A conversation with the women of La Barbe
The women of Le Barbe during their Bastille Day "beardings".
Tourists wandering through Paris’s famous Place de la Concorde on Bastille Day weekend were probably somewhat confused by the sight that met them when they gazed up at the eight marble statues that represent France’s eight largest cities. The statues had been adorned with fake beards. Fake beards that were red, blue, and white.
The beards were the work of the French Feminist group La Barbe, which is now an international phenomenon – most recently, Australian barbues showed up at the Melbourne Mining Club. “La barbe” means “a beard” in French, but it’s also a colloquial expression meaning “enough!” La Barbe was formed four years ago to draw attention to the paucity of women in positions of power in France. To be allowed into the upper echelons of power in France, they half-jokingly reason, you need to have a beard. So they put on fake beards and interrupt proceedings in the halls of French power, from the National Assembly (27% women) to the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, where none of the nominated movies this year were directed by women.
France, in the nation’s seemingly endless monuments and in its world-famous art, is always represented by a woman. At Concorde, so too are the country’s largest cities. When it comes to being represented by actual women, though, France hasn’t managed anything close to parity. And so, on Bastille Day, members of La Barbe climbed up onto those statues (wearing beards, of course, since climbing statues is hardly ladylike), and blue, red, and white beards on the statues of Marseille and Brest and Lyon.
When I met with three barbues, on the Monday after Bastille Day, they were still exhilarated from the weekend’s action. Nathalie, the eldest barbue, swept into the café where we met and told us that she had just ridden her bike through Concorde. The beards, she was happy to report, were still there.
Alice is a journalist and one of the most visible members of La Barbe. She is a fierce feminist whose friends tell me she eats, sleeps and breathes politics, and she talks at a hundred miles an hour. Clémentine is in her early twenties and is getting her Master’s in women’s studies. Clémentine discovered La Barbe in the same way that many young people discover feminism these days: the internet. She was studying abroad in California when she found La Barbe online, and as soon as she came back to France, she joined. She’s been participating in La Barbe actions ever since. Nathalie is in her mid-fifties, and describes herself as an “old school” feminist, but she’s a relatively new barbue. She says that when she heard about La Barbe from one her friends, joining was a no-brainer.
La Barbe is very clear about the fact that it’s about action – specifically, about being visible, and being funny, when they show up to protest the lack of women. “We don’t sit around theorizing,” says Clémentine. Not that there’s anything wrong with theorizing, of course, but “what’s good is that we don’t have any political ideology,” says Nathalie. “Anyone can join, and we just have one goal, one issue, and we all have that in common.”
As you might imagine, people are rarely thrilled to see La Barbe show up at their events, and recently, several barbues were removed by security guards when they beard-bombed the National Assembly. But when I ask them about the worst reaction they’ve ever received, the answer is surprising. “The worst thing is when they’re really polite, when they pretend to be like, ‘Thank you so much for being here, please come meet with us and tell us what we should do,’ it’s so fake that I’m not sure it’s better than being called names,” says Clémentine. “It’s so condescending,” agrees Nathalie.
As Clémentine knows from the time she spent in the States, there’s a sense there – as there is in Australia – that sexism isn’t really a problem any more, and that feminism is therefore no longer necessary. I ask the barbues if they’ve noticed a similar problem in France. “When you look at the figures on political representation, people really can’t say anymore that we have parity or equality in France,” says Nathalie. “Of course sexism is still a problem, that’s so obvious. Do Americans really think that?”
With all the recent talk in Australia about quotas as a way to get more women into leadership positions, particularly in business, I’m curious about where the barbues stand on the issues. Les quotas, I ask them, pour ou contre? “Oh, for, absolutely,” says Clémentine immediately.
“La Barbe is for quotas, but we want to be clear that quotas aren’t the goal. The goal is for the society to change. We know that quotas alone aren’t going to change a whole society, but they’re one way to do that,” says Nathalie. “Exactly,” agrees Clémentine. “We’re not for quotas and then nothing else. It’s just a means to an end.”
So, what about men? People who can grow real beards aren’t allowed to go along to La Barbe’s protests, but that doesn’t mean they can’t participate in the group. “There are lots of men who help us,” says Alice. “They can join Friends of La Barbe, they can donate money so we can buy the fabric for the beards, and insurance, because climbing you need insurance if you’re going to climb statues.” And, sometimes men who are friends of the group act as spies of a sort, says Clémentine. “If they’re invited to events that could be targets for a La Barbe action, they tell us about them.”
And what about women who want to see more women in positions of power but aren’t quite ready to put on a fake beard and crash a sausagefest? What about women who want to change the political landscape but don’t fancy shimmying up a marble statue on a Saturday morning? Clémentine explains that the fake beard has changed barbues’ private lives as well: one evening, a young barbue noticed that all the women and girls in her household were in the kitchen making dinner, while the men and boys were watching TV. She put on her beard and went and joined the menfolk on the couch. “Things changed pretty quickly in her household after that,” Clémentine said.
In French public life as it is in that household, the barbues hope. And in Australian public life, too. “We saw the coverage of the Melbourne protest,” says Clémentine. “That was so cool.”