Michelle Perrot: ‘Many women felt comfortable with the division of male and female roles’

The French historian claims that there is a revolution underway: men feel as responsible for their children as women

Michelle Perrot
Michelle Perrot photographed at her home in Paris on July 11.Manuel Braun
Marc Bassets

Despite her advanced age, historian Michelle Perrot continues to walk up and down stairs. The physical stairs of an old Parisian building near the Luxembourg Gardens, stairs that she usually prefers to the elevator. She climbs mental ladders too: from the past to the present (and the future), from history to anthropology and literature, with an agility that at any age would be exceptional and at hers is disconcerting. Perrot, together with Georges Duby, is the co-author of the monumental History of Women in the West and a pioneer in this field. She has just published (in French) Le temps des féminismes (The time of feminisms) in collaboration with the journalist Eduardo Castillo. Her energy is far from exhausted. Now she is preparing an essay, on those very stairs: as a symbolic space, a reflection of life, full of dangers, a place of encounters and social visions.

Question. You have dedicated your life to studying workers, prisons and criminals, and women. What unites the three?

Answer. They are dominated, albeit differently. In the case of the workers, it is about social domination. In the case of criminals, it is more complicated: there are many marginal characters. And in the case of women, the big issue is male domination. It was not premeditated to take an interest in these subjects: they followed each other.

Q. You write in your latest book: “I am a historian, and a feminist. The nuance is very important: I’m not a feminist historian.” What is the nuance?

A. It is considerable. I don’t make a story in the service of something, I don’t make an apologetic or laudatory story. I do women’s history, yes, but as a historian. History is a rigorous discipline, with its instruments and its demands.

Q. You have been active in feminism since the 1970s and it was the time when you began to research the history of women. Weren’t the two facets intertwined?

A. The work on women’s history was my response as a historian to the women’s liberation movement, but as a historian I don’t wave flags. I’m a historian and a feminist, but I’m a historian, which means, for example, that women aren’t always right. It is not a question of deploying a discourse against men: that doesn’t interest me. What interests me is the difference between the sexes: how it was built over time, its developments and advances towards equality, the setbacks.

P. You wrote: ‘Women have not always been victims.’ Hasn’t there always been a story of male domination?

A. Male domination is a foundation. We see it almost every time. No one believes in matriarchy. Perhaps at times there were matriarchal societies, but not many and they were not important. And yet, this doesn’t mean that women were always victims. Many felt comfortable in this system, with the division of male and female roles.

Q. Were they moments in history? Or were they places or social classes?

A. In the French aristocracy of the 17th century, for example, there is a time when women are more or less equivalent to men. Look at this painting [points to a painting in the room]: it is Mademoiselle de Montpensier, a frondeuse [participant in the fronde revolt against the king]. Do you see that in her hand she is carrying a sword? It’s a bit of an exceptional time, it’s true, but it’s a time when, in the aristocracy, women were more or less equal to men. With one big difference: they were ‘married.’ To them too, you will tell me: marriages were always thought of not for individuals but for lineage. And yet, women were destined for the lineage much more than men. That is, even in this environment of fairly free, educated women, wars, on horseback, as far as lineage and the perpetuation of the family are concerned, it is they who are married. As Lévi-Strauss would later say, speaking of the indigenous populations he studied: “Goods are exchanged, women are exchanged.” Women are an object of exchange.

Q. The anthropologist Françoise Héritier spoke of the “differential valence of the sexes.”

A. The valence or difference value means: man more, woman less.

Male domination is a foundation. No one believes in matriarchy

Q. Is it something invariable in the human race, as Héritier says?

A. That’s what she says, and I’m convinced. Pascal Picq, paleoanthropologist and professor at the Collège de France, has just published And evolution created women, and in it he shows that, in the hominid family, the human species is the one in which there is greater male domination. More than in orangutans.

Q. You who have lived about two-thirds of the 20th century and almost a third of the 21st and have witnessed the triumphs of women’s rights. Would you have imagined, as a young woman, that in 2023 this point would have been reached in women’s rights and equality?

A. No, I wouldn’t have imagined it. But to be honest, I didn’t personally suffer as a young woman regarding relationships between men and women. I had a very feminist father, and I had a teacher who helped me. I found no personal obstacles. Not in the family, not in college, not in my romantic relationships.

