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1Based on a doctoral thesis defended in 2007, this book contributes to both the history of feminism and women’s political history. Its subject – 1990s mobilizations for political parity in France – the precision with which it was written, and the wide range of questions it discusses will make it of interest to sociologists of public policy as well as specialists of gender, mobilizations and political activism. Grounded in a multimodal socio-historical survey that combines interviews, questionnaires and archive study, the book covers the period from 1992 to 2000 in primarily chronological order.

2The author begins by presenting the success of the parity cause as an enigma to be resolved: How, after a long period of lethargy in the French feminist movement, did a handful of not particularly unified feminist activists manage to obtain – in one short decade – a revision of the constitution and passage of a bill that seemed unimaginable in the late 1980s? To answer this question, Laure Bereni forges an original analytic category the scope of which exceeds the framework of her study. On the model of Lilian Mathieu’s concept of “the space of social movements”, she creates “the space of the women’s cause”, defined as “the configuration of sites for mobilization for and in the name of women in a plurality of social spheres” (p. 17). With this she can apprehend the historicity of mobilizations for political parity, their extension and their ideological and sector-based heterogeneity, integrating initiatives by political parties, trade unions, state structures, religious institutions or associations and the intellectual milieu in addition to specifically feminist mobilizations.

3Bereni’s study in the first three chapters of the emergence and gradual enlargement of the movement for political parity immediately demonstrates the heuristic value of her concept of the space of the women’s cause. Pro-parity initiatives were hardly restricted to the feminist circles that developed in the 1970s. From as early as 1992 they arose in quite different spheres: regions (the “Femmes d’Alsace” [Women of Alsace] electoral list); the feminist intellectual milieu (publication of Au pouvoir, citoyennes! Liberté, Égalité, Parité [Onward to power, women citizens! Liberty, Equality, Parity]); the European Commission (Athens Conference); and others. Despite their small numbers and the profound divisions that could already be discerned within the movement, highly invested women activists were already trying to “make a movement around a marginal cause” within the various structures. While the fleeting Réseau femmes [Women’s network] of 1993 failed to created a wide-ranging movement in favour of political parity, the activists Gisèle Halimi, Antoinette Fouque and Yvette Roudy, each of who launched initiatives at nearly the same time, together with the major women’s associations established throughout the twentieth century, managed, despite their differences, to bring the issue to life politically.

4Chapters IV and V, among the most interesting, offer a traditional analysis of activist careers and seem to suggest the possibility of connecting analysis of social movements with analysis of political party activism. With her series of portraits of activists and intellectuals and related sociological information, the author immerses the reader in the parity movement. Her questionnaire survey of 122 women activists reveals three main characteristics: most respondents entered the space of the women’s cause in the 1970s, fought for it in the framework of a political party – usually on the left – and belonged to the upper social categories. The activist convergences studied in Chapter V then lead the author to distinguish three profiles: “heirs of the second wave”, “leftist party feminists” and “women committed to the feminine”. The space-of-the-women’s-cause concept defined in the introduction once again demonstrates its heuristic value here as the last category includes members of Catholic women’s associations and women activists from right-identified political parties. Though most of them kept their distance from second-wave feminist groups, they nonetheless took part in the 1990s political parity movement.

5The final two chapters examine the last reconfigurations of the battle for political parity, from getting a bill on the legislative agenda in the second half of the 1990s to seeing it passed on 6 June 2000. Steering clear of any teleological reading of this political sequence, Laure Bereni sets out to show how the political field became acclimated to parity in a context of mounting discourse about the imperative of modernization and the crisis in political representation. Parity came to look increasingly like a “magic formula for reinvigorating the world of politics.” On the left, the Socialist party’s conversion to parity was part of a project to win back political power and to re-centre the party on democratic and “societal” issues, a project that had gotten underway at the start of the decade at a time when the party was struggling to define its political identity.

6The concept of the space of the women’s cause is quite useful in conceiving continuities between social movements and political party activism (the two are traditionally analysed separately). However, the sequence of anti-conservative legislation that began recently with examination and passage of the Taubira bill [named for then Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira] legalizing same-sex marriage suggests the concept’s limitations, for these last years in France have been marked by the emergence of conservative women’s movements close to the counter-movement against same-sex marriage, movements whose actions all aim to preserve the feminine ideal and male-female complementarity. If we apply the author’s criteria, such profoundly anti-feminist groups as the Antigones, the Mères-Veilleuses [roughly, stay-at-home mothers] and members of the group Journées de Retrait de l’Ecole [days for taking the children out of school] launched by Farida Belghoul must be given full-fledged membership in the space of the women’s cause simply because these groups mobilize as and for women. As often happens, the concept’s flexibility is its main weakness: while it enables the author to conceive of mobilizations for gender parity in a way that takes into account their diversity and contradictions, when applied to new research subjects it leads to ranking radically opposed movements in the same category – and so loses heuristic value.

7La bataille de la parité remains a study of rare quality that sheds new light on the mobilizations that led to one of the most important constitutional reforms of the late twentieth century in France, and an essential contribution to studies of gender, mobilization and public policy.

Simon Massei
Uploaded on on 11/01/2017
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