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Joan Wallach Scott

Joan Scott is known internationally for writings that theorize gender as an analytic category. She is a leading figure in the emerging field of critical history. Her ground-breaking work has[…]

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

Question: What is the parité movement and how has it affected rnFrance?
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rnJoan Wallach Scott: 
Most of my work is in nineteenth century French rnhistory and both the Veil book and Parité are on twentieth and rntwenty-first century, and I had done work on feminist demands for votingrn rights.  Women get the vote in France in 1944.  I had done all kinds ofrn work on that and then I began to read about this movement for… le rnmouvement pour la parité, and that was devised by a group of French rnfeminists who… many of whom were involved in politics and who felt that rnthey were just hitting a brick wall or a glass ceiling or whatever, thatrn they was just so much toleration by the vast majority of men who were rnin politics for women coming in and one of the things they pointed out rnwas that since women had gotten the vote in 1944 until they started rntheir movement in 1990 no more than 5 and at most 6% of the French rnParliament were women and this they seemed to them… this put France on arn par with some of the most un-advanced countries of Europe and indeed, rnof the world and this was brought up over and over again as a way of rnthinking about what to do. 
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rnAt first they proposed quotas and quotas were struck down by the French rnconstitutional court as unconstitutional and then they proposed what rnthey called parité and this was where the thing we talked about before rnabout French universalism was this sort of wonderful turn on French rnuniversalism.  French universalism, the unit of universalism is the rnabstract individual who has no characteristics, no social rncharacteristics, no religion, no race, no ethnicity, nothing except rnhistorically sex.  The reason women weren’t given the vote initially rnwhen men got the vote, which was in…  First they had the vote in the rnFrench revolution for a while, but in 1848 you have universal manhood rnsuffrage.  Women didn’t get the vote because they were thought to be rndomestic, dependent, the sex.  They were outside of the political realm rnand so the people who supported parité argued that sex was the one thingrn that couldn’t be abstracted for the purposes of the abstract individualrn and if that was the case then why not say that the abstract individual rncame in two sexes, male and female, but that all that that sexual rndifference meant was anatomy.  It was anatomical difference.  It had rnnothing to do with social, cultural, political behavior, capabilities, rncapacities.  Those were all culturally attributed.  And so they began torn campaign for 50% representation for women and what they argued was thatrn there should be a law that said that 50% of the parliament had to be rnall… 50% of all the seats in the National Assembly had to be for women rnand so on in all political offices, which didn’t fly terribly well, rnalthough that was the original plan. 
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rnSo this movement developed and they were ingenious in the kinds of rnpolitical things they did, the demonstrations they would have, the signsrn they would… the posters they would hold up, all sorts of puns in Frenchrn on the National Assembly being you know all male and I can’t really rnreproduce them in this, but in any case they moved along and as rndifferent governments came into…  They created coalitions also across rnparty lines.  This was one of the really ingenious things, with women rnwho were leaders in very different political parties.  They also createdrn a kind of grassroots movement by bringing together the heads of all thern sort of voluntary associations, the Association of Graduates, women rngraduates of technical schools, women lawyers, you know the kind of rnprofessional associations and farmer’s wives and whatever, grassroots rnassociations.  The leadership of that came together and supported, rnsigned the petition also in favor of parité and they created this sort rnof ground swell of public opinion such that at one point something like,rn I don’t remember the numbers now, but something like 70 or more than rn70% of the population surveyed both male and female thought that there rnshould be greater equality in politics and they could imagine a woman rnpresident of France.  This was long before Ségolène Royal and you know rnher attempt to become president. 
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rnSo then the socialists came into power I think in 1997 and there seemed arn real possibility for getting this law passed because Jacques Chirac was rninclined to do more egalitarian sorts of things and this seemed like a rngood thing to do and then the original movement, which was saying on thern one hand there have to be… we have to take sex into account in rnpolitical representation, but on the other hand saying that sex was rnirrelevant for the capabilities and the characteristics and the rnideologies and the outlooks of women and men that there weren’t… that rnthe differences were not deeply rooted or biological.  Then in 1990, rnwell, in the 90s, but in 1998, ’99 it came to a head.  This coincided rnwith the push for domestic partnership legislation in France and the rndomestic partnership legislation unleashed a campaign that could only bern called homophobic, although some of its representatives denied that rnthey were homophobic, of the most extraordinary sort in which everybody rnwas okay with the idea that there could be a contract, a domestic rnpartnership contract, but not with the idea that gay couples could have rnfamilies, that gay couples could adopt or could have access to rnreproductive technologies of all kinds, in vitro fertilization and stuffrn like that and the law that passed did not permit adoption or the rnrecognition of a homoparental family. 
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rnThe debate that unfolded around that was one which reintroduced the rnnotion of sexual difference as a fundamental distinction that had to be rnmaintained.  Maybe it wasn’t biological, but it was cultural.  People rnsaid things like children have a right to know that they are born of a rnman and a woman.  This in the age of reproductive technology when, you rnknow, some children are produced in petri dishes and you know, rnwhatever.  That children would become psychotic if they were raised by rnsame sex parents and so on and so on, and there was a book published rnactually at the time called, La Politique du Sexe, The Politics of Sex, rnby the wife of ****, ****, a philosopher of sorts, and she argued in rnfavor of parité and against homosexual parenting by saying that couples rnthat… the sort of normal couple had to be a man and a women because rnthere was complementarity that had to be… come into play and similarly rnshe said in politics that complementarity has to be there, so no single rnsex legislatures, no single sex families and that became the kind of rndominant discourse of the moment and when the law passed the law on rnparité, people kept saying I agree or many of the legislators who voted rnfor it finally said yes, I agree with **** that there has to be rncomplementarity, that women represent a different sensibility, a rndifferent set of concerns, a different set of interests and we need to rnhave those in the parliament as well, so on the one hand the law passed,rn but the underlying premises of it had changed in the course of the rnhistory of the movement for parité from one in which the goal was to rneliminate the notion that there were fundamental differences between menrn and women to one in which the fundamental differences were what indeed rnhad to be represented.
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rnQuestion:
Do you think democratic government would function better rnunder a parité system?

