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Old is a beautiful age
1 Jul 2010
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“We are still in stories of love, but there is a great difference between reality and the dream that we have of a society where women have their place. I think there is a space of posturing, a space of lies. We are far from the truth. The political is far from reality. The political is far from the poor areas. There is an unacceptable misery.”

Thérèse Clerc. Born in 1927, long-time feminist and activist, founder of the Maison des femmes de Montreuil and the Maison des Babayagas. Maison des femmes de Montreuil is an open center for women on the outer edge of Paris, where women can come freely, connect with other women, and find resources and community. Equipped with meeting space, a feminist library, and multimedia center, they also offer academic programs and workshops in subjects such as technology, self-defense, French, voice, and painting. Maison des Babayagas is an initiative “to live and grow old in solidarity and citizenship,” a house established for elderly feminist women from the original women's liberation movement to live in and find community. Self-managed, the house residents stand in solidarity in lifelong commitment to feminism and each other and continue to be active citizens. Interviewed July 2010. Photo copyright RFI

Old is a beautiful age

The women’s movement took off after the cultural revolution of May ’68. We wanted to change things. It was a true cultural revolution.

There were great struggles. There were great fights. I had a friend who was a great lawyer. It was she who organized the manifesto of the 343 sluts; they are well-known women who signed a manifesto that was spoken of around the world. We signed it in 1963 to have the right to abortion. A great symbol, and it was a resounding blow in France.

I had friends who fought in the trial of a sixteen-year-old girl who was raped and got pregnant and whose mother made her get an abortion. She was condemned for the abortion, but I have friends that saved her and freed her. She won her case. That truly decided the right to abortion. After, a great official we admired founded the right to abortion. The law was ratified in ’79. Then, we won many advances with contraception also. It was very tiring, difficult fight but we won. 

Now, it’s not going well.

The hospitals are closing their abortion clinics. Equality of salaries, there is still at least 27% of difference in salaries between men and women at work. For the old, it is the women who care for the elderly.  Half of families are not yet equal. There are twenty-two percent of women who are alone in the poor suburbs with children. It’s necessary that the household tasks be shared, including care-taking, including care of the elderly. 

Then, parity is something serious. It’s a man’s world. You open your eyes and there are only men. I have seen many meetings or workshops and there’s one woman, all the rest, men. Very often, I am the sole woman. I’d say, I am a bit bored.

Women no longer exist; women are nowhere. There were these big ideas, mixité,[1] mixing men with us in order to change them. Little by little, in the 1980’s, we invited them in and the women’s movement lessened at that moment. Me, I think, the movement was solid so long as it was, frankly, not mixed. I think that our desire for men in the circle of women is to return the power of men and to sign the invisibility of women.

When I saw that the women’s moment slowed, I said to myself, why not a place for women? A place for them to find each other, drink a cup of tea, laugh, talk, but at the same time, be able to find legal counsel? I took five years to create the Maison des femmes (house of women) and also the mayor at the time helped me a lot. We opened it in 2000.

Voilà, how I said to myself one beautiful day we would have that place. I said to myself it would be a place of activism where we continue the struggle to gain rights. Little by little, women came because they had enormous problems. The legal counseling here suddenly was in such a demand. The house also became a center for social services and a cultural center.

Even the smallest cities in France, it is often the women who maintain the social ties and very often the culture. They create a chorus, an orchestra, a library, a reading workshop, a writing workshop. It is they who create small spaces where they disseminate culture and also other models of society. That delights me. I held onto culture, conferences, cinema, films.

The Maison des femmes throughout France, in Paris, it’s the same. We are the socio-cultural centers. All the same, we have an activist, political vision of the women’s movement.

We try to press for urgency. We do legal consultations; we do workshops; we do what we can, but it does not go to the heart of the problem as long as women do not want to recognize themselves as first. Many women say, “No, I am not first. My husband is.” That's on the personal level. On the political level, it is not us who share the power with men. We are trapped, us women. We must work toward the clearsightedness of this state.

