What’s next for #MeToo? Rethinking the place for gender in politics and society with a look back to eighteenth-century France.

University of Minnesota

Never in history have questions of gender and authority been so acute. One cannot discuss contemporary politics without discussing gender – a remarkable development, given the previous absence of these conversations despite the stubborn persistence of gender inequalities in politics, the workplace, and beyond. In the United States, gender and authority have become associated with the historic #MeToo movement, which has shone a light on the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault across a range of contexts.

The vocality and persistence of this movement raises the question: from where do #MeToo and other movements speak? With what authority, given their demands for transformative change? These questions are not new ones – they are perennially raised in the tension between feminist theory and politics – but they come with increasing urgency, as #MeToo faces the challenge of what comes next. The movement finds itself straddling a tension between its position of political critique and an articulation of a vision for change. In short, the movement confronts questions about the nature and legitimation of its own authority.

Gender has long troubled claims to public authority by using personal experience to challenge more general presumptions about what beliefs and actions are tolerable. The public accusations and stories associated with #MeToo highlight the place for authorship – the writing of letters, tweets, personal accounts, or editorials – in political change. The authorship of these accounts is more than accusation. It also urges modern politics to begin anew by rethinking the place for gender in politics and society, offering suggestions for new gender norms, and speculating on which standards and models might authorize these changes. Yet in our everyday vocabularies, too often practices of authority are associated either with paternalism (premised on male heads of household) or with patriarchy (premised on the assertion of sex right over women). What would it mean to emphasize the creative dimensions of authority as authorship, while critiquing and abandoning the role that traditional authorities have played in stabilizing communities premised on gendered subordination and exclusion? Such a project requires rethinking how people become authors in their own right. From what space do they speak? To whom? And how can these claims be evaluated, as they seek to dismantle patriarchal structures and begin anew?

These questions are exemplified by the #MeToo movement in 2019, as it supports the women who author public critiques and interrogates the recurrence of sexual violence. However, this entwinement of authorship, authority, and public accusations also reaches back to earlier historical periods and their own efforts to make violence visible. Indeed, this entwinement is part of the very history of policing and the emergence of a police administration in 18th century Europe. It is bound up in the question of who had the status to appeal to political authority, and what kinds of acts were visible specifically as threats to public order.

In this history, France played an especially prominent role in expanding the police into the daily lives of everyday people. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, family members could issue a letter of arrest (lettre de cachet) in which they wrote the King, asking for the arrest of a husband, wife, or child on a variety of grounds. If a letter caught the king’s attention, the police would investigate and the accused would be arrested without trial or due process. To today’s ears, the charges sound flamboyant: debauchery, libertinage, vagabonding, and yes, sexual violence, among others. Yet these accusations all spoke to the experience of violating reciprocal social relations in some way. Letter-writers needed to make a claim about the threat to “public order” – but at a time before the French Revolution, and so before any clear notion of “public” existed. These letters point to the role played by the police and policing in shaping notions of public, of threat, and of public space. Between 1659 and 1789, some 100,000 letters circulated in France; a small selection of these is curated by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault in Disorderly Families (Minnesota, 2016).

Interestingly, these letters were written equally by men and women. Or, more accurately, just as many women sought out public scriveners to write down their accounts, encase them with the baroque honorifics used for the king, and then deliver them to police review. The oral delivery of these letters meant that women told stories about events hidden in plain sight. For them, these letters were often a last resort in seeking remedy for violence. Many of these letters are chilling. Take, for example, the letter by sent by a parish priest on behalf of Marie Marguerite Fournier, who argues that “it would be suitable to imprison her husband who threatens her most shockingly.” It is followed by a terse letter from the sworn master surgeon of Paris who describes that he “found a wound on her head made by a fire shovel” and also “several contusions of gashes because of which she is in great danger of dying.” Or, consider the thick dossier for François Lesquoy. After marrying Jean Baptiste Boissier, the letters indicate that she discovered he was a lout – an invalid soldier, he turned to libertinage and adultery, raided her dowry to support his carousing, and when she grabbed the remaining silver and returned to her parents, he sought to imprison her for insolence and waywardness out of vengeance. Letter after letter goes back and forth between the police, her anxious parents, and the impertinent husband, with the neighbors weighing in on both sides, as her parents beseech the police to release her from prison.

Such letters were common at a time when divorce was illegal, and even legal separations were difficult to attain. Some dossiers are so starkly presented and so poignant that modern-day readers can’t help but be convinced of the truthfulness of a letter writer’s claims. Yet with others, the reader is left unsure. Perhaps a wife’s pleas sound too perfunctory, or a husband’s complaint is too floridly written. After all, imprisonment was an awfully convenient way to dispose of an unwanted spouse. The reader’s confidence wavers … who should be believed? On what grounds? And with what consequences for future claims, and that broader “public order”? Much as in the case of the #MeToo movement, these letters demand that we think about the political work done in these public accusations.

