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Feminist Non-Mixity: For Women or Against Men?

For women, the choice to gather together serves a variety of objectives within feminist mobilizations. Looking back at the history and significance of these militant practices helps to counteract preconceptions associated with non-mixity.

“It is wrong to claim that non-mixity does not fundamentally impregnate the vision of the world and society of those who turn to this notion, and that it cannot encourage the temptation of withdrawal into a given community. How can we believe that there is no causal link between the isolation of women from any male presence in feminist meetings and the dissemination of simplifying discourses where (1) all men, from predator to feminist, are lumped together, and (2) all women who oppose these discourses are presented as anti-feminists or objective allies [1] of the enemy?”

Speech by Raphaël Enthoven, Université d’Été du Féminisme (Feminism Summer School) organized by Marlène Schiappa, then French Secretary of State for Equality between Women and Men and Combating Discrimination, on September 13, 2018.

Raphaël Enthoven’s attack on feminist non-mixity, described above, takes up (part of) the anti-non-mixity vulgate: the practice is said to reflect a (possibly hidden) project of gender separatism driven by what is generally designated as a hatred of men. But what do feminists have to say about non-mixity? How and why do they practice it? A historical and sociological analysis of this militant practice, which has been in existence for over a century, allows us to go beyond caricatures and grasp the meanings of feminist non-mixity. [2]

Women prove their mettle

The feminist movement that took shape in France from the 1870s onwards was characterized by mixed sex, and saw the emergence of a man, Léon Richer, as its central figure. While the dominant role of men was soon debated by activists, it wasn’t until the 1890s that non-mixed feminism became the norm. But far from embodying a radical, separatist feminism, it was primarily a feature of the moderate fringe of feminism that emerged with the rallying of philanthropic women’s associations to the cause of women’s rights (Klejman and Rochefort 1989, p. 103-109). Non-mixity thus became proof of women’s political abilities and skills in a context where the gendered division of roles reserved these skills for men and assigned women to the private sphere. The International Congress of Women’s Works and Institutions, held in Paris in 1900, which gave women’s philanthropic associations a lasting place in the feminist movement, opted for all-female organizing committees to "further prove that women also enjoy the same organizing abilities". [3] The creation of the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises (CNFF; National Council of French Women) in 1901, an all-women’s organization that brought together all tendencies of feminism, from the philanthropic and moderate to the more radical, but dominated by the former, thus established the practice of non-mixity in the Third Republic. [4]

It was largely under the influence of moderate feminism that co-education spread as a legitimate feminist activist practice. From the 1910s, most feminist associations continued to accept men, but reserved leadership positions for women. Non-mixity in the Third Republic thus allowed women to demonstrate their ability to organize a political movement and act as political actors. But it also gradually took on a second meaning: it guaranteed women political control over their struggle. By establishing (at least) non-mixed leadership of associations, women activists ensured their autonomy in defining demands and strategies. Women’s political control of the movement, for example, played a crucial role in putting the demand for women’s right to vote and stand for election on the agenda within feminist movements (Jacquemart 2017). While many men, most notably Léon Richer, advocated waiting for the reform of Napoleon’s civil code before demanding the right to vote, women’s control of feminist associations in the early twentieth century was the occasion for putting the suffrage demand on the agenda within the feminist movement as a whole.

Figure 1. Delegates at the États Généraux du Féminisme (“Estates General of Feminism”) congress organized by the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises (National Council of French Women), Paris, 1929

Source: La Revue Mondaine Illustrée, 1929.

“We are for women”

Largely weakened from 1945 onwards, the feminist movement was de facto a women’s movement until the 1960s, without any claim to non-mixity. On the other hand, the emergence of a new generation of feminists from 1970 onwards was accompanied by a theorization of non-mixity as a guarantee of women’s control over the movement, but also as a means of individual and collective liberation. Indeed, the activists of the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF) first favored women-to-women discussion groups (Charpenel 2016) as a lever for politicization: "when 25 million women have the same problem, it ceases to be individual." [5] But the choice of non-mixity is also the fruit of past militant experiences marked by the monopolization of power by men and the marginalization of women: in the extreme left-wing groups that sprang up in the 1960s and during the mobilizations of May-June 1968 (Zancarini-Fournel 2002), women were relegated to menial tasks (mainly the material organization of militant life), delegitimized in their speaking out and excluded from decision-making positions.

