Separate and Dominate, Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror by Christine Delphy, book review: Why women are still the second sex

Once she hits her stride, there is real clarity and directness to her thoughts

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The Independent Culture

Christine Delphy co-founded Nouvelles Questionnes Féministes, the influential feminist review published in the Seventies, along with Simone de Beauvoir, France’s most famous feminist. That probably makes Delphy France’s second most famous feminist. Her writings on material feminism are well known in France and some of her essays on feminism and racism are collected here in one volume.

The book, first published in 2008, is Delphy’s manifesto, taking in the “war on terror”, the French government’s stance on human rights and its ban on the Muslim veil.

This version, translated into English for the first time, stands apart from the swathe of lipstick feminism books that have flooded the market in the past few months. I suspect that she doesn’t give a toss whether you use your womanly wiles to get your way with men, or what pet name you have for your vagina; she wants us all to recognise the contradictions and inequality in the world around us.

Delphy disentangles false logic and cuts to the heart of the issue with every subject she attacks. The French government has used feminist arguments founded on faulty logic to ban the veil, she says, and America’s global war, based on nebulous concepts, has allowed it to create a fascist regime that acts outside international law.

It is, however, not the easiest book to read. The particulars of the French government system won’t necessarily be familiar to non-native readers. 

Written before the end of the Iraq war, aspects of the book do feel dated. Although it includes references to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it doesn’t directly mention them, referring to events in only in the vaguest terms. It is worth reading, though, because once she hits her stride, there is real clarity and directness to her thoughts. For example, she explains her fundamental principle, that the Otherered group, as she calls them, be they women, or ethnic minorities or homosexuals, must first name themselves and band together to take the first steps to equality. She also makes a strong case for government quotas so that 50 per cent of politicians are women.

Her answer to the question “what is gender?’ boils down to pure anatomy.  She believes that everything else that  we are told about gendered behaviour is a  social construct. “This is today considered a bold claim,” she writes “but I am sure one day it will be taken as a given.” I am inclined to agree.

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