In May 1968, progressive young people revolted. They wanted to fight the status quo and have more of a say. “In Flanders, the protests broke out early on. We were ahead of the rest of the world”, explains Chantal De Smet, former “Dolle Mina”.
“In those days, young people said: ″We are responsible! Something is forbidden? OK, but let us know why.″
Interview with Chantal De Smet.
Even today, may '68 is regularly referred to as a point of departure and a source of inspiration. This troubled time at the end of the 1960s made its mark on history.
It was the first time that young people had spoken up for themselves. In the past, big strikes and campaigns mainly involved the working class. For the first time, young people were protesting against something other than a political programme. Over time this struggle did indeed became a political one, but their demands weren’t initially political ones. Or at least, not in the way we would generally understand them to be.
People always speak of “May ‘68” but the struggle began earlier in Flanders. We were ahead of the rest of the world. On 13 May 1966, the bishops (who were at the head of the Catholic University at the time) decided that the University of Leuven would form a single entity and that the French-speaking faculties would be upheld. The students protested, and this movement led to a political process which coincided with May ‘68. When the rebellion began in Belgium and Flanders, the French students were still living in something akin to blissful ignorance. The protests ended up affecting not just France and Belgium but the rest of the world, from Berkeley and other American universities to Mexico, Berlin, London and Yugoslavia. This phenomenon went beyond the revolt of the soixante-huitards in Paris, which was incredible but short-lived.
Do you remember slogans from the time?
I particularly remember a slogan that was difficult to chant: “anti-capitalist structural reform”. [laughter] But there were lots of others. In France, the slogans were highly creative, including “under the cobblestones, the beach”, “it’s forbidden to forbid” or “run comrade, the old world is behind you” and “Power to the imagination!”
How did this revolt begin?
It was in 1966 in Leuven, against a system which didn’t take account of what students and the population had to say. The problem came from French-speaking faculties which on the site of Leuven University and which formed a kind of bubble, with newspapers, shops, schools etc. all in French. It was like a foreign body in the city. The situation was not easy to live with and the students made it known.
The students of Ghent rose up in March 1969; they wanted another teaching method and better relationships between people. At this time, the students weren’t allowed to voice their opinion. Today students are allowed three or four study days before they take an exam. At the time when I was in the first year of university, I must have taken thirteen exams in five days. That’s how things were back then. And then there were the teachers, primarily men (I was never taught by a woman), who though they could do whatever they liked because of their status. So, they turned up late, moved lessons around without warning and sometimes didn’t even turn up at all. Teacher-student relations were very different from what they are today. The dialogue was inexistent. Little by little, students voiced their demands, which enabled them to get involved in the decision-making process.
In the 1960s it was possible to inverse the trend given the increase in wellbeing: the number of students at university had tripled, the pill was available on prescription and, just like in the USA, consumer society had made its appearance in Western Europe.
But it was also a reaction against this consumer society. As for the number of students, let’s not exaggerate. It’s true that more students had signed up to university since the war, but there were still just 10,000 in Ghent. At present, there are 41,000 students (and 75,000 if you include the colleges of higher education). The proportion of girls was always inferior (around 17 %). Their number increased by 10 % a decade between 1960 and 2000 and, today, girls are in a majority with a proportion of 57 %. The students from working class backgrounds demonstrated less than those from the upper classes. This phenomenon was also due to the fact that the educational system was different from the one we know today. A failed exam and you had to retake the whole year. Not to mention the fact that the student also lost his grant. For many students, myself included, the rule was simple: if you don’t pass your first year at university, that was it, you stopped everything. Whereas today, you see students who are still studying subjects from their first year in the third year of their degree.
Could it be that middle class young people decided to protest to “Pass the time of day”?
I don’t think people revolt out of boredom. Why would it be so much more exciting today? This was a generation that was born at the end of the war, five or six years after the liberation; a generation that grew up in a world that was all about restrictions. Then the first opportunities came along, the telephone, the car, the post-war boom and with that, the first criticisms of authority. And vice-versa: as long as you submit, you don’t flourish. In the words of Mao Zedong “May a hundred flowers bloom”.
Students from Leuven reacted with violence because people told them “That’s the only way you can do it”, without listening to their arguments. In Ghent, a colloquium was organised on pornography. The pupils wanted to show illustrations but the rector refused. So the students decided to invade the rectory. But rather than talking it through with them, the police threw them out. That of course led to another reaction, and the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy was also occupied. Students weren’t reacting for fun, but out of responsibility. At one point they said: “We are responsible! Something is forbidden? OK, but please explain why.”
On the course of this protest, the students realised that many of their problems were due to politics. So they decided to get in touch with the workers. France had been victim to numerous strikes by workers, but the situation hadn’t been as extreme in Belgium. Over here, these reactions led to the creation of the Workers Party of Belgium, Medicine for the People and, later on, ecological and women’s lib movements.
In relation to the actions of The Dolle Mina, in particular, can you see the long term effects they had on today's society?
The Dolle Mina played an important role, because they drew attention, in a rather audacious manner, to the problems that existed elsewhere and which were also experienced by others. So, women from classical parties and organisations started to say to themselves: “These crazy women are right, but we are going to change things in our own way!” Changes such as the chance to stand for election, the matrimonial law or even abortion were introduced and, even today, have a major impact on women’s lives. Childcare was partially reimbursed. All these developments are the consequence not of the Dolle Mina initiatives, but of the movements which were inspired by their actions. The mix of “parliamentary and non-parliamentary actions” as it was referred to at the time, had a major impact.
Are you still in favour of male-female quotas today?
Of course. In theory, I’m against quotas, but you can’t do without them here. Without quotas, there would be fewer women in politics. In my own college of higher education [Chantal De Smet was director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, K.A.S.K.), part of the Hogeschool School of Arts, Ghent], I often had discussions with the former president. “How come more than 50 % of our staff and students are women, yet the board of directors is exclusively made up of men?” I protested. He replied: “You’re right, Chantal. We’ll pay more attention next time.” Only nothing changed the next time! So I decided to give him a list with the names of twenty female rectors, lawyers, teachers etc. He said to me: “We’ll really pay more attention next time.” He only did something about it when a decree meant he had to have women on the board of directors of institutes of higher education. If only women could be chosen for their good sense not because of a decree, we wouldn’t need quotas. But in reality we’re not there yet and even today, men (and even some women!) claim that there aren’t enough qualified women. So yes, I’m in favour of quotas... I’m against them in theory, but for them in this instance.
The government mainly concentrates on target figures.
Target figures are not enough. You can’t imagine the number of times at school that I’ve cried out: “It’s not possible!” If only because of the image it gives to female students... All the positions of responsibility are taken up by men. It’s like saying to every woman: “Dear, don’t wear yourself out studying because whatever you do a man will get the post.” The president answered me, true to form: “Yes, Chantal, you’re right. Next time...” and so on and so forth.
That's a little bit like what coloured people say: white always attracts white.
Exactly. For years I organised projects with Stefan Hertmans at the Studium Generale of the Hogeschool Ghent. In our search for specialists we initially thought of men. We had to make an effort to look further for women. The media always gives the floor to male experts, which means we end up remembering these names, consciously or not. And yet, there are so many female specialists! In the 1990s, the VRT published a book entitled “Zeg niet te gauw, d’r is geen vrouw …” This work, contains the details of more than a thousand female specialists in all manner of domains. So an organisation could say “I’d like to focus on the culture of colonial plants, the history of Bruges in the fifteenth century or the significance of the city of Brasilia” and find a woman specialised in that domain.
In the 1960s, young parisian men wanted to resolve their sexual problems by protesting against the fact that they were forbidden from entering the female students' bedrooms. But, sixty percent of these young women were underage. On top of this the girls could always go to the boys, whichsounds like a perfect situation to me.
It’s important to remember that in 1968, people came of age at 21, which means that the majority of students were underage. Co-education only really came on the scene in the 1980s, which also means that most of the students in 1968 came from boys or girls schools. Add to that the fact that the rules were different from one university to another. Things were undoubtedly more lax in Ghent than they were in Leuven, and there were less university halls of residence. In the halls of residence, the boys could go into the girls’ rooms but had to leave by 10pm, which is of course totally hypocritical. The students, also in Ghent, protested against these rules. Ah, the evolution of mores! In the mid-1960s, I knew someone who lived with her boyfriend. Her mother was so embarrassed that she told everyone that her daughter lived with a friend. Twenty years later, this girl became a lesbian and moved in with her girlfriend. As a result, her mother told people that she lived with her boyfriend! It’s incredible how morals can change! [laughter] “I’m not the child I was back then, I’m someone else”, said György Konrád. Times have changed radically. These days, we wonder how on earth we could have got involved in all that...
Do you think we have become more prudish?
No. When I look at today’s young people, I can see that they are far more independent but, on the other hand, they rely far more heavily on their parents. When, as part of a student job, I was responsible for the registration of other students, I remember laughing when a young person came with his parents. Things are different today: nobody registers without his or her parents! Parents want to be their children’s friends. In my day, we had our parents, who we got on with more or less well, and we had our life. But a lot of things were different: we didn’t have a phone at university and no computer, and we didn’t know what was going on in the world, current affairs etc. You could study at university without ever opening a newspaper, being totally cut off from what was going on in the world.
Parents are more protective, but is that what young people need?
The world is a difficult place for young people. Today with a smartphone, you can make the world come to you, buy and order all kinds of things. Everything was different back then. Sometimes people ask me: “Why didn’t you do anything for third world women?” Because there weren’t any, and even if there had been, they were barely visible. Maybe we didn’t look far enough, but in my part of town there wasn’t a single Turk or African. The few students of foreign origin (no more than fifty in total), had for the most part chosen a specialisation and were not often undergraduates. The big wave of migration only began in the 1970s (Belgium signed an agreement with Morocco to take on Moroccan workers in 1968). You shouldn’t look at the past from a present day perspective. And yet everyone does it.
It wasn't down to you to fight the battle for third world women.
No. And I wouldn’t have wanted men to fight for my liberation either. Men can get involved as long as the women call the shots. We can congratulate, encourage and help others in their struggles, as far as is possible, but we mustn’t fight their battles for them.
And you have to keep on putting these struggles back in the spotlight.
Indeed. But you also have to keep on listening to other people. You might think that everything is black or white, but you can also listen and, who knows, maybe people will realise that things can be grey too? Or in the words of Leonard Cohen: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.