The writer looks at the life of Antoinette Fouque, who died last month.

Antoinette Fouque, a historic figure in the French feminist movement, died in Paris on February 20 at the age of 77.

In the midst of the social and ideological turmoil of 1968, she co-founded the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF), which became a standard-bearer for many militant feminist actions in the decade that followed. In 1973, she started one of the first feminist publishing houses in the world, éditions des Femmes, that gave voice to dozens of women writers trying to break down walls and barriers erected by a paternalistic, male-dominated society.

Fouque was also a Euro-MP (1994-1999) and served on the European Union’s Women’s Rights Commission. She was a leading figure in the intellectual movement, Psychoanalysis and Politics, that played a crucial role in the public debate on feminism throughout the 70s.

With her mop of tousled hair and steel-rimmed glasses, Fouque was a formidable figure in Parisian literary circles, detested and defended in equal measure. A psychoanalyst and publisher, she suffered from a motor-neuron disease that nailed her to a wheelchair for most of her active life.

“Despite her illness and her increasing physical incapacity, she communicated an astounding vital energy,” recalls writer and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco. “Her creative energy was boundless. The year she started editions des Femmes, she opened three bookshops in Paris, Lyon and Marseille, all specialising in women’s studies. At the same time she began publishing a paper called Le Quotidien des femmes (literally Women’s Daily) and started a ‘library of voices’ of audio books.”

Tributes have been pouring in despite the fact that Antoinette Fouque with her brusque, abrupt manner and no-nonsense ways was deeply controversial. A declared lesbian, she was lovingly looked after by a group of female friends who remained ferociously loyal to her from the early days of the MLF. Her decision to register the name MLF as her personal property pitted her against feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Fouque remained a divisive factor in the French feminist movement.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French minister for women’s rights and a feminist militant herself, described Fouque’s passing as “a great loss”. Culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, described her as “a ceaseless defender of feminology, and a major cultural figure”.

Fouque said she “detested” the very word feminist and derided Simone de Beauvoir for having pronounced “the most asinine phrase ever” when she said: “One is not born a woman. One becomes a woman.”

Fouque was a passionate believer in the essential difference between the sexes and said anatomical and physical factors could not be ignored when discussing male and female roles in society. Her books include Women in Movements: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Gravidanza, There are Two Sexes and Generation MLF 1968-2008.

Fouque came from a modest but militant family from Marseille. Her father was a communist trade unionist and she became politically active while still in her teens. She said she started the Women’s Liberation movement “to combat the evident male machismo of the student movement of 1968.” It was a moment in her life that she said brought her “a great and liberating joy.”

Fascinated by psychology and structuralist thought, Fouque herself underwent analysis with the legendary Jacques Lacan. She was a friend to some of France’s most towering literary figures including philosophers Jacques Derrida and Alain Touraine, playwright Helene Cixous, designer Sonia Rykiel and France’s controversial female justice minister Christiane Taubira, who hails from French Guyana.

 “As a very young girl she dreamt of changing the lives of women and her destiny, between 1965 and 1969 crossed that of avant-garde politico-literary movements where all forms of rebellion against rigid societal norms flourished. She favoured a post-Freudian reading of the sexual question which was frowned upon by the pro-Beauvoir group, essentially hostile to psychoanalysis,” said Elisabeth Roudinesco.

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