The Free Labor Force of Wives: A Conversation with French Feminist Writer Christine Delphy

Annie Hylton talks to French feminist Christine Delphy about domestic labor and #MeToo.

The Free Labor Force of Wives: A Conversation with French Feminist Writer Christine Delphy

DECADES AGO, Simone de Beauvoir described Christine Delphy as “France’s most exciting feminist writer.” Delphy, a French sociologist and theorist, cofounded the “Mouvement de Libération des Femmes” (the women’s liberation movement) in the 1970s and later joined forces with de Beauvoir to publish Nouvelles Questions Feministes (New Feminist Issues), a review that explores the social construct of gender and materialist feminism, a concept Delphy pioneered based on Marxism.

Delphy is a prolific writer whose work centers on the domestic economy and the oppression of women, rooted not in capitalism but the patriarchy. “Marxism is, by all the evidence, materialist. To this extent, it can be used by feminism. In so far as materialism concerns oppression, and inversely if we accept that to start from oppression defines among other things a materialist approach,” Delphy wrote in a 1980 issue of Feminist Review.

Delphy, who is now in her late 70s, welcomed me to her loft-like apartment in Paris’s 1st arrondissement, where she has lived and produced most of her work over the last three decades. We sat at Delphy’s kitchen table, where she smoked cigarettes and drank tea, facing a library containing books by Judith Butler and Catharine MacKinnon. Nearby hung a poster of Simone de Beauvoir. It was a Sunday afternoon in January, and that weekend, like most weekends for several months, France had been embroiled in violent protests and political turmoil. A few weeks before we met, Delphy had published a response on her blog to President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke of the anger “of the single mother, widow or divorced [women],” forming part of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement. These women, Macron said, after he’d seen them on the roundabouts of French streets, no longer have the capacity to live or take care of their children; they have no hope. Their feeling of being forgotten, Delphy wrote, turned to anger.

Delphy and I discussed what this political moment — including the gilets jaunes and #MeToo movements — means for the feminist movement in France; whether Delphy’s theory of materialist feminism is a useful lens from which to understand today’s gendered and political landscape; marriage and children; and Delphy’s recent works, including a forthcoming book L’exploitation Familiale (Syllepse), and her 2015 book Separate and Dominate (Verso).


ANNIE HYLTON: If I understand it correctly, materialist feminism started from the home and women’s oppression in the home, and that was something you witnessed with your parents from a young age. What approach does materialist feminism take today? Is women’s oppression rooted in something else, or is it the same?

CHRISTINE DELPHY: Women’s oppression has different facets, because it’s a system, and in a system it’s very hard to say, “This is the root.” All these different facets reinforce one another, and therefore some people would say it’s men’s authority on women’s bodies, it’s rooted in sexuality or heterosexuality, or discrimination against women. It’s not as if you pull a thread and then the whole thing would unravel; you can’t find that thread. That’s why there are so many different theories.

Materialist feminism is not about finding the root of women’s oppression; materialist feminism is about looking at what’s being done and the practices. In the 1970s, women worked as much as we work today, and in fact, they’ve always worked outside the home. Marriage, more than the home, is the place of extortion of free labor from women by men. Lots of women not only do what you call housework, but they also do all sorts of work for their husbands’ profession, and that’s never taken into account. This is what I mean by materialist feminism.

The oppressions related to sex as sex — not to gender, but to sex — are parts of the constraints that keep women in a lower position, and they reinforce the reality of women’s secondary status. Therefore, they encourage women to accept low-paying jobs.

Has the meaning of your theory changed over time?

No, it hasn’t changed over time. I think at the beginning of the French movement and the American movement, too, everybody was looking for the important thing. Great writers of that period wrote about how men exploit women sexually, and this is very important. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the root cause, because, in fact, women are oppressed in all areas. The book I’m writing in French [L’exploitation Familiale], which is a translation, doesn’t pretend that women’s oppression is the root of one thing, but the laws about marriage dictate one form of oppression, and this is not only in the West. You will find all over the world that men are using women as servants just as they do in the West, except it takes different justifications. Globally, women do twice as much domestic work as men, and this is what I wanted to center on.

In the 1970s, people were talking about only the differences of income from paid work between men and women, and not at all about domestic labor, so my hope is that I, and others, have put that on the map.

In France, women are still seen as providing primary care for children, and if and when they have a job, this is used by employers to discriminate against them, not pay them as much, et cetera, and men are profiting from that. In France, men, especially executives, are very often staying on in their office as long as they can — it’s called présentéisme, so that they will not be home when children have to be fed and then put to bed. This particular task of being there for children — to feed them, change their nappies — justifies women’s being paid less on the labor market and at the same time encourages their being discriminated on the labor market. It’s a kind of vicious circle.

In applying this framework and lens to the gilets jaunes mothers who you wrote about, what can we learn about them?

In France, the most deprived people are not the gilets jaunes, they are the retirees or — and this is the first time it’s being evoked in a discussion — single mothers (divorced or widowed) who are not receiving child support, so these women are impoverished. They have to feed two or three children, and they don’t get the money they’re entitled to. This is another reinforcing factor — if they’ve separated from their partner and they can’t expect that payment, it’s very difficult. Usually the courts will judge that, but the courts are not doing their job. There are laws upon laws upon laws so that women are not discriminated against in the labor market so that they’re paid the same as men, but it doesn’t work really except maybe in the case of high-level executives. So women are pushed into marriage or partnership because they will also benefit from the higher wages of the man.