Claimed and theorized, non-mixity became particularly visible and was attacked as anti-male. This view was contested by activists, as in the case of one of them interviewed on television in 1972: "Why against men? It’s funny, every time we talk about the MLF, we say ’you’re against men’, it’s not true, we’re for women... anyway, half of all good women live with a good man, so I don’t see why we’d be against men!" [6] Beyond this disagreement over the meaning of non-mixity, critics of non-mixity are also blind to the realities of feminist mobilizations in the 1970s. In fact, while inter-feminism is claimed, it is far from eliminating mixity from feminist struggles. First of all, feminist mobilizations, collectives and actions continue to be carried out by both men and women. This was particularly true of the campaign for free abortion in 1973-1974 (Pavard 2012). What’s more, far from being spontaneously regarded by activists as acceptable or even enviable, non-mixity was only gradually tamed by the vast majority of activists and only finally became widespread in the second half of the 1970s (Jacquemart and Masclet 2017).

In other words, if women activists gradually come to embrace non-mixity in part of their commitments, it is not because they are anti-male, but because they experience both the reproduction of social gender inequalities in mixed contexts [7] and the liberating power of taking action among women. [8] On the one hand, mixed-gender groups, in particular for the liberalization of abortion, are an opportunity to reproduce the gender relations (and in particular a gendered division of militant labor) denounced by activists: "women have returned to their traditional role of nurse, social worker, confidante", reports an activist in an MLAC group, for example. [9] On the other hand, non-mixity is often seen as an experience that allows women to express themselves freely: "We feel good as women. It’s the only place where I feel free to seek out and do what interests me", explains an activist from a women’s group in Besançon, for example. [10] Far from being the separatist project some people think it is, the feminist non-mixity of the 1970s is first and foremost a mode of political action, which has established itself over the years as a privileged means of fighting for gender equality in society.

“Men are the future of feminism”… or not

This norm of non-mixity, which took hold in feminist collectives at the end of the 1970s, was only revisited with the emergence of a new generation of activists in the late 1990s. The Mix-Cité association, founded in 1997, embodied this change by asserting the mixed nature of feminist struggles and the need for men to participate: "There are some obvious facts that it may not be useless to remind ourselves of: transformations in gender relations involve both sexes", as two of its founding members point out [11]

However, this seemingly common-sense assertion came up against the reality of gender relations. Associations as diverse as Mix-Cité, Ni putes Ni soumises (created in 2003) and Osez le féminisme (2009), which were initially very attached to co-education, gradually revised their positions in the light of the reproduction of a certain number of mechanisms of male domination (such as the greater propensity of men to speak out or be present in the media [12]). Under these conditions, while not abandoning co-education, these collectives are gradually ceasing to seek men’s participation. Alongside them, activists of all generations continue to demand and practice non-mixity in large organizations (such as the World March of Women or the French Coordination for the European Women’s Lobby), in collectives (such as La Barbe or the Collectif féministe contre le viol), in institutional spaces for the defense of women’s causes (such as women’s networks in the workplace), on the occasion of actions such as night marches or in single-sex spaces within mixed mobilizations (for example, during the Nuits Debout movement in Paris).

Figure 2. Poster for a non-mixed feminist evening march on November 25, 2015, in Marseille, southern France

Source: (droits réservés).

Among younger people, the contours of gender diversity are also being redefined. Since the late 2000s, the emergence of "queer non-mixed" events or collectives, "non-mixity without cis men" [13] or "racialized women’s non-mixity" has added to the repertoire of action of feminist movements. While these non-mixed actions raise questions about power relations other than those of gender alone, they are nonetheless asserted on the basis of similar observations to those made by activists in the 1970s, as exemplified by the Afrofeminist collective MWASI, which explains: "This collective is non-mixed because we believe we are in the best position to seize the weapons of our emancipation. MWASI is neither against men nor against other ethno-racial groups". [14] Feminist non-mixities are thus conceived for activists as spaces for defining feminist struggles, politicizing individual experiences and suspending, even temporarily and partially, a certain number of relations of domination. [15]

Present alongside co-education since the end of the 19th century, non-mixity in feminist mobilizations in France has taken on different meanings throughout history. Initially thought of as a means of proving women’s legitimacy and political skills, it gradually became a lever for empowering women to determine their own struggles, then an individual and collective support for politicizing their experiences. This detour through the history and present of feminist struggles finally highlights the intellectual and political confusion produced and reproduced, since the 1970s, by opponents of non-mixity: denounced as a project for a society where women and men would be separate (or more recently, where white and non-white would be separate), in feminist practice it is intended to be a tool of struggle, among others, for an egalitarian society.


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To cite this article:

Alban Jacquemart & translated by Oliver Waine, “Feminist Non-Mixity: For Women or Against Men?”, Metropolitics, 10 October 2023. URL :

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