French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s new book atop the French bestseller list is a full bore assault on the concept of the “good mother.” In Le Conflit: la femme et la mère (Conflict: The Woman and the Mother), Badinter argues that the biological essentialism implicit in current notions of motherhood reduces women’s freedom and limits professional success.
According to a New York Times review:
… [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. … “[E]cology” 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 breastfeeding 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…
Ms. Badinter … says that the baby has now become “the best ally of masculine domination.”
Badinter decries a philosophy that effectively relegates a woman to the home, sacrificing her health, independence and autonomy in an effort to live up to a socially constructed ideal:
... The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.”
Indeed, for most of human existence, women's lives, roles, ambitions and possibilities have been severely limited. Women were defined by their biology. The central role of women's lives was asserted to be biologic reproduction, in other words pregnancy, childbirth and lactation. The current concept of the “good mother” rests on this essentialism. Hence the inordinate emphasis placed on the physical process of birth, and the few physical aspects of parenting like lactation. The various prescriptions for “good mothering” combine to reinforce the notion that a woman is determined by her biology, that her destiny is to live out that biologic role, that her highest calling is to live out that role, and that the role must be lived in strict adherence to biologic limitations.
This essentialism dictates that women must reject technology (since it has been the traditional purview of men), that women must emphasize the physical aspects of parenting, that women are improved by suffering biologic pain, that any deviation from the biologic constraints of childbirth (having a C-section instead of a vaginal delivery, for example) is anathema and robs a woman of her fundamental reason for being, that a woman's natural place and the place where she is most fulfilled is within the home, and that parenting requires intensive physical interaction which renders work outside the home virtually impossible.
Badinter posits that the philosophy of the “good mother” has arisen to stem the rising tide of women’s professional success. However, it is worth asking who is threatened by that professional success. Is it men, who fear the loss of their traditional dominance as Badinter implies, or is it women who have not achieved professional success and therefore discount its value? Women who lack professional achievements may have fallen back on valorizing biological functions like childbirth and breastfeeding because those are the only "achievements" they are ever going to have. In other words, is this just the latest iteration of the “mommy wars”?
Regardless of its origin, biological essentialism, expressed as an emphasis on the physical aspects of mothering, does serve to limit the autonomy of women. By positing a very specific vision of the “good mother,” proponents of essentialism limit women’s choices within relationships, within the home and even within the professional world. Badinter exhorts feminists to reject biological essentialism.
… I’m convinced that the way feminism has been evolving will lead it to a dangerous dead end. I continue to think that gender equality comes with sharing roles and duties.