"The Conflict": Encore? Vraiment? Or, mama's got a brand new whig.

Apparently, Le Conflit:  la femme et la mère by Elisabeth Badinter is big news in the Anglophone world now that it’s been translated.  (The title is usually translated as The Conflict:  the woman and the mother, a clunky and literal-to-a-fault translation if ever I saw one.)  The book was in the European press a great deal back in March, when I was in Paris for a week.  Well, according to more than one friend and reader, the “Fashion & Style” section of the New York Times has deigned to notice the book.  (Yes, that’s right:  feminism, motherhood, and la Querelle de Femmes is all just “Fashion & Style,” not fit for the Op-Ed pages, and not the news pages or the book reviews.  Why don’t they just go ahead and call it the “Women’s Page” again?)

I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds intriguing.  The French are always much more serieux about their intellectual disagreements.  I get the sense too that feminism in France has always been understood to be a multifaceted social justice movement–le conflit among feminisms is inevitable and nothing new there, but in the Anglophone press which likes to manufacture girl fights, le conflit happens whenever a woman expresses an opinion on anything and another woman disagrees with her.

So just for fun, here’s the summary in the NYT.  Spoiler alert:  pay attention to the last sentence! 

In [the book, Badinter] contends that the politics of the last 40 years have produced three trends that have affected the concept of motherhood, and, consequently, women’s independence. First is what she sums up as “ecology” and the desire to return to simpler times; second, a behavioral science based on ethology, the study of animal behavior; and last, an “essentialist” feminism, which praises breast-feeding and the experience of natural childbirth, while disparaging drugs and artificial hormones, like epidurals and birth control pills. 

All three trends, Ms. Badinter writes, “boast about bringing happiness and wisdom to women, mothers, family, society and all of humankind.” But they also create enormous guilt in a woman who can’t live up to a false ideal. “The specter of the bad mother imposes itself on her even more cruelly insofar as she has unconsciously internalized the ideal of the good mother,” she writes.

Ms. Badinter, 66, a professor at the elite École Polytechnique, says that the baby has now become “the best ally of masculine domination.”  [Ed. note:  good line!  But of course we can’t explore that idea in the New York Times.]

It is an argument likely to resonate among American women who must decide whether to embrace the notion that breast-feeding, washing diapers and remaining home with their children is morally or politically superior to pursuing a career.

Whigged out!

Yes, I’ll repeat that last sentence again for its sparkling lack of originality, since it could have been written in 1820, 1848, 1870, 1895, 1915, 1942, 1968, 1987, and/or 2010:  It is an argument likely to resonate among American women who must decide whether to embrace the notion that breast-feeding, washing diapers and remaining home with their children is morally or politically superior to pursuing a career.  Just for today, let’s ignore the fact that most women don’t have a “decision” to make about remaining in the paid labor force, m’kay?  Let’s pretend, as the New York Times pretends, that all women are white, middle-class or upper middle-class native born women whose labor isn’t necessarily needed to keep their families alive, fed, clothed, and sheltered.  Even then, that sentence makes no sense whatsoever, so once again, we award the Whig of Illusory Progress to the New York Times!

Good lord.  There really is no history or memory of feminism or feminist activism in this country, is there?  And whose interests does that serve, friends?  It’s the Groundhog Day of social justice movements, in which each generation “rediscovers” these same stupid “conflicts” over and over again, and is distracted by fighting with other women without ever asking, who manufactured “the conflict?” 

But, back to Badinter.  I have to read the book–her ideas about ecofeminism and essentialism resonate with what I’ve seen and observed myself, but again, I have to read the book.  Nevertheless, reading the New York Times appears once again to be a colossal waste of time if you want to learn anything about teh wimminz.

0 thoughts on “"The Conflict": Encore? Vraiment? Or, mama's got a brand new whig.

