Monday, January 26, 2009

A comparative perspective on mothers in politics

Eleanor Beardsley's report on NPR about French Justice Minister Rachida Dati returning to work five days after giving birth makes a lot of good points about whether this is a good thing or bad thing for women.

Here's a quote from Florence Montreynaud, a writer and feminist:
I think it's terrible for all the women in France . . . . Because this example separates women into two categories: a few superwomen with a wonderful job, and millions [of] other women that are totally normal to feel a little tired after birth. These women are — what to say — sissy? Or weakling?
The editor of the French magazine Closer, however, praised Dati, 43, calling her a symbol of the modern woman. He said:
I think these images will stay on the memoire collective, on the memory of all the French women, because it's a very strong image . . . . I think this image gives hope to women in their 40s, women who want children. Because it shows that you can be pregnant and keep very important responsibilities in your job.

Dati happens to be unmarried, and she has not disclosed the identity of the child's father. She is also iconic in France because she is a rare immigrant success story, the daughter of Algerian-Moroccan parents.

One angle that Beardsley doesn't amplify but that speaks for itself in this report is how we judge women--especially mothers--for their choices. She reports poll results indicating that 56% of those surveyed disapprove of Dati's quick return to work.

French law provides a 16-week paid maternity leave and strong job protection for mothers.

How would we respond to her if she were the U.S. Attorney General? How do we feel about Kirsten Gillibrand working until the day before she gave birth eight months ago?


stephkasten said...

Because Dati has had to overcome such remarkable struggles (her immigrant status and the dealing with the responsibility and stigma of raising a child without a husband, to name a few) and is so prominent in the public arena, she probably feels intense pressure to prove herself capable by returning to work so soon. Of course, all female professionals find themselves up against the odds, but most to a lesser extent. Dati's situation is impressive and unusual, and I think that most people can see that. Not all women will be held to such extraordinary standards, and I think it's a little unfair to claim that ordinary mothers will suffer just because Dati was somehow able to go back to work five days after giving birth. Just because she obviously places her job as a very high priority doesn't necessarily make her a bad mother; rather, it demonstrates her commitment to making gains for herself and for the image of professional women.

Thomas Travagli said...

I would say that decisions about the length of the work breaks gapping birth is up to the woman (as long as they are reasonable), and I agree that it is not justified to call a woman a “weakling” after a process that demands so many resources. Dati may have been completely comfortable with continuing her work five days after giving birth, but I don’t think it’s fair to single her out and declare that she represents the new standard or the “modern woman.” I feel that it is dangerous for perceptions like this (namely that a woman is a “weakling” if she is not willing to pull herself back into work so soon after birth) to seep into the public’s labeling of what is right.

It might be true that “you can be pregnant and keep very important responsibilities in your job,” but I wonder how much more of an expense is heaped on the woman in this scenario. In a way, it bothers me that publications such as Closer are using their elevated voices to set women such as Dati as examples for others. I fear it presses a progression that results with women who feel absolutely obligated to return to work and are expected to do so.

Shawna said...

What I find most interesting about this blog is the Montreynaud quote. While I understand the point being argued, I find it somewhat ironic that a feminist would be criticizing another woman's actions, especially when they make such a powerful statement for the advancement of women in the workforce.

Dati proved that it is possible to balance motherhood and a fast-paced occupation. She did not intend to make "totally normal" women feel inferior for indulging in post-pregnancy rest. Thus, it is a pity a person who should be in favor of strengthening the role of women in the workplace would focus, in this case, not on whether women agree or disagree on Dati's actions and what that reveals about the French ideologies, but on the potential decrease in women's morale as a result of one strong female leader's actions.

I find it disagreeable.