CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
figure im1
SPEECH BY RICK D. WEST, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy at the 24th Annual Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium in San Diego, March 16, 2011.
© US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Carla Ocampo.

1In the fall of 2017, the spread of #MeToo [1] and #BalanceTonPorc on social networks gave rise to an exceptional politicization of sexual violence. Based on the testimonies of actresses and supported by feminist groups, denunciation of this violence was relayed by women and other communities in the film industry, as well as by those working in journalism, politics, and public institutions. The British Film Institute, for example, is now making the financing of projects and awarding of prizes dependent on a charter recommending that someone responsible for equality and the prevention of sexual harassment be present at every shoot. [2] This movement testifies to the way in which the women’s cause, understood here as the defense of women’s interests with a view to improving their status and conditions, has now progressed well beyond feminist movements alone, and in some institutions has acquired the status of a major political issue.

2The dissemination of this cause is often described by the term “institutionalization” in the militant and academic spheres. This word is rarely defined, and reflects different and mixed realities: the transformation of a militant group into a professionalized structure, the assumption of feminist demands by the state, the creation of dedicated departments in public services, and so on. A cautious use of the term is nevertheless useful for understanding the different processes governing the circulation of political ideas and practices in institutions whose prime vocation is not to work for the women’s cause. We first need to free ourselves from normative assumptions, by virtue of which institutionalization automatically signifies the success of feminist demands or, conversely, a “hi-jacking” or de-politicization. We then need to find a definition that enables us to embrace comparable processes, so that institutionalization describes the integration of the women’s cause into the practices and discourse of institutions. [3] This definition has the merit of drawing attention to a historical process existing in many countries and of reformulating the problem posed: what we need to understand are the processes through which the women’s cause takes root in institutions that are initially unfamiliar with it, and the modalities as well as the effects of this assumption of responsibility.

A historical and transnational process

3The women’s cause was first promulgated by the feminist movements in Western countries that formed from the nineteenth century onwards. [4] However, from the 1960s, under the influence of these movements and thanks to easier access for women (including certain feminists) to positions of power, this cause gradually came to be defended by institutions, which set up specific forms of action and organization. In France, as in many other countries, it was first of all the state that assumed responsibility for this issue. After an advisory committee for women’s labor was set up [5] the 1970s saw a veritable “state feminism” start to develop. [6] Since the creation of the Secrétariat d’État à la Condition féminine [Secretary of State in charge of Women’s Condition] in 1974, all governments have had a ministerial portfolio devoted to women’s rights. [7] Furthermore, the state has established central and regional departments specially dedicated to these rights, and is developing public action in favor of gender equality. [8]

4However, the feminist agitation of the 1970s also affected other institutions. In the political realm, the left-wing parties espoused the cause in their turn, with the intention of becoming its representatives. This trend was at first due to the action of feminists who occupied marginal positions in “women’s groups” within the parties, but it gradually became part of political agendas. The Socialist Party, for example, demonstrated its concern for gender equality in its election programs from the 1980s onwards and joined the call for political parity during the 1990s, [9] before declaring itself feminist in its 2008 statutes. Similarly, higher education and research establishments enlisted in the women’s cause from the 1970s: after an initial phase of recognition by these institutions in the early 1980s, [10] the 2000s saw more inclusion of teaching and research on gender in academe. [11] By the 1990s, the reaffirmed centrality of work issues in French state feminism led to trade unions and businesses also facing up to the issue. Feminism had made its mark on trade unionism from the 1970s, [12] but it was especially from the 2000s that gender equality appeared at the center of trade union agendas; [13] at the same time, it was embraced by managerial elites who had been influenced by the women’s networks set up to claim a share of economic power. [14]

