Parite!: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism


France today is in the throes of a crisis about whether to represent social differences within its political system and, if so, how. It is a crisis defined by the rhetoric of a universalism that takes the abstract individual to be the representative not only of citizens but also of the nation. In Parité! Joan Wallach Scott shows how the requirement for abstraction has led to the exclusion of women from French politics. 

During the 1990s, le mouvement pour la parité ...

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Parité!: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism

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France today is in the throes of a crisis about whether to represent social differences within its political system and, if so, how. It is a crisis defined by the rhetoric of a universalism that takes the abstract individual to be the representative not only of citizens but also of the nation. In Parité! Joan Wallach Scott shows how the requirement for abstraction has led to the exclusion of women from French politics. 

During the 1990s, le mouvement pour la parité successfully campaigned for women's inclusion in elective office with an argument that is unprecedented in the annals of feminism. The paritaristes insisted that if the abstract individual were thought of as sexed, then sexual difference would no longer be a relevant consideration in politics. Scott insists that this argument was neither essentialist nor separatist; it was not about women's special qualities or interests. Instead, parité was rigorously universalist—and for that reason was both misunderstood and a source of heated debate.

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Editorial Reviews

Scott's clear and historically grounded analysis will help readers understand the intricacies of French politics in general and the parity movement more specifically.

— Catherine Raissiguier

Paul Friedland
“This is an extraordinary book that accomplishes two formidable tasks. Here, Joan Wallach Scott not only deftly guides the reader through the complexities of contemporary debates in France on the subject of parité, a movement that asks for equal representation between men and women in public office, but also situates these debates within the broader context of political representation in France. Parité! will prove an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the history of political representation, women’s struggle for political equality, and the history of modern France more generally.”—Paul Friedland, Bowdoin College


David A. Bell
“This book by Joan Wallach Scott, one of the most important feminist historians writing today, is a fascinating and original discussion of the new direction taken by French feminism in the 1990s: the mouvement pour la parité, which demanded that elected offices be filled by men and women in equal numbers. Scott traces the intellectual genesis of the movement, its gaining of strength, its complex interaction with the rights of same-sex couples, and finally its partial success. Intensely thought-provoking, Parité! will be of enormous interest to anyone interested in modern European politics and history, or in feminism.”—David A. Bell, The Johns Hopkins University




Signs - Catherine Raissiguier
"Scott's clear and historically grounded analysis will help readers understand the intricacies of French politics in general and the parity movement more specifically."
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Joan Wallach Scott is professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man.

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By Joan Wallach Scott The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-74108-6

Chapter One The Crisis of Representation

The demand for parité was unlike previous feminist demands for equality. Until 1944, the question of suffrage was paramount; the equal right of citizenship was, above all, conceived of as an equal right to vote. Of course, many feminists assumed that voting also meant that women would run for and hold office; to be a citizen was to have the possibility of serving as a representative. In 1849, Jeanne Deroin campaigned for a seat in the legislature as part of her insistence that the Second Republic allow women to vote. And when, in 1885, Hubertine Auclert drew up an electoral program which demanded that women and men exercise the vote, she also envisioned a legislative assembly "composed of as many women as men." When women did win the vote, however, few were able to gain access to political office. After some debate among members of de Gaulle's provisional government about whether eligibility for office should be extended to women instead of or along with the right to vote (some conservative politicians worried that with men away at the front or in prison camps or dead, the vote of women in the first elections after the Liberation would unbalance the electorate), it was decided that "women are voters and are eligible for office under the same conditions as men." But what was conceded in principle was hardly ever put into practice; women were only occasionally nominated for or elected to office in the second half of the twentieth century. Until 1997 they constituted no more than 6% of deputies in the National Assembly and rarely even 3% in the Senate. Although no law or constitutional provision precluded women from becoming representatives, there seemed to be a tacit agreement to prevent them from doing so. It was that tacit agreement, taken to be symptomatic of male monopoly at the very centers of political power, that parité aimed to expose and overturn. The paritaristes' goal was to gain equal access for women as representatives of the French nation. Like Auclert, they wanted to see as many women as men in all the elective offices of France. Unlike her, they were addressing a situation in which women already had the right to vote; parité was not about being represented but about being a representative.

The call for increasing the number of women representatives was sounded often during the 1980s, particularly within political parties, but it didn't become a "movement" for equality until the early 1990s, when it also acquired a clear theoretical justification. At that point, a full-blown discussion, indeed an argument, about representation was in process. The language was urgent-the situation was deemed a crisis. Although there were few direct references to international pressures and to Europeanization, there was a prevailing sense (in the media and in political circles at least) that national sovereignty was being challenged at its core. The challenge came from two directions. The first was from the growing population of people of North African origin, a postcolonial phenomenon that exposed the inadequacies of cultural assimilation as a route to French citizenship. The second challenge was internal to the political system itself: politicians seemed cut off from contact with the citizens whose mandate they held. They were a professional caste apart, impervious, it seemed, to the needs of "civil society." And they were corrupt. A series of scandals in the late 1980s coincided with impressive electoral showings of the right-wing populist National Front, whose platform centered on ridding France of its immigrant problem. In 1988-89 the questions of immigrants and politicians were joined in a debate about the adequacy of the system of representation for governing the nation in the late twentieth century.


