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Monique Wittig, 67; Leading French Feminist, Social Theorist and Novelist

January 11, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Monique Wittig, a leading French feminist, social theorist and novelist whose writings are highly regarded in the gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States and abroad, died of a heart attack Jan. 3 in Tucson. She was 67.

Wittig, who moved to the U.S. from France in the mid-1970s, held radical views, of which the most famous was that "lesbians are not women" but a separate class of people unbound by traditional notions of gender.

"She picked up where Simone de Beauvoir left off," said Julia Balen, associate director of the women's studies program at the University of Arizona, where Wittig taught for the last 12 years.

De Beauvoir, who wrote the pioneering feminist manifesto "The Second Sex," "said one is not born a woman but made into a woman," Balen said. "Monique took that a step further" by applying the Marxist concept of class to the analysis of the sexes.

Wittig wrote highly polemical essays and poetic, often utopian fiction that used language as a tool of gender liberation. Her work was championed by such groundbreaking French writers as Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Born in the Alsace region of France, Wittig was the daughter of a poet and was educated at the Sorbonne. She chose to disclose little about herself beyond these facts.

She was in her late 20s when she wrote her first novel, "L'Opoponax," which was published in France in 1964 and in English two years later. The book won France's highest literary honor, the Prix Medicis.

Written from the perspective of a child, it has minimal punctuation, short sentences and a time frame that is always in the present to capture the way a child perceives reality.

Critics hailed it as a pivotal and provocative work.

"In both form and content," the New York Times Book Review wrote, " 'The Opoponax' is a revolutionary story." Mary McCarthy, writing in New Statesman, said it brought "a new insight into childhood and the educative process."

Wittig wrote her next novel in the form of a series of prose poems. "Les Guerilleres," published in 1969, concerns women warriors who triumph over male domination after waging fierce combat. Sally Beauman, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it "the first imaginative work of fiction in which the battle between the sexes is fought in Women's Liberation terms."

Around the time of the release of "Les Guerilleres," Wittig took her philosophy to the streets by helping to found a group called Feministes Revolutionnaires. In one of its protests, the group caused a massive public outcry when it attempted to place a wreath for "the unknown female soldier" at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Wittig eventually left France and her role at the forefront of its women's movement "when straight women took over the French feminist movement" and pushed lesbians like Wittig to the margins, Balen said. "She considered herself exiled."

Wittig held various visiting professorships in the U.S. before joining the University of Arizona faculty in 1990.

At the core of her philosophy was rejection of the category "woman" as a social construct that was inherently oppressive.

"The perenniality of the sexes and the perenniality of slaves and masters proceed from the same belief, and, as there are not slaves without masters, there are no women without men," she wrote in "The Straight Mind," a collection of essays published in 1992. "The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking, on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women."

"In other words," she also wrote, "this means there cannot any longer be women and men, and that as classes and categories of thought or language they have to disappear, politically, economically, ideologically."

She called heterosexuality "a political regime" that thrives on women's inferiority and exploitation. She believed that real freedom depended on a woman defining herself as "an escapee, a fugitive slave, a lesbian."

Wittig used language in inventive ways to convey her radical ideas. One of the distinguishing features of her novels was her experimentation with pronouns as a means of changing consciousness. In her 1973 novel "The Lesbian Body," for example, she wrote je (French for the pronoun "I") as j/e and tu ("you") as t/u. These stylistic choices were meant to underscore the way language can inhibit being.

"The Lesbian Body," which some scholars consider Wittig's finest and most daring work, was also very violent. The two women who are its central characters literally take each other's bodies apart down to the muscles and bone as an act of love. This was too extreme for some critics, such as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement who wrote that the author's views of love "would be enough to send any timid souls ... to a nunnery."

Wittig also wrote the novel "Virgile, Non" (1985), which was translated in English as "Across the Acheron." With her partner, Sande Zeig, she wrote "Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary" (1979). She also wrote the screenplay for a film Zeig directed that was based on Wittig's first short story in English, "The Girl."

In addition to Zeig, Wittig is survived by her mother, Maria; a sister, Gilberte; and a niece, Dominique Samson.

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