Feminism: French Feminists on Religion

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French feminism, understood here to refer to a variety of feminisms of sexual difference that have evolved in France since 1968, has become increasingly influential in religious studies in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. While the term French feminism has been criticized widely as a construct of Anglophone academic feministsa construct that ignores the majority of movements for women's rights in Franceit has nevertheless become entrenched in common parlance in the English-speaking world, and the "French feminist" movement is widely understood to include such theorists as Hélène Cixous, Catherine Clément, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Monique Wittig. Unlike many Anglo-American feminists, these French thinkers are less concerned with liberal projects such as equal rights for women than with articulating the problematic of sexual difference that they perceive as fundamental to all forms of cultural expression in the West. The "French feminists," while representing diverse perspectives on this problematic, can be seen to be engaged in an ongoing conversation based on a set of shared premises that each adopts or critiques to varying degrees.

Although all of the French feminists are at least somewhat critical of the work of the French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, most are influenced by his theories of subject formation and gender construction (the notable exception to this being Monique Wittig, who rejects psychoanalytic feminism as inherently apolitical). Central to much French feminist theory is the Lacanian view that the subject is linguistically constructed and that the earliest forays into language position the subject within an Oedipal, paternal order (governed by what Lacan calls the "Law of the Father" and symbolized by the phallus). Further, the French feminists tend to follow Lacan in seeing both gender and sexuality as effects of the sociolinguistic foundations of subjectivity. Where most differ from Lacan is in their view that the "phallocentric" Law of the Father is not the only possible social order and that feminist interventions in the linguistic and symbolic structures of both Western and non-Western cultures might open a path to a new, postpatriarchal world.

Additionally most of the French feminist theorists are influenced by the deconstructive literary-critical methodology and the philosophical thought of Jacques Derridaalthough again not without reservations. Of particular significance is Derrida's strategy of examining texts for the hidden meanings that both supplement and challenge any explicit signification as well as his claim that the Western philosophical and theological traditions have organized reality into opposing and hierarchically ordered binaries (e.g., presence/absence, good/evil, spirit/body, writing/speech), with man/woman serving as the paradigmatic example. Derrida's notion of différance, an unending play of differing and deferring that both underlies and disrupts the "logocentric" production of univocal meaning, is also useful, as is his view that "woman" is the privileged site of différance (although this latter notion is also seen as somewhat problematic).

Beginning from their various understandings of these two thinkers thenand further influenced by such figures as Ferdinand de Saussure, Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Roland Barthes, and Claude Lévi-Straussthe French feminists have articulated a profoundly important body of philosophical and critical thought about the role of sexual difference in the Western tradition, and their work has many implications for the study of religion. The religious discourses of the West emerge as key instances of the "phallogocentrism" of Western thought (that is, of the central role occupied by the phallus and the written word), with the Jewish and Christian Father-God appearing as a symbol with even more power than those marshaled by the state to found a repressive model of subjectivity. The exclusive maleness of the Trinitarian divinityGod conceived as Father, Son, and Holy Spiritis seen as paradigmatic of the "logic of the same" that the French feminists, and many other French theorists of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, trace from Plato through Hegel. This model of God comes under censure both for its eclipsing of the central importance of the mother in the process of (re)producing life and for its underwriting of a patriarchal model of the subject that reduces the feminine to the inferior "other" of the masculine. However, French feminist religious thought is as noteworthy for its constructive impulses as for its critique of established religions and is characterized, especially in later works, by attempts to imagine new ways of being religious that would allow the repressed feminine to find expression.

In this context French feminists have explored such areas of interest as the necessity for honoring (and sacralizing) mother-daughter genealogies; the relationship between divinity and subjectivity; the affinity of women for mysticism; the nature of Jewish and Christian notions of defilement and sin; and the resources offered to Western feminists by non-Western religious traditions. What follows below is merely a suggestion, in somewhat arbitrary order, of the ways these themes find expression in the work of the French feminists, based primarily on the ways in which their work has been taken up by feminist scholars of religion. Further it should be noted that many aspects of French feminist theory that have no direct bearing on religion have found such wide acceptance in religious studies that the French feminists, especially Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, are frequently referenced in feminist religious scholarship.

