Forget Simone De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Naomi Wolf. Descartes gave us all that we needed to claim gender equality a long time ago. Historians rarely remember it this way, but women’s rights were dramatically (if hypothetically) advanced when, in 1619, René Descartes, snow-bound in a stove-heated room in Neuberg, Germany, had the crazy idea to bet that the body might be entirely an illusion of the senses. But — and how cool is this — when “I” am thinking that very thought, “I” must exist, therefore “I” am. And this “I” is a thinking thing (“cogito ergo sum and sum res cogitans”). Now, Descartes was too busy with the Existence of God argument to spell out the full consequences of this simple fact for the so-called weaker sex, but, had he looked into it, the old man would have agreed that this “I” defined by Reason alone is necessarily gender-neutral (no body, no sex, right?). Or, as French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter puts it in What Is A Woman?, ontologically speaking, “a woman is a man like any other.”
That women would trade the blissful spiritual equality conferred onto them by Reason to embrace the disgusting side effects of motherhood is entirely beyond Badinter’s understanding. In her new book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Badinter embarks on a crusade to demonstrate that all the fuss about maternal instinct, breast-feeding, and co-sleeping is theoretical garbage, and reactionary. In a tone of voice better suited for a summer thriller, she warns of a sinister conspiracy against women: “Over the last three decades, almost without our noticing, there has been a revolution in our idea of motherhood. This revolution was silent, prompting no outcry or debate, even though its goal was momentous: to put motherhood squarely back at the heart of women’s lives.” And being defined as a mother (God forbid: being determined by one’s body? by nature?) is for the Cartesian Badinter a no-no.
In Badinter’s account, this surreptitious backlash against emancipated women involves villains who look like angels (babies) and good guys (here, gals) who have yet to realize that their enemies are lurking under the guise of lovey-dovey pals (compassionate nurses pushing for breast-feeding; eco-friendly products that in the end add more tasks to a woman’s workload; and even certain feminists, who impose onto mothers unachievable ideals of maternal devotion). As in any good conspiracy theory, the end of the world as we know it is at stake. The dark forces of reaction and the brave soldiers of the Enlightenment are locked in a deadly battle: “An underground war is now being fought between naturalist and culturalist proponents of motherhood […], between people who claim to act as ‘advocates for the defense’ of children […], and women who refuse to see their hard-won freedoms eroded.” The apocalypse is near; the suspense nerve-racking: “We do not know what the outcome will be.” Spoiler alert: as in your typical French flick, the denouement is left up in the air at the end of the book, even though we get a clearer picture of who, according to the author, is on what side in this cosmological fight between Good and Evil (hint: Badinter is an eighteenth-century scholar).
I like drama as much as the next person, but Badinter has her plotline and villains wrong. More to the point, she goes on a quixotic fight against demographic trends that she never substantiates with hard facts. Her argument is twofold: she makes an historical claim (a new trend has women embracing an extreme version of mothering that impedes their true self-fulfillment and forces them back home) and a theoretical one (full-time motherhood is intrinsically alienating and in direct conflict with a woman’s identity). Both are on shaky ground.
An Inconvenient Truth
A “sacred alliance of reactionaries,” as Badinter tells it, is responsible for the return of the idea of the perfect mother. Chief among this alliance is the environmental movement and its reverence for a mythological “Nature.” This new “eco-biological prejudice” leads gullible mothers to forego epidurals, hire doulas, fret over baby bottles containing Bisphenal A (BPA), and care about the ecological impact of “the one ton of waste in the form of diapers” that a baby produces during its first thirty months of life (here Badinter goes into a surprisingly detailed evaluation of poop). To which Badinter responds (pardon my French): F— the trees.
Then there’s the brand of “essentialist” feminism that advocates gender difference and value in motherhood intrinsically “feminine” qualities unique to women, allowing mothers no choice but to shower their children with infinite amounts of disinterested affection and care, or else fall short. Add to this what Badinter refers to as the “new” responsibilities that come with our increased understanding of children’s physical, psychological, and cognitive development (now, incredibly enough, “mothers must communicate with their babies from birth, decipher their crying, their facial expressions…”), and it’s no wonder that a mother’s life has become exhausting. Even pregnancy has become a drag: “In the 1970s, pregnancy was something to be enjoyed”; now a mother is “strenuously discouraged from smoking a single cigarette (or a joint) or from drinking a drop of alcohol.” If the ideal way to balance motherhood and the pursuits of one’s pleasures is, as one fears it might be for Badinter, the system of wet nurses employed by the aristocracy in the eighteenth century, then, indeed, motherhood has become a real burden.