With these letters of arrest, as with #MeToo, women carve out an unusual site to speak for themselves. Precariously perched on the margins of quietly permitted patriarchal practices and promises of public safety, these sites seek to make newly visible an always-there violence. Violence irrupts from the inarticulacy that the oscillation between patriarchal justifications and norms of security provokes. In writing letters, women seek to counter that inarticulacy and to give words to the unspeakable. Although women may speak in a variety of modes, I want to linger on the modality of witness in both these letters and in #MeToo. The perspective of “witness” traces the complicated interplay between what is seeable and sayable about these structures of violence. In a basic sense, these female accusers are bearing witness to something that happened. However, they are also telling the story of how these events came to happen and to be tolerated. With Marie Fournier, the neighbors are clearly horrified and adamant that Duplessis be arrested. Paging through Françoise Lesquoy’s dossier, one wonders how to weigh the conflicting testimonies. As with #MeToo, the letters invite readers to wonder if witnessing is more complex than the avowal of what happened. After all, the parish priests, the neighbors, the officers who submit their own letters were not always eye-witnesses to a singular event. Instead, they are lending their own personal authority to another person, in an attempt to frame the pattern against which the accusation is understood.

Within the space for speech opened by the letter writers, witnesses seek to step out of these usual quasi-legal contexts for witness and truth-telling so as to open up another. Like the #MeToo movement, the letter writers call attention to the profoundly social pattern of practices, rules, and institutions that organizes contemporary patriarchal practices. These avowals are less confessions of intimate violence than sharp critiques of the machinery that enables it. Speech becomes a tactic to force the machinery to voice its own hesitations, entitlements, and tacit presumptions. Likewise, what gave the social media dimension of #MeToo its strength was not that it used either speech or silence, but rather the “pattern of dissonance” that it elevated above the constant effluence of words on Twitter. A certain drumbeat of harassment and assault emerged, one that brought an unnerving attention to the backside of power. It also uncomfortably revealed the investments and relationships that straddle both official politics and tacitly patriarchal practices. Perhaps the value of #MeToo and these orally declaimed letters lies in their circulation – in the conversations provoked between neighbors, families, police, and political leaders about the challenges of such disorderly claims. Likewise how might institutions – the church, the police, the public – use their own authority? By their nature, institutions consolidate a diversity of experiences into a single policy. They parse responsibility, guilt, and punishment and create a grammar for power and justice. What happens when they are corrupted, biased, or slow to respond?

These dynamics of speech and witness, with their varied dimensions of gender, power, and authorship, lie at the heart of my new book Archives of Infamy: Foucault on State Power in the lives of Ordinary Citizens. Even as the book is deeply historical, it uses the dilemmas faced by ordinary people in eighteenth-century France to explore contemporary questions about policing, truth-telling and witness, and the role these play in shaping of relations of gender and sexuality. For all that Michel Foucault is known for his writings on power and criminality, his works are less often used to think through the politics of authorization that keeps some power structures (and not others) in place. What remains so striking about these letters of arrest, and Foucault’s fascination with them, is that they came from below. That is, ordinary people invited the police into their lives, their neighborhoods, and their bedrooms – and then the police never really left.

Raising these questions of “intimate justice” demands that we rethink the justice claims that women and men sought to place on the state. It also demands a more complicated reckoning with why these cries for redress transmuted into power relations that only further ensnared ordinary people in relations of inequality and gendered violence. The essays of Archives of Infamy consider these questions through a variety of registers: the political, aesthetic, sociological, and archival. The volume examines how power circulates and hums, and how the criss-crossing paths of the police and the infamous in the everyday contour social and political norms. Persistently the essays query: how might contemporary readers differently think about power and justice when viewing these from below?


Nancy Luxon is associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. She is editor of Archives of Infamy: Foucault on State Power in the Lives of Ordinary Citizens (Minnesota, 2019) and Disorderly Families (Minnesota, 2016) and author of Crisis of Authority: Politics, Trust, and Truth-Telling in Freud and Foucault.

“Listening to the voices rising from the archives, grasping the distant echoes of confrontations with power, exhuming the tenuous grain of tiny existences—this is what Michel Foucault chose to do. Does the philosopher’s gesture conflict with the historical understanding of archival material? This look back at an exciting debate asks: is it possible to build together a concern for anonymous lives, a literary passion for documentary fragments, and the desire to make a history of the discourses and practices of power?”
—Judith Revel, Université Paris Nanterre

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