If you don't know who Bernard Henri-Levy is, don't worry. There's a new celebrity French intellectual you should know: Elisabeth Badinter. She's an older feminist who recently became a celebrity in France with her trenchant new book attacking other feminists' views. And like BHL, she's Jewish.
According to Jane Kramer's fascinating profile in this week's New Yorker, Badinter's father, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet founded Publicis, one of the world's largest marketing firm. Badinter's mother converted to Judaism and raised Elisabeth Jewish.
Interestingly, Badinster was born during the Nazi occupation of Paris and, soon after the Vichy government took root, her father fled to Spain. He helped the Resistance while there, though Badinster's mother, Sophie Vaillant, stayed home, avoiding harassment. After the war, Bleustein-Blanchet returned to his family and, though it took a year to regain possession of his business, he went on to grow Publicis into the powerhouse it is today.
As a Jewish reader, this is all fascinating. But for the French public--and soon, I suppose, the American public too; the English translation of her best-selling polemic "The Conflict" comes out in January--it's her feminism that matters. Or more precisely her feminist critique.
It goes like this: ever since the '70s, feminists have argued that women should be given the same rights as men--but, critically, they presumed that women would not be equated with men. In other words, women were fundamentally different from men, but they should be treated as equal in terms of social opportunities.
For Badinter, an accomplished feminist scholar of the French Revolution, there was nothing wrong with this, at least until the past decade or so. Around that time, French feminists starting pushing for laws that explicitly benefited women: there was the Parite law, passed in the late-'90s, which required all political parties to have an equal number of men and women on the ballot. More recently, maternity leave has been made mandatory.
Badinter's issue is that this all reduces feminism to simple biology. It presumes that, since woman and men are fundamentally different biologically, they must be different in other fundamental ways too. Mothers are "naturally" more doting on their children, and the laws, therefore, should embrace that. But Badinter insists that, beside the penis and vagina thing, there's little that's actually different. After all, why should mothers be given special rights to stay home for months to tend their children, and not fathers? It's not unlike presuming that, since blacks and whites have different skin tones, a manifestation rooted in biology, we should presume they're different in other ways too.
The analogy isn't made in the article, but it seems apt: what Badinter is really against is the separate-but-equal track feminism has taken, at least in France. Of course, Badinter's beef isn't based on her reading of America's racial problems. It's based in her belief in French Enlightenment ideals, and mainly, universalism. Voltaire and Madame de Stael both thought that the Rights of Man must be equally applied to all. (The "man" may sound off key here, but the true definition is lost in translation: black, white, Jew, atheist, Catholic, man or certainly woman all deserved to be treated equally under the law.) It's in that spirit that Badinter takes exception to any law that explicitly benefits one social group over any other.
As for me, I'm curious how her ideas will play out in America. In France, she's basically supported by the French left. But in America, many liberals still favor social policies that actually favor specific groups. Affirmative action is the case in point. But even feminism has increasing legal weight: maternity leave is a wide-spread social practice, and many laws prosecuted in the name of gender discrimination are centered around it. Kramer probes the waters herself, interviewing several leading American feminists. It's clear that many are downright dismissive of Badinter. But how will the broader public will respond?
Maybe a better question, actually, is asking whether Badinter will become the unwitting darling of the far-right. After all, one of her latest crusades rails against French Muslims. She was an outspoken defender of the law barring burqas in public schools (which passed), and she's recently taken up the fight of a public French orphanage. The state has started to make amends for religious Muslim mothers who demand special treatment. Some have asked that boys and girls be kept separate; others have requested halal food.
Which of course brings us back to Jews, and the Jewish question. Will Jews, or at least conservative ones, back Badinter because, even though their reasoning is radically different, they see a friend in their common enemy? They have, after all, embraced the Christian right, and in a similar way. Or will they see that what's really dangerous about Badinter isn't the position she ends up taking, but the way she got there. After all, substitute halal for kosher and her logic stays the same.
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