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SPIEGEL ONLINE

08/26/2010 04:00 PM

SPIEGEL Interview with French Feminist Elisabeth Badinter

'Women Aren't Chimpanzees'

French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter cut her teeth in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. In a SPIEGEL interview, she discusses her worries about how a new back-to-nature movement is persuading many Western women to forsake the gains of emancipation and embrace their grandmothers' values instead.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Badinter, you have three grown-up children. Were you a good mother?

Elisabeth Badinter: Truth be told, like most other moms, I was a very mediocre one. I always tried to do as much as I could for my children. But, from a present-day perspective, I also did a lot of things wrong. So, I'd describe myself as a completely average mother.

SPIEGEL: You are a follower of the French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who categorically rejected motherhood. Did you ever think there was any contradiction in being both a feminist and a mother?

Badinter: No. I wanted these children, and I wanted them in quick succession. I was still a student then, and each time I had one it was right in the middle of finals exams. That is, I was pregnant each time during my written exams, and I had had my baby before the oral exams. That's why I failed them a couple of times. I belong to a generation of women who had children without weighing the pros and the cons; it was simply the natural thing to do. And I remember these three pregnancies as some of the best times of my life. But one thing I never did: I never asked myself if I'd be a good mother or whether I could meet the demands, as many young women do these days.

SPIEGEL: In your latest book, "Le conflit, la femme et la mère" ("Conflict: The Woman and the Mother"), you write that today's women are under increasing pressure to have children and that it's no longer enough just to be a mother, you have to be a perfect mother who breastfeeds exclusively, who stays at home with her children for a long time and who raises them as best she can.

Badinter: We are currently living through a troubling phase in our development, a relapse to times long past. In French, we call this phenomenon "l'enfant roi," or "the child is king." According to this view, the interests of the mother are clearly less important than those of the child; they are secondary. And that, in turn, brings with it the desire to have the perfect child. Many of today's young mothers believe that if they're going to make the effort to stay at home and completely dedicate themselves to their children, they want them to be perfect, too: perfectly raised, intelligent, balanced, in harmony with nature. I honestly wonder how this affects children in the long term.

SPIEGEL: You're particularly opposed to breastfeeding, which women are gently pressured to do.

Badinter: Gently pressured? Sure, with the help of a massive guilt trip! "You don't want to breastfeed? But, Madame, don't you want the very best for your baby?" the nurses tell you if you say you'd prefer to bottle-feed your kids. Do you know when I first had the idea for this book? It was in 1998, when Bernard Kouchner, who was France's health minister at the time, not only implemented the European Union guideline prohibiting advertisements for powdered baby milk, but also banned free handouts of powdered milk in maternity wards.

SPIEGEL: What's so bad about breastfeeding?

Badinter: Absolutely nothing. I just think it's one of the most intimate and personal decisions you can make. If a woman wants to, that's great; if not, that's fine, too. That's none of the politicians' business. Unfortunately, France has adopted the World Health Organization directive stating that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months and, if possible, for 12 more months with supplementary foods. These guidelines make sense in developing countries where people have had bad experiences with powdered milk and contaminated water. But why in God's name should this be applied to women in Paris and Berlin? That catapults us back to our grandmothers' era.

SPIEGEL: So, do you consider the mere act of recommending that you breastfeed your child to be a step backward for women's liberation?

Badinter: Let me repeat: I think it's great if a woman decides to breastfeed. But it should be voluntary. For a number of years, I've been observing with great alarm the back-to-nature movement, which views itself as today's avant-garde. It encourages women to give birth without an epidural and to stay at home with their baby for as long as possible because they say it's good for the mother-child bond. They want women to breastfeed their children, saying this will protect the babies against allergies and asthma and protect the mother herself against breast cancer. They want us to use washable diapers because it's better for the environment. Two years ago, our environment minister seriously even suggested introducing a tax on disposable diapers.

SPIEGEL: Do you see that as a measure involving more than just protecting the environment?

Badinter: Yes, because it would've been enough to promote the manufacture of biodegradable diapers. This movement is ideologically driven and is leading us back into the 18th century, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his model of the ideal mother. It's a bit like trying to reawaken the slumbering mammal inside women. But we women aren't chimpanzees.

'The First Signs of an Alarming Trend'

SPIEGEL: Aren't you exaggerating a bit?

Badinter: What I'm describing are the first signs of an alarming trend. If we take all these recommendations seriously, where will they lead us? Women will increasingly be forced to stay at home. How can they work if they're supposed to breastfeed for six months or longer? Are they supposed to call a taxi, milk pump in hand, every two hours? Even during this economic crisis, more and more women are opting to stay at home. And this includes many highly trained women who now only want to be the perfect mother.