Badinter’s primary targets, however, are the La Leche League and the modern day imperative to breast-feed. Although she does not add any new material to Hanna Rosin’s 2009 Atlantic article on the topic, her chapter on the rise of the American pro-lactation movement and its victory on the ideological front is probably the most convincing in the book. But why the sound and the fury against breast-feeding on her part? If there is a societal norm in France it is overwhelmingly to not breast-feed. The table of breast-feeding rates in various countries she offers shows France as being literally off the charts, hovering around zero at six months postpartum (compared to 70% in Norway and 44% in the United-States).
On suspects that her angst comes from elsewhere: “There is no greater antithesis to the couple as lovers than the couple as parents,” warns Badinter. Implicit in her argument is the troubling assumption that a woman’s breasts belong not to her child, not to herself, but to the dad (apparently, the rest of her body belongs to her boss and the economic machine she needs to plug back into as soon as possible). In her 2012 page-turner, Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman, a U.S. expatriate mom of twins in the city of lights, was keenly aware of the innuendos of French cultural norms: what with perineum rehab reimbursed by social security after birth to ensure that women are tight and firm in all the right spots, a new mom had better be a hot mama again soon. Breast-feeding is just not sexy enough, as is baby-weight, which (I should know) a young Française has a moral imperative to drop within six weeks. While American moms are under the tyranny of babies, French ones are under the tyranny of sex. But Badinter has repeatedly chosen to turn a blind eye to that kind of alienation. During the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal in the summer of 2011, she violently condemned the “possible injustice” committed against her longtime friend Strauss-Kahn (now indicted in a prostitution scandal in France). Before that, she had attacked attempts to pass anti-sexual harassment laws in France in her book Dead End Feminism.
Some critics of The Conflict have pointed out that Badinter is at once the heiress and the largest single shareholder and Board Chair of Publicis, an advertising company which has signed hefty contracts with the likes of Nestlé, Pampers, and other corporations with a vested interest in the growth of the formula, diapers, and baby food markets. In an interview with Le Monde, Badinter herself attributed the origin of the book to the French government’s decision in 1998 to ban advertisement for and free samples of baby formula in public maternity wards. And yet, however tempting, it is unfair to dub the book The Conflict (Of Interest) too quickly. There is no reason to believe that Badinter is insincere. But her long-time dismissal of essentialist definitions of motherhood does not prevent her from being blinded by the dominant norms of mothering in the culture she comes from, and which she strongly defends.
In fact, the book sounds rather like an ode to French mothers, who valiantly resist the world-wide injunction to immolate their sense of self in the name of mother love, while still performing their social duty of replenishing the nation with new blood, scoring one of the highest birthrate in Europe. Badinter notes that countries with the highest fertility rates are those that embrace a more relaxed approach to parenting. The more you turn motherhood into boot-camp, she says, the less women line up to enlist. There are at least two problems with this theory: it’s factually flawed and it’s politically stinky.
Throughout the book, the author has an annoying tendency to cherry-pick her data. But even Badinter’s skewed tables should lead to more nuanced conclusions: instead of dropping with the emergence of the new “momism” trend she decries, fertility rates have been slightly rising after a big dip in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
If anything, Badinter should rejoice that women are less and less burdened by their offspring rather than deplore the drop in birth rates in Western nations. Yet she resorts to a sneaky, pro-natalist argument. Her discourse verges dangerously close to a race-based nationalist argument against the demographic decline of old nations. Why are immigrant populations, whose birth rates are historically higher, not good enough to counterbalance the lesser enthusiasm of the natives? She warns of the economic catastrophe of a generation (hers) of baby-boomers with fewer and fewer grandchildren stepping up to pay for the former’s retirement. But there is an easy way to compensate for demographic trends on the decline: it’s called immigration, which she omits to mention. One suspects that for someone who testified in front of the Parliament to support a ban on the Islamic veil, some births are more desirable than others.
A Quixotic Fight
More profoundly, Badinter’s overall claim that women are pushed back home and away from work is denied by data. In the United States alone, for the first time in history, women make about 50% of the workforce. And the proportion of women who go on the job market has steadily increased, from 43% in 1970 to 60% in 2007 (in the same interval, the proportion of men in the labor force declined). These figures are more striking when you consider women of child-bearing age: in France, 83 % of women aged 25-49 work or are looking for work, and this figure has been steadily rising — and never, ever, falling — since the 1950s. This looks to me like a pretty robust trend towards rather than away from work for women.
Looking at large-scale trends, one can hardly find a trace of the homebound journey that Badinter claims women are forced to take to obey the diktats of modern motherhood. In fact, the correlation might be the reverse in some cases: in the United States, rather than keeping mothers away from work, kids might well send them looking for more ways to pay for the unforgiving cost of childcare and education. And studies show that, in developed countries, the women most likely to breast-feed longer than six months, to take time away from work, and to dive into any of the extreme parenting fads that make motherhood sound like joining the army are the ones that are the most educated and the highest earners. In other words, there is something beyond gender at stake, something with an unsavory name one would tactfully avoid in the refined aristocratic circles that Badinter navigates: class.