  1. Only in the NYT do women choose between washing diapers and breast-feeding on the one hand, and a career on the other. Because they can’t do both, and no one just has a job…


  2. Given that we seem to have re-set “structural” unemployment at 10% now, and given that we’ve had so many many news stories calling this a “mancession,” letting us know that unemployment is “truly” hitting men and not women, I expect a real concerted backlash effort to get women out of the workforce and back into the home — and I think that some of the focus we’re seeing on this new “back to the land” movement is part of that: Women! Raise chickens for organic eggs; raise lettuce and tomatoes in your backyard; don’t use the clothes dryer but use a clothesline; don’t drive but walk or ride bikes everywhere.

    Buying organic, growing our own food, cutting back on energy usage, spending more time in the preparation of meals — all of these are acts with value — but they’re also a real time/work suck — and who — in a household, anyway, of heterosexual couple with children — is going to pay the work/time price to make these changes?

    Won’t it be patriotic and also romantically dutiful for a woman to take on the work/time effort required, so that the man can be the one employed? I can see the posters and the PSAs now.


  3. I’m glad you wrote about this — I read the review and the line about babies being the best ally of masculine domination jumped out at me, too. I think some vague consciousness of precisely that dynamic is an important reason why having children never appealed to me.

    I find analyses like these very timely and interesting. I can see the appeal of natural childbirth, ecologically-conscious choices, etc…. but I do think these choices only work for that small subset of women who can afford the time to pursue them. I have a friend who does all these things with her first child, but neither she nor her husband works in the conventional way. They live on a small farm she purchased, in full, 15 years ago when she was a rich, dot-com kid; the husband telecommutes a little and they grow most of their own food. This friend is a wonderful candidate for the ecofeminist-mothering lifestyle, and that’s exactly what she does. But an urban mom who must work a 40-hour week? Not so much.

    Another book you might enjoy, which presents some similar arguments about essentialism, is Cynthia Eller, *The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.* I teach this book. Eller argues that much wiccan, “womanist” spirituality is strongly essentialized around a similar vision of maternity and bodiliness — she points the degree to which feminist spirituality is organized around many of the same ideals about women’s roles and natures — nurturing, bodily, empathetic, non-competitive, non-analytic, etc — that the far right uses to argue that women’s place is in the home. She points out that the Spiritual Left and the Religious Right thus are advancing identical arguments, albeit in different tones and with a different source of value and authority attached to those roles.


  4. The NYT is full of what I call “how to get Chateau Margaux out of mink” (the challenges of wealth) type articles. Case in point: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/your-money/29wealth.html?src=me&ref=business

    The Vows section tells you all you need to know about “feminism” in the Gray Lady. Their notion of women still rests on where she went to college (Smith, Barnard – yes. community college, night school in electronics repair – no), who her parents are (Professors, wall street bankers, surgeons – yes. Migrant workers, factory employees, short order cooks – no). They make a bold step to admit that the bride “will be keeping her own name”.


  5. Great topic Historiann, as usual. I have an interesting twist on “le conflict”- working a very good job in public history from my home. Our group is spread over the country and our work is such that is better to work remotely than out of an office. When I told family and friends about this arrangement, many immediately said “oh! Now you can have kids since you work at home!” Others expect me to have all the household chores done and dinner on the table by six while doing my full-time job. Fortunately my spouse doesn’t have those same expectations but seeks to share those household responsibilities, after we’re both done working.

    What I find so interesting is that once a female enters the four walls of the home she is no longer ____-career-woman, but homemaker, mother, caretaker. In my position, embracing “the notion that breast-feeding, washing diapers and remaining home with their children…” has now become conflated with… “pursuing a career,” as those “home-duties” share space with my career. I am fortunate that I will be able to be with my children while working at home in the future, but don’t appreciate the division of or choice between work and home. I don’t see this changing though anytime soon. Studying architectural history has taught me that people and cultures have defined, unassailable ideas about bodies and space. Home + female = homemaker not careermaker.


  6. “The French are always much more serieux…” An interesting retro-Franco take on (some of) these questions is just available in Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, “Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist?” in _The Journal of Modern History_ (March, 2010), 1-29. It would seem that closing the women’s political clubs and guillotining Olympe de Gouges and Manon Roland was a sort of an impulsive aftermath to a more complicated ideological career.