5France is not an isolated case. In many countries, both “northern” and “southern,” defense of the women’s cause has assumed a variety of institutional forms that are constantly growing. This widespread historical movement has affected the state, political parties, the academic world, and businesses, but also the army, the Catholic Church, [15] or the police. [16] That the same processes are repeated, in very different countries, is explained by the activism of national and transnational women’s movements [17] as well as by the role of international institutions, which were occupied by feminists very early on. [18] In 1975, the United Nations (UN) declared “International Women’s Year,” opening the “decade for women,” a program of action for gender equality. [19] The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979, symbolizes the crucial role played by the UN, [20] which henceforth interceded with states by guiding and controlling their gender equality policies. At European level, UN action has been replaced by the European Union (EU), which created specific resources and enjoined member states to adapt their legislation to comply with the demand for gender equality and then to adopt “gender mainstreaming” in their activity. [21] Finally, since the 2000s, development programs, run by the UN and its agencies together with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) supported by international sponsors, have put the women’s cause at the heart of their activity with regard to the global South. [22] This “gender globalization” has led to new institutions—states, national or local NGOs, businesses, and so on—making it part of their structures and agendas, subject to varying timescales and degrees of thoroughness. [23]

A precarious institutionalization

6The articles gathered in this issue nevertheless reveal the ambivalences in this process, which has been deployed on an international scale over the course of the past fifty years.

7Institutionalization is indeed always precarious, unstable, and subject to relations of domination. To start with, defending it is largely dependent on institutional agendas, [24] as the example of French trade unions shows: integrating the feminist demands of the years around 1968 came to a standstill from the 1980s due to the effect of the economic crisis, the fading of feminist movements, and internal restructuring by the trade unions. [25] Defense of the women’s cause also comes up against the resistances it creates, and is challenged in institutions by the members of dominant groups. A particular case in point is that men’s support for professional equality policies often stops when the privileges conferred by their dominant position in gender relations are called into question. [26] In the same way, the social relations of class sometimes act as a powerful brake, [27] particularly when upper class interests are threatened. The concern to enhance the status of female “talent” at the top of professional hierarchies thus produces a form of indifference toward inequalities suffered by female manual workers, employees, and unemployed women. The professional equality policies in the French civil service illustrate how an “elitist equality” is promoted: while these policies introduce quotas at the top level and seek to support the careers of female executives “with potential,” they pay little attention to the inequalities suffered by less qualified women who are badly paid. [28] Similarly, institutionalization of the women’s cause produces new needs for expertise and the expansion of a new labor market. But the professional posts appearing as a consequence of this, in the civil service, trade unions, businesses, and feminist organizations [29] are often characterized by insecure working and employment conditions and limited autonomy, with only the most socially resourceful really appearing to gain from it. [30] In Tajikistan, for example, the market in gender expertise within international organizations proves to be very segmented and inegalitarian: on the one hand, international women experts occupy the highest and best paid posts and are likely to forge an international career while, on the other, national women experts do the least stable and most poorly remunerated jobs. It is these who are in the firing line when it comes to international funding cuts. [31]

8Institutionalization also implies forms of de-politicization, through euphemizing or negating the political dimension of demands for gender equality. First of all, circulating outside of feminist movements, the cause is reformulated under the influence of institutional constraints and tends to lose its most hotly contested aspects. [32] International organizations therefore never embrace feminist demands so much as when they see in these a way of better serving their own interests and, first and foremost, defending the liberal economic model. Equality in employment or education can, for example, be promoted as a potential source of economic growth, thanks to the expansion of female participation in the labor market. The priority where businesses are concerned is to see equality as a performance lever. [33] Making states comply with international standards on gender equality follows the same logic: certainly, Saudi Arabia displays its goodwill because of diplomatic and economic constraints, but it interprets these standards selectively and does not challenge the authoritarian and restrictive regime with regard to women’s rights. [34] This revision of demands and agendas limits the transformative effect of the actions set in motion. Institutionalization of the women’s cause has indeed helped to improve formal equality, particularly in law, but it struggles to modify gender relations and displays limited results as far as gender equality is concerned. [35] For example, in France, the laws on political parity have done little to reduce the exclusive male grip on politics and open it up to women. [36] What is more, institutional defense of the women’s cause does not enable practices to be changed (or at least very little). [37] Analysis of gender mainstreaming thus shows that managerial staff who are compelled to take gender equality into account when carrying out their duties in fact resist this injunction, which threatens their working routines. [38]

