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Mothers Beware!

Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos
French children at an école maternelle in Normandy

But there are many signs that the nostalgic antifeminism Badinter sees approaching in France is already well installed in the US. Nearly a thousand bills have been proposed and sometimes passed in Congress and state legislatures, since 2011 alone, against the inclusion of contraception in health plans, mandating intrusive vaginal ultrasounds before abortion, requiring counseling and other medical measures designed to discourage having one, repealing other protections for women, and redefining rape and personhood. One visible example was Rush Limbaugh’s recent attack on a woman as a “slut” for testifying on women’s contraception before a congressional committee; and there are daily other examples of conservative antifeminism, or at least indifference.

Badinter and anthropologists like Hrdy say that the key trigger of reaction against these freedoms, in developed societies as much as in Afghanistan, is when women try to control their own fertility. Badinter of course has evidence and statistics, and she blames, besides women themselves, the La Leche League and, perhaps mistakenly, anthropologists like Hrdy, whom she scorns for offering hymns “to the efficiency of nature,” always somewhat antipathetic to the Cartesian French. It’s not entirely easy to untangle arguments based, as these ultimately are, on the hope that people can agree on what is natural, for instance whether humans have or don’t have an innate wish for children, or whether obstetrical anesthesia is natural. And even if something is natural, does that make it obligatory or desirable? Can progress be defined as the measure of the extent to which we suppress or manage our natural instincts in favor of some collective good? Or do we flout the natural at our peril?


One particular issue has seized Badinter’s attention: “The irony of this history is that it was precisely at the point that Western women finally rid themselves of patriarchy that they acquired a new master in the home.” She means the breast-fed baby, symbol of women’s oppression. Advocacy of breast-feeding seems to her much more freighted with oppressive significance than it may to many Americans; breast-feeding is now the norm for infant feeding in the US—where some 73.9 percent of mothers do it—and a number of developed countries except France, where it seems to be viewed as mildly disgusting, an aversion that may partly be inherited from the aristocrats of the eighteenth century when suckling your own infant was a practice associated with the lower classes (as the reader will remember from her first shocked reading of Rousseau where he abandons his newborns to orphanages and wet nurses and rarely sees them again). There’s also a widespread belief that nursing spoils your breasts. One book on comparative health attitudes gives the interesting statistic that while American plastic surgeons do twice as many breast augmentations as in France, the French have many more breast reductions.

Where frequency of nursing is concerned, the French are at the bottom of the chart (only the Irish are worse), having resisted it, according to Badinter, in the name of freedom: “French mothers balk at playing the role expected of them, and successive governments over the last thirty years have dragged their feet in bringing the country into line with the WHO requirements” that see breast-feeding as desirable. She says this proudly of her countrywomen and is fearful they may be softening on the issue. Badinter criticizes stepped-up efforts to make the French more pro-lactation, and she questions claims that breast-feeding is beneficial, an issue one had thought more or less beyond dispute—though she remains skeptical, and finds it difficult to believe that anyone would want to do it:

If breast-feeding is a right, then is not breast-feeding also a right? Are Norwegian and Swedish women able to exercise their freedom of choice and refuse to conform to this moral and social norm?… It is hard to know what women really think about breast-feeding when they keep their feelings of ambivalence to themselves.

In her discussion, in a tone of slight revulsion, we see that for her, breastfeeding is an aesthetic issue as well as one fraught with implications for personal freedoms and egalitarian principles:

If breast-feeding is the trigger for maternal attachment, what of those who have never breast-fed, as is the case with millions of mothers? Do they love their children any less than mothers who did breast-feed?

Much of her attack is focused on the La Leche League, which many American mothers will remember from their day in the maternity hospital as a band of earnest, helpful women you could ask about nipple salves, and whom Badinter with some reason thinks of as proto-Nazi opponents of female freedom, practically a cult, now bent on depriving poor African women of the benefits of modern infant formula. She goes on to trace and deplore the success of the La Leche League in getting UNICEF and the WHO to mount global campaigns of publicity and education to encourage breast-feeding: “Unquestioningly accepting the claims of inferior health in bottle-fed children, advocates failed to differentiate between the general health of a baby born in the Sudan and one born in Paris.” This observation doesn’t deal with the increase in infant mortality, one of the effects of infant formula in the many countries with unsafe water supplies. Because of her reputation for integrity, she has been mostly spared accusations of conflict of interest for defending infant formula and disposable diapers, while being the principal shareholder in the advertising agency handling the accounts of Nestlé and Procter and Gamble (the makers of Pampers).

Should we doubt the effect of culture on child-feeding practices, a look at the Irish writer Ann Enright’s recent book Making Babies will convince of its power. Enright, trying to chart her own experience of motherhood, oozes a Beckett-like disgust:

I never liked being around nursing women—there was always too much love, too much need in the room. I also suspected it to be sexually gratifying. For whom? Oh, for everyone: for the mother, the child, the father, the father-in-law. Everyone’s voice that little bit nervy, as though it weren’t happening: everyone taking pleasure in a perv-lite middle-class sort of way. Ick.

In Ireland, “breast-feeding was absolutely hidden. The closest the culture came to an image of actual nursing was in the icon of the Sacred Heart, endlessly offering his male breast…. Actually you know, breast-feeding hurts. Certainly, at first, it really fucking hurts.” If we could choose our cultural influences, we might well prefer Badinter’s crisp French certitudes.

In the main, breast-feeding advocates are so successful by now that in some countries, like Scandinavia, the practice is almost universal, becoming more common in Sweden when it switched its depiction of breast-feeding from a duty to a “right,” with demands that accommodations be made for nursing mothers who return to their jobs. Until recently, I would have said breast-feeding in most American circles was something of a settled issue, and had lost its heavy significance; for Americans, I thought, breast-feeding is more or less a preferred option whose benefits of convenience and health are rarely disputed and failure to do it carried no opprobrium—women either do or don’t nurse their babies depending on a constellation of factors—job, pediatrician, local custom, and so on without incurring reproach if it isn’t possible. But now that conservative legislators and priests have shown themselves eager to interfere with women’s most intimate medical issues, a climate of guilt and dissent has been reintroduced.

Most women in most countries have struggled over some aspect of the conflict between career and motherhood, and about the role of women and the value of motherhood generally, but the idea that only motherhood determines a woman’s status in society is a sinister and regressive one that religious and fundamentalist forces are concerned to promote, not only in our country. Throughout the Middle East the situation is much worse. If it’s possible to view most religious dogma, social customs, and laws through the prism of a male need to control female fertility, we can see that religion and laws are its servants.

Finally, what may explain this return to maternalism in tandem with other forces of political and religious fundamentalism rising in America? We see it in the recent flap over contraception, an issue one had thought thoroughly settled in favor of including it in modern health care packages; let those refuse it who wish to. Who can forget the photograph of the congressional panel considering it—with elderly men in suits as witnesses? Views on the role and duties of men do not seem ranged along party but along gender lines; even when presented as advice, as in the case of the popular Dr. Sears, they have come to seem a little suspect. Perhaps the most seriously useful decision society could make might be that men—politicians or priests and possibly doctors—would not have the power to decide on things particular to women, beyond their own roles of fertilization and cooperative child-rearing.

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