FORGET SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, Betty Friedan, and Naomi Wolff. Descartes gave us all that we needed to claim gender equality. Historians rarely remember it this way, but women’s rights were dramatically (if hypothetically) advanced when, on November 19th 1619, René Descartes, snow-bound in a stove-heated room in Neuberg, Germany, had the crazy idea to bet that the body might be entirely an illusion of the senses. But — and how cool is this — when “I” am thinking that very thought, “I” must exist, therefore “I” am. And this “I” is a thinking thing (“cogito ergo sum and sum res cogitans”). Now, Descartes was too busy with the Existence of God argument to spell out the full consequences of this simple fact for the so-called weaker sex, but, had he looked into it, the old man would have agreed that this “I” defined by Reason alone is necessarily gender-neutral (no body, no sex, right?). Or, as French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter puts it in What Is A Woman?, ontologically speaking, “a woman is a man like any other.”
That women would trade the blissful spiritual equality conferred onto them by Reason to embrace the disgusting side effects of motherhood is entirely beyond Badinter’s understanding. In her new book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Badinter embarks on a crusade to demonstrate that all the fuss about maternal instinct, breast-feeding, attachment parenting, and co-sleeping is theoretical garbage, and reactionary. In a tone of voice better suited for a summer thriller, she warns of a sinister conspiracy against women: “Over the last three decades, almost without our noticing, there has been a revolution in our idea of motherhood. This revolution was silent, prompting no outcry or debate, even though its goal was momentous: to put motherhood squarely back at the heart of women’s lives.” And being defined as a mother (God forbid: being determined by one’s body? by nature?) is for the Cartesian Badinter a no-no.
In Badinter’s account, this surreptitious backlash against emancipated women involves villains who look like angels (babies) and good guys (here, gals) who have yet to realize that their enemies are lurking under the guise of lovey-dovey pals (compassionate nurses pushing for breast-feeding; eco-friendly products that in the end add more tasks to a woman’s workload; and even certain feminists, who impose onto mothers unachievable ideals of maternal devotion). As in any good conspiracy theory, the end of the world as we know it is at stake. The dark forces of reaction and the brave soldiers of the Enlightenment are locked in a deadly battle: “An underground war is now being fought between naturalist and culturalist proponents of motherhood […], between people who claim to act as ‘advocates for the defense’ of children […], and women who refuse to see their hard-won freedoms eroded.” The apocalypse is near; the suspense nerve-racking: “We do not know what the outcome will be.” Spoiler alert: as in your typical French flick, the denouement is left up in the air at the end of the book, even though we get a clearer picture of who, according to the author, is on what side in this cosmological fight betw...read more