book review: Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, continued

[This post is the second half of a book review that started here.]

What is the relationship between feminism and mothering/motherhood/mothers? What should it be? What does feminism have to say–and do–about work-family issues?

One problem here is that Badinter approves of first-wave feminism (or what Joan Williams would describe as “sameness feminism,” seeking equality and inclusion in ‘a man’s world’) and disapproves of second-wave feminism (Williams’s “difference feminism,” seeking to hold up ‘feminine’ qualities/behaviors/roles, often in a gender essentialist way) … but she does not appear to have noticed third-wave feminism (seeking to question/deconstruct the whole idea that there are two-and-only-two genders, and also insisting on dealing with the intersections of gender with race, class, (dis)ability, and other identity categories). For a better explanation of what I mean here, see Amy Allen’s review of the book. (And yes, there are big problems with the whole “waves” metaphor, but I’m trying so hard to be brief-ish here: forgive me my theoretical sloppiness! I can promise you it’s much tidier than the book’s, in any case.)

Badinter also does not appear to have noticed the many feminist parents who do the practices Badinter associates with antifeminism, the many working parents who are also attachment parents, and the feminist mothers who blog about our feminism and our parenting. How does our existence fit into her broad-strokes argument?

Finally, some of Badinter’s logic and rhetoric prevent meaningful feminist analysis. It is unhelpful, for instance, to assume that the ”personal” is separate from and opposed to the “maternal” (“depending on whether [women] privilege their personal pursuit or a maternal role” [5]). Even more unhelpful to envision “the outside world” as inaccessible with and opposed to babies/parenting (14)! Badinter also sets up “increased responsibility for babies and young children” as somehow separate from “sexism in the home or in the workplace” (Women’s “increased responsibility for babies and young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism in the home or in the workplace” [96]).

What does the rhetoric of “the natural” do in contemporary parenting discourses? Where does that come from? If we want to get rid of that language and ideology, how can we move toward that, and what might replace it?

Badinter critiques contemporary parenting culture’s extensive use of concept “natural,” which really is incredibly problematic (see for instance). But she does it in ways that seem more like pot shots at women (the ones who parent in ways that annoy or disgust the author) than like thoughtful or productive feminist critique. She also hates ecology/ecologists/the environmental movement, which is kinda odd–although I understand that she’s arguing more generally against a historically-situated love of “nature,” that part of the book feels particularly disconnected and oddly personal, as though perhaps an ecologist once keyed her car.

What is the legacy of La Lache League’s conservative beginnings? Where should we go from there?

A large chunk of The Conflict deals with breastfeeding, the breastfeeding movement, and particularly La Leche League (LLL). It takes on the troublesome ideological backdrop of LLL, which began as a conservative Catholic organization and continues to have a strained relationship with the idea of mothers working outside our homes (let alone radical reconceptualizations of gender and family structure). But these sections use poor logic, little evidence, and a tone of sarcasm and loathing–which makes them feel like a major missed opportunity.

For instance, she tends to conflate breastfeeding and LLL. When breastfeeding and breastfeeding-friendly practices win support, she says LLL has won support (as on p. 80). She seems to imagine that a critique of LLL is a critique of all forms of breastfeeding-related advocacy. Women who breastfeed for much time at all are all, in this imagined world, hanging out at LLL meetings, doing absolutely nothing other than breastfeeding and being 100% available to our babies at all times, and ignoring our poor little husbands.

By descending into caricature in these ways, Badinter fails to appreciate the complexity of infant-feeding choices and infant-feeding cultures. She also seriously overstates the degree to which breastfeeding is even culturally accepted, by assuming the huge power of exclusive breastfeeding and child-led weaning in our culture. In fact, someone who is breastfeeding on demand out in the public world–or breastfeeding a three-year-old–is quite likely to experience a lot of judgment (whether directly or by reading/hearing the common refrains: “When they’re old enough to ask …” and so forth).

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  1. Posted 23 July 2012 at 7:32 PM | Permalink

    Just wanted to say thanks for reading this so I don’t have to :)! Future Wife says I like to read these books so I can get ranty about them on the blog and sometimes that’s true — but with this one it sounds like I’d be so frustrated I wouldn’t even know where to start. I find as I get older that I have increasingly little patience for “serious” authors who can’t even be bothered to do their homework on the subjects they decide to hold forth upon. If Badinter can’t be bothered to research the current trends in a movement that is central to her thesis …? I really wish editors would call more authors on their shit and be all, “I’m not going to put my publisher’s name on this book if you can’t be bothered to do proper legwork.” Seriously.

  2. Posted 23 July 2012 at 11:48 PM | Permalink

    Have you read Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness? She does the same thing with AP and LLL in that–ascribing all kinds of “power” and control and dominating ideology that honestly seems to project/assume that LLL is the popular/mainstream/high pressure style and she’s the voice of reason admidst all the clamor to conform to the attachment parenting philosophy. While I, too, see some cult-like elements in AP particularly, I don’t know what universe she’s living in when she mistakes these practices for being the dominant parenting culture. And, also in Warner, I get done wth the mocking of other women, regardless of whether I actually agree with them or not.

    • Molly
      Posted 24 July 2012 at 8:08 AM | Permalink

      Haven’t read Perfect Madness. A number of people have recommended it to me, but I get an icky feeling whenever I contemplate reading it, perhaps because of the vibe you’re describing. I know–feminist book about parenting culture, I should read it!–but, I dunno.

      • Posted 24 July 2012 at 6:07 PM | Permalink

        Here’s my review of Perfect Madness from 2011 (e.g. I read it so you don’t have to :)!).

        A similar book, sadly enough, is Susan Douglas’ and Meredith Michaels’ The Mommy Myth. It’s been a while since I read it, and remember it doing slightly better at not blaming “feminists” for all parenting woes, but it still fell short of truly acknowledging the radical feminist parenting that happens below the radar of most mainstream media.

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