What interests me most it is the political access for women. Women don’t have a lot of access to politics in France. You have great women, but in the room at the Assemblée nationale, you have only 65 women out of 677 officials. That makes about 12%.

What interests me is that women have access in their minds first. That is truly what is missing. The women come with problems, husbands, children, in-laws, violence. They hold that in their affect. Very often, the women are exhausted. They cry a bunch, suffer, because half the world has their rights and the other half does notI tell them, the rules and politics do not have emotions. Women need to be there, playing a role. 

Today, in 2010, I find that the women’s movement begins to move again, little by little, but I feel we are still in stories of love. There is a great difference between reality and the dream that we have of a society where women have their place. I think there is a space of posturing, a space of lies. We are far from the truth. The political is far from reality. The political is far from the poor areas. There is an unacceptable misery, so one must work, go into high schools, explain many things.

When I go to the high schools, I explain the women’s movement to young people, how it was founded, and that in some time, they must carry it forward. That is very important because the old feminists are beginning to die and the daughters of feminists are sixty-years-old. 

I tell them, “You who are twenty-years-old, you must take the next step.” They listen to me. I tell them, “Economic independence first. You earn your own living and when you earn your living, you are free.” Economic independence is liberty.

The difficulty is that the economic power is in the hands of men, so women have very little economic power. It’s necessary that women know how to manage on their own. Women must make their own living.

Don’t get married. Get by on your own. That’s radical.

You want men? Yes, it’s nice, men, sometimes nice, but they serve no more than your body. Live among women as much as possible and little by little, that will give you a political consciousness. You can live as a couple with a woman, that’s very good. Give importance to your clitoris, a lot of importance. A clitoral orgasm is very, very good, and you can help yourself to it whenever you want, when you want. If women want, they can go right to it.

It is also a great political gesture. It’s not by chance that there are excisions among African women who cut the clitoris. It’s not by chance. It’s a political action. Thankfully, at the hospital, we have a female doctor who does reparative surgery on the clitoris. Yes, we send the women there, and the doctors are very good. The clitoris is bigger than the part that is excised, so the doctors uncover a small part of the clitoris, and there is an entire part of the clitoris that shows again and is sensitive. We are very happy when there is this end to the story.

I was a married woman for twenty years, I had four children, and I didn’t have a good marriage. He was a good husband. I just think that I was not made for marriage.

Yet, when I was a young woman, it was necessary that women were married. At 25, if you weren’t married, it was a shame. It was almost a sin, an error. We’d say, “What is St. Catherine doing?” St. Catherine is the patron saint of young girls. At twenty-five, they did a huge party to her if you were not yet married. It was a party to make you a bit ashamed. “What? You are not married? You should be married.” So they made extravagant hats; they danced.

Me, I thought, yes, I would have a nice husband when I grew up. How can you think otherwise when you are young, when you have good parents, when you are a happy girl who wants for nothing? How can you know that women are victims of an entire masculine violence?

My parents, they were working class. My father fought in the war of ’14, so he was anti-German, very nationalist French. My mother was Catholic, a woman who prayed, and she tried to make her daughter into a very, very good and proper woman. She didn’t entirely succeed.

All the same, I was happy. My parents didn’t have any left-wing political consciousness, but they were intelligent, generous, loved me a lot, and I was a very happy little girl.

My husband was a friend of the family. It was the brother of the best friend of my mother. With that marriage, my mother was going to be happy because they knew the family. The marriage followed the social rules.

At that moment, you think the marriage itself will work things out, but marriage is not only love; it is not only fidelity. Marriage is also a whole same life in society.

My husband was born in 1918, just after the war of ’14, which was an immense war. A little boy born just after the war was the king, he was the prince, god, and all men of that generation were these extraordinary misogynists. Women were always there to make children and take care of the kids and house. I was in this generation there, and I had many, many friends who were never happy in their marriage.

We also didn’t have contraception and that was horrible. We had many children, a lot of abortions, we were always afraid when we had sex, saying, “My god, I hope not.” The young women now do not realize the good luck they have with contraception. It is really extraordinary.

