Once upon a time, in the 1960s and ’70s, foes of female emancipation were clearly identifiable by their sexist-pig attitudes. Now, however, the greatest threat is far more insidious, writes Elisabeth Badinter in the English translation of her controversial 2010 book Le Conflit: la femme et la mère. As the influential French feminist argues, the reverence for “natural” motherhood that has taken grip since the 1980s among liberals has heralded a far more oppressive master of the house, this one in a BabyBjörn and onesie.
A sharp, engaging and iconoclastic writer, Badinter nimbly traces the forces that have combined to glorify maternal sacrifice: the rise of “green politics”; ethology, or behavioural science based on animal models that celebrates mother-child bonding; and “essential feminism,” which holds the “good” mother co-sleeps and provides on-demand breast-feeding as dictated by the evangelically conservative La Leche League.
The upshot, Badinter argues, has been regressive: on one hand, women are besieged by anxiety and guilt over being judged “bad mothers.” On the other, women are opting out of motherhood because they can’t reconcile increasingly burdensome maternal responsibilities with personal fulfillment.
Badinter, a mother of three, is a clever observer who occasionally makes sweeping pronouncements. That French women have historically managed to reject “all-or-nothing motherhood” may be short-lived, she suggests, an odd comment that discredits women’s ability to choose for themselves.
Still, her bracing, timely thesis deserves the broader cultural conversation it stoked in France. “Woman” is no longer synonymous with “mother,” Badinter claims, noting childless women “prove that there are no absolute or essential characteristics that separate women from men.” Conflicted attitudes toward motherhood also reveal unspoken truths, she writes: “Since the advent of contraception, women’s identities have splintered and diversified. The inability to acknowledge this smacks of wilful blindness.” And if any book can smack those scales from the eyes, it’s this one.