SPIEGEL: Not every woman wants to continue furthering the cause of emancipation once she's become a mother.

Badinter: Sure, but there's two other things that concern every woman in the West -- and very personally so. First, half of all couples split up within three to seven years. So, that means a woman who has spent years without a firm spot in the job market and whose economic future is in great danger is suddenly left alone and has to care for her child and herself. Second, the active part of raising a child consumes about 10 to 15 years of your entire life, but the average life expectancy for a woman is now over 80. Should women be expected to devote their entire lives just to raising kids? What happens afterwards, when the kids have left home, and maybe your husband, too? What then?

SPIEGEL: You're painting a very grim picture of your country. Birth rates in France are still the highest in Europe: On average, French women have two children, while the figure for Germany is only 1.38. And they continue to work full time after having children.

Badinter: French women have children because it's easier for them to be mothers and still work and do other things. They can leave their children with others, and neither their mother-in-law nor their husband nor their mother will reproach them for doing so in any way. In France, having someone take care of your children is not something that's fundamentally bad. Still, I find it disturbing that women are now being encouraged to adopt another model, ostensibly in the name of science and for the good of the child. It's also an argument against the materialistic, egocentric consumer society. "Let's go back to our roots!" the proponents of this green movement say. "Let's listen to nature! Let's breastfeed! Let's stay home with our children!" And, amazingly enough, many young women find that appealing.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that that's because they've seen their mothers working themselves to death juggling jobs, children and husbands?

Badinter: Of course. What we're currently experiencing is daughters taking revenge on their mothers. I didn't want to be like my mother, either -- that is, sitting at home waiting for daddy to get there, hoping that he'd give me some money. I wanted to be independent. The current generation of young women is made up of the daughters of the feminists of the 1970s. They don't want to be like their mothers -- torn between their job and their family, constantly stressed, constantly tired. They think it must be much more satisfying to devote themselves entirely to their children. This perspective is enticing to many women. And, interestingly enough, it's particularly popular among well-educated women and those with very little job training.

SPIEGEL: Has the model of their mothers really made women happy?

Badinter: Though it certainly wasn't perfect, it was a huge leap forward. We could have kids and work -- and no one made us feel bad about it. I think that's one of the big differences between French and German women. French women have always been women first and foremost, and only then mothers. Shortly after giving birth they don't just stay at home with their child; they go out, and they go back to work quickly. They want to return to their lives and be a part of society, and they also have to be a woman again, to be seductive -- that's what French men expect. It's not just an upper-crust phenomenon, either. It's in our genes. Even in the 17th and 18th century, women had a life apart from the children -- a communal life, a social life, a love life.

SPIEGEL: As grim as you may perceive the situation in France to be, you probably think Germany is a living hell for mothers.

Badinter: I'm very interested in what's currently happening in Germany, as it's the first sign of what lies ahead for all of us. Women -- especially those who've studied and have interesting careers -- aren't having children anymore, and they're questioning the German model of the mother. For example, 28 percent of all female university graduates in western Germany choose not to have children, which is unprecedented in human history. This means that, for the first time in many centuries, we can no longer say that being a woman means being a mother. Given the difficulties of finding child care in Germany and the social expectations placed on mothers, these women opt for a life without children. In the process, they're redefining what it means to be a woman -- and showing that this can make women happy, too. That's a revolution.

SPIEGEL: But is it a positive one?

Badinter: Well, I'd prefer it if women could have children without having to sacrifice their careers. But every woman has the right to decide not to have children. Women no longer present a united front; there are different camps. Likewise, we aren't the hormone-controlled mammals that this new back-to-nature movement would have us believe we are.

SPIEGEL: For years, you've said there's no such thing as the oft-cited "maternal instinct."

Badinter: I knew that before I became pregnant for the first time. And thank God! I never wondered whether it was normal to not feel like spending 24 hours a day with just a small baby. I'm sure there are women who like that, but I'm not one of them. And I can tell you something else I've learned over the years by looking out my window and watching mothers walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg park: I've spent hours watching their empty faces and their God-how-I-hate-all-of-this expressions. These women sit bored by the side of the sandpit looking to the left and the right, while their children play alone in the sand. Why can't women admit that it can be unbearable to have to spend the whole day with a small child? That doesn't automatically make you a bad mother.

SPIEGEL: So, what is a "good" mother, then?

Badinter: The French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that you should always maintain the right distance between two cultures. I believe that a good mother is someone who manages to keep a certain distance between herself and her child -- not too close, not too far away -- to give it what it needs, to not smother it, to not be constantly absent or constantly present. She has to be something in between. But, unfortunately, that's extremely rare.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Badinter, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Britta Sandberg. Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt.

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