The debates in 1989-89 grounded their arguments in references to the French Revolution; they mythologized its continuity and immutability. Looking back to the Revolution, they ignored many years of history and identified French republicanism with an unchanging commitment to abstract individualism. It is important here to discuss notions of representation during the Revolution in order to see how they were reified and used in the 1980s and 1990s.

The revolutionaries conceived of the republic in terms of two abstractions: that of the individual and that of the nation. As they dismantled the feudal regime in 1789, they replaced a system of corporate privilege with one based on individual rights. At that time sovereignty was said to reside not in the king but in "the people," the citizens who constituted the nation. This change involved not only the relocation of sovereignty from the king to the people but-according to the historian Paul Friedland-a fundamental shift in the notion of representation itself. No longer did representation denote the "making present" of the nation in the body of the king (as the Eucharist "made present" the body and blood of Christ); now representatives simply spoke on behalf of the abstract entity that was the nation. The National Assembly, the metaphoric body of the nation, had replaced the real body of the king. The nation was now the embodiment of the people, its laws the expression of their will. Since France was too large a country for citizens to gather in one place (as had been the case for the first democracies in the Greek city-states so admired by Rousseau), the revolutionaries agreed that there had to be some delegation of sovereign authority to those who would speak in the people's name. These representatives were not to be, as in the Old Regime, spokesmen for discrete corporate interests; instead, each stood for the general interest of the collectivity as a whole. Unlike the architects of the American system (which was being articulated at the same time, most famously by James Madison in the Federalist Papers),who saw legislatures as arenas of conflicting interests and defined representatives as voices for particular social and economic groups or factions, the French revolutionaries took the abstraction of the nation as the referent for representation. Representatives were the tangible embodiment of the nation as a whole; it was a nation "one and indivisible."

The ability of any citizen to stand for, or to represent, the nation derived from the understanding of political individuals as abstracted from their social attributes-wealth, family, occupation, religion, profession. The abbé Sièyes put it succinctly, "Democracy is the complete sacrifice of the individual to the res publica, that is to say of the concrete being to the abstract being." And the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre later agreed: "To be good, it is necessary for the public official [magistrat] to immolate himself to the people." Abstract individuals were commensurable and interchangeable units, possessing in common only that independent rationality upon which political life was thought to depend. The nation they constituted was equally abstract, not a reflection of the disparate and divisive realities of society but a fictional entity-a unified totality, the embodiment of "the people." There were no politically relevant differences within "the people," as Sièyes maintained: "There exists only one order in the state, or, rather, there are no longer any orders because representation is common and equal for all. No class of citizens can hope to keep for itself a partial, separate, and unequal representation. That would be a political monstrosity; it has been defeated forever." This view was enshrined in the Constitution of 1791, which rejected even the notion of geographical distinctions among representatives: "The representatives chosen in the departments will represent not a particular department but the whole nation; they have no special mandate from the department." Although, by definition, anyone could be a representative, the choice of especially competent men (often lawyers in this period and through much of the nineteenth century) did not conflict at all with liberal republican theory; if abstract individuals were interchangeable, why not choose those best able to express the will of the nation?

For the revolutionaries the difficult questions revolved not around competence or qualification but around the relationship between individual representatives and the nation. Did the representatives constitute the nation, or did the nation delegate its sovereignty to its representatives? According to the first of these possibilities, individuals were responsible only to themselves; once chosen, their actions were by definition an expression of the general will. According to the second, representatives were understood as reflecting a previously existing will; if their actions did not conform to the expectations of the people, their mandate could be withdrawn. The difference between these two notions of the role of the representative was at the heart of the struggle between the Gironde and the Jacobins during the Revolution. Liberals like the politician and mathematician Condorcet held to the notion that the nation only existed through its representatives. "Representative of the people, I will do what I think is in their interest. They sent me to express my ideas, not theirs: the absolute independence of my opinions is the first of my duties toward them." Robespierre, in contrast, believed that the nation preexisted those chosen to represent it. "It is by an odd reversal of all conceptions that public officeholders have been regarded as essentially destined to direct the public reason; on the contrary, it is the public reason which must be master over them and must judge them.... However virtuous a man in office may be, he is never as virtuous as the entire nation." Although the imposition of the Terror by the Jacobins temporarily resolved this difference of opinion, it did not erase it. To this day, aspects of these competing views of the representative (independent agent or people's delegate) can be found in proposals for political reform.

