hold up, all sorts of puns in French on the National Assembly being you know all male and I can’t really reproduce them in this, but in any case they moved along and as different governments came into…  They created coalitions also across party lines.  This was one of the really ingenious things, with women who were leaders in very different political parties.  They also created a kind of grassroots movement by bringing together the heads of all the sort of voluntary associations, the Association of Graduates, women graduates of technical schools, women lawyers, you know the kind of professional associations and farmer’s wives and whatever, grassroots associations.  The leadership of that came together and supported, signed the petition also in favor of parité and they created this sort of ground swell of public opinion such that at one point something like, I don’t remember the numbers now, but something like 70 or more than 70% of the population surveyed both male and female thought that there should be greater equality in politics and they could imagine a woman president of France.  This was long before Ségolène Royal and you know her attempt to become president. 

So then the socialists came into power I think in 1997 and there seemed a real possibility for getting this law passed because Jacques Chirac was inclined to do more egalitarian sorts of things and this seemed like a good thing to do and then the original movement, which was saying on the one hand there have to be… we have to take sex into account in political representation, but on the other hand saying that sex was irrelevant for the capabilities and the characteristics and the ideologies and the outlooks of women and men that there weren’t… that the differences were not deeply rooted or biological.  Then in 1990, well, in the 90s, but in 1998, ’99 it came to a head.  This coincided with the push for domestic partnership legislation in France and the domestic partnership legislation unleashed a campaign that could only be called homophobic, although some of its representatives denied that they were homophobic, of the most extraordinary sort in which everybody was okay with the idea that there could be a contract, a domestic partnership contract, but not with the idea that gay couples could have families, that gay couples could adopt or could have access to reproductive technologies of all kinds, in vitro fertilization and stuff like that and the law that passed did not permit adoption or the recognition of a homoparental family. 

The debate that unfolded around that was one which reintroduced the notion of sexual difference as a fundamental distinction that had to be maintained.  Maybe it wasn’t biological, but it was cultural.  People said things like children have a right to know that they are born of a man and a woman.  This in the age of reproductive technology when, you know, some children are produced in petri dishes and you know, whatever.  That children would become psychotic if they were raised by same sex parents and so on and so on, and there was a book published actually at the time called, La Politique du Sexe, The Politics of Sex, by the wife of ****, ****, a philosopher of sorts, and she argued in favor of parité and against homosexual parenting by saying that couples that… the sort of normal couple had to be a man and a women because there was complementarity that had to be… come into play and similarly she said in politics that complementarity has to be there, so no single sex legislatures, no single sex families and that became the kind of dominant discourse of the moment and when the law passed the law on parité, people kept saying I agree or many of the legislators who voted for it finally said yes, I agree with **** that there has to be complementarity, that women represent a different sensibility, a different set of concerns, a different set of interests and we need to have those in the parliament as well, so on the one hand the law passed, but the underlying premises of it had changed in the course of the history of the movement for parité from one in which the goal was to eliminate the notion that there were fundamental differences between men and women to one in which the fundamental differences were what indeed had to be represented.

Do you think democratic government would function better under a parité system?

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

Recorded April 26th, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen