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Carla Bruni-Sarkozy: A Feminist by Any Other Name

12/07/2012 06:05 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2013

"I'm not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day." These are the words former French first lady Carla Bruni uttered to Vogue in its latest issue. Regardless of the fact that Bruni was a model before she married the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Bruni was, is and will be, at least for the foreseeable future, a singer-songwriter. Yet, Bruni, or Bruni-Sarkozy, does not seem to define her autonomous role as singer-songwriter as separate from her family, which begs the question: Is Carla Bruni expressing an opinion that European women used to hold, in that their roles are defined in relation to their families, or is she expressing the more recent opinion held by European women, that they would not consider nor label themselves feminists because they have found an adequate family life-work balance that women in the States have not been able to achieve?

I spoke to a friend recently who had experience working for female sex workers' rights, but who does not consider herself a feminist. I was immediately shocked and completely taken aback. How could someone working for women's rights not proudly call herself a feminist? But, then I began to question if her perception of human rights and women's rights was separate. She was not advocating for women's rights, she was advocating for the rights of all people. Maybe she had already achieved the type of thinking that Hilary Clinton encouraged the world take on when she was in China in 1995. Nevertheless, my friend's statement shattered me. I am a proud feminist, after all. My identity is intrinsically tied to feminism and I fear that if I do not speak of my support for the movement, it will not be able to achieve the billions of things that feminism still struggles for. However, I come to this conversation and outlook from the American viewpoint. It is staggering that a country like the United States still does not do basic things to protect women's rights; case in point, it is 2012 and after 18 years of struggle, the U.S. still has not ratified the Violence Against Women Act, which would protect women who experience domestic violence and rape.

When Bruni responded to the backlash about her statements, she said, "I have never personally felt the need to be a feminist activist... I imagine I am [a feminist] if feminism means claiming one's freedom. But I am not if it means being committed in an active way to the fight that some women are still leading today... I admire their bravery a lot, but I have chosen to commit myself elsewhere." She saw her activism as not directly committed to advancing women's equality, but benefitting all groups of people.

The frightening thing would be if Bruni was not discussing her true beliefs and modeling her personal image for Sarkozy's future political roles. However, as Bruni has not done so in the past, it does not seem reasonable that she would do so now. But, if that reasoning is behind her statements, what does it mean that the audience Sarkozy is appealing to now would not want to define themselves as feminists, be they male or female? Is it that they do not equate the struggle for equality between the sexes as a human rights struggle or is truly their antagonism to feminism?

That begs another question: Does the label of feminist matter if the individual is working towards bettering the protection of women's rights? The problem is that when one does not name a thing, one does not advocate for that thing. When one does not label oneself as a member or supporter of a movement, once does not give the force, weight and strength necessary for that movement to succeed and achieve all the good that it can. By saying that she is not a feminist, Bruni was not labeling herself as something, though she was in fact fighting for it -- women's rights and women's equality. Bruni has been an activist in the HIV/AIDS struggle, which disproportionately affects women worldwide.

It is also not the case that feminism is more vital outside of France. The problem is, that although France attempts to treats equal things equally and unequal things unequally, the battle for equality has not been won there for women, nor in any other part of Europe. As long as women still overwhelmingly suffer from eating disorders, are still subject to sexual harassment, are still treated as sexual objects, are still treated as commodities through trafficking and are still raped in frightening numbers by the people that they know, women are not equal in Europe. Although those problems can all be addressed by movements, policies and organizations that are not strictly women's rights organizations, that is where the battle is being fought. When women distance themselves from that association, they also distance themselves from the battle, even as they fight, because they weaken their unity. Feminism is simply the fight for equality. Each feminist envisions that fight as she wants. I like to believe that although Carla Bruni does not call herself a feminist, she is a feminist indeed. After all, feminism is the embracing of autonomy, choice, voice and power. Madame Bruni has a handle or two on those pursuits.