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A real anthropological change

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie speaks of the effects of feminism in society today: have women become “men like everyone else” and are men becoming “women like everyone else”?

“Sibyl”, detail of the altar-piece of San Benito Real (Valladolid)

Feminism caused an earthquake which modified the very organization of our world. Can you explain it?

The effects that the feminine claims had on our common life can never be valued too highly. If equality between women and men is at the same time the central point of conflict and the decisive success of feminism, the effects of the latter have gone much further, modifying once and for all the conditions of living together. The crucial point is the calling into question by the second wave feminists (in the early the 1970s) of the traditional division between a private female sphere and a public male sphere. Rejecting the hierarchy of roles the feminists caused the wall that separated the two spheres to disappear and inaugurated a new organization with three poles: the public and political (power and State) the private and social (the world of work and civil society) and the intimate and affective (sentimental and family life).

What is absolutely new is that women and men possess the same legitimacy and harbour the same aspirations in each one of these three poles. I am not saying that this is always obvious and easy, but the fact remains that, at the level of principles, they are both considered as having the same rights in these three spheres of life. This means that we have put an end to the assignment of private and subordinate roles. Women, in claiming that they are fully legitimate individuals in society, for all functions and at all levels, have become “men like everyone else”.

However, and this is a less easy point to grasp, we have also put an end to the exclusion of men from the sphere of intimate and family life. Men are increasingly asking to be part of it, they too aspire to a better balance between their private and professional lives. To express it somewhat provocatively, I would say that men are becoming “women like everyone else”.

This is why I think we are living through a real anthropological change. The female condition is placed under the banner of duality: women are individuals with rights, they are free and equal, but they also remain incarnate and sexed. Indeed, it is the case that this dual condition, abstract and concrete, is becoming the model of every condition. Men too are characterized by existential duality and it is women who show them the way, for it was they who first experienced how to structure the private and social dimensions in their lives. This is what I call a convergence of genders, that is, the beginning of a generic human condition whose model is women.

In our Western societies this convergence of genders is already taking place, with both its positive and negative aspects. In what way can this anthropological revolution of the man-woman relationship lead to better relations?

The convergence of genders must not be seen as a levelling out, or a disintegration of the female and male conditions. On the contrary. It points to a reciprocal enrichment, by accumulation, of social roles and private aspirations. For a long time women were only “private”, reduced to domestic activities; today they are fully legitimized in the social sphere. This is undoubtedly very positive progress, especially because it is the guarantee of women’s material independence. For their part, men today are committed to the intimate sphere, after having been solely “public” they can aspire to the gratifications of family life. We must also be glad of this. On the one hand because women no longer bear on their own the burden of private tasks, on the other, because this change shows that personal fulfilment for men does not happen only in the professional field but that they can now legitimately aspire to a harmonious and satisfying existence.

Thus we can imagine a future world where the two sexes assume equally and serenely the burdens and gratifications of private and also of social life. However, it is necessary to add immediately that this process must be placed under the banner of freedom. In other words, to my mind there is no ideal model of existence: some individuals choose to dedicate themselves more to family life, others prefer professional life. It matters little whether they are men or women, the important thing is to recognize their freedom of choice. A woman who stops working in order to devote herself to her children is no more to be criticized than another who goes back to work after having had a baby, or yet another who chooses not to have children. In other words, there is no right or wrong way of being women. This is precisely the incredible chance that we Western women have; we can choose our own destiny.

Today many women stifle their female nature. How and why?

Any Western woman today must cope with a private life which is sometimes synonymous with motherhood and a very demanding social life. For some women all this entails sacrifices in the sphere of their intimate, conjugal and family life. Indeed it is not always easy to mediate between private and professional aspirations.

And above all because the age when individuals are able to fulfil themselves professionally is exactly the same as the age of their personal fulfilment. People begin to live as a couple and have children between the ages of 30 and 40, projects which at times clash with the demands of the world of work. Sometimes this creates very painful situations, there are women who wait too long for the “right time” to become mothers and then never do.

The progress in medically assisted procreation has to do with this malaise which today surrounds motherhood. Since women have fewer children, since they usually choose the moment at which they wish to become pregnant, since they are offered ever more sophisticated technologies, they come to think that wanting to have a child necessarily means having one. Yet, things are not so simple: they often discover that it is… too late! For my part I am favourable to medically assisted procreation (excluding the matter of surrogate mothers which gives rise to real ethical problems), but I observe, with regret, that it nourishes the illusion of a procreative omnipotence.

