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Benoite Groult

In the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum, the Thinker slumps, contemplating his corroding green biceps. Near a bed of pastel roses Balzac scowls out at a slate sky. A Dutch tourist in rumpled tweeds cranes his neck to glimpse the world's first gender gap: Adam and Eve straddling the Gate of Hell lintel overhead.

Down the street from this bronze battle of the sexes, novelist Benoite Groult ponders other standing stereotypes of women. ''The media have created a caricature of feminists as ugly, rude, and abandoned by their husbands,'' says Groult, a feminist who utterly fails to fit those qualifications.

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''Whenever I give a lecture,'' says Groult, who recently returned from New York, where she debated Phyllis Schlafly, outspoken opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, ''someone always remarks, 'But you look so feminine!' As if I was supposed to look like a dragon. For some reason, people assume emancipation of women means loss of femininity, which is silly. As if you can lose your femininity like you lose an umbrella.''

In 1975, Groult's best-selling book ''Ainsi Soit-elle'' (''And Thus May She Be'') helped launch the feminist movement in France, a movement, critics say, that arrived on the political scene like a little sister crashing her brother's birthday party: tardy, uninvited, and halfhearted. Groult and other French feminists admit their movement is a belated epilogue to its American precursor of a decade ago. They add, however, that the European hybrid of ''feminism and femininity'' has lent new energy to the tired cause of women's rights threatened in the 1980s by a conservative backlash, including suggestions that unemployment would fall if women stopped looking for jobs.

''Fighting for something doesn't make you less feminine. It makes you more alive,'' says Groult, sinking comfortably into a sofa in her one-room flat on the Rue de Bourgogne. She had spent the morning at a radio studio recording excerpts of ''Ainsi Soit-elle'' for an audio anthology of famous French women writers. ''Fighting for something you believe in,'' she continued, ''gives you more passion in life. To be a feminist means believing in the right to be yourself.''

As the novelist speaks, her striped crimson sport shirt picks up the warm flush in her cheeks. Petite and trim, she wears corduroy trousers and maroon shoes, repeating the sporty informality of her apartment's white walls, blue bookshelves, and floral sofa pillows. At her feet is a bulging black flight bag, a reminder of the evening flight to the south of France, where she is finishing yet another novel at her second home in Hyeres.

Four years ago Grout helped found Paris's F magazine, modeled after Ms. magazine started by American feminist Gloria Steinem. Iconoclastic as Groult may be, she is bored by the ''woman's home is her hassle'' school of feminism.

In the new age of palimony and personhood, assertiveness training and dressing for success, Groult makes no excuses for her beauty or her happy marriage to one of France's best-known novelists, Paul Guimard. Nor does she pull punches for anyone, not even for the leader of the Fifth Republic. Groult and her husband happen to be close friends of French President Francois Mitterrand, who, when it comes to women's issues, is all heart and hot air, Groult says. ''He's a sweet, intelligent man but speaks a different language to men and women,'' she says. ''Intellectually, he knows he's wrong; but he's of the older generation and from the south of France. Mitterrand is a Socialist, but the Socialists are men before they are Socialists.''


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* That great American comedian, George Burns, once reasoned: ''There will always be a battle between the sexes, because men and women want different things. Men want women, and women want men.'' Were life that simple, George. Sexual politics in France, for one, has been complicated for centuries by Roman Catholic codes and Latin machismo. John Ardagh argues in his new book, ''France in the 1980s,'' that these were the reasons female contraception was banned until 1967 and legalization of abortion did not come until 1975.

In the eyes of France's old Matrimonial Act, when two people married they became one person - and that one person was the husband. Until the act was overturned in 1964, a wife needed her husband's permission to apply for a passport and to open a bank account. Legally, all joint property belonged to the husband. Most French institutions still have a long way to go. It took until 1980 for the 350-year-old Academie Francaise, that bulwark of literary excellence and male chauvinism, to admit its first female member, novelist Marguerite Yourcenar.

Frenchwomen were given the vote under De Gaulle's liberation government after World War II, yet the number of women representatives in the National Assembly actually fell from 30 to 10 between 1945 and 1977. In 1974, Valery Giscard d'Estaing turned his back on tradition and appointed the brilliant lawyer Simone Veil as his minister of health. Her popularity was astounding. Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, remarked: ''The best man on our team is a woman.''

