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What secularism owes to women

Review of the book “Ce que la laïcité doit aux femmes”, Véronique de Keyser, 2022, by Charles Conte

The book’s subject is not what women owe to secularism, but what secularism owes to women. The subtitle is just as explicit: “The voices of emancipation”. We can recognize the direct style of the author: Véronique de Keyser. Her life is a work of art: psychologist, professor at the University of Liège, author of a hundred scientific articles, then socialist European deputy from 2001 to 2014, president of the Centre d’Action Laïque since 2021, she has written several books, including one with Stéphane Hessel “Palestine, la trahison européenne”. She received the political book prize in 2019 for “Une démocratie approximative. L’Europe face à ses démons”.

“Ce que laïcité doit aux femmes” has just been published in the collection “Liberté, j’écris ton nom” edited by the Centre d’Action Laïque which federates secular associations in French-speaking Belgium. In 158 pages, Véronique de Keyser recalls the main stages of the feminist movement by pointing out the role of women activists in the elaboration and implementation of the principle of secularism, both in Belgium and in France. This review is accompanied by an assessment of what has been done and what remains to be done. With a specific contribution: the author’s personal testimonies and analyses are identified by means of grey backgrounds. The whole book is divided into four parts: “I”, “We”, “They”, “Elsewhere”.

First, the decisive question of women’s bodies is brought to the fore. The weight of patriarchy is historically nourished by the misogynistic conceptions of the founders of all monotheistic religions. And it is often their proponents that the secular movement must fight to secure sexual and reproductive rights. This is a ‘principled struggle’. It is mentioned throughout the book, especially in the European arena. This weight of patriarchy is and remains political. The portraits of women activists begin with that of Olympe de Gouges and continue with that of the British suffragettes.

Cultural issues, the way women are perceived, the “tyranny of the gaze” as well as the implicit or explicit devaluation in the world of work and in life in general are dealt with from specific angles. Thus the portrait of Maria Deraismes, the first woman Freemason, shows how the world of Freemasonry, sometimes conservative, sometimes progressive, has evolved. And how far there is still to go. Other women are less well known: Isabelle Gatti de Gamond, the first founder of a middle school for girls, Isala van Diest, the first Belgian academic and doctor, Marie Popelin, the first law graduate…

Drawing on her career as a scientist and elected official, her reflections and authors such as Hannah Arendt and Cynthia Fleury, Véronique de Keyser thus paints a vast picture of a movement that was both feminist and secular in the process of construction and reflection. The universalist foundation – all women have the right to the same rights – is thus reaffirmed. And we have to respond to postmodern or differentialist criticisms by relying on the Enlightenment, whose very principle is that of free reflection on all subjects, including, and above all, that of the book.