TALKING FEMINIST: Letty Cottin Pogrebin Interviews Renee David About French Feminism and Jewish Identity

TALKING FEMINIST: Letty Cottin Pogrebin Interviews Renee David About French Feminism and Jewish Identity

Renee David is a successful journalist who forthrightly calls herself a feminist. She’s a political radical, a Jewish woman who struggles with equal fervor against anti-Semitism in French secular culture and sexism in French- Jewish life.

I discover all this during our conversation in an outdoor cafe in Paris and after 10 minutes, I feel she is my Gallic counterpart. Her feminism and her Jewish identity have been shaped by social reality in France in just the way that I have been marked by coming of political age in New York City. Her movement loyalties teeter like mine, on a balance beam that straddles two worlds.

Renee David was born in Paris in 1951 of parents who had emigrated from Rumania. Most of her career as a journalist has been spent in press and photographic news agencies where she came to specialize in women’s and family issues. Now the newly-elected president of the Women Journalists Association of France, she also writes for French TVs Channel A-2. Her first book, published last year, is a collection of mini-biographies of notable Jewish women – from Gluckel of Hameln in the 17th century to Simone Veil in 20th century France, from Dona Gracia Nassi, grande dame of the Renaissance, to Golda Meir and Hannah Arendt in our own time.

I notice that Renee David describes herself as an “international Jewish feminist” rather than a French-Jewish feminist. This, she says, is a result of her frustration with the lack of Jewish political consciousness in France, and the shortcomings of modern French feminism. I ask her to back up a bit and explain how she reached that conclusion.

Renee David: During the hot days of the ’60s and ’70s, there were two women’s movements fighting each other: the leftists and the psychoanalytic wing. The leftists were in favor of total equality between the sexes; they were not interested in supporting women’s culture or exploring what might be called intrinsic feminine needs and values. The psychoanalytic feminists were interested only in the latter issues. The two groups engaged in very parochial arguments and hardened into permanent tribes. They were incapable of creating a synthesis between both aspects of feminist thought. Of course, in real life we need both.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin: Are these two factions still fighting it out? David: Nowadays, very few people speak of feminism at all. The only remaining fights take place in women’s studies departments in some universities. In the public mind, the movement has nearly disappeared.

Pogrebin: Isn’t that because no one takes to the streets anymore? In the United States, those who say feminism is dead usually mean they don’t see the movement in action, but most people would acknowledge that feminist issues have been mainstreamed to the point where many of our goals are part of a national consensus.

David: Here, most of women’s civil rights demands have become law. That doesn’t mean they are respected but they are on the books. Abortion is legal and is funded by social security. Marriage and divorce laws make partners totally equal, and fathers have the same rights as mothers in child custody cases. But feminism as a militant mass movement has been tamed beyond recognition.

For example, during the 1988 French presidential campaign, none of the major political parties addressed one word toward women’s issues. In the name of our Women Journalists Association, I wrote complaint letters to the politicians and newspapers but the only thing on people’s minds was rising unemployment – we have two-and-ahalf-million out of work – and the problems associated with immigration. Everyone is scapegoating the immigrants from Turkey, Greece, North Africa and other places, people who came with their families when France needed workers. Now these same people are a glut on the labor market. Many who are unemployed have taken to stealing from shops and cars. They are the focal point for the hatred of French conservatives who feel threatened by outsiders in their everyday life. Women’s problems are out of sight.

Another example is Marie Clair, the most feminist of the large circulation magazines. It used to print many articles on tough issues such as rape and sexual harassment. Now it is full of stories about women in business, politics, the arts – as if everything’s okay. Today, the fashionable line is, “It’s no use to identify as a feminist because the fight is behind us. Now let’s identify as successful women.”

Pogrebin: You are a successful woman but you still call yourself a feminist; more precisely, a Jewish feminist. Given the apathy you describe, what makes you firm in your commitment to women and especially your Jewish “special interests?” Could it be that in France, Jewish feminism is more vigorous than secular feminism?

David: I count myself part of the international Jewish feminist movement because I relate to what is happening among Jewish women in other Western countries. But in France, there is no Jewish feminism as such, as there is in the States. A great many of our women were very active in the early feminist movement but they were active as secular Frenchwomen, not as Jews, and I understand why.

First of all, to be a Jew in France is a different story altogether from what it is in your country. You Americans have been multi-cultural from the start. We are a nation state. The French Revolution obliged all the cultural minorities to do away with their particularities in public life. Thus, Jews are seen as a community only by religion, not by cultural or political standards. We don’t have a Jewish political lobby; everything happens through the parties. We don’t even know our own numbers. We can only estimate that there are 700,000 Jews in France but we can’t take a census because it’s forbidden to ask someone’s religion in a political contest. So, you can understand why no autonomous Jewish women’s movement would feel comfortable putting forth its own agenda.

Pogrebin: When you were involved in the secular women’s movement, how did you deal with being a Jew?

David: To be affirmatively Jewish would have been impossible. The overall atmosphere of French feminism was anti-Jewish because the image of French Judaism is orthodox Judaism which is considered the epitome of patriarchy and phallocentricity. Then too, most of the French feminists come out of the extreme left and once you have said that you have said everything. It’s not just that their Middle East politics have always been antiIsrael, most feminists, including those who were born Jewish, are very antireligious. They mistake the merest attention to one’s cultural heritage as obscurantism.

Pogrebin: That explains why there are no hyphenated identifying labels such as Jewish- feminist on the secular battlefront, but it doesn’t explain why activist Jewish women wouldn’t petition for equality within Judaism. Does such an effort exist inside the Jewish community?

David: You don’t find feminists operating within the Jewish community at all. The major reason for this relates to the change in the demographics of French Jewry. We used to be mainly Europeans and political progressives. Then in the ’50s and ’60s there was a large influx of Sephardic Jews and Oriental Jews from North Africa who were expelled from their countries by the process of decolonization. These Jews are mostly rightists, highly traditional, and with very conservative views of gender roles. Not many women in this community have a developed political consciousness or a sense of social entitlement.

Pogrebin: What explains your political consciousness? What factors make you so different from other French Jewish women?

David: There are probably two reasons. First, my family has settled in three places – France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I have always tended to identify emotionally and politically with the Anglo-Saxon part of my heritage. And second, because I am very well traveled and have been exposed to many other cultural developments, I draw my inspiration from the women’s movements I have found elsewhere, especially in the United States. Paris is terribly provincial, although not as much as the rest of France where the Jewish situation is mostly Orthodox and worlds away from pluralism.

Pogrebin: This is a very depressing report. How do you find the energy to press on?

David: Ah, because I see some progress. There are other women like myself, even though we are not organized. And there are many young feminists who are coming up among the second generation of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews. I’m counting on them. We are creating a secular Jewish Center in Paris. That is big news, and lots of work trying to gather support and money. But the “lay” energy is there and next year the liberals (equivalent to America’s Reform Jews) will have their first woman rabbi. So mazel tov! There is cause to feel hopeful.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms., is the author of six books, most recently Among Friends. She is currently writing a personal memoir on being Jewish and feminist, entitled, Deborah, Golda and Me.