The French feminist, novelist and author Benoîte Groult died on Monday 20 June 2016 in Hyères, southeastern France where she lived. The author’s daughter Blandine Caunes said, “She died in her sleep as she wanted, without suffering”, The author of Ainsi soit-elle was 96.
The figure of Moïra, which was dear to Benoîte Groult, embodies destiny in Greek mythology. Benoîte Groult symbolized the same for the women of the 20th century. The dutiful daughter who became an impertinent activist, Benoîte Groult knew how to assert the status of women, both within the intimate domain of her family and by encouraging social upheaval. Her journey, private or public, is the subject of her autobiography Mon Evasion. Born in 1920 Benoîte, who had a lazy childhood, had to wait till World War II for really launching herself into life.
Benoîte Groult, had she died at thirty-nine, would have remained an unknown figure in the literary world. In fact, it was exactly at that age that she published her first novel, Le Journal a Quatre Mains written in collaboration with her sister Flora and published in 1963. Before this, she was the wise teacher of Latin and literature in a religious course for the girls and a journalist of the French radio. She did not show any particular ambitions or creative impulses in any field, to the chagrin of her mother Nicole Groult, the sister of Paul Poiret, who had created her own fashion house, and her father, the designer André Groult.
A precocious widowhood in 1946, a remarriage followed by a divorce in 1951, a union with the writer Paul Guimard which appeared to have sustained (thirty-five, three children), broadcasts for Paris-Inter (newsletters, etc.), all apparently seemed enough to fill twenty years of her life before she thought of publishing some of the texts that were lying in a drawer: her notebooks of a young girl during the Occupation, interwoven with those of her younger sister Flora. The immediate success of this fictionalized account encouraged the sisters to venture again, and they wrote together two more novels.
But the magic that would transform the female writer into a feminist writer had not yet occurred. To the point that under the name of Benoîte Guimard, and using the surname of her husband, that Groult translated in the 1950’s the short stories of the American poet and story writer Dorothy Parker.
The real turn in her career came in 1975 with the publication of Ainisi soit-elle, a pamphlet and a tableau on the condition of women. The latent feminism that never got an opportunity to be clearly expressed in her four earlier novels had to find, in the historical research that the author gave herself to, the chance to express itself. The various manifestations against the oppression of the Second Sex around the world, in all ages and in most civilizations and religious systems flowered into an activism for the cause of women that would only grow in the years to come.
From that point she would be associated with all the fighting: fight for the contraception and then the legalization of abortion, the foundation of a group of African women named the “Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation” etc. Benoîte began to use all the means available to an activist who is also a writer: essays, editorials, conferences, symposia abroad.
Until 1985, feminism was well-tolerated in France. Each publishing house felt honored to create its own collection of writings by women and about women. Buoyed by this favorable current, Ainsi soit-elle sold over 800,000 copies and was translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Croatian, Japanese …
But from 1985 the wave of feminism flowed back. It suffered a backlash, especially in France. Men considered it outdated and harmful, the women dared not show allegiance to it. The monthly “F Magazine” that the author had helped to found in 1978 with Claude Servan-Schreiber, returned after two years of brilliant existence to the traditional domain of women’s magazines: fashion, beauty, diets, the whole panoply of seduction favoring women as objects, to the reassuring image of the man-woman relationship.
It is true that the principal battles had been won, at least on paper. But a change of behavior hardly followed. A clear signal among others of that passive resistance was the refusal to feminize the names of the new professions that women have today, especially when compared to the names of the prestigious offices reserved for men so far. The ‘Terminology Committee for the Feminization of the Names of Trades, Ranks and Offices’ created by Yvette Roudy, the Minister of Women’s Rights under the Fabius government, consisting of grammarians and sociolinguistics and chaired by Benoite Groult, intended to recommend acceptable and grammatically correct names for the public.
But Benoite Groult did not abandon the novel. After Les Trois Quarts du Temps in 1983, an account of three generations of women, she published Les Vaisseaux du Cœur (Salt on our skin) in 1988, a passionate love story between a Breton fisherman and a Parisian intellectual who refuses to feel sinful. It is a book where we discover that the most unequivocal feminism does not necessarily lead to a dead end but instead opens the way for many expansions.
Yet, there is still a quarter of the time to fill. As Flora Groult said, ‘One lifetime is not enough.’