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Elizabeth Badinter, The Conflict

Dear friends and readers,

Subtitle: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.



I picked up a copy of this the other day and started to skim  What a relief to read this sanity. This blog is prompted by this distressingly lugubrious paper by an intelligent female student I just read where she has read an essay which claims 50% of women go into deep depressions after miscarriage. Since miscarriage is so common, that would mean a very sad population. I had two, the first time I was relieved (I realized I was too young after all) and the second somewhat sad, but quickly just fine. And the incessant irritation of demands that women spend even years of their lives breast-feeding. The self-righteous bullying I've endured twice in hospital: once after a C-Section being pushed into a huge room filled with victim women subjected to lectures and melodramatic films on the necessity of breast-feeding.

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Despite her recent falls from grace (during last summer when she raised her voice ostensibly against an unfair press on behalf of that French politician who raped the Muslim housemaid in New York), I know that the two books by Badinter I've read thus far were both superb: on the Two Emilies (Emilie du Chatelet and Emilie d'Epinay) and on the sentimental construction of motherhood in the 18th century century (L'amour de Plus Englished Motherhood: Myth and Reality) mostly begun by Rousseau.


Illustration for the book D'Epinay was known for: Conversations with her granddaughter (1781)

Elizabeth Badinter's Mother Love  is about how modern mothering is a recent construct.  (I have the English version, but the book is originally in French so Catherine may know Badinter's work; Badinteralso  wrote a dual biography of Louise d'Epinay and Emilie de Chatelet, the mathematician, Voltaire's mistress who died in childbirth, of a miscarriage).  Badinter bases her book on studies of the 18th century, from the use of wet-nursing as a substitute for contraception and abortion, to the way women openly favored some children, openly chose to live independent lives, sending children off to schools, the lack of over affection as a necessary ideal. This was emerging but not the later 17th century. In Austen's household we
see her sister-in-law openly despise and not treat well her stepdaughter.   Badinter wants to argue and does successfully how unfair oppresive and anti-women are present conditions but we can see these earlier ones were unfair oppressive and antiwomen in other ways. the key is that human nature and society is often built on social cruelties, bullingly, lying. The norms are just instruments.

Badinter's Motherlove is very good (readable, written as a narrative) and just as available in English. I have it in a paperback.  It's not  about childhood as such, but about mothering in the ancien regime and earlier.  The point of the book is to show that the modern demand a woman take on mothering as a 24 hour a day job in which she held responsible for
the emotional health and very characters of each of her children is a very new idea.  It began in the middle 18th century and she shows that it took a long time to set in.  Among the people who imposed this is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was not himself particularly balanced and as every says, himself dumped 5 or 6 children on the steps of a foundling hospital; these he get on the body on the lower class women who spent her life catering to him. Women liked him because he seemed to make them important.

The modern counterpart is Nancy Choderow's much respected book on motherhood today, showing how unfair the whole regime is, as much to children as mothers. One of women's great problems in the 20th century is that they are held responsible for what they get no help doing like  mothering. Plus in fact from the time of the child's young child years the child spend formative time in school with peers, and then is let out at a time that makes it difficult for the mother to hold a job to support herself and the child. This is the subtext of Badinter's argument or her assumed context.

Her book on the two brilliant French women is subtle and compassionate, filled with insight. Unfortunately, it's not been translated into English, Neither another important one on the 18th century: what happened to 18th century ambition in even these two privileged smart women: it was stifled. Chatelet was deprived of needed learning and she died in a miscarriage. D'Epinay's great novel, Montbrillant, the equivalent in French of Richardson's Grandison was first published in an untruncated state as an autobiographical novel in the early 20th century. All she could get published and could circulate were her tales of bringing up her granddaughter humanely. I'd like to read her Condorcet an important early feminist, very rare in the French revolution.


Emilie du Chatelet

I will try to fit in The Conflict in the next couple of weeks. It looks like easy reading in the translation by Adriana Hunter. Although I was attracted to it when I read the (for today) extraordinary chapter suggesting to women that breast-feeding is a choice (not a holy occupation, not necessary after a brief time and not even then), Mothehood as stangulation, motherhood as nailing you down for life.  And if that weren't enough, when you are in your 60s if you live in the US you are sometimes asked to give up the later part of your life to a woman who hasn't the money to pay for medical help, companions, independence.

I don't know if motherhood undermines the status of women -- in traditional cultures it gives them status. Id' say rather the way it's treated for many imprisons them emotionally, takes years from their lives, and deprives them of genuine central self-regard. Not all. Only those who are deluded by the incessant propaganda (which I used to think partly came out of trying to erase how dangerous childbirth still is, how much hardship is ahead), but so many are. As so many are deluded to think sexual beauty is some kind of real power.


My very favorite New Yorker cartoon: she's looking for something less empowering.

As to her book itself it is firmly grounded in realities and circumstances of today and the past few decades. As ever she is logical, insightful. She begins with the realty that as of the 1970s women had many choices -- as did men - and that some of these undermined traditional notions of not only femininity but masculinity, one of which is a man must be a father, preferably to a son.  She then goes on to show how this reversion to idealizing nature and natural instincts was one reaction to this new anxiety. But she also shows how it emerged in the context of genuine disappointment for most women with the jobs they could get. 

Hard statistics about how many women have babies, and the percentages within the developed countries (west). France is a higher birth rate per female than many.

Converging with this is a suspicion of technology at the same time as a reliance on pseudo-science. Women urged to get off the pill, men of course don't like contraception. Environmentalism brought in: don't use paper diapers. The masochistic impulse to have a birth with pain. The romanticization of this and the development of a role called the doula. How understandable not to want to be dominated by the male medical establishment mores.

This sets the scene.

She then turns back to the construction of motherhood that began in the 18th century the modern version of which is found in Choderow's description and show how this was revivified and reinforced by among other things the nagging over breast-feeding and guilt trips about how the mother is central in the formation of a personality when it is the whole habitas and schools and peers and father too.  This is her opener.

Sylvia

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