For an Embodied Feminism in S. de Beauvoir’s Wake: An Interview with Camille Froidevaux-Metterie
L’interview en français est à lire ICI.
This translation is proposed by Sophia Grace Millman.
Sophia is a first-year PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University. She holds a BA from Hamilton College and an MA from New York University’s Institute of French Studies. She has researched and written about Beauvoir’s correspondence with Algerian women readers, and currently works as an editorial assistant at the journal Simone de Beauvoir Studies.
Camille Froidevaux-Metterie is a feminist philosopher and professor of political science at the University of Reims, where she is also in charge of the university’s equality program. She is the author of numerous journal and newspaper articles. She has published many books including La Révolution du féminin (2015), which has just been published by Folio (2020), Le Corps des femmes (2018) and, a few weeks ago, Seins (2020). To read my review (in French and English), click here.
In September 2021, she published a new study: Un Corps à soi (2021).
Camille Froidevaux-Metterie is a “phenomenological feminist” and advocates for reviving discussions about the body, especially ones about the body in its gendered dimensions. In the following interview, she explains that Beauvoirian phenomenology, little known in France, is essential to all thinking about embodied feminism.
I thank her very much for having granted me this interview.
Marine: Throughout events and conferences devoted to Simone de Beauvoir, I have realized that we all have our own personal anecdotes to explain our connection to Beauvoir and her oeuvre. So, to begin, I have a small personal question, which, of course, you are not obliged to answer: What place does Simone de Beauvoir occupy in your life? How did you discover her? How would you describe your connection to Beauvoir?
Camille: As I read your questions before the interview, I realized that, as is usually the case, feminism led me to discover Beauvoir and not the other way around. I was drawn to Beauvoir through motherhood, which is an important detail, as you will see. I defended my thesis when I had just turned thirty and then, as time went by, the fact that I didn’t have a job and my desire to have a child began weighing on my private life. After three years, I was tired of my personal aspirations depending on a social situation over which I had no control. We wanted to have a child and we went ahead with our project!
As luck would have it, I was seven months pregnant when I was interviewed and hired. I started teaching classes; my son was six months old. I was going through something very intense and very trying. Everyone around me was rejoicing, telling me that I was incredibly lucky, that everything was happening to me at the right time, that it was fabulous… But what I was experiencing daily was both a form of exhaustion and great psychological shock. I kept saying to myself: “What’s happening? I have my first child and job at the same time, and I have to hide how hard it is?” For those around me, whether at the university or in my entourage, I had to project, how can I put it… the image of a young mother, one who was happy to be, in addition, a new professor.
M.: I imagine that is when you turned to feminist literature?
C.: Yes, in the early 2000s, I started reading what my colleagues were writing about the condition of women. That’s when I discovered feminist literature and gender studies. But, very quickly, I was struck by the fact that I could not find anything about what interested me at the time, namely motherhood. This absence seemed curious to me… there are many of us who experience this! So I pushed my thinking a little further in order to understand the contemporary condition of women, notably in this part of existential duality, that is to say, the fact of having to live a private, maternal, demanding and fulfilling life, and simultaneously a professional life that is just as demanding and fulfilling. It was articulating the two positions that was particularly difficult. So I started to become implicated in this subject and to think through the prism of the body, and, more specifically, the maternal body. And, as you might have guessed, that’s how I came to read The Second Sex.
M.: In which Simone de Beauvoir writes about motherhood rather harshly…
C.: Yes, for Simone de Beauvoir, motherhood is, in a way, the alienation of alienations. I find the terms she employs to describe the condition of pregnant women quite astonishing. There is something very powerful, but also very negative about the way she describes this condition. At the time, I held that opinion. But today, while reading her, I realize that her reflections are much richer and more complete than the summaries of her thinking that I had read here and there.
I continued my research and moved on to concentrating on North American authors. I discovered the work of Iris Marion Young. My thinking about Beauvoir today is very much indebted to this philosopher, whose own experience is quite interesting, since she herself first grasped only the constant devaluation of women’s bodily experiences. In one of her 1985 texts, she criticizes Beauvoir for what she calls her “limited humanism,” that is, the way she has of making sexual equality depend on a form of alignment of the feminine condition with the male model of the free and transcendent individual. Twenty years later, Iris Marion Young would reread The Second Sex and realize that Beauvoir’s description of women’s bodily experiences is a very original approach, which articulates both phenomenology and social criticism, and that there is therefore something important about the specific modalities of being a female body that should be further studied.
