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Plus Ça Change: Change and Continuity in French and American Gender Culture, 1952-2007

  • Moodie, Benjamin Aldrich
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2013
eScholarship - University of California
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This dissertation traces the transformation of gender cultures in the U.S. and France from the 1950s to the present. Using mainstream as well as avowedly feminist women's magazines as a primary source of evidence, I find deep and lasting cultural contrasts that were crucial for determining both the character and the impact of American and French second-wave feminism. Finding fertile ground in an institutional structure and a cultural ideology that dramatizes universal individual choice and agency, popular feminism in America transformed everyday social norms more thoroughly than the French movement. While France's elitist culture permitted some socially privileged activists to win victories through dramatic advocacy for downtrodden and voiceless ordinary women, French feminists were less able to persuade women to contest sexism in their own daily lives.American feminism grew out of a milieu of abrasive gender relations. American culture endorsed a more aggressive and emotionally myopic version of masculinity than prevailed in France. It also subjected women to irreconcilable social pressures by dramatizing the self-enhancing experience of employment while cautioning married women against it; by portraying sexuality as both morally hazardous and exciting for young women; and by asking wives to promote the self-confidence and success of loved ones while insisting that each person ultimately controls his or her own fate. The French vision of the cultivated and emotionally empathetic man, by contrast, contributed to the culture's emphasis on the aesthetic and emotional pleasures, rather than the dangers, of relations between the sexes. Although American feminism has delegitimated men's aggression and relieved women of responsibility for the constant maintenance of male egos, the other major patterns of gender culture in both countries have persisted up to the present.The findings of the dissertation suggest that the deep patterns in gender culture, and thus in gender equality or inequality, involve much more than power, either in the economy or the family, and instead incorporate broader ethical ideals about what is a good person and how to achieve a fully realized life. It provides a corrective to existing work in the sociology of culture that exclusively stresses the invidious character of aesthetic judgments. And it establishes the pivotal importance of society's deepest cultural meanings to the objectives, opportunities, and outcomes available to social movements.

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