Vive la France !

Badinter seeks to demonstrate how the philosophy of “naturalism” which gives primacy to me. Elisabeth Badinter the celebrated French feminist and philosopher though probably sets out to demonstrate this truth scientifically in her book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, originally published in French in 2010.

Motherhood over other aspects of women’s role has retarded gender equality. Some countries have been more vulnerable than others to this approach. America of course is a sink of “naturalism”, despite the well-documented epidemic of caesarian-sections and the medicalization of health care in general and child-birth in particular, of which Badinter seems unaware.

Other countries which have fallen prey to over-emphasis on the role of mother in the total package of women’s identity are Germany, Japan and Italy as she sees as clearly demonstrated by their respective languages: “the German ‘mutter’, the Italian ‘mamma’ and the Japanese ‘kenbo’ project a mythical aura of motherhood at once sacrificial and all-powerful. By contrast the specter of the French ‘maman’ and the English ‘mommy’ seems rather insubstantial”. There is perhaps a contradiction here which she has not explored…. Aren’t UK and US ‘mommies’ also in the grip of naturalism?

At any rate, the term “English” is often used rather broadly, as the equivalent of “Not-French” though it appears on occasion to reference the UK-specifically as in “an astonishing 20 per cent of English babies regularly or occasionally wear cloth diapers”. Be very astonished.

Counter-intuitively the unlikely trio of comparators Germany, Italy and Japan have experienced a decline in the birth-rate as women are less prepared to take on an “all-or-nothing” attitude to motherhood.

Against all global odds and trends France and French women display a totally different attitude to motherhood according to the statistics she has chosen. In France the birth-rate has remained relatively steady at around 2.0 with even a slight rise in 2009 which is the latest figure shown. French women (“as wives, mothers, professionals”) show an undiminished appetite not only for reproduction but smoking and drinking during pregnancy, contraception, abortion and bottle-feeding, and outsourcing infants at an early age whilst still doing enough to keep the population stable. The chapter “French Women: A Special Case” gives an added dimension to the expression “vive la difference!”.

According to Badinter, the source of French women’s “nonchalant” attitude to motherhood derives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when “the model of the ideal woman has not been limited to motherhood”. And as ever some are more equal than others…including a few of those English…”Liberated from the burdens common elsewhere eighteenth century French women (and English) from the highest ranks of society enjoyed the greatest freedom of any women in the world”.

Throughout the book Badinter downplays the influence of political, legal, religious , economic and even marital factors on reproductive choice in favour of such choices being a strictly private matter; “the outcome of an intimate dialogue between a woman and herself and has nothing to do with an ideological stance”. It is doubtful that Chinese women – to take just one example- would agree.

The “naturalism” approach, essentially the equivalent of the “New Domesticity” is crystallized in a number of organizations and movements – notably the La Leche League and the United Nations WHO/UNICEF Baby Friendly Hospitals Initiative (BFHI) – which Badinter treats with appropriate disdain. France has consistently held out against the BFHI, a programme which has greatly reduced infant and neonatal mortality associated with unhygienic bottle-feeding in many countries; but then as she wisely says, Paris is not the Sudan.

Badinter presents a number of statistical tables usually without clear sources or dates. National statistics of course mask many differences among any population even of women – socio-economic status, age, ethnicity, confession – and some of these are raised and dismissed. The Irish though showing some similarities with the French have religion to deal with; and the large immigrant population in France has had no noticeable effect on the birth-rate.

Adopting Badinter’s methodology it is interesting to assess through other sets of national statistics the level of gender equality French women have achieved by their enlightened approach to motherhood. In the Gender Gap Index 2012 produced by the World Economic Forum,( based on inequalities between women and men in economic opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival), France perches at a modest 57 out of 130; just between Israel and Madagascar. Some of those countries expected to be in the grip of naturalism still seem to coming in ahead in the equality stakes; the UK at 18, the US at 22. And the triplets of comparators Germany, Italy, and Japan at 13, 80 and 101 respectively.

Which only goes to show that these kinds of tables whilst eagerly awaited every year do not tell us very much and should not be unpacked to demonstrate particular theories.

The author cherry-picks other information across centuries and sources – Marie-Claire to Charles Darwin and in that order- to support her argument of the uniqueness of French women. Skillfully and sometimes even wittily she sets up straw men to demolish by her arguments; notably the Ten Commandments of Breastfeeding from “the Alternamoms website”. She is not always well-served by the translation and often the English-speaking reviewer is left to wonder whether this book… or perhaps it is a collection of essays produced for other outlets such as the engaged “glossies” ( Marie-Claire?) -is just an elaborate intellectual’s joke whereby Badinter is in fact poking fun at, rather than buying into, the well-established stereotype of French women as being quintessentially different and superior from the rest of human kind. It would perhaps have been more interesting had she focused only on France as other countries are only cited to prove what she wants to say about the uniqueness of French women. She might more profitably have reviewed the forces behind and bolstering the famous stereotype and investigated what its existence signifies for French women and men.

All this having been said the book should not be judged for what it is not. And there are many things one can agree with, including the statement that no country has yet achieved gender equality by its own or other’s judgment. However, both the analytical approach and the conclusions reached suggest that this is not intended as a scholarly work nor aimed at experts in the field. For débutantes to the arguments it will undoubtedly provide an exciting, provocative, and even dangerous, few hours.

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