Michel Foucault’s attitude towards women

One could write numerous things about masculine domination in French philosophy, and many have done so. Right now, for instance, I’m engrossed in Michèle Le Doeuff’s programmatic 1977 essay on this question, “Cheveux longs, idées courtes (les femmes et la philosophie),” which appeared in Le Doctrinal de Sapience (n° 3) and was translated in Radical Philosophy 17 (pdf). 

I hope to write more about that essay in the near future, and its remarkable comments on pedagogical erotics and transference.

But in the meantime, as a sort of tiny case study, it’s also useful to consider specific cases of philosophical or theoretical masculinism. I recently wrote a bit about Derrida and a bit about latter-day Marxist theory. Today I have a few tidbits that I found in David Macey’s 2004 biography of Michel Foucault:

  •  While teaching in Clerment-Ferrand in the early 1960s, Foucault “cause[d] a scandal when he appointed [his partner Daniel] Defert to an assistantship in preference to a better-qualified woman candidate” (p. 64).
  • When Foucault travelled abroad in 1973, “he was not happy when he had to attend formal receptions where he had to be polite to women in long evening gowns” (109). (I presume that Macey is trying to voice his subject’s own attitude, and not merely showing his own biases.)
  • Describing Foucault’s general outlook in the early 1970s: “Feminism was of little interest to Foucault and had little impact on him, although he did publicly support the right to abortion and contraception. He has often [been] criticized for his masculinist stance and it is true that neither the book on madness nor that of prisons looks at gender or takes account of the fact that women and men tend to be committed to both prisons and psychiatric hospitals for very different reasons” (103).

I wouldn’t have expected the more specific anecdotes to be widespread knowledge, but I find it strange that although several of my teachers last decade liked to assign Foucault (especially History of Sexuality), I don’t recall the question of his general relationship to feminism or to women ever coming up. Partly that’s because many of my “theory” teachers were male. Not unrelatedly, that’s also because Foucault is so often read “as theory,” that is, as a decontextualized author removed from his social and biographical context.

Some might attribute this to a generic, timeless “masculine gaze” at work in what we call theory. But that masculine gaze is itself an evolving product of history; Le Doeuff singles out Rousseau’s awful comments about women as a turning point for the worse. So while I do think there’s a lot to be said about the generic or detemporalizing quality of theoretical masculinism, it’s equally important not to dehistoricize Foucault’s attitude towards women, and rather to situate it as carefully as possible in the specific forms of masculinism that characterized his institutional world.

Along these lines, Le Doeuff points out that homosociality among philosophers is partly the product of a pedagogical dynamic that leads teachers to have a fantasmatic desire to produce “heirs”.

One often sees the ‘masters’ (teaching either in a preparatory class or in a university) choosing ‘followers’, that is to say transmitting a flattering image of themselves to some of their pupils. This attitude is part of an important process of over-stimulations which organise the future take-over, and which indicate, often precociously, those who are going to feel ‘called’ (and in fact are) to play a so-called leading role in the philosophical enterprise. The teachers’ sexist and socio-cultural prejudices take on a considerable importance in this period of philosophical apprenticeship. Many women are aware of the unconscious injustice of numerous teachers; young men who have been selected ‘followers’, often, moreover, for obscure reasons, while women constantly have to fight for recognition. Incidentally, the personal involvement of teachers in this search for an heir apparent needs to be analysed. Perhaps this too is a question of an avatar, this time ‘from man to man’, of lack which torments the master and which, in the ‘man to woman’ case leads to a search for female admirers. This sexist distribution of favouritism certainly has to be denounced, but the mere existence of this type of behaviour must be criticised first. Besides, it would be useful to investigate the precise moment in the school or university course at which the teachers’ sexist prejudices are at their most effective as an instrument of selection. My impression is that it occurs later than the selection based on socio-cultural criteria. [English trans., p.9]

I wonder if anyone has ever done the study that Le Doeuff proposes — a study of the moment of sexism’s maximum efficacy in a larger sequence of social exclusions.