M.: She discovered, like you, the phenomenological aspect of Simone de Beauvoir’s work.
C.: Indeed, Beauvoir’s ideas led me to read phenomenology; Merleau-Ponty in the first place, then other North American feminist philosophers and some Scandinavians–because there is a small core of phenomenological feminists in Iceland, in Sweden… Toril Moi for example.
M.: How has phenomenology provided answers to your questions about women’s bodies and motherhood?
C: What I find fascinating in Beauvoirian phenomenology is this description of the lived experience of the body in that it conveys and perpetuates mechanisms of “male sovereignty.” How in some way a woman’s body is the very site of male domination and how this confinement of women in their bodies by men prevents them from becoming free individuals. This point is important; it is what few have retained from Beauvoir’s thinking. In The Second Sex, there is this very powerful and very original postulate that women, like all human beings, are free. Women define themselves first of all by their projects, by their involvement in the world and their projection in time, by their freedom. This aspect of Beauvoir’s thinking has been written about very little, almost forgotten it seems to me… There are recent works, like those of Manon Garcia and Mickaelle Provost in France or those of the Swedish philosopher Sara Heinämaa, which bring Beauvoir’s thinking on this up to date.
Too often we perform monistic readings of Simone de Beauvoir, focusing on alienation. Starting with the famous sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” she has been transformed into a pioneer of gender studies, the one who first showed how, through a certain number of mechanisms, women were in so-called natural roles. This is not wrong, but it is not all.
M.: I’m under the impression that Beauvoir had this approach in The Second Sex, but that she then left it aside… Do you think that this could also have contributed to this oversight?
C.: It’s possible, yes. There’s a lot of Beauvoir’s work that I haven’t read yet, but I’m specifically interested in The Second Sex because it contains an original theory that articulates the definition of the female body as both the locus par excellence of domination and the main vehicle for women’s liberation. This is precisely how I define phenomenological feminism. It is an approach that holds together this double dimension of female corporeality: the negative dimension of alienation and the positive dimension of emancipation. From the point of view of the history of feminist ideas, it seems to me that this approach makes it possible to go beyond the somewhat too conventional opposition between universalism and differentialism.
M: This was a very important point of debate within the feminist movements of the 1970s. What about today?
C: I believe that the divide between universalism and differentialism is now untenable. It no longer makes sense to be a differentialist. Those who labeled me as such when La Révolution du féminin was published were in some ways intellectually dishonest. As I explain in the book, motherhood was a stumbling block in feminist thought, we had to free ourselves from it in a way. We have succeeded, being a mother is no longer, nor should it be, the primary criterion of female existence. Certainly we have the capacity to be mothers, but we can decide not to be. The desire not to have a child is a real feminist fight in our current moment. In order to think about this unprecedented era, I believe we need phenomenological feminism. This is what I am going to try to demonstrate in my next book by returning to Beauvoir’s original thinking and enriching it through a phenomenological tradition that is little known in France.
M: Your work is therefore ultimately based on that of American and Scandinavian women… In France, as you said, there are very few of these works, and when we take up Beauvoir’s philosophy, we rarely examine aspects of the body and of freedom. In your opinion, is this incapacity to think about women’s bodies specific to France? Why does such a blockage exist?
C: I tried to understand why, after having been the basis of both feminist struggles and theories of the 1970s, the body almost disappeared. My theory is that this accumulation of fights somehow covered up or suffocated, the question of the body. Access to contraception made women subjects with rights, like men, and, consequently, allowed them to conquer new social and professional spheres. In fact, in the 1980s, feminist demands moved to the professional field (the question of the glass ceiling, salary inequalities, etc.). The feminization of society shook the patriarchal family model and triggered, in the 1990s, new struggles around the opening of conjugal and parental possibilities. In the 2000s, this shake-up led to a crucial series of events around the notion of gender. To summarize what I show in Le Corps des femmes, it is a succession of battles: the battle of procreation, of work, of family, of gender, and finally, the battle of intimacy. The woman’s body is central in the first and the last one, between the two it has been somewhat obscured, or only considered under the negative angle of its alienating motivations.
M: The question of the body thus comes up again today.