Maternity and Mother-Daughter Genealogies

The issue of the erasure of mothers and daughters from the religious traditions of the Westand the necessity for reworking those traditions in ways that allow maternity to emerge as sacred in its own righthas generated much comment from the French feminists, and their thought in this area has in turn sparked much interest from feminist scholars of religion. In her 1987 "Stabat Mater" and In the Beginning Was Love, for example, Julia Kristeva offered a psychoanalytic reading of maternity intended to undermine what she saw as the phallocentrism of Lacan's theory of subject formation, a reading that has implications for patriarchal understandings of Christianity as well. In questioning the primacy accorded to the father by Lacan, Kristeva also challenges the appropriation of the Virgin Mary within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, arguing that that appropriation erases the bodily nature of motherhood and domesticates maternity within a patriarchal order. For Kristeva, the bond between mother and infant is the precursor of the infant's ability to relate to an Other, so that maternal love is the necessary condition of Christian agape.

Although Luce Irigaray too is very much influenced by psychoanalytic methods, she tends to approach her discussion of motherhood genealogically, sifting through the myths of the Western tradition for lost images of sacred mothers and daughters. In such essays as "The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry" (1994), for example, she explores the story of Demeter and Persephone for what it has to tell the modern world about the ways the mother-daughter relationship, seen by Irigaray as the paradigmatic relationship between women, has been co-opted and subverted by patriarchy and argues that the re-sacralization of such relationships is essential to establishing social justice for women. This approach has not been uniformly welcomed by feminist scholars of religion, many of whom see it as yet another attempt to reclaim or reimagine goddess traditions that fail to intervene effectively in the male-centeredness of the Western religious traditions. Alternatively then in "When the Gods Are Born" (1991), Irigaray turns to Friedrich Nietzsche to show how the maternal function is appropriated both by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysos, with whom Nietzsche was so fascinated, and by Nietzsche himself in his quest for a revaluation of all values. Behind this metaphorization of motherhood, Irigaray claims, lies a betrayal of the body that is all too often repeated in Christian thinking about embodiment, although in her view it need not be.

Subjectivity and Divinity

In Speculum of the Other Woman (1985) Irigaray examined psychoanalytic and philosophical theories of subjectivity to mount a critique of what she saw as the implicit masculinity of the Western subject. Although she paid little attention in that text to religion, her argument that Freudian and Platonic conceptions of knowledge function to render true sexual difference invisible was quickly taken up by feminist scholars of religion who saw in it a valuable resource for intervening in the patriarchal legacy of the Christian and Jewish traditions. In a subsequent and widely cited essay, "Divine Women" in Sexes and Genealogies (1993), Irigaray returned to this theme to assert the importance for women of a feminine conception of divinity. Borrowing from Ludwig Feuerbach's claim that God is the idealized expression of "man's" potential, Irigaray suggested that the Father-God of Christianity could only perform this function for men and that women need a feminine divine to ground the specifically feminine mode of subjectivity that she envisions.

In spite of her many theoretical differences from Irigaray, Monique Wittig implicitly follows this same line of reasoning in her radical lesbian interventions in the mythic and religious imagery of the West. Wittig rejects the psychoanalytic foundations of Irigaray's project, and yet she too wants to reimagine divinity in a feminine mode, as is clear in such novels as Les Guérillères (1971), in which, for example, the Eve of the Genesis creation myth emerges as a superhuman solar goddess who willingly eats the forbidden fruit to gain divine knowledge, and The Lesbian Body (1975), in which the biblical Song of Solomon is reworked as a hymn of divinized love for another woman. In both of these texts Wittig creatively appropriates masculine gods from a wide range of religious traditions of the world to recast them as goddesses who then function as idealized images of the power of women to free themselves from masculine oppression and to become autonomous subjects in their own right.

