Françoise Giroud on American Women: 'Demanding and Tough'

In the four months since she became the first woman cabinet member in Europe to head a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Françoise Giroud of France (‘PEOPLE, Aug. 5) has not been satisfied with merely upgrading the role of women. Madame Giroud, 58, appointed by President Giscard d’Estaing to “help integrate French women into modern society,” believes that what is important to women is good for men. She has not only pushed for bills to fight sex discrimination in employment and salaries but has persuaded almost 800 business firms to allow both male and female employees to stay home with their children on Wednesdays—the national school holiday—and hopes to encourage paternity leave for fathers. A former movie script girl, French resistance fighter and journalist, she helped found two leading French magazines, Elle and L’Express. Recently she published her autobiography, I Give You My Word, describing her liberated life as a divorced mother, and visited the United States to promote the book. Now back in Paris, Madame Giroud spoke with Rudi Chelminski of PEOPLE about the changes she found in America’s approach to the sexes since her previous visit two years ago.

You have said that American women feel that they have been conned?

Yes, absolutely. I believe profoundly that American women are involved in a movement that is unlike any other feminist movement in the world. In my opinion, this is because of their history: they left Europe with their men, they fought for their new land—even handled firearms. They shared extraordinary hardships—and they were equal with their men. But then they were exiled into being housewives, having children, living in suburban boxes. The American woman gets married and that is the end of it. Yes, she feels conned. And as a result, American women have gone into a revolt which is much stronger than that of European women.

What other factors have changed women’s lives?

The lengthening of life expectancy, of course. The average life span in 1900 was 48, now it is 77. Today you have women aged 35 to 65 who are in extremely good condition, with more energy than they had in their 20s. And there is the impact of lower child mortality. To have three living children, all a woman has to do is have three children—instead of six or seven or eight. Often women are through with child-bearing by 25 now. These two phenomena are simply mathematical. They have nothing to do with cabals or plots of men against women.

What effect has this had on women’s outlook?

American women organized. This is a spontaneous thing for them to do, or for the English. But the French don’t do it that way. In Europe there was no such awakening—the kind that makes you think, my God, all this has been a joke on us. There is a realization here that the situation has changed, but without the intensity that Betty Friedan, for instance, expressed so well.

In what ways do French women’s views differ from those of American women?

In Europe, and in France, women have traditionally been economically dependent on men. Only in the last two or three years have women been able to have a bank account of their own! In this respect, obviously, American women are more advanced. However, in professional achievements—participation in elitist professions such as doctors, lawyers, judges, etc.—women are infinitely better off in France.

How do French women view their American sisters?

In general, the French understand nothing about America. They imagine a country where the women run everything, decide everything and are impossible to live with. The popular image is of the American woman who holds the purse strings. And purse strings are precisely what the French woman has not had. It’s fantastic. A French husband can sell the whole house if he feels like it. The reason was Napoleon—he detested women, except for one particular use.

Then you are saying that women have been victimized by history, not by men?

Oh yes. I never thought, and never wrote, that men plotted against women. If there is a plot against you, and it succeeds, you are the stupid one.

What other historical factors have been at work?

Absolutely basic to the evolution of women is the Pill. For the first time in the history of humanity, control over fertility belongs to women. Now that she has the responsibility for this major decision, she is demanding her share of social responsibility. It is not just a momentary awakening by women. I believe even the men who govern in most countries feel an absolutely basic change is under way.

Do you believe that American women are trying to make themselves over into men?

That’s something that must have been printed in an American newspaper. I never said that they are trying to be men sexually. But they want to have the same place as men in society. In general, they are very courageous women, very tough. That too is an American tradition. American women never give up!

Is this what makes the American woman often seem over demanding?

Yes, because she has nothing to control but her husband. It’s always been my theory that if things don’t change, the life of American men is going to become completely unbearable. American women are extraordinarily demanding. The global oppression of women, to borrow one of the phrases of the movement, has its counterpart in the individual oppression of men by women.

Did you notice more openness about sex this time in the United States?

I was in the United States in 1952, and at that time one couldn’t live in a hotel room with a man who was not married to you. Now you can go into the St. Regis Hotel and ask for a list of places to go for an abortion in New York. The rapidity of change is formidable.

How do you view marriage?

I think it’s fine to get married if you want to start a family. But if it is not for the purpose of having children—because you have already had them, or because it is not the man by whom you want to have children—then I find that marriage is absurd.

Do you feel that being “feminine” is somewhat scorned these days?

Yes, and that is absurd, too. It’s not like being blond or brunette. It is something in you. There is a biological side to it, and you can’t deny biology. There is a difference of chromosome, a difference of appearance, and there are periods when the woman is in a state of receptiveness more than other times. Yet there is a part that is completely artificial, too.

Can you isolate one quality that you would define as “feminine”?

The only “female” quality that I believe in for sure is a sense of protectiveness toward life—that life is something concrete that must be protected and nourished. But I’m not sure that quality exists in all women. I think it must be related to the fact of giving life—you don’t see it so much in childless women. Women with children are protectors—of plants and animals and environment too.

What disturbs you about today’s youth?

The only thing that frightens me is that they have not known fascism in all its forms, whatever side it comes from. Consequently they have the impression that everything we call “normal” freedoms are absolutely here to stay, that we can’t lose them.

You write of a “dragon” that drives you to prove that a woman can do as much as a man. Where does this dragon push you now?

It’s not the dragon that makes me keep fighting now, it’s the privileged situation I find myself in. The only thing I owe in return is to tell the truth to women—the truth about me and what I believe to be the rapport between men and women, and of the necessity of bringing women into the world’s decision-making process.

What is the main effect of women joining in the decisions of government?

I am sure that it will be women who will prevent an atomic war—if there is any chance that it can be avoided. But they have to be fairly numerous in the centers of decision. Everything would change if, say, one-third of the people in government were women. You need that critical mass.

What, if anything, bothers you about the various women’s liberation movements?

I won’t say “bothers.” I think it was politically bad, though, for some of them to emphasize their hatred of men. For me, to hate a man only means that you want to be a man. A woman who acts like that detests men, because that is what she wants to be. It is her neurosis. She hates herself. When you hate yourself, you can love no one.

Related Articles