  7. Rachel, I love this: “Studying architectural history has taught me that people and cultures have defined, unassailable ideas about bodies and space. Home + female = homemaker not careermaker.” Excellent, excellent point. (Realistically, how can you stay home and have a job and raise children? I mean, without doing a less-than-half-assed job of each.) It’s so interesting (and by interesting, I mean “infuriating”) that a female body in domestic space = working for anyone but herself.

    Squadrato, thanks for the tip on the Eller book. I was just talking to someone who says that she lives amidst a left-wing cell of home schoolers. Yet, there’s nothing “leftist” about the work arrangements, which always locate female labor in domestic space and make sure that it’s unpaid, uncompensated, and trivial to the nth degree. One woman has manufactured fear of all kinds of things in her healthy, non-allergic children–peanut butter, wheat, gluten, etc.–so that they eat only what *she* prepares for them. She won’t permit them to visit a neighbor’s house for fear that the children will be “contaminated” by the ideas, food, and lifestyles of their neighbors.

    (And that’s just crazzy.) But my point is: there’s nothing “left wing” about home schooling as it’s practiced in the U.S. today. The message might be left wing, but the medium is unpaid women’s labor, and what’s revolutionary or resistant about that?


  8. Babies aren’t the best ally of masculine domination; classifying any child care outside the home as Satanic, neglectful or molestative did the trick — and that happened just when the inflation/globalization of the 70s made women working outside the home a survival skill.

    Normalizing the re-centering of family life around child care and development (even though work outside the home consumed more hours and resources) was simply the economic excuse for the successful push the Moral Majority could make. Even if you weren’t fundamentalist, it was now safe to give up your career to let homeschooling give your bright kids a headstart in college applications. *You’re smarter than a drone with a teaching college degree, right? That assumption gives no credit to the emotional intelligence teachers must have with kids, or the school systems that can deal with behavioral and cultural differences that’s not from scratch.

    The highbrow mommy cults that grew around those assumptions came after the loss of the possibility of men becoming equal breadwinners and housemakers — a way of responding to the anxieties described in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, without that pesky F-word….


  9. Yes, I’ll repeat that last sentence again for its sparkling lack of originality

    Well, I kind of liked the last sentence. The push to get women back in the home isn’t of relevance only to upper-class women with the economic resources to do so. It’s relevant to any woman whose educational or job opportunities might be limited by society’s or her family’s assumption that she doesn’t need to work on a career since she’s just going to end up staying home. It’s relevant to any woman whose work hours and child care options are affected by the belief that society should be structured around a single-breadwinner family.

    The Vows section tells you all you need to know about “feminism” in the Gray Lady.

    The Vows section profiles accomplished women, often in their 30’s or older and often marrying younger men. For single women who think they may want to get married eventually, it’s a big deal to see anything that contradicts the messages we’re bombarded with about expiration dates and biological clocks and being more likely to be attacked by a terrorist. I think it’s the most feminist section in the paper in some ways.


  10. Why just today I was reading about how women that leave their children for more than a couple hours are dooming them to a life of “regression.” I hope that means that the kid will get smaller and smaller until they vanish into a speck of dust. It was a fascinating discussion because the child in question would have spent the night alone with his… father. Oh no! A 15 month old alone for a whole night with his dad!

    I now teach at a school with a large, respected Child Development program. It seems to be staffed largely by women and have largely female graduates. From what I can tell, although I haven’t looked into it too closely, this school is a actually a *source* of a lot of the anti-women, heteronormative discourse in my city. I know three women with Master’s Degrees from the program that have never used them (okay, I’m not sure about 1 of them, but the other 2 got the degrees and just continued to stay at home with their kids). On the local email lists, people regularly post studies (or is that “studies”) about how horrible women are for having careers, saying “I took a Child Development Course at Local University.” What gives??!?! I am choosing to believe that these people have poor reading comprehension skills, were C students, etc., but I’m becoming increasingly interested in this entire field.

    Of course, I benefit from this program everyday because my son’s day care is staffed by its students and graduates.


  11. Ah, maternal feminism as a justification for keeping women out of the public sphere and the workforce. Didn’t we see very much these same arguments in nineteenth century publications?

