The University of Paris 8 had long been marked by feminist politics. But it was also a home for what can only be called left patriarchy, whose malign effects had created the very need for feminist intervention. “Who does the cooking while they talk about revolution? Who watches the children while they go to political meetings?… Who takes notes while they have the microphone?… Who always sees their initiatives getting swiped…? It’s us, it’s always us.” Thus read the inaugural leaflet of the French Women’s Liberation Movement, whose first public action took place on the Paris 8 campus in May 1970. In these early years, the institution was not yet called Paris 8, but rather the Experimental University Center at Vincennes. The newly built campus was situated within the Bois de Vincennes park east of Paris, and the institution was often called “Vincennes” for short.
This feminist protest at Vincennes was a major break from the male-dominated far-left politics that had emerged in the aftermath of May 1968. There were feminist riffs on the surreal slogans that were common in those days: “We are all sex-starved [des mal-baisées],” “We are all prostitutes,” and “We are all hysterics.” The male reactions to feminism were aggressive in the extreme. Monique Wittig, who co-organized the protest, recalled that there were “500 men around the campus basin yelling take it off, take it off [à poil, à poil]” (Thibaud and Wittig 2008:73). Some leftist men also reworked a Mao Tse Tung line, declaring that “Power comes from the end of the phallus.” This was promptly turned into a feminist parody slogan — one that points to a larger theory of patriarchy.
One cannot make sense of French radical philosophy without a theory of patriarchy, which, etymologically, is the “rule of the fathers.” Patriarchy of course should not be seen too monolithically; it has long been a contested concept within feminist theory. Clearly at this point, it has to be thought intersectionally and historically. Yet patriarchy remains an analytically powerful term because there is an obvious systematicity to systems of male power and exploitation, even if this is a historically moving formation or, as Sylvia Walby has put it, an “open social system” (1990:19). Given the relations between patriarchal domination and other modes of power, violence and classification, a general theory of contemporary patriarchy would have to become a theory of the world at large, seen from many angles across uneven geographies. As Marxist feminists have long insisted, the relations of production and the relations of reproduction have to be read in concert. That analytical problem will come up again in Part II of this book. Here, I simply wish to emphasize the historical point: that second wave feminism emerged in this site precisely when left-wing masculine domination seemed so very total.
Patriarchy is the name, as Sara Ahmed emphasizes, of a problem: the problem of what one is “asked to endure” (2017:201). In the context of French radical philosophy, patriarchy assumes a particular form that we can call, with Tania Toffanin (2017), left-wing patriarchy (or left patriarchy for short). Left patriarchy involves a specific contradiction: the contradiction that patriarchal power and masculine violence endure in academic spaces nominally dedicated to liberation and radical social critique. At the Philosophy Department, this contradiction was all too durable.
Feminists at Vincennes endured a great deal. After their first action in May 1970, the assembled men were invited to follow the women organizers into a lecture hall for a discussion. The plan was to explain the protest and then ask them to leave, stating that women would only be able to meet among themselves. But as Wittig recalled, the anti-feminist hostilities swelled into a “howling sea,” including male leftists and “many hostile women” as well. In the end, the crowd was only calmed by an analogy from Black radicalism.
After a moment, there was a Black man who stood up and said: “It’s pointless to have all these hysterical, disordered, violent reactions… Personally, I get exactly what they’re saying: it’s just like when the Blacks removed the Whites from American political groups, they couldn’t work with the Whites any more. These women [elles] have problems to solve together, they can’t solve them with men; they need to meet among themselves, and as a man, I’m going to leave the room.” But no one left. So he sat down. And then there were reactions in the room… like when hysterics are completely touched by the spirit and throw themselves like slaves [sic] at your feet and lose it [deviennent fana]. And at another psychological moment, the Black man stood up again, he made the same speech as before, and at that moment, all the men followed him out.
[Thibaut and Wittig 2008:73]
This sounds like a striking moment of what we might now call intersectional solidarity, as feminist organizing was defended by a Black man in the face of overwhelming attacks from white radicals. The crowd “hysteria” that followed is very hard for me to make sense of, and I feel disturbed by the way Wittig chose to describe it. The archives show, however, that subsequent feminist organizing continued to be met with extreme masculine hostility. A few weeks later, when feminists again announced that their meeting was for women only, men responded with a torrent of threats and insults. “There’s no woman problem.” “You’re little girls with complexes and that’s all you are.” “If we don’t support you, your movement is bound to fail.” “They’re sex-starved, we’ll give them a good lay [c’est des mal baisées, on va bien les baiser]” (Anonymous 1970).
This sort of post–60s patriarchal sexism was also deeply apparent in the early years of the university’s Philosophy Department. Judith Miller, the Department’s best known woman philosopher in its early days, was famously outspoken in her Maoist radicalism. In 1970, she told a newspaper that she desired to destroy the state apparatus, and the university along with it, intimating that in some cases she gave course credit to students who had submitted no work. The national Minister of Education promptly intervened to dismiss her from her university appointment. What is striking, however, is that Miller’s views and teaching practices were widespread among her radical male colleagues, and yet she was particularly singled out for sanction. Her dismissal was protested on campus, but to no avail, and to some of her female colleagues, she became an early symbol of women’s exclusion. Meanwhile, a former precarious instructor in philosophy recalled that in these early days, “Women were reduced to the state of ‘trophies.’ The men didn’t think we could think anything.”
If philosophy is a space of thought, it remains the case that not every social subject is granted equal legitimacy in that space. In the male intellectual culture of the early 1970s, the very distinction between a thinking subject and an unthinking object was already gendered. It seems that at Vincennes, women were all too easily defined by their putative lack of thought: all too easily sexualized, not intellectualized. Meanwhile the men retained the power to judge, classify and define the Other — the power, in short, to remain philosophy’s default subjects. This precarious instructor in fact was an early doctoral student of Gilles Deleuze (“the philosopher who did the most to make this mockery of a department renowned,” I was told). For two years, Deleuze consistently told this female student that her work was unremarkable. “Deleuze was not attentive to women,” she explained. “He already had a wife [une femme], even though he loved when women were like little girls.”
I think that we can no longer understand critical theory without asking: What does it mean to have a Great French Thinker who was, equally, a man who “loved when women were like little girls”? Without asking: What sort of intellectual radicality could conceivably be represented by someone whose bodily practices worked — at least sometimes — to sexualize and infantilize women students and colleagues? What sort of utopia can emerge from masculinist spaces?
And that is not the only critical question that needs asking.
Photograph by Bernard Trayaud, service photographique de Paris VIII, reproduced in Soulié 2012. For a history of the crèche, see Guimier 2019. ↩
See for example Campbell 2015, Patil 2013, hooks 200, Walby 1990, Coward 1983. ↩
Charles Soulié, unpublished interview with former precarious instructor, December 2014. ↩