Between the Pages: The Story Behind Dr. Lisa Greenwald’s New Book, “Daughters of 1968”

Social studies teacher Dr. Greenwald released her new book “Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement.”

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In 1986, social studies teacher Dr. Lisa Greenwald strolled onto the streets outside her temporary residence in Paris, an apartment owned by a Parisian bohemian’s son with floors and walls decorated with layers of carpets brought back from a trip to North Africa. Between the hours she spent conversing with the bohemian’s son and having formal lunches with a bourgeois military family that resided in the suburbs, Dr. Greenwald was taking a French language course at the Sorbonne, a university in Paris. Yet, her attempt to find the university’s Women’s Center turned her excursion in France into an academic adventure.

Ultimately, Dr. Greenwald located the Paris Women’s Center. It turned out to be situated on a small dark street. From talking to about 20 older women who frequented the place, Dr. Greenwald learned that French feminism was vastly different from American feminism in surprising ways. “Unlike in the U.S., fewer women complained about access to childcare because there was a solid network of state-sponsored nurseries,” she described in an e-mail interview. “Women weren’t strategizing to maintain contraception and abortion rights because they had been enshrined into parliamentary law.”

However, French women were concerned about matters other than their rights, including how they were culturally stereotyped and how gender stereotypes affected the ways they perceived their societal roles. “The ads on the subway for most products featured half-clothed women in submissive positions,” Dr. Greenwald noted. “And reasonably educated women—my peers—thought that feminism was a thing of the past.”

Dr. Greenwald challenged this point of view, asserting that “feminism had existed quite intensely but had dissolved because of larger political forces,” she said. These forces included the Socialist Party, which achieved an electoral majority win in the National Assembly in 1981, and a group of anti-feminists who claimed to be feminists and created an organization they called Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (or Women’s Liberation Movement), which allowed them to “own” the movement.

Though French women had achieved suffrage in 1944, Dr. Greenwald was inspired to write a dissertation advocating for another step in women liberation. This dissertation ended up being a 426-page book called “Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement.” The writing process based on such a complex research project was, not surprisingly, long. Dr. Greenwald had her book edited five times before it was published, the first four times by herself and the final time by her publishing press’ copy editor. “When I went to publish the book, I edited it entirely for the third time, received a contract, [and] edited it again, reducing it by a third,” she recalled.

Dr. Greenwald has transplanted her passion for writing into the classroom and has taught her students to practice writing. “Some students come into my class thinking that being ‘brilliant’ is enough. But being ‘brilliant’ is worth little if you can’t explain your ideas on the page. It takes years,” she explained. “I’m still practicing.”

Daughters of 1968 recounts the story of French feminism between the years 1944 and 1981, when feminism played a significant role in politics and in French history, producing widespread social change in the women’s liberation movement and “revamping the workplace and laws governing everything from abortion to marriage,” Dr. Greenwald said. The book zeroed in on the May Events of 1968, when the rise of radical individualism and anti-authoritarianism led to a break from the past and a split in the women’s movement into two groups. One became intensely activist, “demanding justice and the reinvention of social norms,” Dr. Greenwald wrote, while the other distanced itself from feminism, becoming less activist or even anti-activist.

When asked whether she identifies as a feminist, Dr. Greenwald responded enthusiastically, “Yes!” To her, being a feminist means acknowledging women’s oppression and promoting change in the way society views women. “Women are and have been a sex class. Feminists must advocate for a social transformation where women are not the ‘second sex’ and where an egalitarian society born of all sexes is formed,” she elaborated.

One step toward this social transformation would be the expansion of reproductive rights. While the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case granted American women access to safe abortion, Dr. Greenwald hopes that in the future women's reproductive choice will be guaranteed through a law as well. “Regardless of how anyone feels about it personally at any given moment, the reality is that women sometimes get pregnant accidentally and can’t or don’t want to make a baby with all [of] its attendant demands on a woman’s body in utero or once it is a living, breathing individual,” she said.

Dr. Greenwald also pointed out that prior to the legalization of abortion in France, 750,000 unsafe abortions were performed annually. This had resulted in thousands of infections, hemorrhages, sterilizations, and deaths in a country with a population one-tenth of that of the United States. “As a civilized, wealthy, and technologically-advanced society, we need to make [abortions] possible in a safe way,” Dr. Greenwald maintained. “The problem is that for two generations Americans have had access to safe abortion and they can’t remember what it was like before this. Time to go back to the history books!”

Dr. Greenwald stood between the wooden bookshelves in Barnes & Nobles, hosting a fundraiser on Wednesday, January 9. “The fundraiser was meant to provide an opportunity for me to talk about my book and raise funds for Stuyvesant without remuneration [...] for me,” she said. Despite her efforts in her research and writing projects, Dr. Greenwald did not want extra pay for herself; she wanted the money to go to her community.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Greenwald has already started planning for another book project. Her path of activism in the community does not cease with the conclusion of “Daughters of 1968.”