Mothers Beware!

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
French children at an école maternelle, or free public nursery school, Neuilly-sur-Seine


The American presidential election campaign shot out of the blocks with a testy ideological exchange begun when a Democratic Party commentator, Hilary Rosen, derided Mrs. Mitt Romney as a woman who “never worked a day in her life.” Mrs. Romney retorted in a public tweet that raising five boys was plenty hard work, and got a speedy apology from Rosen and other Democrats, with Michelle Obama seeming to lean toward Ann Romney: “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” TV coverage of the Romney–Rosen exchange was apt also to resurrect memories of Hillary Clinton’s famous observation in 1992 that she could have stayed home and baked cookies, a sneer that then as now infuriated women not working outside the home.

As long as children need to be born and taken care of, certain disputes, now renamed “the war on women,” seem irreducible about the woman’s place, with established political equations (stay-at-home mom = Republican; working mom = Democrat), even when these aren’t universally the case, as plenty of stay-at-home moms plan to vote Democratic, and vice versa. In the meantime, the conflict between motherhood and career remains as divisive as any of the other cultural issues that viscerally affect Americans, though in the Rosen–Romney exchange, all sides agreed that Rosen should have acknowledged the serious work of motherhood by at least phrasing it that Mrs. Romney had “never had a paying job” (my italics).

A well-timed translation of a best seller by a respected French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, weighs into the debate: The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Jane Kramer, in a penetrating recent New Yorker profile,* has described Badinter as an “extravagantly entitled feminist philosophe,” a wealthy intellectual married to an influential senator and former minister of justice—well-known for having abolished the death penalty—who has herself taught at an elite French institution, the École Polytechnique. Long an influential figure in France, she had also made an impact with an earlier book entitled, in English, Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981), which contends that the maternal instinct is not innate but a learned cultural response, at least in France. As she acknowledges in The Conflict, “French mothers have a bad reputation….It is clear that [they] are not all that keen on staying at home or breast-feeding,” and she has many things to say in the defense of their right to be “bad.” She goes on to express the fear that young Frenchwomen have been sacrificing their hard-won claims to social equality by falling for attempts to convince them that they have no higher calling or more satisfying accomplishment than motherhood.

The argument of The Conflict is, briefly, that social forces—parents and in-laws, psychologists, doctors, the Church, crusaders, society in general—are redoubling their attempts to make women feel…

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