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rnJoan Wallach Scott:  Well I think you know what parité now is rnit’s a requirement that all the ballots… rather than that the rnlegislature has to be half and half that the ballots, that on most rnballots and not all ballots women have to be half the candidates.  I’m rnnot sure that would work here.  I think it would be dismissed as anotherrn form of quota, as a secret form of quota creeping in, but I do think rnthat the best sorts of situations are one in which sexual difference rndoesn’t matter anymore and those happen the more women, because they arern the ones who are usually excluded, the more women you have in the grouprn just as the more African-Americans you have in a group, the more of rnothers become part of what you get used to you stop thinking about the rndifferences of sex of the differences of race.  You just deal with them rnas people and you disagree with their ideas.  You say no, I don’t like rnthat idea rather than reacting to them as women or men or black or whitern or whatever.  I mean I think those are in my experience of having at rnthe beginning of my career being the one woman in the Department of rnHistory at the university I first taught at to being part of a group.  rnWhen I was at Brown University under a court order Brown increased, rndramatically increased the numbers of women who are on its faculty.  rnAfter a while you know nobody can say well all women are like her or shern is the embodiment of what I hate about women because the variety is rnlarge enough so that it becomes a kind of irrelevant consideration or ifrn not irrelevant because it is never completely irrelevant, a minor rnconsideration in the institutional dealings, in the practical matters, rnin the kinds of politics and sorts of decisions that you have to make, rnso I think the more mixing you have the more democratic and in fact, thern more egalitarian things become.  Again, it is never perfect.  I mean rnthere are always going to be deep psychological issues about who is rnmale, who is female, men, women, this, that, but those become less and rnless significant in situations in which you have a fairly large rnrepresentation of the varieties of groups that are possible.
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Recorded April 26th, 2010

rnInterviewed by Austin Allen