What can young feminists learn from their elders? – Christine Delphy speaks at London School of Economics

10 Feb 2016   lucyejwoods

Young Feminists today are lucky to have such an unprecedented wealth of historical women’s rights activism.

However, there are many divisions amongst Feminist groups. A generational divide is making headlines as veteran Feminists, Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright advise younger women to vote for US presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton.

As the third wave of Feminism pushes opportunities for women into reality, previously only dreamt of by former movements, what, if anything, can younger feminists take away from veterans?

A veteran Feminist and activist such as French sociologist, Christine Delphy?

This year Delphy released a documentary on her life and journey as the founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in 1970’s France. The documentary premiered in the UK this Monday, followed by a Q & A with Delphy at the London School of Economics.

The biographical documentary: ‘Je ne suis pas feministe mais…’ (I’m not a feminist but…) is a cut of interviews with Delphy, previous discussions, protests and relevant music videos from the 60s – such as Lesley Gore’s ‘You don’t own me’ and Slyvie Vartan’s ‘Comme Un Garcon’ (Like a boy).

The origin of the title refers to Delphy starting sentences with “I’m not a feminist but…” prior to becoming an activist.

The film tells the story of how Delphy travelled to the US during the civil rights movement, where she “discovered racism”, and applied the idea of one section of society being oppressed, to women.

Delphy founded the WLM, which is most known for laying a wreath at a World War memorial for anonymous soldiers – but not for anonymous soldiers, for the fallen soldier’s wives. “There is someone more anon than the anon soldier: his wife,” Delphy explains, in the film.

One theme throughout the documentary young Feminists today can apply to their own surroundings, is Delphy’s opposition to Feminism for racist aims. The documentary shows Delphy emerged in protests opposing France’s banning of headscarves in schools.

Following the recent Cologne attacks – where women where sexually assaulted and mugged by organised groups of African and Arab men – the documentary is timely in calling out the use of Feminism for racist aims.

The documentary uses a clip of young women in headscarves skateboarding, doing handstands, and footage of Delphy protesting the headscarf ban, explaining to a journalist why the law is not just anti-Muslim, but against women.

It stems from the colonial idea to “civilise” other non-whites. “Islamaphobia blurs the Feminist message,” Delphy says, in the film.

During the Q & A session after the documentary showing, Delphy said the current use of Feminism for racist aims divides white women and non-white women; “It is very strange to see so much hatred for other women.”

“It shows me that we have a long, long road ahead of us.”

When questioned on the headline making Hilary Clinton-generational-differences-within-Feminism, Delphy told the audience: “Different groups of women do not have the same interests. Each can be Feminist in their own way – and some are more Feminist than others!”

The crowd laughed frequently at Delphy’s candid, yet relaxed replies to audience questions. “It is very difficult. For people in France, many are against Hilary because of the way the administration talks about headscarves, it is a very emotional issue.”

Delphy added: “Younger women in France do not seem to feel as attacked by headscarves, in the same way that older women do, it seems. There is no other explanation I can think of.”

One audience member pointed out the number of white faces on the stage, and in the crowd. “We are in a higher education building, we know that people of colour do not make it to higher education in as many numbers, just like working class people also do not” said Delphy. She refrained from claiming to have all the answers, but did point out the curious strategy of people who “promote diversity instead of fighting discrimination.”

The discussion of separation by race within Feminism led onto the topic of identity politics.

“People are not one identity or one group” said Delphy. “The women’s movement is split, for example, between homosexuals and heterosexuals, mothers and non mothers, meat eaters and non-meat eaters! People have their different identities. I never understood identity politics because no one is one identity.”

In the documentary, when Delphy – who is openly lesbian – asked for a separate gay group within the WLM, the idea was met with resistance. Resistance always comes from the dominant group as a wish not to be specified and labelled, “except, no one asked me if I wanted to be labelled” Delphy explained in the film, and on stage.

Another criticism young feminists can take away from Delphy’s film is that Feminism has yet to communicate that men have privileges, “and they will lose them” says Delphy.

Delphy advised others, in the film: “not be timid to say that men will lose these [privileges]. The current movement has been all about what women will gain, and is not saying what men will lose.”

When the film discusses the new generation of Feminists, Delphy observes current groups appear “dispersed”.

In contrast, the WLM began with informal networks in local cafes. These informal meetings and groups are imperative to any movement, says Delphy: “You need to share ideas, to be criticised and encouraged and challenged.”

For her own WLM peers, Delphy says in the documentary, a lifetime of prior education in patriarchal structures was difficult to erase; being brought up with traditional ideals led many of Delphy’s friends to be “torn” between radical beliefs in equality, and a desire to fulfil contradictory traditional ideals.

Constraints from the outside world means it is difficult to “live out utopian ideals”, many women “applied their beliefs to their practical reality”, Delphy said.

“But there is hope for future generations.”

When the audience asked, “how can someone become a revolutionary feminist?”, Delphy replied: “I cannot say in one sentence how to be a revolutionary Feminist. It depends on who you are, where you live, how old you are…there are so many things.”

“Feminism is like a journey, as soon as we sort out one issue, another one appears, you just have to keep going.”


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