Friedland argues that, despite these different views of the representative, the political edifice of representative democracy "was never intended to be democratic." Instead, it was "predicated on the exclusion from active political power of the very people in whose name their government claimed to rule." As in the theater of the time, the citizenry was divided into actors and audience: "political actors acted, political audiences watched, preferably in silence." Abstract individualism was the legitimating premise of this effective separation of power; it worked to obscure the ways in which political audiences were disempowered, if not disenfranchised. Legislators could stand for citizens and for the nation precisely because they were individuals; the impression of synecdoche served to distract attention from political inequality.

The abstractions of individual and nation were the foundation on which theories of representation were built; they also were the key to a distinctively French concept of universalism-one that rested on an opposition between the political and the social, the abstract and the concrete. The abstractions allowed the revolutionaries to substitute the idea of formal political equality for the corporate hierarchies of the Old Regime and republican unity for the rule of kings. And they held out a promise of universal inclusion in political life. Abstraction, after all, meant disregarding the attributes that distinguished people in their ordinary lives; by this measure any individual could be considered a citizen. Indeed, as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, abstract individualism understands itself to be a fictitious universality: "not the idea that the common nature of individuals is given or already there, but rather the fact that it is produced inasmuch as particular identities are relativized and become mediations for the realization of a superior and more abstract goal." In this sense, universality does not rest on the exclusion of the particular but on (socially or politically) agreed-upon indifference to certain particularities. The abstract always must take concrete social characteristics into account, if only to discount them, and so becomes the site of arguments about whether there can be limits to abstraction and of what these limits consist. Jacques Rancière puts it another way. Democracy, he argues, rests on a necessary tension between the abstraction of "the people" and the social reality such abstraction obscures. Democratic politics is the adjudication of the claims by various constituencies to represent or to be represented as the people.

The tensions between the abstract political and the concrete social were present in political debate from the Revolution on, although there is a myth (much in evidence in the 1980s and 1990s) that posits pure abstraction as the enduring essence of French republicanism. Confronted with the logical implications of their rhetoric and worried about the practical consequences of enfranchising all adults (including the illiterate, the propertyless with no stake in society), the revolutionary politicians soon qualified their universalism: they made commonality a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, abstraction and excluded those whose difference, they said, was not susceptible to abstraction, those whose difference somehow tainted the purity and transparency of representation. In the 1790s, Jews were admitted to citizenship only when they relinquished allegiance to their "nation" and became individuals for whom religion was a private matter. Clermont-Tonnerre's is the classic formulation of this principle: "Grant nothing to the Jews as a nation and everything to them as individuals." Autonomy was another requirement for individuality; thus people whose circumstances made them dependent-wage-earners and women-were initially ruled ineligible for citizenship. Dependency, however, was not the only ground for the exclusion. When property qualifications for citizenship were eliminated (in 1793, and again in 1848), the difference of their sex prevented women from enjoying the rights of citizenship.

It was not as women, though, but as embodiments of sexual difference that they were excluded. Following the arguments of Rousseau, many of the revolutionaries took sexual difference as a template for division and divisiveness more generally. "There is no parity between the two sexes as a consequence of sex," Rousseau wrote in Emile. Where there were women, there was jealousy and rivalry, passion and loss of control among men. Without women, the dangers of such conflict were eliminated. "The two sexes ought to come together sometimes and live apart ordinarily," Rousseau advised. In "a commerce that is too intimate ..., we [men] lose both our morals and our constitution ...; women make us into women." Others considered that women's voice was already represented by the men in their families; it would be redundant to also give women a vote. As one commentator put it, "Husband and wife are one political person and can never be anything else even if they are two civil persons.... The vote of the one counts for both; that of the wife is virtually included in that of the husband." The reasons for excluding women from citizenship were offered in sets of binary oppositions that posited women in terms of the concrete, the emotional, and the natural (hence not susceptible to abstraction) and men in terms of reason and politics (hence operating entirely in the realm of abstraction). Pierre Rosanvallon suggests that the difference of sex (which he, like the revolutionaries, assumes to be a self-evident, natural difference-it was not "one social construction among others") could not be accommodated by abstraction. "The individual man and the individual woman cannot be recognized politically in both their equivalence and their difference at the same time." Thus sexual difference, in the person of the woman, was not included in the list of traits that could be abstracted for purposes of citizenship. Women's exclusion was not just about eliminating women's influence. It also served a major symbolic function as a reminder of the existence of irreducible difference-unresolvable antagonism within the national body, which posed a threat to the abstraction and thus the very existence of national unity.


Excerpted from Parité! by Joan Wallach Scott Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1. The Crisis of Representation
2. The Rejection of Quotas
3. The Dilemma of Difference
4. The Campaign for Parité
5. The Discourse of the Couple
6. The Power of the Law

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