Wellesley College, one of 52 women’s colleges in the United States, will host a French-American symposium on gender equality on October 20-21. Bringing together 78 scholars, policymakers, activists and thinkers including the civil rights leader Angela Davis and the former French Ministers Christiane Taubira and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the conference will explore the different ideas and approaches to gender equality in France and the U.S.
To contextualize the topic of gender equality and consider its numerous aspects, France-Amérique recently interviewed two of the women who will be speaking at the symposium organized by the French Consulate in Boston. Hélène Périvier is an economist at Sciences Po, where she examines French family policy and its effects on gender equality. She also runs PRESAGE, a program that is dedicated to studying gender within the spectrum of the school. Susan Reverby, an historian who specialized in health studies, was the inaugural faculty member in the Women’s Studies department at Wellesley College.
France-Amérique: Hélène, you have done research on the differences between gender policy in France and America. What were your findings?
Hélène Périvier: I wrote about the nuances in comparing the two countries. On general indicators like participation of women in the labor market, France and the United States rank mostly the same. However, when you add in social classes, there are enormous differences between both countries. The problem of the glass ceiling is more prominent in France. Both the U.S. and France have laws that protect women in the workplace from gender discrimination but while women in the U.S. do not seem to hesitate and use the laws to sue their employers, this is not the case for women in France.
How do you explain this phenomenon?
One hypothesis is that the labor market for higher-educated women is much smaller in France than in the U.S. and the reputation one could gain from suing an employer could be more costly. The trend is the opposite for poorer women. In France, the level of wealth distribution is quite high and the welfare state is generous so women have access to more public services like child-care. In the U.S., it is much harder to maintain a work-life balance for lower-income women.
How would you define the French approach toward gender equality?
Fundamental rights are universal. This has been one of our core ideas since the French Revolution. However, this can sometimes hide the basic issue of gender discrimination. There is a tension between trying to take the same approach for both genders and having policies that compensate for society’s biases toward women. Building a fair, equal society is eventually a political goal.
Susan, how does this echo the fact that Wellesley only admits women?
Susan Reverby: Wellesley was created [in 1870] to prove that women could do what men could do. That’s the purpose of a women’s college. From the very beginning, it was clear that the campus would build an understanding about women’s experiences and the role of gender. The Women Studies department, however, added a new dimension to that. The college told our students “you can do anything,” while our department said, “well if you can’t, there’s probably a structural reason for that.”
In the Introduction to Women’s Studies class that you taught at Wellesley over the past years, what were some of the things you tried to get your students to think about?
I consider gender assumptions from the very beginning. I used to send my students on field trips to Toys “R” Us. Walking through the pink and blue aisles, they would consider whether some gender differences are biologically determined or originate in society. I gave my students the example of hunter-gatherer societies: How can you hunt an animal with a crying baby on your chest? You can pick nuts and seeds, but it’s a little hard to go after the lion. This gets them thinking about what might have been necessary at some point in time and how that may no longer be true.
Your specialty is healthcare and history. How are these topics relevant today?
They are very relevant. The current administration is debating whether women should start paying for contraception. The greatest change in the 20th century was the separation of sexuality from reproduction — at least for straight women — by what contraception made possible. Your life is completely different when you’re endlessly pregnant and constantly taking care of children. How we see the body and how we see health is central to gender equality.