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 guilty if they choose careers over motherhood, or if they go back to work after they do have children, or if they use day care, or don’t breast-feed the children they have. Badinter further argues that these social pressures to return to an age-old view of women’s proper place are a reaction, mostly but not entirely from male institutions, to recent feminist struggles for such things as child-care centers for women with careers—struggles that have been effective in France, which has some of the most women- and children-friendly social policies in Europe.

A romantic or sentimental view of maternity has been around since the Victorian The Angel in the House—since Rousseau—even since Plutarch, who said that “mothers ought to bring up and nurse their own children,” because nothing can replace Mother. Despite the truth or speciousness of arguments for and against combining career and motherhood, most can agree that an exalted view of mothers, with its attendant strictures (stay home with your baby), also has the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to their lack of independence and worldly influence, binding them to their place (the home), keeping them economically disadvantaged (out of the workplace), and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions. Pressures to return to what Badinter calls the “new naturalism” have, she writes,

thus far produced neither a matriarchy nor sexual equality, but rather a regression in women’s status. We [women] have agreed to this regression in the name of moral superiority, the love we bear for our children, and some ideal notion of child rearing, all of which are proving far more effective than external constraints [at keeping women in voluntary servitude]. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like voluntary servitude.

Badinter singles out as an instigator of ideas about innate maternal instinct and woman’s true destiny the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (1999). Badinter may have been misled by the book’s shorter title in French, simply Les Instincts maternels, and accuses Hrdy of having a “disturbingly teleological point of view of attachment.” In fact Hrdy, while not discounting maternal physiology—those hormones and oxytocins—seems to agree with Badinter that gains for women are being menaced by a new wave of maternalist fundamentalism.


We see that exactly the same forces are at work in our own society, with American women buying into things like “attachment parenting.” This may be the place to remark the recent Time magazine cover showing a woman suckling a toddler almost four years of age, and an article that begins, chillingly but significantly, “Joanne Beauregard is nothing so much as she is a mother…” (my italics). American controversies over attachment parenting—the theories that recommend complete self-abnegation and years of breast-feeding—have been blamed on the influence of books like Dr. William Sears’s The Baby Book, and on a number of other American pundits including one, the late Jean Liedloff (author of The Continuum Concept), who was a woman with no children. These “experts,” interestingly, recommend the kind of parenting they themselves didn’t get, which suggests a residue of anger and reaction, while French baby books tend to recommend the kind of upbringing the authors themselves had, which seems a reassuring demonstration of cultural self-confidence.

Badinter might find America’s putative child-centeredness hypocritical, since, as a society, we do such a bad job of seeing to the education and health of our children. Pamela Druckerman, an American new mother living in Paris, tries to fathom the secrets behind the serenity of French parenting in Bringing Up Bébé. Her book is full of germane observations:

There are structural reasons why French women seem calmer than American women. They take about twenty-one more vacation days each year. France has less feminist rhetoric, but it has many more institutions that enable women to work.

I hesitate to reveal one of her major conclusions without saying “spoiler alert,” lest people think they don’t need to read the rest: French babies sleep through the night, and French children don’t throw food, because their parents train them to wait for the things they want, even just for five minutes for a hungry infant (“the Pause”), longer for older children, always with an explanation of why the adult can’t instantly gratify the kid’s wishes. She compares this to American parenting theories that teach that infants will feel rejected if they experience an instant of frustration.


Sarah Hrdy has an interesting teleological explanation for the rise we are seeing of both religious and social fundamentalism: she and other anthropologists say that the real basis for it is an innate, or at any rate primal, male impulse to control female fertility. In this view, such an impulse is behind the restrictions on women demanded by the Taliban and any number of religions. Like Badinter, Hrdy notes that young American women are in danger of losing their hard-won rights because

they see no connection between innate male desires to control women in earlier times and the attitudes toward women and family that…motivate elected officials to debate endlessly over who has the right to choose whether and when a woman gives birth.

Hrdy illustrates her theory with an anecdote in which then Senator Rick Santorum hyperventilates on the floor of the Senate so that bystanders fear for his health:

Like all humans, and indeed as is typical of the entire Primate order, the senator exhibited an intense, even obsessive, interest in the reproductive condition of other group members. Like other high-status male primates before him, he was intent on controlling when, where, and how females belonging to his group reproduced.

She points out that on one occasion the Santorums, rather than terminate a pregnancy when it was known that it would not result in a baby that could live and might kill Mrs. Santorum, chose to endanger her life, hardly a choice most Americans would make, but one he did not hesitate to say he would impose on other American families.

Badinter sums up the present situation generally:

Since women gained control of their fertility, four phenomena have become apparent in developed countries: a decline in the per capita birthrate; a rise in the average age of first-time mothers; an increase in the number of women in the job market; and a diversification of women’s lifestyles with the emergence, in many countries, of couples and single women without children.

The last point is of particular significance for societies that are concerned about falling birthrates. Badinter notes that many conservative efforts to promote childbirth are finally counterproductive; social policies that “help women manage their different roles”—and don’t discourage them from getting jobs—as in Scandinavia and France, are more successful in encouraging women to have children than those that only support women in their family lives, considering “all other demands on a woman—those relating to a career—as matters of personal choice, with no connection to government policy.” Some countries have approached the need to increase population with family subsidies, but these do not succeed as well as when child-care facilities and maternal leave policies support women working. When women’s choices are limited, the effect is that career-minded, well-educated women, much more often than formerly, choose not to have children at all—hence the falling birthrates in many countries: “The higher the qualification and the more interesting the job, the more likely a woman is to choose to remain childless,” she writes. “Supporting part time motherhood is the key to increased fertility.”


Many of Badinter’s observations are directed at French society, and at first glance might seem not to apply in our own. Cross-cultural discussions are always complicated because France and the US are often out of phase by a decade or two when it comes to fashions in feminism, family, sex, and politics, however familiar the issues common to them both. Broad generalizations about child care, maternal and paternal leave, and so on may be much more plausible in a relatively homogeneous, much smaller country like France, which incidentally has one of the most advantageous sets of social policies in Europe, far better than those in America. And because America is at least fifteen times bigger than France, the US has a myriad of regional and social distinctions and variations that complicate any generalizations about our own society.


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.