C: Yes, we must ask ourselves why a new generation of feminists is becoming reinvested in these corporeal questions, and in particular genital questions (maternity, sexuality, violence). My interpretation is that if all these social and political conquests could be carried out, it is because they had a counterpart, a price in some way. Emancipated in their public lives, women had to accept to remain bodies “at disposal” in their private lives. This is what the fight today is about in terms of the intimate. It signals a form of return to the fundamentals which is conducive to the rediscovery of Beauvoir and the feminist theorists of the 1970s.
M: And on the theoretical side, how do you explain this disappearance of the body?
C: There are, indeed, also reasons linked to the history of feminist thought. In France, there is a kind of consonance between the Beauvoirian heritage in the monist version I mentioned, the materialist feminism of the 1970s, and the republican universalism in the very undifferentiated conception of equality that it promotes. To this can be added, in the 2000s, the institutionalization of gender studies, which anchors the goal of deconstructing sexual binarity. All of this creates a very fertile intellectual combination, but also conceals women’s bodies in their gendered dimensions. Today, feminism ignores the gendered aspects of women’s bodies and focuses solely on alienation.
M: What happened to bring about what you call a “genital turning point in feminism,” and how do you fit into it?
C: At the beginning of the 2010s, we can observe a very intense reinvestment in female bodily subjects, notably around the question of menstruation, genitalia and sexuality, and finally, sexist and sexual violence that culminated in #MeToo. A new feminist generation is going back to the basics, in a way. Released in 2015, La Révolution du féminin is part of this theoretical turning point. But at the time, if I may say so, its reception was quite mixed, not least because certain feminists interpreted my preoccupation with the embodied dimensions of female existence as essentialist. It so happens that when I reread my text in preparation for the publication of the paperback version, I understood quite a few things. I realized that my phrases were sometimes too abrupt and that I had not explained clearly enough what the phenomenological feminism I wanted to revive was. In the Folio version, I have taken the trouble to rephrase a few sentences and, above all, to explain in greater detail the arguments of my embodied approach.
What is interesting about this story is that it shows that how books are received says a lot about what is conceivable at a given historical moment. At the beginning of the 2010s, reflecting on the intimate dimension of women’s bodies was not yet entirely conceivable. It was to become so, and I believe that it is not at all a coincidence that I wrote La Révolution du féminin in this context. The ideas were fashionable at the time, and I realize now, with hindsight, that at the very moment when I was working on the book, many young feminists were implementing militant strategies that exemplified what I was delving into theoretically.
M: I don’t know if you devote pages to it in your books, but I’m thinking of something that seems to me to be in line with what you said. In this “genital turning point in feminism,” I have the impression that there are some misunderstandings between different generations of feminists. Let’s take the example of young women who make the decision to stop or not to start taking the pill because they consider that it inflicts additional violence on their bodies. This decision, for the feminists of the 1970s, would seem totally incomprehensible…
C: Absolutely, that’s a very good example. Among the battles being waged by the new generation, yours in fact, is the question of diversifying contraceptive methods. Those who decide today not to take the pill are faced with the anger and incomprehension of pioneering feminists. From my point of view, when one is a feminist, one fights for women to have a choice, especially in “corporal” areas. From there, it seems to me totally incoherent to consider that certain choices are blameworthy. This is what I demonstrate on the subject of appearance and aesthetics. I have always found it curious that, in an almost unanimous way, we consider that a woman who takes care of her appearance is necessarily subjected to patriarchal diktats. The lived experience approach shows that this is not how women experience this in their daily lives. Moreover, I always try to keep this “Beauvoirian a priori”: I trust women to conceive of their freedom with regard to norms and injunctions. We can certainly suffer them, but we can also refuse them, reappropriate them or transform them. From a phenomenological perspective, which is also more coherent from a feminist point of view, it is necessary to consider that each woman does with her own body as she will, but also as she wants. This is an incredible opportunity that we, as Westerners, have. What I wish to do is to take up the Beauvoirian approach by applying it to our unique context. Her reflections are extremely rich, but the time period when she wrote, at the end of the 1940s, is so different from what we are living today that, in a way, we have to start all over again.
M: Yes, that’s what you say in, I think, Le Corps des femmes or in Seins: the observations you make today are only valid at this very moment, in the context in which we live. To understand Beauvoir and The Second Sex, and therefore to understand at the same time the way in which she speaks of women’s bodies, it is always necessary to return to the context.
