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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Rey

The third sex


" Isis grafted to a tree "

There's a magazine collecting dust on my shelf. I leaf through it again. Judging by the pictures, it is aimed at young women: students and mothers. It reminds me of 100 Ideas I read when I was eighteen, but this one is trendy, printed on recycled paper, enlivened with home décor pages, a gardening section, lots of cooking recipes and ideas for interior design. What about the articles I’ve never had time to read? “Society has rules but some people aren’t afraid to break them.” Interesting title. Society has rules. That’s right. Let’s have a look at the people who broke the rules. Ann is thirty plus, and she isn’t ashamed to live with mum and dad. Jack (the only man) didn't go to university, which didn't stop him from getting his dream job. Jane doesn’t have a driver's license, but she is doing well and goes wherever she wants. Emily fell pregnant when she was still a teenager: even though everyone warned her, she kept the child and studied online. Sylvia proposed her boyfriend without waiting for him to make the first move. What a bunch of rebels! I wonder if they are truly representative of the new generation… If they are what you call dare-devil, we might have some concerns about the future! Let's move on... Another article let me know that making preserves, being a domestic goddess, wearing an apron with flower pattern like my grandma used to wear, it's okay. Being nostalgic is cool. Don't shame yourself. Because guilt isn’t good for your personal growth. While looking through these articles, I remember reading their mantra quite a while ago… almost fifty years.

Sneering at a women’s magazine is petty, isn't it? Am I becoming sarcastic, even though I swore I’d never be? Maybe. Let's ponder for a minute… I used to read what was called “the women's press” years ago. I revelled in this parallel world as I have seen women do, absorbing the pages of Elle or Marie-Claire with sheer delight. Curiously, I took refuge in their pages when I wasn’t going too good. Such reading allowed me to “escape” from the everyday. Marvelous photos of shoes or coats I’ve never had the means to buy made me dream. Each spring, we were recommended to lose weight to be cute in our bikini. Summer was almost here. Time to start a diet. Each winter, I was urged to buy new products: toning anti-cellulite creams, cashmere sweaters, stunning sofas to curl up by the fireside and trips to warm countries. As I was leafing through the pages, it seemed that any dream could be fulfilled. I could have children, get a dream job, sail around the world, climb Everest, cook good meals for my husband, lose weight to look cute in my bikini, have a nice house, a comfortable sofa, perfumed soaps, go on holidays to Egypt, buy a house in a pretty village, make my own jams, buy cashmere sweaters and indulging myself with a lover -from time to time- if my married life was too boring. Fifty years later, what do I hear? Basically, the same sing-song. A woman can be pretty and fulfilled and work and sail around the world and have children and everything else, be a housewife, she can do everything and have everything. A woman can also be a dare-devil and break the rules. Don’t mind being different; it shows your willpower. Be proud of it!

Unfortunately, as soon as I closed the magazine, its dreams cleared as quickly as the mist. My life picked up where I’d left off. I was a student. I didn't have much money. I didn't eat to my heart content. Most of my fellow-students came from bourgeois background. My difference was written all over me. It shamed me. It hurt me. My mundane life wasn’t what I was being sold in Marie-Claire. In normal life ruled the “tyranny of the group” as Hannah Arendt called it. Society, family, others, the group - this vast entity exerting around us its pressure and influence without having to say a word - made me understand that I’d better toe the line instead of wanting to step out. It wasn’t recommended for a girl to draw too much attention. Breaking codes and conventions to affirm my difference? Well, why not, but it was much better to stay put. After being gently pressured, women gave in by getting married. Some dropped out of class to start a family. That’s the way things were at the time. You were either a man with great ambitions or a woman with small dreams. Because traditions weighed more heavily on us. The women.

Shortly after getting married, my young cousins fell pregnant. Shortly after giving birth, they would pay us a visit to parade their last born. They were beaming, happy to have entered the sisterhood of motherhood. “Your cousins look so healthy, said my grandma, and you, look at you! You're always tired. I don't understand why.” She was right, I looked exhausted. I was studying and I was writing, which required lots of work. I watched women getting clucky around the crib, annoyed by their antics.