9Furthermore, reformulating the women’s cause is accompanied by a selective inclusion of demands from other social categories. As can be seen from the discursive guidelines on equality in the public policies of several European countries, this leads either to a narrower vision or to the expansion of other causes with a view to intersecting them. [39] The overlap can be made with the aim of inclusion—enabling women’s diverse experiences to be taken into account—but it is more often expressed through forms of exclusion, with the reaffirmation of a universal woman subject. The comparison of policies on wearing the veil in France and Quebec highlights a North-American situation in which state feminism attempts to reconcile a normative view of emancipation with multiculturalism, while the authorities responsible for women’s rights in France argue that removal of the veil by Muslim women is the only means of achieving emancipation. [40] This relegation or difficult inclusion of women who experience multiple relations of domination (non-white, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans, working class, and so on) is partly explained by the social characteristics of the women promoting the women’s cause in dominant institutions (white and upper class).

The dual dynamic of institutionalization

10Despite this, the contributions in this issue show that institutionalization cannot be reduced to a single process of de-politicization. On the contrary, under certain conditions it presents an opportunity to politicize, in the sense of turning social facts into subjects relating to politics, [41] which redefines the women’s cause as a struggle on both the individual and collective fronts. Indeed, the lack of internal consistency in institutions sometimes enables places to be set up where radical protest against male domination can be expressed, despite the constraints weighing upon feminists. [42] Furthermore, because institutions are not very open to the women’s cause, the feminists within them tend to become marginalized; this lack of receptiveness can also have a rebound effect and lead those women who are most socially endowed to turn to militancy in order to make the feminist voice more strongly heard. [43] The creation of militant organizations to defend female domestic workers in Egypt through the intermediary of international NGOs also shows that institutionalization can produce political action. [44] Sometimes, politicization operates at the individual level. The porous boundaries between militant spaces and institutions [45] give some women an opportunity to spread political awareness of inequalities and rights—as with American trade union action for pay equity [46]—or to acquire feminist ideas that were previously unknown to them. [47] The professionalization of gender equality is one example of this: for some women, working as gender experts or consultants produces an awareness of the issues and leads to political engagement through their professional activity. [48]

11Finally, institutional support turns out in certain cases to be a determining political resource for feminist demands. For example, the success of the action campaign for political parity in France in the 1990s can be explained by the organization of a militant movement that included different authorities—state, partisan, and academic. [49] More generally, setting up a “field of women’s cause” [50] provides potential resources for feminist protest movements when militant associations are joined by female allies within institutions.

12Analyzing these mechanisms reveals that there is a dual dynamic at work. On the one hand, the women’s cause is subject to institutional constraints and the social relations of domination prevailing in them, which means that the cause is euphemized and depoliticized in order to be recognized and overcome the resistance that opposes it. On the other hand, it is the means of—individually or collectively—politicizing gender relations within the institutions themselves. This dual movement does not illustrate two forms of institutionalization but reflects two aspects of the same process. It reminds us that the questioning of gender relations is always political, even if ownership of this political dimension by and for all women remains highly restricted, in institutions dominated by upper-class men defending their interests.


