Is a new feminism that glorifies pregnancy and childbirth holding women back?
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, feminist theory took a 180-degree turn. A new wave of feminism turned its back on the culturalist approach favored by Simone de Beauvoir, who urged that the similarities of the sexes called for policies of equality and integration (what united them was greater than what set them apart). This new wave discovered the feminine as a virtue, with maternity at its heart. Equality, the new wave claimed, would remain illusory so long as we failed to recognize this essential difference, which drives everything else. While de Beauvoir saw motherhood as incidental to women’s lives and the source of their age-old oppression, the new generation of feminists claimed it as the crucial experience of womanhood, the basis on which women were equipped to build a fairer, more humane world. We were urged to return to Mother Nature, which had been too long overlooked. That return meant refocusing on the physiological differences as the source of behavioral differences, and rekindling our pride in the nurturing role on which the well-being and future of humanity depends. In its emphasis on gender difference and a female “nature,” this new understanding of womanhood had a good many points in common with earlier models.
[Alice Rossi, founding member of NOW] claimed, it is infinitely preferable for the mother rather than the father to invest time in raising a child. [Her] arguments made her one of the first to open a breach within feminism.
From Biologism to Maternalism
In the early 1960s, Alice Rossi, a young professor of sociology and mother of three children, set a small cat among the pigeons. At a time when the ideology of good motherhood confined women to the home, she had the audacity to point out the absurdity of making child raising a full-time occupation. Then, almost fifteen years later, she published an article, “A Biosocial Perspective on Parenting,” which took up the same issue, but now she defended the idea that women had gone too far in rejecting their nurturing role. Convinced by the bonding theory and adopting a sociobiological approach, she argued that biology dictates a division of work between the sexes. Maternal instincts have been essential to our survival since our hunter-gatherer days; they are written in our genes, and we remain “genetically equipped only with an ancient mammalian primate heritage,” even if it had now become a set of, as she put it, “unlearned responses.” For this reason, she claimed, it is infinitely preferable for the mother rather than the father to invest time in raising a child. And this greater investment by the mother should continue through the child’s later stages of development, justifying the trend of returning women to the home.
Even though she was a founding member of the powerful pro-equality National Organization for Women, Alice Rossi’s arguments made her one of the first to open a breach within feminism. Her article, putting biology and therefore motherhood back at the heart of women’s issues, came just at the right time. The battle for women’s rights had ground to a halt: feminism stood accused of having failed to redress the basic problem of sexual inequality. Some feminists concluded that they had been on the wrong track, having neglected to recognize the essential gender differences or taken them into account. In the struggle to be the equals of men, women had denied their very nature, succeeding only in becoming pale imitations of their masters. Women should, instead, be proud of their separate identity and exploit it as a political and moral weapon.
A new feminism emerged, foregrounding every aspect of women’s biological experience. It glorified menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. The vulva came to represent woman. There was a powerful swing toward celebrating the sublime state of motherhood as women’s true destiny, the condition for their happiness, and the source of their power. Through motherhood, it was hoped, a world damaged by men might once again flourish. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a great deal of enthusiasm for this new essentialism, celebrating as it did nature’s primacy and female qualities derived from the experience of motherhood. Maternalism formed the basis for a different concept of power and women’s civic role. It also had the advantage of superseding the question of instinct, which always incited heated opposition.
Supposedly, women are spontaneously sensitive to the needs of children and thus have allegedly developed heightened attentiveness to dependence and vulnerability in other human beings.
The Philosophy of Care, or Women’s Social Code
In 1871, Charles Darwin, who is hardly suspected of feminist sympathies, said, “Woman seems to differ from man in her greater tenderness and less selfishness. Woman owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree; therefore it is likely that she would often extend them toward her fellow creatures.” A century later, the feminist philosophy of care developed a more sophisticated version of Darwin’s idea, with the subtle difference that mere likelihood for the nineteenth-century scholar had become indisputable truth.
With the 1982 publication of her book In a Different Voice, psychologist Carol Gilligan laid the foundations for a new ethic that caused a great uproar. To Gilligan, the word “care” means a fundamental concern for the well-being of others, and the quality is considered to derive from the crucial experience of motherhood. Supposedly, women are spontaneously sensitive to the needs of children and thus have allegedly developed heightened attentiveness to dependence and vulnerability in other human beings. They therefore live by a different code than men.
Gilligan compared the feminine care ethic to the masculine ethic of justice. While justice refers to abstract universal principles that operate through impartially applied rules and rights, the ethic of care is particularist. It views the world as “comprised of relationships” and made coherent “through human connection rather than through systems of rules.”
Freud, it should be remembered, angered generations of feminists with his assertion that “women must be regarded as having little sense of justice” and by his further claim that they have “less capacity for sublimating their instincts than men.” Deliberately engaging Freud’s view, Gilligan argues that women’s care and concern for others is in fact another form of morality, in no way inferior to man’s. To Gilligan and others, women—immersed in the experience of life and concrete relationships, and better equipped to nurture connection and to protect rather than punish—bring to the human sphere a gentleness and compassion that revitalize social morals. Motherhood—thus far seen as a private relationship—should therefore be viewed as one of two models in the public realm, as the counterweight to the abstract, rationalized society of men.
An approach that makes biology the source of all virtue condemns, in one sweep, all men as well as women who have not had children.
In France, Antoinette Fouque went well beyond Carol Gilligan’s more subtle ideas. She claimed women’s moral superiority by virtue of their ability to carry a baby: “A woman’s pregnancy, gestation, is the only natural incidence of physical—and therefore psychological—acceptance of a foreign body,” she declared, complementing this idea with a memorable claim:
“Gestation as generation, gesture and an internal experience, an intimate experience but also generosity, the genius of our species, accepting a foreign body, hospitality, openness, a willingness to accept this regenerative graft; gestation as integrationist, non-conflictual, unambivalent to differences, a model of anthropomorphic culture, a matrix for the universality of the human being, the very principle and origin of ethics.”
In societies where infant mortality is at its lowest, no one invokes a child’s survival as the imperative for a mother’s care, but rather his physical and psychological health, critical as it is to his adult well-being and to general social harmony.
The radical shift in the three fields involved—ecology, biological science, and feminism—concerns a tiny minority of people, principally intellectuals and militant activists. But it is no coincidence that the ideological embrace of naturalism has occurred in all three at the same time. And although most new mothers would probably not recognize themselves in any of the more radical depictions of naturalist motherhood, they are nonetheless influenced by the trend. Nature has become a decisive argument for imposing laws or dispensing advice. It is now an ethical touchstone, hard to criticize and overwhelming all other considerations.
And like its predecessor, the new naturalism has the ability to generate feelings of guilt that can drive changes in attitudes. In the eighteenth century, Rousseau, along with doctors and moral philosophers, knew just how to manipulate women to devote themselves entirely to their children, to breastfeed them, care for, and raise them. Children’s survival depended on it, as did family and social happiness, and even the strength of the nation. Today the arguments have changed somewhat. In societies where infant mortality is at its lowest, no one invokes a child’s survival as the imperative for a mother’s care, but rather his physical and psychological health, critical as it is to his adult well-being and to general social harmony. Given these stakes, what mother would not feel at least a twinge of guilt for failing to follow the wisdom of nature?
From The Conflict, which will be published April 24 2012, by Holt. © 2012 Elisabeth Badinter
Elisabeth Badinter is the acclaimed author of three seminal works on feminism—Mother Love: Myth and Reality, Dead End Feminism, and XY: On Masculine Identity—which have been translated into fifteen languages. For many years, Badinter taught philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris, where she lives.