Q. Didn’t you suffer male domination?

A. Not really. I was on my way and moving forward quietly. Until I became aware in the 1970s. Then I thought a lot about all this, although as a student I had read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was published in 1949. They were her writings, but above all her person: I thought she was formidable. She was beautiful then, that was important. She was very free in her loves, very free in her intellectual life.

In France, much still remains to be done. Look at the pay gap

Q. You write that there was a moment, a few years ago, when it was thought that the feminist struggle was over because the great battles had already been won. Is that so?

A. No, not at all, even in France there is still much to be done. Look at the wage gaps. In the world of work and in politics, as soon as you reach high positions, it’s almost all men. There has been indisputable progress and there are still things to be conquered. But above all: France is a small place in the world. If you look at the situation of women and the relationships between men and women elsewhere, it’s not brilliant: Afghanistan, Iranian women, women in the Middle East... And even here in France: now there is a lot of talk about femicides. The word has only recently come into existence. From the moment the word was spoken, we have been appalled by the number of women killed by men. We see something we didn’t use to see. And we ask ourselves: ‘What do we not see today and that in 10 years will seem obvious to us?’

Q. What could it be?

A. Women have a big problem: today there are many single-parent families that are 80% female. It means that having children for a woman who wants freedom and equality is not easy. She is in a socially inferior situation.

Q. As a historian, what place do you think the #MeToo movement will have in women’s history?

A. A very important place. It is an event for several reasons. First, by its expanse, the number: thousands, even millions, of women who have said: ‘Me too.’ It has to do with social networks, and women knew how to appropriate them. Secondly, #MeToo is a frontier of intimacy: it is no longer just what was said before ‘a child, if I want, whenever and however I want.’ Now it is: ‘My body is mine, and love, if I want, when I want and how I want.’ There is a claim to a bodily autonomy in love and a personal intimacy. I would add a third observation: #MeToo is an event, but it is set in the prolongation of the 1970s. I think that the real revolution was that of the ‘70s, with the right to voluntary interruption of pregnancy.

Q. There are feminists of the 1970s, at least in France, who are uncomfortable with #MeToo. A few years ago, the famous manifesto of women who claimed the right to be importuned was published.

A. I did not agree with them. It seemed to me that solidarity with the women of #MeToo was necessary. But there seemed to be some coquetry in claiming the right to be importuned.

Women are fully capable of committing violence and going to the barricades. They have done it, but not for themselves

P. In some of your texts you have pointed out something that seems obvious but, when one thinks about it, is significant: the women’s revolution has never been violent. Why?

A. Women are fully able to commit violence and go to the barricades. They have done so, but not for themselves. The feminist revolution is made in customs, in everyday life, in the shadows, and, of course, in ideas. That’s how things change. The important thing is the changes in mentalities.

Q. #MeToo is not a change in the shadows, on the contrary, it is public.

A. Yes, with public speaking.

Q. So when you say it’s shadow changes, are you talking about the past? Or also today?

A. No, even today there are a lot of changes happening in everyday life without talking about them. Deep down, the people who change things the most are those who take ownership of their own lives and act freely.

Q. For example?

A. For example, marriage for love: rejecting a man one does not love for one whom one does love. It’s a way of saying, ‘I exist and I don’t want this.’ And this happens in the shadows. It is another way of looking at history, which is not only that of visible events — the political, violent revolutions — but also the will of each individual, which is, in short, what changes societies.

Q. What shadow revolution is happening right now?

A. Co-parenting, for example. Men feel as responsible for their children as much as women. Single-parent families are mostly female, so it is a revolution that has not been made, but something is changing. I see it in my environment.

Q. Will there be a time when feminism no longer makes sense because equality has been achieved?

A. You can imagine, utopias are fine, but it will not happen tomorrow, this is not over.

Q. If you take into account Héritier’s “differential valence of the sexes,” which has always existed, does it not make you think that the human being is irredeemable?

A. I have no idea. We are talking about a very strong structure, very distant, rooted in human relationships, and it can last a long time. But nothing should be excluded, perhaps one day it will no longer exist and there will be other inequalities.

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