Nouveaux hommes commit old sins

September 8, 1995

As the United Nations' Women's Conference in Beijing propels gender issues to the top of the international agenda, Stella Hughes (right) describes the fury in France ignited by perceived male domination of women's studies, John Davies (left) looks at how the British Association is preparing to tackle the changing roles of men and Sue Wheat (below) reports on how a bank manager became an idol for thousands of Bangladeshi women

In Cartesian France, both men and women are Man and university disciplines are what they always have been, with nothing much newer than sociology breaking through into the sacrosanct list of officially accepted academic subjects.

So it is none too surprising that women's studies are still not recognised as an academic field per se, nor that the scientific committee set up to advise on France's preparations for this week's United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing was made up of three men and one woman.

It would be an understatement to say that those appointments annoyed women academics working in women's studies, where there is a widely shared view that male specialists draw heavily and without acknowledgment on research by women academics to build up their own work in the field.

The last straw came when France's official country report for the conference came out with an appendix written by one of the three, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique sociologist Jacques Commaille, on the state of women's studies research. In two short pages, he suggested that women's studies were virtually non-existent in French universities and implied that the centre had introduced and nurtured the most substantial research undertaken on women's issues in France.

"It was absolutely scandalous. He apparently had no information on university research and had not considered it necessary to ask those who did know for information and advice," says philosopher Francoise Duroux, who teaches part of France's one and only doctoral course in women's studies at Paris VIII University. "Commaille only knew about the CNRS," concurred Francoise Picq, political scientist at Paris IX University.

Commaille admits he made mistakes and that the make-up of the committee was an error. "It was indisputably a mistake to appoint three men - something I did not know when I accepted my own appointment - and three specialists of the family, at that. It awoke all the fantasies about male control," he says. But he rejects criticism of his appendix. "It was a hurriedly written piece, done in good faith, which tried to denounce how badly off women's studies were," he explained. "As for saying I draw on women researchers' work, that's absurd. I have worked with women on projects without any problems."

The world of women's studies was still bristling at what was now the official account of their field in France's UN report when Commaille and his fellow committee members decided to hold an international colloquium. The question of how to respond to that development nearly split the Association Nationale des Etudes Feministes, many of whose 200 members demanded a boycott. Others including Picq, who chairs ANEF, were in favour of participating, once the preparation of the colloquium had been taken out of the hands of its male originators and handed over to a steering committee made up of nearly 20 women's studies specialists.

Commaille says he had been prepared to take no active part in the conference at all. The most radical feminists were organising an international call for a boycott, but it became clear a substantial number of women researchers would take part. In the end, he did participate and wrote one of the conference reports with a feminist "who had a rough time" because of it, says Commaille.

The colloquium went ahead last March and was considered a success by most of those who took part. To set the record straight on the true state of women's studies in France and to heal the rift within ANEF, seven of its members - both "boycotters" and participants - produced a new report. That report, Etudes Feministes et Etudes sur les Femmes en France en 1995, states firmly on its opening page that its aim is to "make up for the inadequacies" of Commaille's appendix.

It gives a fascinating account of the history of women's studies in France. The report recounts how hard-won gains in the 1980s have been lost - the CNRS's women's studies programme, which has not been renewed or replaced, university courses which have not been renewed or whose renewal has been drastically curtailed.

Over a dozen French universities offer women's studies, although only four have specific teaching posts. The report notes that this "teaching continues and is developed in difficult conditions thanks to the tenacity of the women who take initiatives".

"The situation of women's studies in France is all the more worrying because many women academics with professorships who gave women's studies their support are reaching retirement age, while the next generation which developed those studies I have had their university careers blocked because of this non-mainstream profile," it states.

In his appendix, Commaille says the "essential question" is whether or not women's studies should be reinforced as a specialisation. He concludes that opinions are moving "less towards a stronger structuring of specific poles of research and more towards a greater enhancement of research devoted to women or concerning, directly or indirectly, women's issues".

Women researchers fear this outlook combines two threats: a further marginalisation of women's studies as a discipline per se and a take-over of two decades of research by prominent male academics. The most radical feminists argue that men should not be allowed into the field of women's studies on any grounds.

"If I had known what was coming, I would never have accepted the appointment," Commaille now admits. "I thought there was enough maturity for the appointment of a man to chair the committee not to be a problem".

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