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.

Photo Gallery: Catapulting Moms Back to Their Grandmothers’ Era Photos
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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.

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1. Communal Breastfeeding
esperonto 08/27/2010
I wonder what Badinter would think about kibbutz child rearing. In the Kibbutz in Israel they had communal buildings for children. They spent some time with their parents, but were taken care of in a kind of nursery environment and did not sleep in their parent's homes. Kibutz mothers communally breastfed children, even children who were not their own. Trained nurses and teachers were in charge of the communal children's homes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz
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About Elisabeth Badinter
Bruno Fert / DER SPIEGEL
Elisabeth Badinter, 66, is a French writer, feminist and philosopher. Until recently, she was a lecturer at the elite École Polytechnique in Paris. She also sits on the supervisory board of the French advertising agency Publicis, which was founded by her father, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet. Her husband, Robert Badinter, served as a justice minister under President François Mitterrand. Together, they have three children, two sons and a daughter, who were born within the space of three and a half years. A follower of Simone de Beauvoir, Badinter joined the French women's liberation movement in the early 1970s. Over the years, she has published several books on the subject, including a history of motherly love.


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