By 1976, five women appointees sat in Mr. Giscard-d'Estaing's Cabinet. During the first two years of his administration, sweeping legislative reforms were instituted, including the legalization of abortion, more equitable divorce laws, and 16 weeks' paid maternity leave. In Mitterrand's new, streamlined Cabinet there are six women. His minister for women's rights is Yvette Roudy, who translated Betty Friedan's ''The Feminine Mystique'' into French. But French women have yet to rise as high in electoral politics as did Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Israel's Golda Meir, and India's Indira Gandhi.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir's landmark ''Le Deuxieme Sexe'' was applauded by Left Bank intellectuals, but played poorly in the provinces. After the student-worker riots of May 1968, militant feminists never could quite convince French housewives of their husbands' collective ''tyranny.''

The reason, speculates Groult, has something to do with the way French girls are raised to preen and primp, the subject of her new autobiographical novel, ''Les Trois Quarts du Temps.'' ''My new book tells how I was brought up with the perfect bourgeois education and prevented from becoming myself,'' says Groult. ''My mother was a professional fashion designer and had her own maison de couturem.''

Success, in her mother's terms, meant snaring a husband. She fitted Benoite in flowered chiffon ''beach pajamas'' and sent her to the Sorbonne in outlandish veiled hats. ''My mother thought clothes would show off my personality. I just wanted to dress like all the other students.''

Benoite was given rumba lessons and scolded when she balked at making small talk with dancing-school partners. ''All the mothers would sit in a row and watch their girls dance,'' Groult recalls. ''Afterwards, my mother would come over and say, 'You didn't speak to him enough. Do you expect anyone to phone you after that?' My sister Flora was very blond and always got flowers the next day. I did have friends, but didn't dare tell my mother. They were painters without money and wore sandals in Paris during the winter.

''I was shy and afraid,'' Groult says. ''I wanted to stay in school all my life and be a teacher. My mother despised that ambition. She wanted me to write.'' So much so that when Benoite was 12, her mother ghost-wrote a play and made her daughter curtsy and accept the credit. ''We played it for my cousins and uncle,'' Groult remembers. ''They clapped me and said, 'Benoite, you're going to be a genius.' I knew it wasn't my work. All that closed me up.''

At age 16 Groult finally did cloister herself. She took Benedictine vows and moved to a convent in England. ''I was so frightened of life as my mother showed it. I thought, at least in a convent I won't have to dress up or go to dances or fight to be anybody.'' After three months she returned to Paris and entered the Sorbonne, where she completed a university degree in ancient Greek and Latin, ''the most arduous and useless of subjects,'' she says. ''I chose them because I was afraid of life.''

The fear and noisy desperation of her youth followed Groult into her first marriage. ''I would wake up at 5 each morning,'' she reminisced, ''and put on my makeup very quietly so I didn't wake my husband. I always thought, 'If he sees me the way I am, he won't love me.' ''

At age 24 Groult became a widow, only to ''quickly and absurdly'' remarry, this time to a journalist from the south of France. ''He was very Latin and threatened by the possibility of his wife earning more money than him. In no time we had two daughters. He, of course, wanted boys.''

For Groult, love was a many-splintered thing. ''My husband was annoyed that I knew Greek and he didn't,'' she says. ''We always fought about it. Finally, I stopped reading Greek and Latin and watched football matches with him. He was a famous journalist but didn't like the fact that I was writing. I had written a diary all my life. My mother made my sister and me write every evening after washing our teeth. One day he tore up my notebooks. When he finally left, he took with him all my other notes so I wouldn't have any material to work on.''

Groult began to ask herself: If marriage is the answer, would somebody please rephrase the question? In 1951 she met novelist Paul Guimard, to whom she has been married ever since. It was Guimard, she says, who encouraged her to take writing seriously. ''I had filled up notebooks and journals but never finished anything because of all my inferiority complexes. Paul suggested we keep a diary together like the one I had written with Flora. Even though he didn't particularly care for this sort of confidential writing, we wrote together every night. At the end of a year he said, 'My part isn't so good, but you have talent. Now do something with it.' He kept pushing me.''

''Even then I was afraid of doing something alone,'' says Groult. ''I searched in an old trunk and found the diaries I had written with Flora, which I had never shown anyone.'' Benoite and Flora Groult's ''Double-Handed Diary,'' an account of girlhood in war-torn Europe, was published in 1962. It was an immediate success. Three years later a sequel, ''Le Feminin Pluriel,'' followed. In 1972, Benoite Groult published her first novel, ''La Part des Choses.'' It, too, was a best seller. The shy sister began shedding her cocoon.

