She may not be a household name here, but Elisabeth Badinter is considered one of France's most prominent women. She is part of that country's elite thanks to her role as chair of the supervisory board of Publicis Groupe, the world's third largest advertising agency, which was founded by her late father.
However, it is as a feminist philosopher that she really made her mark. In her first book 30 years ago, L'Amour en plus: Histoire de l'amour maternel( The Myth of Motherhood: A Historical View of the Maternal Instinct), she challenged the sacred concept of maternal instinct.
She's causing a stir once again with her latest book, which questions today's notion of motherhood. Le Conflit: la femme et la mère ( Conflict: The Woman and the Mother) attacks the rise of an ecology movement that dictates a woman must breastfeed and spurn disposable diapers in order to be a good mother. Ms. Badinter fears this quest for perfection is transforming the baby into the "best ally of masculine domination."
Le Conflit is the followup to L'Amour en plus. What was the catalyst for your new book?
I was in my office one day in 1998. I heard [on the radio]that the health minister issued a decree to [conform]note>// with European standards. That decree banned powdered baby milk advertisements in the maternity wards of public hospitals, recommended breastfeeding and also stated that free formula would no longer be distributed. All of a sudden, the penny dropped. I asked myself, what's happening, why is there all this pressure on women?
There's obviously more work to be done when it comes to putting women on an equal footing with men. Still, there has been progress as well. For example, the percentage of Canadian women with young kids who work has doubled since 1976. So how is the current state of women different than what you imagined back in 1980?
When I wrote L'Amour en plus, I didn't imagine that there would be such a strong U-turn. When I started to listen to young women [for Le Conflit] I started to understand that the most profound factor that triggered this turn that I describe was the economic crisis [of the 1990s] in particular in developed countries. It's obvious that work has become tougher, more harsh, more thankless, more stressful and more scarce.
I saw how young women were fed up with being underpaid, working below their level of competence with a career trajectory that was on the slow track compared to their male colleagues, and a gap in salaries that wasn't moving. This sparked a reflection. Wouldn't it be more fulfilling, wouldn't I have a better life if I dedicated myself to raising a child, to creating a person who is flourishing, intelligent and happy, wouldn't that be a more interesting path than chasing after a difficult and stressful job that makes my life impossible?
Not everything about the eco-motherhood movement is bad, though. Isn't there a way of incorporating some of its aspects without imprisoning women?
I think so. I personally think that respect for nature is something excellent. I think we mistreat nature. There are excesses that are extremely negative, but do we have to insist that women wash diapers? Do we have to criticize the use of epidurals during labour? Do we have to force women to breastfeed even if they don't want to? If women want to, we should encourage and help them. But the results are appalling if they don't. If a woman is reluctant to do these things, it is a disaster.
How difficult is it for today's mothers compared to 30 years ago? It's never been an easy job, but I have the feeling you believe all the joy has disappeared because of these pressures.
You can't be a mother without shouldering a very big responsibility that turns quickly into guilt when you listen to experts because one never does things well enough. What strikes me is that the load of maternal duties keeps increasing, and with it women's guilt as well.
I think that because today we decide to have children - it's no longer an accident or a gift from god - and because we are in charge of reproduction, there is even more guilt. The guilt is so strong, and there are so many demands that in a certain number of situations women opt not to have children even though they could. They say to themselves that to be a decent mother you have to do all of this, and I don't think I am up to it.
What is your best advice for today's women and mothers?
It can be summed up in two thoughts. The first is respect women's wishes. They are different because we are not animals, we aren't just mammals. We have wishes, a history, a different state of being. One has to respect that.
The second point is that we have to say to politicians that if they don't want their countries to die and disappear - Germany, for example, has catastrophic demographics - if countries want women to have children then two things are absolutely necessary: The first is a very flexible support system, with flexible hours and free of charge. Daycares for the most underprivileged mothers, daycares that are open 24 hours.
The second thing is that we have to stop thinking that mothers need to be perfect. The perfect mother - who breastfeeds until their child is 2, stays at home until the third birthday, and works only part time afterward - stop pushing this model of a perfect mother on our society.
Special to The Globe and Mail
This interview has been condensed and edited.