Badinter herself has to admit that “for now” the trends she denounces don’t exist. After having argued that women stop working because it does not make economic sense for low-wage earners to spend their income on childcare, she concedes that the so-called “opt-out revolution” advertised in the New York Times in 2003 was mostly for professionals of the wealthy kind, and that “for now, the statistics of working women have remained fairly stable.” One wonders what is more frustrating: the casualness with which she massages statistics to suit her ideological needs, or her last-minute admission that most of what she fears is hypothetical?
Descartes too used speculative arguments to test the boundaries of knowledge, but the Evil Genius hypothesis (the hyperbolic skeptical argument that a God-like demon is constantly deceiving us) was for grander purposes than proving mere opinions about the alienating properties of breast-feeding and cloth diapers.
A Problem With Ethics
Then there is the theoretical argument of the subtitle, How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which pits motherhood against womanhood. If you accept without discussion that “hedonism” and “a passion for the self” not only are but should be the hallmarks of a good life, then I guess we can grant her premise that being a mother conflicts with a woman’s identity — and forego forming any meaningful relationship based on something a little more altruistic than self-interest.
Badinter, whose fortune is evaluated at over 460 million Euros, has a surprising tendency to conceptualize motherhood as an investment gone awry: “The moment a woman chooses to bring a child into the world for her own satisfaction [my emphasis], notions of giving are replaced by debt. The gift of life is transformed into an infinite debt toward a child that neither God nor nature insists you have and one who is bound to remind you at some point that he or she never asked to be born.” Never mind that a simpler way to rephrase this equation is that parenting (and not just motherhood) requires one to step back from the dominant model of market analysis and agree to give freely one’s time, energy, attention, money (in the United States as much as the price of a two-bedroom apartment in New York), and even that most irrational of gifts: love. For Badinter, one of the most damning aspects of modern motherhood is this notion of selflessness, which she takes to literally mean an abdication of the self (a self-less state) rather than the antonym to selfishness. Not once does she question the ethical value of “individualism.”
A forgetful historian, Badinter proves here to also be a poor moral philosopher. “Responsibility” is in her mouth a dirty word. Altruism, empathy, self-sacrifice, caring wholeheartedly for someone else: the bread and butter of parenting is viewed by Badinter as an atrocious vice leading to obscurantism, oppression, and the most hideous flaw of all — the loss of one’s “autonomy.” Children are never viewed as persons with whom mothers develop meaningful relationships (a “loving” one would be downright suspicious, smacking of an “essentialist” definition of maternal love), and very rarely as human beings. At best they stand in the way like very demanding pets or plants; at worst they are perverse tyrants sucking life out of their mother’s breasts. In Badinter’s view, only a few letters separate bonding from bondage.
Yet, as Badinter must acknowledge, kids continue to be born and someone will have to take care of them: if not their mothers, then caregivers and teachers, two professions that are still predominantly female. From wet nurses to daycare workers, outsourcing care and education seems to be the solution for Badinter. But these systems that supposedly promote gender equality actually reinforce class inequities. By a bizarre transfiguration, the same full-time attention required to take care of young children is called slavery when performed by parents but emancipation for the caregivers who are paid to do so (I doubt that the wet nurses of the eighteenth century, who were routinely raped to enable them to produce milk, thought about it that way). The logic that asserts that it’s liberating to wipe others’ babies’ bums but alienating when that little tush comes from yours sounds a little skewed. What Badinter fails to see is that it is not a zero sum game: one woman’s “freedom” from the vicissitudes of childrearing is another woman’s alienation. The mothering does happen: it is only outsourced to other, less fortunate, and mostly female workers.
Badinter asks a legitimate question: whom does all the back-to-Nature rhetoric serve? But the same question could be applied to her ideas about pushing women into the workforce at all cost. Looking at the recent trend of career-driven alpha girls whom Kay S. Hymowitz describes in Manning Up, or at their “superwomen” mothers of the ‘80s, one can legitimately wonder whose interests are ultimately best served by the rise in numbers of this generally cheaper, dedicated, obedient female workforce, and by the new dogma that work is the ultimate measure of self-worth, or even, where the self resides.
Not surprisingly for the heir of existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, Badinter seems to posit that a woman’s existence precedes her essence. You are what you do, not what your XX chromosomes tell you to be. It is unfortunate that second wave feminists like her tend to limit the range of worthy self-defining actions to the mandated “work as self-fulfillment” imperative that serves our current economy so well.
Descartes praised Reason above all, attempting to prove God’s existence by reasonable means alone. One wishes that Badinter, in her discussion of the new God Baby religion, had been a little more Cartesian in method and much more Pascalian at heart. To Descartes, Pascal famously replied: “The heart has reasons that Reason cannot fathom.”
A longer version of this review was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and can be found here.