I’ve always considered myself a feminist. While many of my peers thought it to be “the F word” they avoided at all costs, I was researching the benefits of single-sex education and proudly enrolling in a women’s college. My years in the classroom at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions furthered my identity as a feminist and my knowledge about gender-specific issues. I was a women’s studies minor as an undergrad, and it is a field I never tire of exploring. As a high school English teacher, bringing the female perspective, or feminist critical angle, to the text was always a top priority for me. I hoped to educate, enlighten, and interest young minds the way I was encouraged in my years as a student. Feminism is something I have never shied away from; on the contrary, I’ve always identified with it and proudly worn it’s name.
So last week when I ran across this article from French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, I dove right in but finished annoyed, unsettled, and a little angry. In summary, Badinter claims that the current trends in motherhood are swallowing up the feminists of the world as we become “slaves to our children.” Behaviors she describes as enslaving? Breastfeeding, leaving your career to care for your children, unmedicated childbirth, cloth diapering, and more. Sound familiar? Maybe because I have written about that here, here, and here among other places. She basically describes my daily life. Badinter claims that these behaviors are “a step backwards” and make “women’s freedom irrelevant.”
The article left me so unsettled that I’ve spent days thinking about it. Truth be told, I see where she is coming from. Before I was a mother, I would have told you someone who cloth diapered or pursued unmedicated childbirth was crazy. But as my pregnancy progressed, and certainly as my life as a mother progresses, I’ve found myself making more and more of these choices. And that’s one of the many issues I feel Badinter doesn’t address: it’s my CHOICE to do these things, and aren’t choices the foundation of feminism? I didn’t expect to make these choices. It’s actually my admiration and fascination of women’s capabilities that led me to make these decisions in my life.
I feel grateful and fortunate that I can CHOOSE to stay home with my son.
I have CHOSEN to continue breastfeeding (while working for much of that time, by the way) despite many, many challenges because I value the female body, not because I am a slave to my baby.
I CHOSE to pursue unmedicated labor, and I feel hurt and angry when I see women’s childbirth choices bullied or stifled.
I don’t see these choices as a huge step backwards in the life of feminism; I see them as part of the benefits of modern motherhood, made possible by the women who have come before us. I can pursue my career while being a mother, of course. I can also have the option to put my professional life on hold for years if I chose to do so to be with my children. Of the many things I’d like to teach Jude, valuing women for their brains and potential and recognizing that we can choose do pursue anything we wish is at the top of my list. I don’t think having a mother who stays at home or breastfeeds or does a load of diaper laundry every day or two will contradict that message.
What bothers me most about Badinter’s argument is that she essentially seems to be saying that modern women need to act like men to be an asset to the feminist cause. Breastfeeding? Something men can’t do. Childbirth? Something men can’t experience. I honestly think I have never valued my potential as a woman as much as I have through the marvel of pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding. We can create life, grow life, give life, and sustain life in a way that men cannot, something that should be celebrated and not hidden or denied for the fear of looking “enslaved.” As Gloria Steinem says, “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.” Why the things associated with the female body and childbirth must be “enslaving,” I don’t know.
Whether it’s ballet, baking, birth, or breastfeeding, why do typically female activities have to be looked down upon or trivialized? Often by men, sometimes by women themselves.