International Women’s Day (8 March) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. For me, it has been a day marked by special events, whether in Geneva where I worked for over 20 years or in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the US from my earlier days, to raise awareness of gender equality. In this first year of my retirement living in Southern France, I was delighted to discover that the small commune of Peymeinade near my home was actively promoting a whole series of events to recognize the day – not just on 8 March but for two weeks!
The expositions on « 100 Ans de Combat pour l’égalité » (100 Years of Struggle for Equality) and on “Les Femmes Excetionnelles » (Exceptional Women) are the ongoing features of note. The first was on display at the Salle art et culture (the Art and Culture Room) until Thursday, 15 March 2018, and the second was on display at the Hall d’Acceuil de la Mairie (the Reception Hall of the Town Hall) until Friday, 9 March 2018. I ventured out the other day, a relatively mild and sunny day following the three-day freak snowstorm that had blown through the Cote d’Azur earlier in the week, to explore the town in search of these exhibits.
The Exhibit on 100 Years of Struggle for Equality
Having recalled signs advertising the location of the first exhibit, I looked for the Art and Culture Room first and found it on the parallel street to the main street through Peymeinade. Colourful posters were on display in the windows, and I walked into a sunny display room full of informative posters – a hundred-year history of the campaign in France for the right to vote (achieved in 1944), pioneer women feminists, the struggle for the right to choose (achieved in 1967) and other changes to enhance equality (most significantly on equal representation starting in 1999).
One poster shows progress on parity in political life – still a way to go, at 27 per cent for women in the National Assembly and 25 per cent in the Senate. But it was informative to see the progression of laws moving towards the goal of parity. And I would add here that head of the International Parliamentary Union, in a briefing last week in Geneva on women in parliaments worldwide, had reported that the representation of women in the French National Assembly has now jumped to 38 per cent. Also, media reports highlight the balance in cabinet appointments under President Emmanuel Macron – 11 out of 22 are women. So the historical information in this exhibit about progress in the French struggle for equality was most welcome to supplement the latest news.
Among the pioneers who were featured on other posters in the exhibit, I recognized Marie Curie, Simone Weil and Edith Cresson. It was encouraging
to learn more about the many others who have led the way in France – from wartime in both World Wars I and II, and since then in science, literature and politics. (No mention of Catherine Deneuve, though.)
On the whole, I must say that I enjoyed leisurely absorbing the many posters on display, as well as the impressive list of students from the three “lycées” (high schools) in Grasse – Tocqueville, Amiral de Grasse and De Croisset – who did the research and put the display together. Interesting to note, too, that the posters were produced by the Festival du Livre of Mouans-Sartoux. A website is listed for more information on the research, but it did not work for me: http//0060020p.esidoc.fr/rubrique/view/id/96. (I hope this can be corrected in the future.)
The Exhibit on Exceptional Women
The second exhibit was a bit harder to find, since the town hall in Peymeinade is up the hill and off on a side street away from the shop-lined main street. The Tourist Office, located just across from the first exhibit hall, was very helpful and even alerted me to a reception with the artists that evening. So I scouted the area in the afternoon, checked out the paintings on display to get a general idea of what this second exhibit was about and then returned in the evening for the reception. What a treat!
The local mayor was on hand – Mayor Gérard Delhomez – as was the top deputy responsible for organizing the exhibits, Marie-Claude Renard. Both were gracious in their welcomes, as were the three honourees– three generations of artists from the same family – Leila Zarif, her daughter Jina Luciani and her grand-daughter Stella Luciani. I learned from Leila that art has been a passion all her life although her “first” career was as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. She has inspired her progeny to follow, and all are active in the local association “Arts Studio 1954”. The artwork was especially painted for the exhibit, and it was informative to hear both Leila and Stella talk about the project.
Some of the portraits, they explained, are of specific women of exceptional note – Simone Veil, Frida Kahlo and even Susan Sarandon. Other paintings are actually feminist statements rather than portraits, including depictions of the peace symbol (by Leila), banners for Women Unite (by Jina) and an urban cross-gender figure (by Stella). The painting, however, that really caught my eye was a portrait of Rosa Parks, an American civil rights activist, called by many the “mother of the freedom movement”.
What was especially poignant for me was to remember that, upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman and third non-US government official to lie in honour in the Capitol Rotunda of the US Congress in Washington, DC. This is in striking contrast to the most recent act of Congress to make the Rev. Billy Graham, upon his death in 2018, the fourth non-US government official to be given this honour. So, back to this exhibit, not only were the choices of exceptional women very global, but they mostly featured women whose impact, like that of Rosa Parks, was well beyond feminism per se. Very nice.
This leads me to take note of the opening speech at the reception by Mayor Delhomez. His remarks were well thought out and eloquently presented – referring to the “message of Molière” that no one needs to be Trissotin or Aminte or Polixène to be accomplished (“savantes”). Each one should be themselves. But he also emphasized that this includes being totally attuned to one’s gender. The essential is to be oneself in one’s “different-ness”, in the complementarity, fusion, equality, and equity of womanhood. It is worthwhile, he said, for men to realize their differences as men, too – all are not “porcs”, he argued, just as not all women are “courtisanes”.
In so doing, he made an indirect reference to the “balance ton porc”- the movement in France that is similar to the #MeToo movement in the US – literally to “snitch” on the man who has exploited you. As one gets acquainted with the controversy among feminists in France over the right to be sexually free to choose who you are versus the puritanical approach that is perceived to be the Anglo-American approach to feminism, one can start to appreciate the special characteristics of French culture. The widely publicized letter to Le Monde by some 100 prominent French women, including Catherine Deneuve, did stimulate a lively debate about what gender equality should be about. The backlash did lead Ms. Deneuve to clarify that the letter did not mean to suggest that women should succumb to sexual violence, but the point is that sexual freedom to dress, act and live as one personally chooses should be a part of any society.
Years ago, I was involved in this debate as the women’s rights movement took off in the US, arguing that androgynous traits were present in both men and women and that the overlap of male traits in women and female traits in men should be encouraged. I chaired the Mayor’s Committee on the Status of Women in a different time and place then. I am not sure which approach is better, given the phenomenon of LGBTQ rights entering into the debate.
This merits a further musing in the future, but for now I take note that the celebration of women in the two exhibits in Peymeinade has been a culturally enriching experience for me. And in addition to the exhibits, a performance of “Mauvaises rencontres » by “Les Enfants du Paradis”on Friday, 9 March made for quite a package of events for Peymeinade! It is impressive that this small commune has put together such a stimulating two-week programme to celebrate International Women’s Day