Pablo Picasso “Man and woman” (1971)

What is the situation today of the incarnate dimension of female existence?

In its radical version, feminist thought produced effects on the way in which we conceive of the female condition, in short, it has disembodied it. Gender studies, the materialistic feminism inherited from the second wave and the tradition of republican egalitarianism have in common the fact that they favour an abstract definition which makes women purely individuals with rights. The contemporary condition of women is defined in terms of equality and of freedom, in a perspective that reduces the female body to nothing other than the place par excellence of male domination. This is why the subjects associated with female corporeity are all too often seen as vestiges of the submission of women to the patriarchal order.

I do not deny the sociological fecundity of the notion of gender. Gender studies enable us to shed light on the mechanisms through which the inequalities between women and men are perpetuated. Yet they also have theoretical implications which I do not share. The refusal to think in female and male terms and the rejection of the necessarily embodied and sexed dimension of life have produced a curious quirk: the subject of feminism has lost all its consistence, even all its reality. Contemporary feminist thought has in some way caused the female subject to disappear.

For my part I suggest reintroducing female corporeity and thus also the female subject in feminist thought, because to me it seems important to bear in mind that other aspect of emancipation, constituted for women by presenting themselves to the world and to others in a body of the female sex.

What does the uniqueness of the “experience of the female” consist of?

I like to describe the experience of the female as an experience of embodiment in the relationship. Since women cannot live disregarding their corporeity, and since they are endowed with a maternal capacity, they have a rapport with the world which I define as relational. This clearly has to do with motherhood, which is only a potential but which produces psychological effects, whether or not it is realized.

The mere fact of mentally projecting oneself into motherhood, a projection which no woman can avoid whether or not she wants children, implies reflection on the relational dimension of female existence. Every woman knows that she has at her disposal this capacity for having and above all for bringing up children, namely for entering with them into a process of humanization and socialization. This is why I maintain that women are never able to conceive of the possibility of a purely individual existence, that is, of an existence that gives itself meaning by itself, that does not need any other existence in order to affirm itself and to develop. In short, women are anti-individualistic individuals. To put this in simple words, women cannot pretend that others don’t exist whereas men succeed in doing so very well.

I am not saying that all men are blatant egoists, nor even that all women are pure altruists. I simply think that one cannot pretend that women were not, for centuries, relegated to the domestic sphere. This history has repercussions on what it means to be a woman today, namely an individual who is at the same time both private and social, marked by the age-old responsibility for birth and for care of the most elderly and the most vulnerable.

How do you see the difference between “female” and “femininity”?

It is necessary to distinguish between what depends on the order of representations and what depends on the order of the lived experience of corporeity. When one reasons in terms of femininity and virility, one is in an essentialist perspective of the projection of an ideal on reality. Sexual availability, maternal devotion and material dependence on one side, carnal vigour, conquering autonomy and social sovereignty on the other. These representations belong to another time, the time when the biological sex of individuals assigned precise functions and roles to them.

I refuse this register of femininity and virility and I propose to identify all that is unique which the female and the male preserve, since it is a way of building the identity which we must all confront. In a world in which roles and functions are no longer assigned to one sex or the other, I believe more than ever that we must reflect on the meaning of the incarnation and sexualization of our existence. Indeed, who can claim to live as an “anthropos”, in other words as a pure subject, outside any incarnation? In our desexualized societies it is on the contrary the full mastery of one’s own sexed uniqueness which is the very mark of subjectivity.

Catherine Aubin

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie teaches political sciences at the University of Rheims Champagne-Ardenne and at Sciences Po. Having worked for a long time on the relationship between politics and religion, she became a member of the Institut Universitaire de France on the basis of a research project on the changes of the female condition in the contemporary period. On the basis of an analysis of the recomposition of the public/private division, she reflects on the meaning of female corporeity in a phenomenological perspective. To demonstrate her hypotheses, she carried out a poll among French women politicians whose results were presented as a documentary. ( Together with Marc Chevrier, she directed the work Des femmes et des hommes singuliers. Perspectives croisées sur le devenir sexué des individus en démocracie (Armand Colin, 2014). Her reflections on the birth of a female subject, totally unprecedented, gave life to the book La révolution du féminin (Gallimard, 2015).




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 18, 2019