  • [1]
    #MeToo was launched in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a black female social worker, to denounce sexual violence against racial minorities in the United States (
  • [2]
  • [3]
    That is to say organizations that are structured by specific practices, norms, and classification principles. See Jacques Lagroye and Michel Offerlé (eds.), Sociologie de l’institution (Paris: Belin, 2011). We do, however, exclude from the analysis institutes that are not represented in organizational contexts or institutions specifically created to promote the women’s cause, like the independent “women’s parties” or “women’s trade unions” that exist in several countries (Finland, Poland, Japan, and so on).
  • [4]
    Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700–1950. A Political History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
  • [5]
    Anne Revillard, “L’expertise critique, force d’une institution faible ? Le Comité du travail féminin et la genèse d’une politique d’égalité professionnelle en France (1965–1983),” Revue française de science politique 59, no. 2 (2009): 279–300.
  • [6]
    Anne Revillard, La Cause des femmes dans l’État. Une comparaison France-Québec (Grenoble: PUG, 2016).
  • [7]
    However, there are huge variations in their names, independence and importance, ranging from a fully-fledged ministry (1981–1986 and 2012–2014) to a domain tacitly incorporated within a state secretariat (2007–2010).
  • [8]
    Sandrine Dauphin, L’État et les droits des femmes. Des institutions au service de l’égalité ? (Rennes: PUR, 2010).
  • [9]
    Laure Bereni, “Lutter dans ou en dehors du parti ? L’évolution des stratégies des féministes du Parti socialiste (1971–1997),” Politix 73 (2006): 187–209.
  • [10]
    Rose-Marie Lagrave, “Recherches féministes ou recherches sur les femmes ?,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 83 (1990): 27–39.
  • [11]
    ANEF (ed.), Le Genre dans l’enseignement supérieur et la recherche. Livre blanc (Paris: La Dispute, 2014).
  • [12]
    See Pascale Le Brouster, “La prise en charge par la CFDT de la question des femmes dans les années 1960 et 1970,” Document de travail du Mage 14 (2010): 27–34.
  • [13]
    Cécile Guillaume, Syndiquées. Défendre l’intérêt des femmes au travail (Paris: Presses de Science Po, 2018); Sophie Pochic, “Femmes responsables syndicales en Angleterre et identification féministe: Neutraliser leur genre pour mieux représenter leur classe ?,” Sociologie 5, no. 4 (2014): 369–386.
  • [14]
    Soline Blanchard, Isabel Boni-Le Goff, and Marion Rabier, “Une cause de riches ? L’accès des femmes au pouvoir économique,” Sociétés contemporaines 89 (2013): 101–130.
  • [15]
    Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, Faithful and Fearless. Moving Feminist Protest inside the Church and Military (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  • [16]
    Geneviève Pruvost, De la “sergote” à la femme flic. Une autre histoire de l’institution policière (1935-2005) (Paris: La Découverte, 2008).
  • [17]
    Éliane Gubin, Catherine Jacques, Florence Rochefort, Brigitte Studer, Françoise Thébaud and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel (eds.), Le Siècle des féminismes (Ivry-sur-Seine: Les Éd. de l’atelier, 2004).
  • [18]
    Like the International Labour Organization. See Françoise Thébaud, Une traversée du siècle. Marguerite Thibert, femme engagée et fonctionnaire internationale (Paris: Belin, 2017).
  • [19]
    In 1946, the UN established a Commission on the Status of Women.
  • [20]
    Diane Roman (ed.), La Convention sur l’élimination des discriminations à l’égard des femmes (Paris: Pedone, 2014).
  • [21]
    Sophie Jacquot, L’Égalité au nom du marché ? Émergence et démantèlement de la politique européenne d’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2004).
  • [22]
    See the contributions by Virginie Dutoya and Ranime Alsheltawy in this issue.
  • [23]
    Ioana Cîrstocea, Delphine Lacombe and Elisabeth Marteu (eds.), La Globalisation du genre. Mobilisations, cadres d’actions, savoirs (Rennes: PUR, 2018).
  • [24]
    Camille Masclet, “Sociologie des féministes des années 1970. Analyse localisée, incidences biographiques et transmission familiale d’un engagement pour la cause des femmes en France” (PhD diss. Université Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis and University of Lausanne, 2017).
  • [25]
    Le Brouster, “La prise en charge par la CFDT de la question des femmes.”; Charles Jacquier, “La mise à mort d’Antoinette,” Agone 28 (2003) : 55–61.