When Benoite Groult first mentioned to her editor at Editions Grasset the idea of ''Ainsi Soit-elle,'' he nearly choked. ''But your novels work very well and readers love them,'' he said. ''Everybody is bored now with feminism.'' Even her husband was a bit concerned that she might embarrass herself with a ''harsh, anti-men'' polemic.

''Ainsi Soit-elle'' turned into a commercial success beyond anyone's dreams. More significantly, it catalyzed Groult's personal transformation. ''The more I wrote about women around the world, the more I saw how universal their suppression - intellectual, physical, and moral - was. The book was more successful than any of my novels. Ten years earlier this would have been impossible. It was too shocking.''

As she wrote, Groult grew more outraged at all the years she hadn't been outraged. ''I am embarrassed today at my noninvolvement back then, embarrassed that I didn't participate in the Occupation when I was 20, and embarrassed I wasn't a feminist when I was 25. As Simone de Beauvoir said, 'One had the feeling then that it was the men who were making history. We were supposed to watch and cheer them on.' ''

An important lesson in the education of Benoite Groult was Virginia Woolf's ''A Room of One's Own.'' ''When I had three daughters,'' Groult says, ''my husband had a desk and everyone said, 'Father's working. No noise.' But where could mother work? In the kitchen? Where? To have just a little corner where you can close the door and be left to work is the beginning of the freedom of thinking.''Has she reread ''Ainsi Soit-elle'' recently?

''Yes, and it's astonishing to see how little has changed in the last eight years. The book still rings true, at least for women of my generation. Now there is a backlash, and nobody wants to talk about feminism,'' says Groult. Even F magazine, she says, has been turned into a slick fashion and gossip monthly. ''When F came out in 1979 it was edited entirely by women. It was quite feminist , better than Ms.'' F then had a circulation of 200,000, but Groult says the male publisher ''wanted to sell a million copies so he lowered the standards. Most of the staff quit.''

She says feminism may not sell on the newsstands these days, but it reverberates deeply in French domestic life. Equality between men and women ''is working in each couple, particularly those in the middle generation, in their 30 s and 40s.'' Like any useful instrument of self-help, however, ''Ainsi Soit-elle'' appears to be putting itself out of business. ''Now, young women between 15 and 18 read my book and say, 'We know all that.' That's progress. What ignited my feminism more than anything else was watching my three daughters live their youth so differently from mine.''

Has Groult shared her feminist views with Mitterrand?

''Yes, it's easy to. He's a personal friend. We met during the presidential campaign in 1974. I interviewed him about his stand on women's rights. He loves meeting women on one side and men on the other. I doubt he would do it again, but 10 years ago Mitterrand leaned over to me at a dinner party and said, 'Please excuse us men, we're going to talk politics and it might annoy you.' Mitterrand wants to ensure women's rights but is stuck at the moment because that goes against rising unemployment. Even the bishops in France now say only one person per couple should take a job, and that means the woman should stay home.''

Groult's phone rings, halting the interview. It is the fourth call in the last hour for Guimard, who was recently appointed to Mitterrand's kitchen cabinet. ''Il n'est pas ici,'' Groult responds with an answering service monotone. She drones with polite annoyance.

Groult hangs up. ''Paul is in high authority but still doesn't have an office , secretary, phone, or desk. Everybody phones here looking for him.'' Mitterrand drafted Paul Guimard to help order the domestic affairs of France and in the process fouled the domestic affairs of Benoite Groult. ''About eight years ago, when my three daughters finished school, Paul and I decided there was no sense living in rainy Paris,'' she says. ''So now we spend the summer fishing on our boat in Brittany. In winter, we go to Hyeres, in the south of France. Since this terrible victory of the left,'' she says with feigned disgust, ''I scarcely see him. He works day and night. Paul is a writer and a free man, but said to me when Mitterrand was elected, 'Never mind, I'll go into slavery.' ''

Outside of literature, politics, and her husband, what feeds Groult's inspiration as an artist?

''The whole Celtic tradition inspires me,'' she says. ''Its poetry, language, and religion. Women ruled those countries and civilization. They were priestesses and fought on horseback.'' Islam and Catholicism, however, have taken women out of religion, in her view.

''I have a house in Brittany and now one in Ireland. For me, two weeks in Ireland is like going back a century. The ocean and my garden save me from any despair and loneliness. I have my little boat and manage the engine and set my nets alone. I get green beans and potatoes from the peasants for the fish I catch. . . .

''It seems nobody else really fishes or walks by the sea there but me. I love low tides. When the sea goes down you have acres and acres of shrimps, mussels, urchins, scallops, everything. You hear the noise of animals, and then have absolute silence. It's one of life's wonderful moments.''

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