Inventing "French Feminism:" A Critical History
French Feminism has little to do with feminism in France. While in the U.S. this now canonical body of work designates almost exclusively the work of three theorists—Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva—in France, these same thinkers are actually associated with the rejection of feminism. If some scholars have on this basis passionately denounced French Feminism as an American invention, there exists to date no comprehensive analysis of that invention or of its effects. Why did theorists who were at best marginal to feminist thought and political practice in France galvanize feminist scholars working in the United States? Why does French Feminism provoke such an intense affective response in France to this date? Drawing on the fields of feminist and queer studies, literary studies, and history, “Inventing ‘French Feminism:’ A Critical History” offers a transnational account of the emergence and impact of one of U.S. academic feminism’s most influential bodies of work. The first half of the dissertation argues that, although French Feminism has now been dismissed for being biologically essentialist and falsely universal, feminists working in the U.S. academy of the 1980s, particularly feminist literary critics and postcolonial feminist critics, deployed the work of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva to displace what they perceived as U.S. feminist literary criticism’s essentialist reliance on the biological sex of the author and to challenge U.S. academic feminism’s inattention to racial differences between women. French Feminism thus found traction among feminist scholars to the extent that it was perceived as addressing some of U.S. feminism’s most pressing political issues. The second half of the dissertation traces French feminist scholars’ vehement rejection of French Feminism to an affectively charged split in the French women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and shows that this split has resulted in an entrenched opposition between sexual difference and materialist feminism, an opposition that continues to structure French feminist debates to this day. “Inventing ‘French Feminism:’ A Critical History” ends by arguing that in so far as the U.S. invention of French Feminism has contributed to the emergence of U.S. queer theory, it has also impeded its uptake in France. Taken as a whole, this dissertation thus implicitly argues that the transnational circulation of ideas is simultaneously generative and disabling.
Feminist Literary Criticism
Sexual Difference Feminism
Women's Liberation Movement
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