In 1968, I left my husband.  I always heard that a divorce was a failure, but I don’t like the word “failure." I like better the word “experience." Me, I think that it was a beneficial experience that gave me liberty and allowed me to be an autonomous woman. I think divorce is liberation.

When I say that, often there are people who look at me a bit sideways and say, “No, it’s a commitment; marriage is a commitment. You should not divorce, for the children.” My children were incredibly unhappy while I was married and were marvelously happy when I divorced.

After the divorce, I started to work. It’s necessary when one has four children. I was hired as a vendor in a store. I didn’t have any training; I didn’t go to university at all because education for women wasn’t very important. We were extremely poor, but we were extremely happy.

Only eight hundred Euros per month to live? It is possible. If one has a tiny house, one has something. I came to live in a poor suburb; I suddenly saw poverty. In one blow, that opened my eyes. I saw it is necessary to do a lot of good will with little money. Women know how to do that. Even if they don’t have a lot of money, they manage with what they have so that the children live. 

What I can say, when I was married at the house and I had my four children, I never had the time. I was always busy, and as soon as I divorced, I had my job, I had my children at the house, and I was an activist, and I was not tired. I had the time to do it.

I wonder about that still. Why, when I had my whole day at the house and only had to take care of my children and the house, was I always tired? That's when I say to myself that the power of the husband is very important because how can you always make sure the house is impeccable? the children impeccable? The washing machine arrived with my last child, and machines like the washing machine, the dish-washer liberated women a lot. We re-found some time, but the watch of men is important. It tired me to have to keep everything perfect in his sight.

After divorce, of course I took good care of the children and we were happy, but I was not tired. I came then to the women’s movement and spent forty years of struggle in the movement.

I’ve fought for forty years, and it’s good. I have a beautiful life. The women’s movement truly moved in my time, and to grow old is not necessarily unattractive. Old is a beautiful age. Live well and succeed with age, that is what I would say, and elderly women, don’t shut your mouth. 

There are many, many women who live until 100. It’s time to start seeing the perspective of optimists on aging, a vision of growing old where old is a very, very beautiful age. It is a time that you can transmit many things to others. Then, you can listen to young people as well, who have many things to tell us. We can have a truly productive exchange.

Right now, it’s necessary that feminists move a lot, as much as possible. Today, religion is being used very badly. According to God, they do many things to women. They tell them that she must do this; she must do that. She is even more guilt-ridden, obedient, submissive. It is terrible. One of the worst words—because it is one misused—it is “God wants.”

From the Muslim families, little girls arrive here crying that they lost their virginity. For them, it is horrifying. They say, “My relatives are going to kill me.” They come to seek a doctor who re-stitches hymens. It is not a solution, though.

I tell them each time, “It is not worth it to go to see the doctor because the doctor is really expensive and to repair the hymen is not a solution. Let us meet in your suburbs. We will come to help you, all us old feminists will come to help you. No one can kill you because you lost your virginity."

These girls are under terror. At the same time, the girls say it is a beautiful religion; it helps them. There is an aspect of contradiction. The old bigots in France, it’s the same. They go to church; they say that it helps them. 

For a long time, I was preached to. In those churches, feminist women were bad women. The feminist in a church was horrifying. They are very bad for the family; they are dangerous to maternity. Feminists are ugly villains.

Woman, as is well known, is made to procreate. “Go forth and multiply,” said the Bible. Feminists, we multiplied only a little. In addition, we wanted rights for couples, so we were horrible. We were bad women.

The good news of evangelicals was the liberation of humanity, but for the women, for half the world, that wasn’t true. Where was the truth? This was a space for liberty and at the same time, for women, it was obedience.

I put forth a solution: I see that all the religious institutions are abominable. The institutions create a horrible guilt. God is not guilt. It’s not possible. It is the law of people that render people guilty.