My difference? She jumped out at me when I fell pregnant at twenty. It dawned on me that on the one hand, I wouldn’t be able to keep studying and on the other hand, I wouldn’t have time to write. Writing and being a mother were fundamentally incompatible in my eyes. Getting help? I could forget about getting any help. My family resented my rebellious behaviour. My mother had cut me off. My partner, who was to become my husband, a selfish man, had no desire to take care of a child. I desperately looked for a clinic to have an abortion. The eight legal weeks of pregnancy had already been exceeded. We were in 1976. The law on abortion had been passed in 1974. My doctor, bewildered, advised to make an appointment with the newly-implemented Family Planning. A well-mannered woman took out her diary. I would have to wait two weeks before being admitted to a clinic. She was truly sorry. Bordeaux is a big city, but only one doctor agreed to perform abortions at that time. All my savings were swallowed up in this intervention which turned into a double intervention. On the evening of the first day in the hospital, women were sent home except two of us. We had to remain under observation. Three days after returning home, I was rushed to the clinic after going into labor. Quite painful. No one had explained clearly to me that I would have to go back to the operating table to finish a job that hadn’t been completed the first time. This is what having an abortion was in 1976 when the legal deadline was exceeded. Going through a perilous obstacle course with a confused idea of what had taken place inside my body. The anesthetist gave me a mortifying lecture just before sticking his needle in my arm. And religious fundamentalists, whoever they are, will never make me look at this abortion as a crime, and I'm not an atheist. No one in my family was told about this episode. I went to the clinic on the sly. I came out on the sly.

My difference? It irritated me if I twisted my ankles when wearing high heels to ape the other girls. My difference? It hurt me when men stared at me from head to toe, exposed to what is now called the “male gaze”: this unequivocal way of looking at a woman or “undressing her with their gaze” another expression of the time. I suffered the worst humiliations at my first book fair. I would have liked my fellow-writers to consider me as a writer and not as an object. It would have been nice if they talked to my brain and not to my body. My difference? I saw it everywhere, all the time. Whatever I did, it all came back to two things that burdened me: my status as a woman and my social condition.

What else does the magazine say? Well, I’m being told that graduating isn't important to get a “dream job”. To sugarcoat the stupidity of this assertion, the words have been attributed to a young man. He became a screenwriter. And he makes a living out of it! Gee, not given to everyone. He must be a very smart young man… In short, nowadays, one can advise a young girl – or a young man – not to go to university? Let's flick though the mag to work out what are the dream jobs (nothing is specified on the need to study!) I made a short list here. Your call: you can be a singer in a rock band, a designer, a fashion designer, a photographer or pastry chef. And of course, this kind of hobby will give any woman the financial autonomy she needs to pay her bills. Really? Yes, they say, because if you never give up on your dreams, they come true. Really? Well, let's take a close look at it. Dreams? I’ve read that they become reality according to the socio-economic environment in which we live. Hence, it's not if I want, but if I can, as the works of sociologists have shown: always slightly disheartening, the works of sociologists, but effective when it comes to dispel our illusions. And I can, depending on what people think around me, if my socio-economic background provides the support I need and if equal opportunities and higher education - for a girl - are valued or not. We have dreams, yes, but they can be fulfilled if favorable factors are drawn together. It includes a fierce self-confidence or a serious “killer's instinct” as one of our English teachers called it while baring his teeth, “killer's instinct” instilled by parents, mothers as well as fathers.

In short: it is crucial to study and if possible, to get a higher education, especially for a girl. Shall I quote my grandmother? While I was going through a difficult period after I had run away from home and left university, that's her, a ninety-year-old woman, born in 1897, yes, at the end of the 19th century, it was she who had only her school certificate who implored me to go back to university and not give up until my final exam. A piece of advice that saved me.

I don’t remember the name of this woman I befriended when she worked in the nearby Salvation Army. We often chattered. One day, she said: “My mother used to tell me: You can do anything you want in life. My father was a singer, always gone. He didn't care. And look at me. Did my mother had any idea of what she was talking about? I have been married and divorced. I work at the Salvos two days a week. Talk about a success!” She laughs, because she knows she's right and there's nothing to do and it's better to laugh it off.

I grew slowly aware of the manipulation I was subjected to. As long as I stayed within the boundaries of my routine, I was happy with my lot. When I stepped over the boundary, wanting to break the rules of the game and assume my difference, the mob showed their teeth and pulled out their knives. We create our life empirically, namely through experience, and awareness is not given with the wave of a magic wand. Crawling out of Plato's cave, the one in which we are prisoners, toyed by our illusions, needs efforts over a lifetime. Reading books opened my eyes. Anne-Marie Lugan Gardignan's essay on the women's press: Woman-women on glossy paper, initially published by Maspero in 1974, made me take a step back from magazines and their colourful lies. Elizabeth Badinter's essay L'Amour en plus published in 1981 was a shock. I discovered it a few years later thanks to a friend. Yes, it was a revelation, especially for me. Based on a documented historical study, the author demonstrated that the so-called maternal instinct does not exist in itself. This innate instinct in women driving them to have children is a myth. Since the 18th century, for economic and demographic reasons, pressure was put on women by valuing their role as mothers. Society needed hands for work, and soldiers for war. The idea of maternal instinct was taken up and supported by Freud. Few people challenge it today. Consequently, the woman who rejects motherhood is considered as “wicked” or “mentally ill.” I know. Thanks to Pierre Bourdieu’s essay La Domination masculine, I deciphered the strategy of male domination over women. Bourdieu expounds on the various types of heritage: financial heritage but also intellectual one. Ivy league schools for wealthy elites breed wealthy elites. Financial and intellectual assets are bequeathed from one generation to the next and people who have no assets, neither financial nor intellectual, are left with nothing. Face down in the gutter. Girls are bequeathed another type of heritage, I should add. A heritage of experience and freedom. Similar to the intellectual asset, it is a set of values passed on to us by our mothers: it can often be an impalpable atmosphere, a style of life whose ways are not specifically articulated or explained, but they relate to feminism. Not femininity, but feminism. They are embodied in the life choices made by our mothers and grandmothers. The daughters of free mothers - namely, those who have been intellectually independent, those who have never financially depended on a father or a husband, those who have fled an unhappy relationship by divorcing, those who refused the traditional culture of their country of birth, those who were not afraid to have an abortion regardless of the legal consequences of their choices - have more chance to live a free life.