There exists a pattern that women cannot live without men and vice versa. It’s considered a big failure in life to not live in a couple. We don’t know any other way to live, so this is where the culture in itself becomes reinforcing: this is the home, the home is based on your parents, but when you are an adult it’s based on reproducing precisely the same pattern. This pattern is also based on the fact that in most countries the custom is that the woman does the domestic work, and she’s supposed to help her husband and not be paid for that. By marrying a woman, a man gets hold of everything she possesses, including her labor force.

Until 1938, in France, a woman had to get her husband’s permission before selling something she’d inherited outside of the marriage. This taking by men (which the law supports) and the labor force of his wife is still absolutely true. In my book, I use the example of work a woman does on top of the housework for her husband, who is a farmer, a mechanic, a lawyer, a doctor. Very often their wives do something a secretary, an accountant, a salesperson would do; they manage the clientele of the husband, and of course, they don’t get a cent from that.

In a recent article, you quoted Macron saying he was very affected after seeing single mothers among the gilets jaunes on the roundabouts. Do you feel any efforts have been made to address their concerns?

No. Macron’s problem right now is that he wants to stay in power. That’s all he sees. In France, they can pass laws and then they don’t put any money or any means to achieve these aims. So even if it’s the law, it doesn’t change anything. I’ve heard for the last 30 years all sorts of plans to take the place of the delinquent fathers, but I don’t see any changes, not real changes.

I’m interested to know whether where we are now is what you envisioned and hoped for in the 1970s, or whether you’re disappointed?

I think it’s difficult to say that you’re disappointed because you didn’t envision a totally changed society. Of course, you did, but you knew the society wasn’t just, especially concerning women. There’s more oppression than I thought, for example, racism and the repercussions of racism. I think the movement has been enriched because of that.

I think some progress has been achieved, but all that takes a terribly long time. Most of the women with whom I was working in the 1970s, they didn’t realize it would take so long — like about 100 lives, or maybe more, which we didn’t have because each of us had only one life — and also they saw it as a kind of training in getting over their feeling of insecurity or inferiority and not as a longstanding struggle.

I’m not disappointed, no. What comforts me is knowing that the women’s struggle is necessary. What happens is that you struggle against one thing and then as you progress you discover other aspects of oppression, and I think in a sense that’s good. Take for example the #MeToo movement. You couldn’t have expected that to happen even 10 years ago. It’s terrible to think about what women had to suffer, but at the same time they are revolting, and that is extremely gratifying.

Broadly, in the United States that movement sprouted out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and women speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. How did that look here? Was it different?

No. There are a few feminist organizations helping women here, but it’s probably less active than in the United States, where there are more organizations that get more money or subsidies. It’s not considered an urgent problem in France. But #MeToo has taken a new role. There has been a redefinition of rape, especially to try to get the courts to stop thinking that a woman is consenting because she doesn’t scream or say no to a sexual predator. Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist, is doing a great job of explaining that women who are raped very often have PTSD and cannot say anything. I think the feminist movement is taking a second life.

At the same time, there was a bit of a backlash to the #MeToo movement here in France. What was your reaction at the time to the letter written and co-signed by 100 prominent women including Catherine Deneuve?

The vision of France that it gave, especially to American women, that was awful. What can I say, you know? The backlash came from society as a whole; no feminist took the Deneuve letter seriously. The letter didn’t cause any backlash, instead it’s the pressure of society and especially of men because women don’t like the idea of being alienated from men or seen as harpies.

Simone de Beauvoir said in 1947: “American women have only contempt for French women always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.” What do you think she meant by that?

She meant what she said. American women were slightly better off than French women at that time and probably less accepting. I remember when I was a very young woman the French used to say that America was a matriarchy because men did the washing up.

Does this have any relevance today?

No. The level of tolerance for such sexist remarks has diminished, but not altogether. We still have lots of men reacting to women who write or denounce #MeToo with all sorts of insults or not taking what they have to say seriously.

I’m sure anyone of your stature would face the same, but some of your views have been seen as controversial. Why do you think that is?

I used Marx’s work but in a nonorthodox way, and that’s what I was criticized about. But this is in a very small milieu.

During the veil debate in France, I took a stand against the law that forbade young girls from going to school with a scarf. I was denounced by let’s say a majority of feminists. I think this is slightly getting better because I believe the young feminists are not so ferocious about what they call the veil; it’s a scarf. They don’t even realize that they’re racist, and that’s the problem. It’s such a controversial issue in France but not in other countries. In France, the idea of freedom of opinion and freedom of religion is not taken very seriously.

For people who may not be familiar with women’s liberation in France and your work in particular, what would you want people to understand?

First, people should go to a bookshop and buy my book Separate and Dominate by Verso.

I genuinely loved talking with you. By the way, my husband helped me come up with these questions.

Reverse exploitation!


Annie Hylton is an independent investigative journalist and writer based in Paris.

LARB Contributor

Annie Hylton is an award-winning investigative journalist and magazine writer from Canada based in Paris. She has a background in international humanitarian law, and her work — from West Africa to Central America — covers gender, migration, and human rights. Her writing has appeared with Harper’s, the New Republic, Longreads, Columbia Journalism Review, The London Review of Books, Dissent Magazine, The Walrus, Pacific Standard, and others. She is a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and teaches at Sciences Po Paris.


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