Still, we have twenty centuries of history where the churches have done well. If we women know how to read today, it’s because the churches were there. Churches started in the 18th century to open schools for girls. They said that girls would know how to read. That took centuries. Today, everyone goes to school.

I would tell you that I am close to death. I am eighty-three years old. I see in history where it’s high and where it’s low. In this moment in history, we are in a very low place.

The problem is also that ecologically, the planet, it is suffering. We are in the midst of destroying this earth so beautiful.

As long as people continue to consume without thinking, without consciousness, it will remain very serious. There are problems of water everywhere, even in France. Water is wasted everywhere in France. People do not have awareness for the planet.

In the southern hemisphere, 600 million women don’t know how to read. They also still have four, five children. Then, the millions of people on the planet must eat. Those 600 million women who don’t know how to read in the Southern hemisphere, as soon as they know how to read, they have less children.

It’s absolutely necessary for kids go to school so they learn how to read. Right now, there is no instruction for women. A village will send its children to school but, really, the boys are going to school and the little girls are not going to school. There is no instruction for the girls.

Then, in families and in war, it’s often women who die. There is a lot of violence against women, and women don’t know how to express themselves because they don’t know how to read.

These women want schools; they want centers for the children; they want their children to live, but there is an enormous child mortality rate in the southern hemisphere. Us in the western countries, it’s more or less eradicated. Children under five no longer die. Maybe one once in a while, there are babies who still die. In the southern hemisphere, there is polyneuritis; there is dysentery. Even if there are many people who distribute vaccines, we still have the diseases. The polyneuritis is terrible. The children who are healthy get polio and after, they can no longer move. It’s horrible.

What’s necessary is to get all the tropical countries free from mosquitoes and malaria and other maladies. There are terrible diseases. Tuberculosis is starting to spread again. There is new misery in poor countries. They’re crashing to earth. Men are crashing down. Children are falling. Tuberculosis, it’s rising.

The planet is in crisis. The planet is ill. One no longer respects the earth. One no longer respects woman, women who are the living part of the earth. It is us who are the promise of the species. It goes together: Those who no longer respect the earth no longer respect women. It’s symbolic, but that goes together.

My granddaughter who is leaving for Mexico, to do humanitarian work in the villages, participating in the ecological culture, I said to her, “Also manage to teach women to read. You must help them.” She told me, “Of course.”

Like that, a little bit, there are small initiatives on the part of ecologists for sustainable development. All that is interesting but it is tiny, tiny. Everyone is after consumption, after growth. The growth is going to devour the planet at this point.

Many people don’t realize it. It’s necessary to consume less, but we continue to consume. I continue to let the water run to do the dishes. I leave a room, and I don’t turn off the light. Many daily actions that we do not do because it’s not our culture, it’s not our habit. We have an entirely demanding daily life. We are crazy. There is one car for one person. You see it each morning, completely crazy.

There are not many who pay a lot of attention, and more and more, there are extraordinary natural disasters. In Haiti for example, you have typhoons, you have horrible things that attack.

For the moment, it’s catastrophe and global warming. The planet is warming. We have coasts along the Atlantic that are below sea-level. How do we separate us and the sea? In Ireland, they maintain the seawalls but in France, not much. There are very, very big tides. Not long ago, there were fifty deaths. It is tiny compared to Haiti but it is all the same, a sign that the planet is dying.

In Iceland, one volcano can put dust in the air and all the airways in Europe stop. It’s entirely extraordinary that in a tiny corner of the globe, there is a natural disaster that rebounds through all Europe. At that point, we do not feel as strong.

We can find solutions but it’s necessary to produce less, consume less; one must go toward sustainability. What we’re missing now are big movements. A revolution is missing. It’s been a long time since France had a revolution. May ’68.

[1] Mixité: French term for gender diversity.

[2] François Marie Charles Fourier: French philosopher and influential thinker who was considered radical in his time; notably credited with having coined the word feminism in 1837.

[3]Henri de Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy): Early French socialist theorist whose thoughts greatly influenced the foundations of Marxism, positivism, and sociology.  

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