The day I hit head-on the glass ceiling of the Parisian literary milieu, chauvinist and proud of it, I truly knew my difference. Until then, the glass ceiling was a myth. A legend, who knows? One day, I thought I could fly through it. It came clear to me that it existed as hard as concrete. Did you know that only twelve women have received the Goncourt literary award since its creation in 1892? The same goes for the other literary prizes, awarded overwhelmingly (what an understatement!) to men. The jurors for the Renaudot prize are appointed for life. It is a world of men governed by jealousies, pettiness and conflicts of interest. A friend explained to me once that men published more than women, which justified such a disparity. Untrue. Publishers receive as many manuscripts from men as from women. Men sell better, that's all. Especially when it comes to a literary prize. The New York Times is one of the few newspapers to scorn the sleight of hand orchestrated within the French literary prizes. To contest it, new prices were implemented in recent years. Parity is respected. But they run the risk of being caught in the same trap: positive discrimination will give the crown of laurels to women. Excellent! I'm glad, but once again, the content of the book, the intelligence and the beauty of its work (whether written by a male or female writer) will be overlooked and the book, flagged for being written by a woman, takes the risk of being publicized for pure marketing reasons. The prizes. Paris. Let’s not dwell on these awful years. Let’s not dwell on it because remembering them pains me, even though time have passed. Any author who played the looser in this loathsome game has been hurt. Paris is another world. One quickly passes for paranoid, resentful, envious or downright crazy when wanting to explain such an imbroglio. How long will the scandal last, not only in the contempt for female writers but also in the distribution of major prizes between a handful of big publishers? Always the same ones.

We do not choose our destiny. We only try to escape the worst. From Noam Chomsky's famous essay Manufacturing Consent, influenced by the work of Walter Lippmann, I will borrow the title to name the factory of woman. It is a “tyranny of the group” exercised by social pressure. Do we see this pressure? No. Are we always aware of it? No. But it is there. It hovers, quietly condemns any wayward behavior. It compares, judges, excludes. It scorns. A certain model of woman prevails thanks to the women's press, advertisers, television, social media. Do we always step back to analyze the danger of such readings or such images? No, because the message often reaches us in a moment of vulnerability, therefore of credulity. Rereading a 2008 issue of Manière de voir titled Manufacturing Consent, I rediscovered with pleasure many forgotten thinkers. I am also appalled to see how the manufacturing of consent has devised many new weapons in the space of fourteen years to colonize us. “Standardization of products, homogenization of behavior, leveling of values, impoverishment of thought” wrote the father of the Frankfurt school, Theodor Adorno who already denounced the “media culture” and the alienation of conscience in 1944. What would he say about the multiplied new devices to fuel another form of conformism? No brutal force, no brainwashing, no re-education camp, no jail, no deportation, no Gulag, but a slow alienation through a soft persuasion, exercised from within, made of stereotype images, constant and repetitive clichés, simple and easily assimilated, easily reproducible, an alienation of each of us to their Smart Phone or television sets pouring out their constant flow which makes us dependent on this deceitful virtual food like addicted junkies, that is to say that our brain is colonized from morning to evening, preventing us from thinking – or even doing – anything else.

I had idols when I was fifteen. There was Joan Baez who sang love and peace. There were Françoise Hardy and Jane Birkin, long androgynous girls who were the lovely fruits of the May 1968 revolution out of which had emerged another type of woman far from the traditional canons of the voluptuous curved blonde. And that's who we wanted to be like. They were so different from our mothers. They were so modern. So cool. Jane Fonda introduced us to aerobics. One evening, I awkwardly assumed my difference. It was my first literary event in Paris in the Latin Quarter, and my debut as a published writer. I dressed in a suit and tie. I met my peers that evening. The room was crowded. We were two women writers in this mob. But I had my tie and I understood much later, years later in truth, that I wished to have been born of another sex. Not a man, no. Woman, yes, but I felt like I belonged to a third sex, between man and woman. Simone de Beauvoir had written about the second sex, and I knew that I belonged to the sex of those who have never played with dolls, of those who do not enjoy wearing high heels or dresses, of those who have never wanted to be a mother. I had the ambitions of a man. I wanted to live like a man. I wanted to be a writer like a man - there were still few women writers, real writers, at that time. But to be a woman, to have children, to make my own jams, to be a domestic goddess, I didn't want to. I was of the third sex and I kept living in this in-between with the unpleasant impression of wearing a mask all my life.

