How Women From Different Generations Can Understand Each Other
The feminist movement must be inclusive and universalist.
Caroline Fourest is a leading French feminist who is outspoken in her criticisms of both the far-right and Islamism. The director of a film, “Sisters In Arms”, telling the story of a young Yazidi joining a brigade of female fighters, Caroline is also a member of the Persuasion Board of Advisors. This is an extract from a speech delivered by Caroline on September 11, 2021 in Cologne, Germany, at the invitation of EMMA magazine.
By Caroline Fourest
How do we re-establish dialogue between generations and between feminists? Since my book The Offended Generation was published, I have received messages from activists, feminists, or sometimes just parents who are quite desperate, even lost, because they don't know how to talk with their children about equality.
They have the same goal, they cherish the same values—but they don't share the same lexicon. They disagree strongly on the way to fight discrimination. And we are not speaking about reactionary parents. We're speaking about progressive parents, who have been involved in the fight for sexual emancipation or the women’s rights movement.
Let’s be honest—conflict inside feminism has always existed. It is absolutely inevitable inside a political movement. But earlier conflicts between feminists were quite sophisticated, quite philosophical.
On one side, there were the “essentialists”. For me, these were the ancestors of today’s identitarian “woke” feminists, because they believed in identity first—being a woman—more than they believed in equality.
On the other side, there were the “deconstructionists”, like Simone de Beauvoir. They believed that you aren’t born a woman: you become one. They believed that gender is a construction. They wanted to build a world where you can become who you want, regardless of being born male or female. These universalists denounced the oppressors regardless of their color, their gender, or their religion. They did not consider that there are victims by nature or oppressors by nature. They focused on fighting for a better world, where everyone can become who they want, and be judged on their actions, not on their identity. That’s universalism for me.
There’s a big difference between the universalists and what we call in France “identitarians”: those who are obsessed with identity. It’s an obsession you find on the extreme right; but also, these days, on the extreme left. Intersectional feminists seem to believe that being born a woman, or gay, or black, or Muslim is, in itself, what gives you the right to be listened to as a victim, or even the right to forbid someone else from speaking. And they don’t forbid someone from speaking because he or she necessarily is an oppressor. They forbid them because he or she is white, straight, or non-Muslim, and born into the camp of the “oppressors”.
Some want to fire any teacher who disagrees with woke-ism. Some want to ban the work of antiracist artists because they are white. And some want to destroy books. In Ontario, they burned 30 children’s books and comics after partnering with an advisor to Justin Trudeau, in order to protect kids from stereotypes in a network of Catholic schools, rather than explaining their context and history.
Personally, I belong to the type of feminism that believes in freedom of speech, deconstructionism, and universalism. I believe in a feminist movement that includes everyone who wants sincerely to demolish the patriarchal system, rather than canceling potential allies.
I will never forbid a man, or a straight woman, from being part of the battle to tackle sexism or homophobia. We all deserve the same dignity and the same rights. Building walls based on identity between people who want equality is not only immoral—it’s counter-productive. It leads to unnecessary divisions.
We are where we are today because feminism became mainstream. The new generation enjoys a far better world thanks to our older sisters in this fight. Back in their time, calling yourself feminist was in itself very brave. For this, you could lose your boyfriend, your job, your money. Those who called themselves feminists were considered “hysterical”.
I belong to a generation in between—not the generation that really did the hard job, not the generation that enjoys the fruits. I did my part: fighting for marriage for all, and for secularism, at the cost of being attacked and beaten by the far right and receiving death threats from Islamist fundamentalists.
But I also take this opportunity to say a big thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the previous generations of feminists for the bravery they had and what they achieved. I get the feeling that some young feminists feel brave because they cancel another feminist—someone who fought hard for their rights—by calling them “right wing” or just “white feminist”, in order to silence them and take their seat. But we should never silence a feminist or an anti-racist because of the color of her skin. There are more urgent tasks, with so many misogynists still out there.
The question should not be: “Tell me what your identity is and I will tell you whether you can speak!” The question should be: “What are you doing for equality?” This is a far more effective way to obtain allies and convince people. But I am not sure that some identitarian feminists want to convince. They want a “seat at the table”—for them, first. Many come from privileged backgrounds, rich families, and the top American universities. It’s an elite strategy to obtain more power, rather than obtaining equality.
In Europe, a continent that has a very different history to the USA and its segregationist demons, this represents a real regression. Re-establishing the concept of “race” in the name of identity politics or “intersectionality” is to demolish decades of deconstructionism against racism—work we started after we saw what the Nazis did because they believed that “races” existed.
In Europe, playing the card of “race” helps the extreme right to direct the conversation. If, on top of this, you use that card to cancel universalist feminists because some are white, what is the result? Helping misogynists and dividing the feminist movement.
If we have clear minds and use clear words, we can have a conversation with the new generation. What we need is to discover, philosophically, what we have in common, in order to unite against racism and patriarchy. We must focus on equality over identity, and join forces across generations. That’s my wish. That’s my hope.
Caroline Fourest, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a writer, columnist, scriptwriter, filmmaker, and co-founder of a new magazine, Franc-Tireur. She has written numerous books about universalism, equality, secularism, freedom of speech, and fanaticism.