Sunday, June 6, 2010

All the biggies: feminism, motherhood, environment, food

A review of Elisabeth Badinter's Conflict: The Woman and the Mother on the NYTimes caught my eye because it reminded me of a post on the Racialious blog I read a few weeks ago. Both say that certain modern trends imply that women should return to their traditional domestic roles.

Badinter is a French academic. I hadn't heard of her before but it seems she has a significant body of work criticizing (evaluating?) feminism. She previously wrote that feminists are undermining themselves by popularizing the notion of women as victims.

But I want to focus on a point in her latest book, which takes up the issue of motherhood in modern times. She writes that the green and natural movement erodes the gains of feminism. It pressures women abandon modern inventions that have eased childrearing for old, labor-intensive ways.

From the New York Times:
But Ms. Badinter thinks that new social pressures are hard for many women to resist. The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.”

 This reminded me of criticism leveled by feminists against advocates of the food reform and sustainable agriculture movement. Michael Pollan, the figurehead of the food reform movement, is criticized for being alienating working women and women of color.

This comes from Racialicious:
First, Pollan and others situate the current state of American consumption in a patriarchal paradigm. These writers speak about a disappearance of food culture that for the most part accompanies male privilege. For example, Pollan, in an article for the New York Times on cooking and entertainment aptly titled “Out of the Kitchens, Onto the Couch,” explores the relationship between second-wave feminism and the gender politics of cooking. He argues that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique convinced women to regard their housework, specifically cooking, as drudgery. Friedan did not, in fact, construct this sentiment herself; she merely observed the existent trends in white women’s attitudes about food and housewifery. Pollan goes on to describe how Julia Child inspired his mother and other women like her, empowering them to channel their creativity into the kitchen. This is apt praise for the lively and engaging cook, but can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?
Feminists and progressive people like to talk about the overlaps among their passions. And I agree too that there are many, not just the issues, but the people in one camp have overlapping interests. There are, I think, obvious intersections among feminism, environmental movement, organized labor, ethnic movements, and other social justice movements. I think my readers are well-informed about these intersections.

Both these critiques really resonate with me, not because I'm denouncing the benefits of reusable diapers or fruit and vegetables, but because they show an ugly reality. People who call themselves feminists or progressives or generally working to help people don't always agree. There are dividing lines.

It made me happy to see vocal feminists of color voiced their criticism of other progressive movements. I think sometimes there's an implicit assumption that feminists are uncritical of activists in other progressive areas. But this isn't entirely true. I care about the environment and about eating better, but not as much as I care about some other feminists issues. That's why I was the co-chair of Women's Council. Though I worked extensively with other progressive and racial ethnic groups on campus, I had one focus where I directed most of my attention.

You could argue that Michael Pollan doesn't want only women to return to the kitchen but both men AND women to cook but the truth is also that women are still the one who do most of the housework. So when you say, "go make (a nutritious) dinner (of locally grown, organic produce that will bring together your whole family)", it's women that are heading back into the kitchen.

In the end, I think both Badinter and Michael Pollan and the food reform movement hit on the same point: women are judge by society, by other women, by themselves on how they raise their children, be it the food they eat or the diapers  wear.

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