  • [26]
    See Laure Bereni and Alban Jacquemart’s contribution in this issue.
  • [27]
    See Clémentine Comer’s contribution in this issue.
  • [28]
    Alban Jacquemart, Fanny Le Mancq, and Sophie Pochic, “Femmes hautes fonctionnaires en France. L’avènement d’une égalité élitiste,” Travail, genre et sociétés 35 (2016): 27–45.
  • [29]
    Lisa Markowitz and Karen W. Tice, “Paradoxes of Professionalization: Parallel Dilemmas in Women’s Organizations in the Americas,” Gender & Society 16, no. 6 (2002): 941–958; Annie Dussuet, Érika Flahault and Dominique Loiseau (eds.), “Associations féministes. Reproduction ou subversion du Genre ?,” Cahiers du genre 55 (2013).
  • [30]
    Soline Blanchard, “De la cause des femmes au marché de l’égalité. L’émergence de l’espace de l’accompagnement à l’égalité professionnelle en France (1965–2012)” (PhD diss., Université de Toulouse 2–Le Mirail, 2013); Pauline Delage, Violences conjugales. Du combat féministe à la cause publique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2017). See also the contribution by Virginie Dutoya in this issue.
  • [31]
    Lucia Direnberger, “Devenir experte en genre. Trajectoires et stratégies au Tadjikistan,” in La Globalisation du genre, 45–64.
  • [32]
    See Clémentine Comer’s contribution in this issue.
  • [33]
    Hélène Yvonne Meynaud, Sabine Fortino and José Calderón (eds.), “La mixité au service de la performance économique,” Cahiers du genre 47 (2009): 15–33.
  • [34]
    Amélie Le Renard, “Women’s Rights Washing. La circulation sélective des ‘droits des femmes saoudiennes’ entre diplomatie, médias et mobilisations,” in La Globalisation du genre. Mobilisations, 253–270.
  • [35]
    Claudie Baudino, “La cause des femmes à l’épreuve de son institutionnalisation,” Politix 51 (2000): 81–112.
  • [36]
    Catherine Achin and Sandrine Lévêque, “La parité sous contrôle. Égalité des sexes et clôture du champ politique,” Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales 204 (2014): 118–137.
  • [37]
    See Laure Bereni and Alban Jacquemart’s contribution in this issue.
  • [38]
    Gwenaëlle Perrier, “L’objectif d’égalité des sexes dans la mise en œuvre des politiques d’emploi à Berlin. De la diffusion professionnelle aux difficiles réappropriations profanes, Politix 109 (2015): 111–133.
  • [39]
    Emanuela Lombardo, Petra Meier and Mieke Verloo (eds.), The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality. Stretching, Bending and Policy Making (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  • [40]
    Revillard, La Cause des femmes dans l’État, 222–227.
  • [41]
    Jacques Lagroye (ed.), La Politisation (Paris: Belin, 2003), 3.
  • [42]
    Fainsod Katzenstein, Faithful and Fearless.
  • [43]
    See Marion Charpenel’s contribution in this issue.
  • [44]
    See Ranime Alsheltawy’s contribution in this issue.
  • [45]
    Fainsod Katzenstein, Faithful and Fearless; Laure Bereni and Anne Revillard, “Les femmes contestent. Genre, féminismes et mobilisations collectives,” Sociétés contemporaines 85 (2012): 5–15.
  • [46]
    Michael W. McCann, Rights at Work. Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
  • [47]
    Viviane Albenga, Alban Jacquemart, and Laure Bereni (eds.), “Appropriations ordinaires des idées féministes,” Politix 109 (2015).
  • [48]
    Soline Blanchard, “Le conseil en égalité professionnelle: quel genre d’entreprise ?,” Travail, genre et sociétés 39 (2018): 141–158. See also Virginie Dutoya’s contribution in this issue.
  • [49]
    Laure Bereni, La Bataille de la parité. Mobilisations pour la féminisation du pouvoir (Paris: Economica, 2015).
  • [50]
    Laure Bereni, “Penser la transversalité des mobilisations féministes: l’espace de la cause des femmes,” in Les Féministes de la deuxième vague, ed. Christine Bard (Rennes: PUR, 2012), 27–41.
Soline Blanchard
Université de Lausanne, Laboratoire capitalisme, culture et sociétés (Capitalism, Culture, and Societies Research Unit, LACCUS)
Alban Jacquemart
Université Paris-Dauphine, Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire en sciences sociales (Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences, IRISSO)
Marie Perrin
Université Paris 8, Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques de Paris (Center for Sociological and Political Research in Paris, CRESPPA)
Alice Romerio
Université Paris 8, Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques de Paris (Center for Sociological and Political Research in Paris, CRESPPA)
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