Women and Mysticism

The importance of mystical religious experience as an expression of repressed elements of Western culture has long been a favorite theme of Catherine Clément. For Clément, who is strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, every culture necessarily excludes from representation certain aspects of its own experience, and Western culture, with its demand for rationality, tends to exclude the nonrational. Because women have historically been excluded from full participation in society, they have borne the burden of representing these excluded, nonrepresentable elements. In The Newly Born Woman (cowritten with Hélène Cixous, 1986) it is primarily the witch and the hysteric who capture Clément's attention in this context, but in such later books as Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1994) and The Feminine and the Sacred (cowritten with Julia Kristeva, 2001), Clément increasingly offers Asian mystics, especially practitioners of Tantric and other forms of Yoga, as examples of the marginal figures who haunt and destabilize the masculine social order but do not have the power to overturn it. For Clément, these figures represent a privileged relationship to the sacred, outside of the confines of any form of organized religion.

Irigaray too has expressed interest in female mystical experience; indeed the essay "La Mystérique" in Speculum was one of her first interrogations of religious experience. In this essay she argued that mysticism was properly feminine because of its preference for embodied modes of knowledge over reason. She also suggested that in Christianity the relationship of mystic to God is essentially specularthat is, that the mystic attempts to obliterate her own imperfect identity in order to mirror divine perfection. In this way, for Irigaray, the role of the female mystic echoes the role of women in patriarchal society, where women are expected to mirror men's selves to them to sustain the masculine illusion of self-sufficiency. Since I Love to You (1996), however, Irigaray has increasingly turned her attention to Yoga and to a lyrical appreciation of the importance, especially for women, of cultivating the breath, which she sees as having the power to undo such binaries as inside/outside, matter/spirit, and the like. In Between East and West: From Singularity to Community (2002) she offers her most extended consideration of the discipline of Yoga, contrasting it with Christian mysticism and suggesting that it might provide a key to rethinking the patriarchal religious traditions of the West.

Defilement and Sin

Kristeva is widely known, both within and outside the context of religious studies, for her theorization of abjectionthe quality of repulsiveness that haunts human experience of bodily fluids, seen as waste products with the power to defile whomever they touch. First elaborated in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), Kristeva's interest in the abject is clearly related to her interest in the effacement of the maternal body in Western culture; as she sees it, the mother's body must be abjected, or cast away, if the subject is to enter into the symbolic order of language. To the great interest of many scholars of religion, Kristeva has developed some of the religious implications of this theory in her psychoanalytic reading of the Levitical prohibitions in Powers of Horror and in the later "Reading the Bible" in New Maladies of the Soul (1995) and has linked the sacrificial logic of Judaism and Christianity with the primal matricide that she sees, pace Sigmund Freud, as underlying both culture and the individual subject.

Hélène Cixous's approach to the problem of sin is intimately bound up with her notion of écriture feminine, a feminine practice of writing that reaches beyond what she sees as a masculine fear of otherness to enable new modes of relationship between self and other. For Cixous, writing is, or has the potential to become, a process that instantiates both the feminine (otherwise lost in the patriarchal order of Western culture) and God. This is so because writing participates in what Cixous calls the feminine economy, in which the self gives with no thought of return. To illustrate this notion, Cixous has at several points taken up the Genesis creation story, reworking it so that it reveals the feminine economy underlying Eve's eating of the apple. For Cixous, that is, Eve eats the apple not in spite of the prohibition against doing so but precisely because of that prohibition; in choosing the pleasure of taking the fruit into herself over obedience to divine law, Eve enacts the economy that risks the loss of self to open the self up to the other. Eve is also exemplary of Cixous's notion, articulated in "Grace and Innocence: Heinrich von Kleist" (1991), that the only innocence worth having is a second innocence that comes after knowledge and guilt, after paradise is lost. For Cixous, in other words, the possibility of relationship with the other is of paramount importance, and the law that punishes Eve for pursuing that possibility is itself the source of "sin."

