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The Conflict, by Elisabeth Badinter.

June 10, 2012

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter. New York : Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2011.

A controversal book claiming that increased pressure to be “natural mothers” is holding back women’s advancement in our society.

Combining motherhood with a meaningful life outside the home is certainly one of the major issues for women today, whether or not we are feminists. I definitely agree with Badinter that we need to stop thinking of all women as mothers. I also agree that as a society we need to be supportive of mothers rather than demand that they meet ridiculous expectations. I have major problems, however, with Badinter’s claim that various groups are pressuring women to devote their whole lives to natural, time-consuming mothering and thus threatening women’s advancement in the world outside their homes.

In 1981, Badinter published Motherlove, an important book on the history of motherhood in which she identified the ways in which Rosseau and others helped establish the ideal of women of the literate classes who were to be totally devoted to their children, an ideal that flourished through the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Now she thinks she sees a similar movement today taking away the gains which women have achieved in public leadership roles over the past thirty years. Her claim that women are again yielding to pressure to devote themselves solely to their children, however, is not convincing.

Conflict is a sprawling, loosely organized book full of angry attacks on anyone who says anything that might be interpreted as encouraging women to have and nurse babies. Badinter defines the enemy of feminism as an ill-defined cluster of writers who encourage “natural motherhood,” a particularly time-consuming type of total commitment to a child based on alleged biological or natural principles. Her villains include everyone from child-care experts and anthropologists to feminist and advocates of a lifestyle less dependent on technology. But again she sees danger in statements never meant to limit women’s access to the public world. She considers concern over health problems caused by birth control pills or dangerous ingredients in plastic baby bottles as propaganda of those who would want women to have and nurse more babies.

Badinter seriously misrepresents some of those she attacks by claiming that they make extreme statements of biological determinism when they do not. For example, when Sharon Hrdy writes about “mother instinct,” she explicitly limits her claims to the biological response which a mother may feel when an infant nurses. She does not claim that mother instinct is something all mothers feel. None the less, Badinter takes her to task for her positive description of how nursing may feel to a mother.

Among Badinter’s complaints is that feminists have taken a “U-turn” away from gender as the primary reason for women’s social inequality to essentialism, which is understood as biologically based differences between men and women. Perhaps that is true in France where Badinter lives and writes, but she is obviously writing for an international audience and her claim is not true for the United States. Here gender is still a prevailing concern, especially in academic settings. And again she attacks writers as essentialists by taking words out of context. In fact, the tension between essentialism and gender, between a fight to be equal or superior to men, has been always been present in feminism and a position accepting the value of both is credible. Yet Badinter has no patience for such a position.

Nursing babies is a particular bugaboo for Badinter, and she devotes a long section of her book to vicious attacks on those who would encourage it. The La Leche League is a prime villain. Badinter makes of point of discussing all the negative effects on a marriage that nursing and the other demands an infant can have on the relationship of husband and wife. As elsewhere her complaints are overblown. Nursing for three years would probably interrupt a woman’s career, but it need not mean the end of it. I can at least imagine a woman able to work from home on a computer while nursing a baby on demand, but that would require the flexibility of an employer. I nursed my daughter that long and afterward returned to grad school, earned my Ph.D. and had a successful career. And I would never claim she is “better” for the experience than her sister who was premature and spent six weeks in an incubator.

Badinter’s fierce opposition to nursing seems out of proportion to the various issues facing women who seek to combine being mothers with wage-earning or a career. In fact, she notes that many women are doing just that but she does little to explore just what that means. She also notes that mothers of children return to employment either for necessity or by choice, but fails to address the fact that some mothers have little choice. Neither does she adequately address the increasing numbers of women who are raising children without husbands. Badinter claims that the loss of jobs for women in the declining economy of the 1990s meant that more women were choosing to be full-time mothers, but she does not explore what the larger depression of the present means in terms of the mothering options for women who have to take on additional jobs to make up for lost wages.

As a society, we need to rethink what it means for significant numbers of women to choose not to have children or to combine motherhood with commitments to jobs and careers. Badinter’s book, with its emphasis on mother/infant bonds, only confuses the real issues. We need to know more about how women are negotiating the dual demands they face and what support they need. Badinter dismisses any expectation that fathers become more involved in child rearing as unrealistic. Perhaps, but the fathers who are assuming major roles in the care of infants and small children are the ones that have the job flexibility to do so. Maybe that is a clue as to what is needed for both women and men to be better parents.

I am also bothered by Basinter’s unquestioning acceptance of nations’ need to raise birth rates. I understand the need for the next generation of workers to provide pensions and keep an economy running, but I also understand the problem of overpopulating the globe with more people than it can sustain.

I disagree with Badinter’s claim that “motherhood undermines the status of women.” The status of women will continue to be undermined until we respect the fact that some women will continue to be mothers and develop support systems for those women. Instead of the stark polarization between those women who mother and those who do not, I see the need for more flexibility for all women; those who are privileged enough to choose to mother fulltime, those who choose not to mother, and those who, by choice or necessity, do both.

Women need to learn to think of themselves as having multiple identities, one of which is mother, if they are to avoid the guilt so often pushed on them for not being perfect. In addition, we need societies which value women in all of these roles and offer concrete support for them and their children.

As Badinter makes clear, the USA is far behind other nations in supporting child rearing, a policy which results in more child poverty than almost any other industrialized nation. With current calls for austerity, our Republican party is making deep cuts into the little help our government gives. Their “war of women” has attacked reproductive rights, making abortions more difficult to obtain or to provide. There are now several states where it is not possible to get an abortion even though they remain legal. Some Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures have attacked the use of contraception and are fighting to remove it from health insurance coverage. In addition, assistance to women with children in poverty is being cut along with education and health programs for women and children. Ending such programs also means the loss of jobs for teachers and social workers, groups who are disproportionately women. Politicians pushing for such measures, not mothers or feminists, are the ones who are undermining women.

Although I disagree with much of what Badinter says, I share her anger about what is happening to mothers and children. Instead of blaming each other, all of us who care about women and children need to insuring that women who choose to mother full time, not to have children, or to combine motherhood with jobs and careers have the best possible support for doing so. We need to make the needs of infants and children and their mothers a major social priority rather than blaming mothers for all our problems.

I read a review copy of this book from Henry Holt.

I am ambivalent about recommending others to read Conflict, because it is so full of misrepresentations and errors.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2012 1:30 am

    Have you read The Invisible Heart? It talks *a lot* about what society should do re: child care, etc. and does it in a way I think you’d find more helpful.

    • June 28, 2012 5:52 pm

      SOOOO glad to hear from you again. I’ve missed your comments and suggestions. No. I haven’t heard of The Invisible Heart but I will start looking for it.


  1. Motherhood and Feminism, by Amber Kinser. « Me, you, and books

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