The great voices of feminism have fallen silent. They have aged and been replaced by younger, more dynamic ones. New voices who fight to be heard, voices whose words are distorted in the media, young women subjected to degrading insults on social networks. Today’s woman is told that she has not found her place yet, between the nice little girl and the phony rebel who-does-what-she-wants-with-her-body, but after all, she still believes that she must harpoon a husband before it’s too late and beget a child to complete her woman’s destiny. In a nutshell, feminism is still considered as an outdated fight. More serious problems befall us, wars or economic crisis. Feminism is no longer on the agenda.

On the beach, a child is building a sandcastle. The tide is rising. The child gets nervous, digs around the castle. But the tide rises and the castle melts. Despite all the hours of hard work, the castle disappears. This is how I imagine women’s fights for their rights. On the scale of the history of humanity, the conquest of women’s rights is very recent. It only started yesterday, hence it must continue. Feminism is not a backward-looking, selfish, aggressive, vindictive struggle. It is not a war against men. It isn’t about wanting to forcefully replace them. It is a humanist ideal, a fight for more social justice, more equality, more understanding, emotional and intellectual sharing between men and women. Each generation must redo the work, because the laws are made and undone. Nothing is set in stone, as American tennis champion Billie Jean King, now 79, reminds us in a brilliantly humorous and intelligent interview she recently gave to the BBC. Billie Jean King was the only woman in the world who played against a man, and she won the match. It was in 1973. She knows what she is talking about. She didn't want to be noticed for her “good look” but for her performance. Her performance only. History has always to be told and retold. “Knowing your story is knowing yourself,” says Billie Jean King. And what do you need to know? Everything. You have to know everything about the past. The story of women's first battles for the right to vote. The long efforts for the right to abortion, a right that runs the risk to be annulled in half of the United States. The slow progress for the victims of domestic violence, visible and invisible harm. The outdated view of some Catholic and Anglican Church authorities which refuses to ordain women as priests. The toils to reduce the gender pay gap, equality imposed by Billie Jean King in the world of women's tennis.

How many women have I seen whose life has been thwarted? They enthusiastically stepped in line without knowing that the yoke of tradition was going to break, grind, annihilate them. Their creativity was crushed. Their time was stolen. Their body colonized. They were assigned to the task of raising the children and caring for the elders. They were obliged to abandon their studies. They never went back to university. Once pregnant, they were driven out of their village or out of their family, stigmatized with the nasty name of “unwed mothers”. They had the children they didn't want, guilty for not having children, guilty for not being good mothers, guilty for not having a maternal instinct, silently guilty for wanting to leave their husbands, silently unhappy for not being happy. And once divorced, they were still the ones who cared for the young children who grew into teenagers, and the teenagers who grew into adults. What about the fathers? Where were the fathers of these children when they needed them? Their mothers had given them the recipes for domestic happiness. Be a domestic goddess, please your husband and shut up. But life sold them rotten dreams.

Shall I quote here a publisher whose name I keep to myself: he is seated across the table. He crosses out the “feminist” pages of my manuscript. Seeing my anger, he points out that these pages are useless. “We already know all that, he says. These things have already been said elsewhere.” I didn't have the last word. The precious pages, precious because they spoke of experiences, that of my mother, my grandmother and mine, of our struggles and our alienations, have indeed been removed.

I dream of seeing a new generation of Christine de Pisan, Germaine Tillion, Isabelle Eberhardt, Alexandra David-Néel, Rosa Luxembourg, Susan Sontag, Flora Tristan, Louise Michel, Doris Lessing, Gisèle Halimi, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I thank all the women who helped me to shed light on what was going on around me, starting with Antoine Fouque, the founder of Editions des Femmes, as well as Françoise Héritier, Michèle Perrot, Germaine Greer, Naomi Woolf, Mona Chollet, Elisabeth Badinter, Gisèle Halimi, Benoîte Groult, Yvette Roudy, and so many other women. So many.

I dream that one day, there won't be any more publisher who tell us haughtily: “But we already know all that. All these things have already been said elsewhere.” Because we must explain again and again. Society forgets, men forget, especially men in power who are not willing to share it. Those ones are the first who want to forget.

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