Non-Western Resources

As suggested above, several of the French feminists are especially noteworthy for their interest in what they see as the resources offered by non-Western religious traditions. In Les Guérillères and The Lesbian Body, for example, Wittig has mined Hindu and Buddhist mythologies as well as those of ancient Africa and Mesoamerica both for potentially feminist forms of religious worship and for goddesses, such as Kālī and the Aztec solar goddess Cihuacoatl, who represent the fierce, self-sustaining qualities of women, qualities that would help bring into being the radical lesbian culture that Wittig envisioned. As is the case when she invokes various figures from Judaism and Christianity, she freely appropriates from Asian traditions to suit her own purposes rather than to shed any light on those traditions as they are practiced.

Clément's consideration of non-Western traditions is arguably more respectful, although she has been criticized by some scholars for being overly romantic in her appreciation of those traditions. As noted above, Syncope reveals a fascination with Tantra and other forms of Yoga, practices that produce moments of rapture that, for Clément, are among the deepest expressions of both the sacred and the feminine. In the novel Theo's Odyssey (1999) too she explores such diverse traditions as Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and African tribal religions to show what she sees as the healing power of ecstatic experience, a power linked in the narrative of the novel to being able both to mourn and to recapture the lost feminine.

It is in the work of Irigaray, perhaps, that the most dramatic turning to the East emerges. In such texts as "Practical Teachings: LoveBetween Passion and Civility" in I Love to You, The Age of the Breath (1999), and Between East and West, Irigaray elaborates the value of Yogic discipline, specifically cultivation of the breath, for feminist religious practice. Here the breath is seen as paradigmatic of what Irigaray refers to as the "sensible transcendental," that is, the breath is both transcendent (of each individual's limitations) and immanent (in the body). Thus learning to practice the art of breathing offers a path out of the binaries of self/other, body/spirit, immanent/transcendent that haunt Western thought and underlie the repression of the feminine and the oppression of women.

French Feminism and Religion: The Possibilities

In its multifaceted approach to the problematic of sexual difference, French feminist thought is clearly a valuable resource for the study of religion. Indeed many of the themes sketched out above have yet to be extensively mined by feminist scholars of religion, and the work of only two of the thinkers discussedIrigaray and Kristevahas found wide acceptance in religious studies. Clearly though Clément, Cixous, and Wittig also have much to offer in the domain of religious thought, and it is certain that a further investigation of their work will shed light on the place of women in the patriarchal religious traditions of the West.

See Also

Gender and Religion, overview article and article on History of Study; Goddess Worship; Mary.


Cixous, Hélène. "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays. Edited by Deborah Jenson, translated by Sarah Cornell et al. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. This volume includes essays in which Cixous articulates her fascination with God, links the divine with the feminine and with writing, and explores the Genesis myth of Eve and the apple.

Cixous, Hélène. "Grace and Innocence: Heinrich von Kleist." In Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector, and Tsvetayeva. Edited and translated by Verena Andermatt Conley. Minneapolis, 1991. This essay explores the dramatic work of Kleist as a pretext for raising questions about the nature of grace and innocence in political as well as theological contexts.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Translated by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis, 1986. This is the first major work of both authors to be translated into English, and it introduces themes that are essential to understanding their subsequent writings.

Clément, Catherine. Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture. Translated by Sally O'Driscoll and Deirdre M. Mahoney. Minneapolis, 1994. Throughout the essays of this collection, Clément draws on the mystical elements of both Western and Eastern religious traditions to elaborate her affinity for the kinds of nonrational experiences often repressed in Western culture.

Clément, Catherine. Theo's Odyssey. Translated by Steve Cox and Ros Schwartz. New York, 1999.

Clément, Catherine, and Julia Kristeva. The Feminine and the Sacred. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York, 2001. This volume consists of a collection of e-mailed and faxed letters in which Clément and Kristeva explore the relationship between women and the sacred and consider whether there exists a specifically feminine form of the sacred.