C: Yes, and this is inherent in the phenomenological approach, which puts the notion of “situation” at its center. The lived experience is situated, which means that it is historically constructed and socially conditioned. It is very clear from Beauvoir’s writing that what is at stake in The Second Sex is situating the embodied experiences of women in the historical moment that correponds to when they were alive. It is in this sense that Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological feminism is very valuable. By articulating the concept of lived experience and the notion of gender, it deploys all the critical possibilities of the Beauvoirian approach.
M: There has been, and there still is, a lot of confusion around this notion of lived experience. It does not refer to your own experience, but at the same time, as you said, your phenomenological approach is based on your own experience. How does your own experience fit into your philosophy and research?
C: Yes, it’s important to come back to this. Lived experience is not the fact of living something and it is not the fact of talking about one’s own life. In phenomenology, lived experience is what allows us to access the meaning of the world. Applied to women, this refers to the idea that an event or a bodily upheaval produces not only an existential and intimate transformation, but that it immediately has social and political repercussions in that it modifies common representations. Just one example: becoming a mother is a profound personal upheaval, but it also permanently changes the way you are viewed socially. The concept of lived experience thus invites us to think about the inflection of existence produced by the experience in question.
M: Yes, in the end the concept of lived experience and the phenomenological method seem to be little understood and the reception of your book La Révolution du féminin demonstrates this in many ways.
C: Yes, absolutely. There was a lack of understanding about the method combined with a total ignorance of the theoretical framework. I very much like Diane Lamoureux’s expression “the paradox of the body.” For Beauvoir, the body is a site of oppression but it is also, as I said, a vehicle of liberation and these two paradoxical aspects are difficult to reconcile. This earned Beauvoir many misunderstandings and, as far as I am concerned, La Révolution du féminin was also misunderstood. I believe that the postulate of phenomenology is that the body is a prerequisite for reflexivity and cognition. The body is not only a sheath or mediating interface between the self and others, it is how we make the world intelligible. One only grasps and understands the world, others, and one’s own condition in an embodied way.
M: Which brings us back to your own experience…
C: Yes, in an obvious way, it is undoubtedly through one’s own body that, when one is a phenomenological feminist, things begin to be articulated. But, and this is what is important, one can nourish one’s reflection with one’s own existence and make broader claims based on that experience. Writing in the first person is a phenomenological position that I fully assume. It is a bit complicated in France since it is the ultimate sin to write as a philosopher in the first person! In the third part of La Révolution du féminin, I took the risk of evoking what I had experienced myself and I will continue to do so. But I am now adding voices of other women, in a series of phenomenological investigations that I am pursuing, the first of which was about women’s breasts.
M: I have the impression that you are now widely read, by a large audience. How is your work received today in academic and scientific communities?
C: With Le Corps des femmes, I have indeed been able to reach a wider audience. I think it is because I put forth theoretical elements that resonate strongly with the current activist dynamic. As far as the academic field is concerned, it seems to me that things are also more open. I see proof of this in recent colloquia, one dedicated to Iris Marion Young at the Sorbonne in 2017, another at the 2018 Nanterre feminist congress dedicated to phenomenological feminism, and yet another the same year on looking at race and gender through a phenomenological lens at the Sorbonne.
M: When you talk about the “body,” do you also consider trans women, women of color, disabled women…?
C: Regarding this question, the problem, and this is what I respond to when I am criticized for not developing these topics enough, is that I don’t feel I am authorized to write and think in the place of these women. I am not going to write about the lived experience of women of color because I am not one. Likewise, I am able-bodied, so I can’t speak to the lived experiences of disabled women. That said, it’s very important not to render their experiences invisible. In my book on breasts, it was important for me to interview and photograph a trans woman, a disabled woman, a woman of color.
M: In your work, especially in Le Corps des femmes and Seins, you address women’s very intimate experiences. Have you had any feedback from your readers that is equally intimate?
C: Not that much. The book that would lend itself most to this is Seins. Unfortunately, it came out on March 5th [a few days before the French national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic] so it hasn’t been read much yet, but I’m starting to get some “intimate” feedback from female readers and that’s very valuable. What I can talk about, however, is what it meant to me to do these interviews, to meet these women, to take their pictures. One of the things that it did for me was to confirm this premise that my own lived experience did resonate with the lived experiences of other women who were in many ways very different from me. So, once again, it is not a question of essentializing nor of claiming that there is a kind of shared experience, but it allows me to show that there are, beyond the diversity and the singularity of our existences, common threads which connect the lived experience of women, and in particular the phenomenological common thread, namely the alienation/emancipation dialectic.
