Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Critique of Pure Feminist Reason

Although The New Yorker has been called out for the relatively low proportion of female bylines, they've gone a long way towards winning me over by making Ariel Levy a regular. She's brilliant on any topic, but it's especially gratifying and sanity-restoring to read articles on feminism, or feminist-inflected pieces, like her brilliant profile of Cindy McCain, in a mainstream publication that not only don't make you want to throw things across the room, but that actually make you say, yes, that's it exactly.

I didn't have quite that reaction to Jane Kramer's profile of Elisabeth Badinter, in last week's issue, but I was fascinated by it. Badinter is a French philosopher, the author of a "three-volume social history of the French Enlightenment"and co-author with her politician husband of a biographer of Condorcet. She's also the author of five polemics on what, in her case, it doesn't seem archaic to call "the woman question," from a 1980 attack on the idea of maternal instinct through her recent indictment of "what she regards as a spreading cult of 'motherhood fundamentalism' in the West."

Badinter's books, Kramer tells us, are popular in the provinces and found at supermarket checkouts, but the context is very different from, say, the last time this was true of feminist polemics in this country. Friedan and Steinem, whatever their flaws, were extremely effective popularizing writers, but they were also of course crack activists, organizers, and institution builders. Badinter tells Kramer that "The daily work of militancy is not for me. As a feminist, I can only do one thing - put into relief something that has been ignored." Which is of course her right - but the intellectual-turned polemicist poses certain problems distinct from the polemicist/activist. Badinter's popular works sell, but outside of a movement, we end up with the equivalent of dueling bloggers saying, "I'm not judging the choices of other mothers, but . . ." - This is pretty much where Badinter goes when it's pointed out to her that there's little evidence her country is in the grips of some maternal cult: France actually has low rates of long-term breast-feeding and high rates of mother's participation in the workforce. The empirical is accidental; it's the polemics that matter.

Part of this seems to be about the role granted to "public intellectuals" in France. Anyone who's been unfortunate enough to have more than five minute's exposure to Bernard Henri-Levy's imperial gasbagging should suspect that the much vaunted greater stature given to "intellectuals" in that country is at best a mixed blessing. Even in a case, like Bandinter's, where someone has done serious, intense archival work, it takes us to the the idea that everything someone has to say thereby becomes important regardless of how it stands on its own merits. Sometimes the results are mostly silly, as in a Princeton talk Joan Scott recalls in Kramer's article:
Badinter was saying all sorts of banal things about how the French were sexier than Americans, better at sex, how American women washed too much, how they were embarrassed by bodily odors, by oral sex. We asked hostile questions, like, 'How can you say these things off the top of your head?'
Of course, feminism has long had this effect on people, and it's not feminism's fault: gender, sex, family, mother, work: these things cut so deep, matter so much, who can stop from saying these things off the top of one's head? But sometimes the results are not just silly but dangerous - as in Badinter's advocacy of the headscarf ban in French school and the more recent ban on niqabs in public (incorrectly referred to as burqas, as Kramer notes.) More on that in a minute.

There's something going on here besides the temptations of a public platform. From her beloved Enlightenment figures Bandinter has inherited a love of categorical abstraction. Atheists hate it when people point out any similarities between their approach and that of religion, but in this case it's hard to avoid. For Badinter, attachment parenting is bad because it coincides with the "naturalistic ideology" that's been ruining things since Rousseau. How different is that from the religious position that birth control is bad because it's "unnatural"? She concedes that 'motherhood fundamentalism' isn't actually a major trend in France, but it could be. This gets even worse, not surprisingly, when she turns her philosophical devotion to secularism on the hot button issues of the moment:
She sees her defense of the burqa law as consistent with her concern for the rights of Afghan women . . . There are five or six million French Muslims, and, for now, she says, the percentage of Muslim mothers with full-time jobs is no less than the national average; she wants to keep those women out in the world assimilating.
In other words, there's no evidence that religion is keeping women from the workforce, but she wants to ban their religious expression - just in case it does! Badinter is upset that women are have abandoned the liberating ideas of her beloved Enlightenment - "never mind," Kramer points out, "that the citoyennes of 1789 lost those rights before they ever had them, or that they got to vote only after the Second World War." And never mind that, at its best, "the personal is the political" meant that there was something important in testing the abstract categories passed down by tradition - be that tradition religious, secular, intellectual - against the realities of one's lived experience. Kramer makes Badinter seems like a compelling figure in a lot of ways, and points out that she deserves credit for embracing the label and intellectual work of feminism, unlike most of her peers in the French elite. But I couldn't help but find the way Kramer describes the debate depressingly familiar, echoing the worst press-driven "debates" that pit one group of women against another. The intellectual weight (or baggage) Badinter brings to the table doesn't help matters. She may reflect the problems of the current xenophobia among European secularists, of intellectuals in the public sphere, or just of philosophy as a discipline, but in any case, it all seems, as Joan Didion once said (wrongly in my estimation) of the women's movement itself, to have become a symptom rather than a diagnosis or a cure.

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