Duchen, Clare. Feminism in France: From May '68 to Mitterand. London, 1986. This book offers a comprehensive overview of the development and intellectual context of French feminism.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney, 1989. Although not concerned solely with religious themes, this book is a helpful introduction to the work of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Michèle Le Dœuff and elaborates themes that bear on their religious thought.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985. This is Irigaray's first major work to be translated into English, and its deconstructive critique of what she calls the "phallogocentrism" of Western thought lays the groundwork for her subsequent writings.

Irigaray, Luce. "When the Gods Are Born." In Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, pp. 121190; translated by Gillian C. Gill. New York, 1991. This essay explores the ways Nietzsche's suppression of the feminine echoes that found in Christianity.

Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. New York, 1993. Included here are several important essays exemplifying Irigaray's early religious thought.

Irigaray, Luce. "Equal to Whom?" Translated by Robert Mazzola. In The Essential Difference, edited by Naomi Schor and Elizabeth Weed, pp. 5976. Bloomington, Ind., 1994. This often referenced essay represents Irigaray's response to the feminist theological project of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

Irigaray, Luce. "The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry." In Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, pp. 89113. New York, 1994. In this essay Irigaray argues for the necessity of resacralizing mother-daughter genealogies.

Irigaray, Luce. I Love to You. Translated by Alison Martin. New York, 1996.

Irigaray, Luce. The Age of the Breath. Rüsselsheim, Germany, 1999. Irigaray develops her emerging emphasis on the sacred power of the breath.

Irigaray, Luce. Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. Translated by Stephen Pluháček. New York, 2002. In this book Irigaray presents a meditation on the importance of the breath in Asian religious disciplines and suggests that the Yogic tradition offers resources for Western feminist religious practice.

Joy, Morny, Kathleen O'Grady, and Judith L. Poxon, eds. French Feminists on Religion: A Reader. London, 2002. This volume consists of a selection of important excerpts from the writings of the French feminists on a variety of religious and theological themes. It includes a foreword by Catherine Clément.

Joy, Morny, Kathleen O'Grady, and Judith L. Poxon, eds. Religion in French Feminist Thought: Critical Perspectives. London, 2003. This volume contains thirteen scholarly essays on aspects of the religious thought of the French feminists. It includes an introductory essay by Luce Irigaray.

Kim, C. W. Maggie, Susan M. St. Ville, and Susan M. Simonaitis, eds. Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists. Minneapolis, 1993. This is an important early collection of scholarly papers on the emerging significance of French feminist thought for religious studies.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York, 1982. In this early work Kristeva offers an extended exploration of her concept of abjection, a concept that has been influential among feminist scholars in religious studies.

Kristeva, Julia. In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York, 1987. As the title suggests, the essays in this volume explore aspects of the relationship between religious belief and psychoanalysis; in "Credence-Credit," Kristeva links Christian agape with the love between a mother and an infant.

Kristeva, Julia. "Stabat Mater." In Tales of Love, pp. 234263. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York, 1987. This widely cited essay offers a poetic and scholarly meditation on motherhood, focusing in particular on the appropriation of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity.

Kristeva, Julia. "Reading the Bible." In New Maladies of the Soul, pp. 115126. Translated by Ross Guberman. New York, 1995. This essay offers a good example of Kristeva's psychoanalytic reading of sacred texts. Here she applies her earlier work on abjection to Leviticus and demonstrates that the subject in the Hebrew Scriptures can be understood only in relation to the Other.

Wittig, Monique. Les Guérillères. Translated by David Le Vay. New York, 1971. In this early novel Wittig offers her vision of Eve as a heroine who acts alone, without the company of Adam, to win essential knowledge for women. Wittig also invokes a number of warlike solar goddesses from ancient religious traditions around the world.

Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Translated by David Le Vay. New York, 1975. Although not concerned primarily with religious themes, this novel nevertheless illustrates how Wittig reworks patriarchal religious figurations from a wide variety of traditions in her attempt to construct a lesbian imaginary.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston, 1992. This is a collection of essays in which Wittig articulates her understanding of feminism and challenges aspects of the projects of other French feminist theorists.

Judith L. Poxon (2005)

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