M: To return to your recent research, I think that your next book will also have a lot of resonance in the academic world because we are seeing a kind of Beauvoir revival. Her memoirs were published in 2018 by the Pléiade, she was on the syllabus for the agrégation de lettres the same year, Manon Garcia published a remarkable philosophical work, it seems to me that Beauvoir studies are gradually carving out a place for themselves in the discipline… Sylvie Chaperon wrote about this in an article (Chaperon 2010): Beauvoir provokes political passions, but we have reached a moment when new researchers who are interested in Beauvoir are not her contemporaries and perhaps benefit from a little more perspective. What do you think about this?
C: Absolutely, Sylvie Chaperon is quite right about this generational question; it has had a great impact on the way Simone de Beauvoir was read, or not read, or misread. This generational renewal is good because it allows us to break away from certain scholarly reflexes. The fact that Beauvoir herself had difficulty presenting and defining herself as a philosopher, the fact that she was a philosopher but in a unique way, exploring ideas through essays, fiction, autobiographies… all this may have influenced the readings of her works. Her approach is at once fictional, autobiographical and philosophical, and I think that we are in the process of evaluating the scope and richness of her œuvre. I hope that many of us will contribute to this process.
M: And I hope that The Coming of Agewill also be studied. There is a lot of talk aboutThe Second Sex, but The Coming of Ageon the other hand…
C: Absolutely. The book has just been reissued by Folio, which is good news. You are right: it is an important text. In my next book, I explore what I call “phenomenological knots,” those bodily upheavals that are simultaneously intimate, social and political for women. I obviously devote a long chapter to aging, notably by addressing the question of menopause. It is not by chance that I came to feminism through motherhood and I continue with the stages of my embodied life.
Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s work
La Révolution du féminin, Paris, coll. Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, Gallimard, 2015. Disponible en Folio essais depuis mars 2020.
Le corps des femmes. La bataille de l’intime, Paris, Philosophie magazine Éditeur, 2018.
Seins. En quête d’une libération, Paris, Anamosa, 2020.
Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s articles on the subject
« Le féminisme phénoménologique d’Iris Marion Young. Tenir ensemble le concept de corps vécu et la notion de genre », Revue philosophique de Louvain, 2018, N°114, vol. 4, p. 493-516.
« Qu’est-ce que le féminisme phénoménologique ? », Cités, 2018/1 (N° 73), p. 81-90.
In Beauvoir’s wake
Sylvie Chaperon, « Lectures contemporaines du Deuxième Sexe », Traverse, 2010, n°1, p. 51-63.
Sylvie Chaperon, « Simone de Beauvoir, entre le naturalisme et l’universalisme, entre le sexisme et le féminisme », dans : EPHESIA éd., La place des femmes. Les enjeux de l’identité et de l’égalité au regard des sciences sociales. Paris, La Découverte, « Recherches », 1995, p. 347-351.
Sylvie Chaperon, « La deuxième Simone de Beauvoir », Les Temps Modernes, n° 593, mai 1997, p. 112- 143.
Geneviève Fraisse, Le Privilège de Simone de Beauvoir, Arles, Actes Sud, 2008. Disponible en Folio essais depuis mai 2018.
Ingrid Galster (éd.), Simone de Beauvoir : Le Deuxième Sexe. Le livre fondateur du féminisme moderne en situation, Paris, Éditions Champion, 2015.
Manon Garcia, On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient, Paris, Flammarion, coll. Climats, 2018.
Michel Kail, Simone de Beauvoir philosophe, Paris, PUF, coll. Philosophies, 2006.
Michelle Le Doeuff, L’étude et le Rouet, 1. Des femmes, de la philosophie etc., Paris, Seuil, 1989.
Iris Marion Young, On female body Experience. “Throwing like a Girl” and other essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Margaret Simons (dir.), Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995
Perspectives philosophiques sur Le Deuxième Sexe de Simone de Beauvoir paru il y a 70 ans, Philosophie, 2020/1, n° 144. Dir. Manon Garcia et Raphaël Ehrsam.
To cite this article: Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, Marine Rouch, « For an Embodied Feminism in S. de Beauvoir’s Wake: An Interview with Camille Froidevaux-Metterie », trans. by Sophia Grace Millman, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, août 2021 (juin 2020), URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3226
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