Will the French Save Us from Gender Ideology?
By Kelly Green
Over the past 10 years, I have regularly left beautiful British Columbia to spend quite a bit of
time in France, five months during this year alone. I was even in Paris for good chunks of
2020 and 2021, so I think I have a bit of insight into the Zeitgeist here with regard to the
One might assume that women and our sex-based rights and protections are as much under
siege in France as they are in the Anglophone world. Men associated with Antifa pelted
survivors of sex trafficking with eggs while a large crowd chanted, “One terf, one bullet, social justice.” French FEMEN activist Marguerite Stern has seen her Collages Feminicides, public art by women protesting against domestic violence and the murder of French women by their intimate partners, covered over by men who create posters saying things like “Des Sisters, Pas des Cisterfs” (Sisters Not Cisterfs). In a particularly egregious insult to women
everywhere, and in what I believe was a first for the world, a man was allowed to describe
himself as a mother on his child’s French birth certificate.
But there are signs, glimmers, if you will, of hope.
France’s National Academy of Medicine joined the U.K., Sweden and Finland in suggesting that a “gender affirming” approach may not be in the best interests of vulnerable children and adolescents. It noted that some procedures are irreversible, and suggested that the period of psychological treatment (without puberty blockers, wrong-sex hormones or surgeries) be extended as long as possible.
That is indeed hopeful. But even more hopeful, for me, is the strength I see in French women, in their historical determination to fight for their rights, in the respect for that determination demonstrated by French institutions, and in the absolutely tepid reception, on a cultural level, of gender ideology in France.
Some examples: the Comedie Francaise, which is for all intents and purposes France’s national theatre, manages to be both a conservative element in French society, in its commitment to the classics, and an important influence for change. Over the past several years it has repeatedly staged the new play Hors la Loi (Outside the Law), which has recreated for a new generation the struggles around the changes in French law regarding abortion.
In 1972, the nation watched with bated breath as the trial of a teenage girl, Marie-Claire Chevalier, unfolded. Chevalier had, with the help of her mother, obtained an abortion after she was raped by a schoolmate. When she was acquitted (in a country where, for a brief period, abortion had been punishable by death), she and her lawyer, Gisele Halimi, became national heroines. Before, during and after this trial, called the “Procès de Bobigny,” French women were demanding change. And they got it. I think it is no accident that the Comedie Francaise has decided to revisit this incident repeatedly in recent years with their powerful play.
Last week I went to another Comedie Francaise offering, this time a play by the nineteenth-century French proto-feminist and novelist George Sand. Entitled Gabriel, the play is a fantasy, set in the middle ages, about a prince who raises his granddaughter as a boy in order to prevent his grandson, the child of his “black sheep” younger son, from inheriting. The young woman is taught to have nothing but contempt for powerless women, and to be grateful that she, a “man,” has all the privileges of manhood. When her grandfather reveals the truth to her, at age 17, she vows revenge.
I expected, honestly, a very woke interpretation of this almost two hundred year old text, written by a woman who completely rejected the sex roles and mores of her society and class. But instead I saw a nuanced and thought-provoking examination of the traps set for women and girls throughout their lives. The young woman who rejects her grandfather’s plan, and knows in her heart that woman have more to offer than she has been taught, also values her “male” education in the classics and logic. In a staging that Sand, I believe, would have approved, we are completely drawn into her conflict. She is Everywoman.
The art gallery/museum scene, in what I fear is an attempt to “get on the right side of history,” offers a variety of conflicting messages.
France has a history of offering women artists more respect, and more opportunities, than many other countries. Many women artists got their start at the Julian Academy in Paris. Rosa Bonheur, who was respected as a painter of animals throughout the 19th century, will have her own exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay next month. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were treated as equals by many of their male peers, and last year alone saw entire exhibitions at major museums devoted to the art, lives and families of these two female artists. Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec encouraged the artist’s model Suzanne Valadon to develop her own potential as an artist. The Museum of Montmartre focuses on her achievements as an artist, and as a mother—her son was the more famous artist Maurice Utrillo.
But the Palais Galliera, Paris’s museum of fashion history, has attempted to “trans” Frida Kahlo in its current exhibit, as one curator has insisted that this very female artist was “nonbinary.” As we have seen in the Anglophone world, the dead are not safe, or protected from this ideology, and as women, have their achievements and history stolen from them.
Today I attended the exhibition “Women Citizens of Paris: Engagements for the Emancipation of Women (1789-2000)” at the History of Paris museum. It was overwhelmingly good, with room after room of “femmages” (a real French word, coined by women, as opposed to “homage”) to women revolutionaries of all types--the famous, the infamous, the scandalous, and the unknown.
Once again, I had wondered if there would be any mention of “gender” in this exhibition. There was. One small wall devoted to women in the twenties examined the pros and cons of “flapper” fashion with its androgynous, boyish silhouettes. It included a painting of Einar “Lili” Wegener, one of the first men to attempt a surgical imitation of a woman’s body, painted by his wife, Gerda. The label referred to him as a “transgender” person. This exhibit also insisted that the French Olympic athlete Violette Morris, who had her breasts removed to better compete in race car driving, had a “masculine identity.” Again, Morris was a bisexual women who as far as I know did not claim to be a man.
What I found interesting in this little capitulation to gender in an otherwise fabulous exhibit, celebrating the amazing achievements of revolutionary Parisian women, was the facts they left out. The experimental surgeries on Wegener (who may have had Klinefelter syndrome, a DSD that occurs in males) led to his early death. And Violette Morris became a Nazi collaborator and a member of the French wing of the Gestapo. Personally, I wouldn’t classify either of these individuals as a Parisian woman of distinction. But that’s just me, I guess. And I guess I’m happy that that was the best they could do to introduce “transgender” individuals into this exhibition. It demonstrates the absolutely ridiculous lengths those who are trying to be “inclusive” must go to in order to work a transgender narrative into legitimate women’s history.
Regardless of these silly, artsy attempts at French wokeness (and despite the horrific examples of misogyny mentioned above), I do not sense great support for “gender” nonsense in France. There is, in fact, no word for gender in French. The History of Paris museum, and the dictionaries I have consulted, use the word “genre,” which is a French word with many, many meanings and subtleties. Like its English cognate, it really means type, or sort, or grouping.
My guess is that French society is simply not having it, and refuses to get sucked in. So will they save us?
I suspect we just have to keep trying to save each other.
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