French Feminism – Woman in Language

A discussion on how the political and theoretical work of French feminists has been much misunderstood owing to the reader’s failure to distinguish between their use of the terms feminine, woman and women.

This paper begins with an overview of the problems facing feminist theorists regarding terminology, such as the persistent risk of ‘essentializing’ woman’s culturally specific situation into an immutable truth. It then discusses Kristeva’s conception of the culturally and temporally specific woman in Le Temps Des Femmes (Women’s Time) and compares it with Cixous’ work in ‘La Jeune Mee’ (The Newly Born Woman) in terms of the theorists’ similar approaches to the constructed, ‘symbolic’ woman. It then looks briefy at Simone Beauvoir’s early work, Le Deuxieme Sexe (The Second Sex), adding her conception of ontology as a perpetual state of becoming and political analysis of woman’s situation to the constructivist debate. Finally, it examines Irigaray’s more post-structuralist work (including Speculum and Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un) in order to discuss the further complication of housing the material aspect of woman within langage.
Kristeva’s thought on feminism provides a useful point of departure for a discussion of how a useful feminist understanding of the term woman, especially if taken from an essentialist point of view, is far from simple. In her 1982 essay Le temps des femmes , Kristeva postulates that the concept of woman desiring men and desired by them is created in the symbolic by the concept of desire founded on a lack with the penis as its major referent. She believes that the meaning of the woman object, the female body only exists in the symbolic and that any attempt to deny, or re-traverse the separation between this symbolic nature and something contained within the physical nature of woman merely magnifies this separation and perpetuates the myth which allows oppression to occur.