    The Whig of Illusory Progress always comes back into fashion, I find. *sigh*


  12. Wini: interesting points. It seems like the childcare industry is captive to all of this rhetoric about perfect mothering, too. And, let’s face it: they’re in a terrible position training people who are doomed to lives of low wage work, because of the very low esteem we as a culture put on caring for young children. The only way out of that trap is either to go into academia or enter the managerial track. It’s very sad and disturbing to see the effects this construction of motherhood has on the people who spend their days caring for other people’s children–as though that’s not work that entitles them to a living wage, health care, and a middle-class life of their own.

    As Janice says, “The Whig of Illusory Progress always comes back into fashion, I find.” There is little new under the sun for women. And as Susan pointed out way upthread, making the “choice” between either breastfeeding and cloth diapers, OR a career, is idiotic reductionism as well as nothing new.


  13. Pingback: An organic cotton layette of one’s own? (Srsly?) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. What I like is being congratulated, in breathy tones, for being able to continue to work AND nurse my babies. It’s just “awesome” and “amazing” that I am able to write papers and go away (for some 30 hours) to a nearby conference. Everyone wants to know how it was, you know, being apart from them. Wasn’t it hard?!?

    Um. It was restorative and I finally got some sleep. They were fine, I was fine, and look, I still have a career.

    It’s difficult carving out the time to work a bit every day, but jeezus fuck. I nurse them, they wear cloth diapers, and yes, I still am a medievalist. And I nurse them and diaper them thus largely because I’m cheap. There are two of them. That’s a lotta formula and huggies.


  15. I wonder if the strong pro-motherhood feeling is at least partly inspired by a backlash against the perception that the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s was hostile to motherhood and raising children, and that it only valued careers outside the home. That might not have really been the case, but I think that many people perceived it that way.


  16. Paul, I wasn’t there, but I think the 60s and 70s version of feminism didn’t devalue motherhood and childrearing. Betty Friedan in particular took a keen interest in the welfare of children. But enemies of the movement chose to spin the second wave that way, finding an anti-motherhood agenda in its strong endorsement of abortion rights and the opportunity for women to pursue careers. I would say that “the strong pro-motherhood feeling” on display here is more of a continuation of decades-long resistance to feminism than a backlash against anything.


  17. That’s my understanding of the history, LadyProf, and of the politics of the times. Constructing feminism as an attack on the family is out of a very old playbook–that’s how it was criticized back in the 19th C. But actual organized feminists were very much advocates for breastfeeding rights for women, for paid maternity leave, and for all sorts of policies that are very family-friendly. But they were also women-friendly, which is why the movement was characterized as about selfishness and shirking family. (I’m not a 20th C historian, though, so all caveats apply and others are welcome to correct/amend/revise my comments here.)


  18. They were having some of these same arguments in France during the 1790s, over the supposed “naturalness” of sex roles and the likely familial-dynamics impacts of certain public policy choices. The National Convention’s committee on public instruction kept issuing recommendations for plans of equal access to education for girls and women. It set right with some deputees, not with others. Gilbert Romme famously harrangued his colleagues in the spring of 1793 to the effect that “all men have an equal right to liberty, no matter their age, sex, or color.” These debates over schooling went directly to questions about citizenship and access to voting and governance. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Romme’s colleagues sentenced him to the guillotine two years later, which he avoided by stabbing himself.

    It’s really a surprising cross, though, for an *early* modernist, to find a footnote in a journal today recommending that I go read Elisabeth Badinter, _Paroles d’Hommes, Condorcet, Prudhomme, Guyomar (1790-1793)_. It’s in French, though, that’s the only thing…


  19. I just got a copy of a really interesting article by Ellen Willis (one of the first female rock critics, later a professor at NYU) about feminism and family. It was published in the Village Voice in 1979 and was sparked by Willis’s deep engagement with feminism along with her realization that she would not be having children because of a series of very good decisions she had made about her career.

    It was very thoughtful, and it makes me happy that the Voice put it on their front page. It also demonstrates how much family, children, and motherhood were deeply entwined in the feminist movements of the 1970.


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