Thursday, March 3, 2011

Simply green

[I wrote this post quite some time ago but never put it up.]

Grim has up a post with some thoughts about Elisabeth Badinter. Grim is objecting to the use of the word “forcing” in the title and sub-title of the Telegraph’s article on Badinter’s views:

French feminist warns green movement forcing women to stay at home
Elisabeth Badinter, a leading French feminist, has warned the green movement is threatening decades of improvements in gender equality by forcing women to give up their jobs and become earth mothers.

and his thoughts on guilt are will worth reading.

Once you get into the article, however, Badinter’s view are characterized a little differently:

a "holy reactionary alliance" of green politicians, breast-feeding militants, "back to nature" feminists and child psychologists is turning Frenchwomen into slaves to green "fads" like re-usable nappies and organic food.

In her new book, Conflit, la Femme et la Mere (Conflict, the Woman and the Mother), Mrs Badinter contends that this politically correct cabal is burdening mothers with intolerable guilt unless they stay at home and breast-feed for as long as possible.

We can have a lively discussion about whether turning women into “slaves” is the same as “forcing” them but my interpretation of Badinter’s view is that women are experiencing great societal pressure to mother in a particular way. I’ve never had children but it seems to me that it is almost impossible to overestimate the extent to which women are susceptible to being told they’re parenting wrong, they should be doing it this way or that way or any other way than the way they’re doing it.

Interestingly, Badinter’s view reminded me of something I read years ago: a couple of brief essays on the Andrea Yates tragedy in the Newsletter of the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women's Caucus, an organization whose stated mission is to “support, educate, and celebrate Christian feminists from many traditions.”

[I feel compelled to stop and state the obvious: Andrea Yates is an extreme case and I do not in any way consider her typical of most women or most mothers. A series of bad decisions and vicious people cascaded down on her with monstrous results. I don’t seek to excuse what she did but neither do I believe she was cold and calculating or a vengeful wife. She was a very seriously mentally ill woman, if not when she met her husband, then certainly by the time she had her third child. The medical establishment, her family, and most especially her husband failed her miserably - and failed her children unforgivably.]

One of the EEWC essays echoes some of Badinter’s points. In discussing how Andrea Yates became so mentally ill that she committed a crime almost incomprehensibly horrible, Anne Eggebroten lists a number of factors. One is the decision to live a “simpler” lifestyle. Andrea and her husband Russell moved with their four children into a bus; six people living in 350 square feet. They eventually moved out of the bus but only because Andrea’s parents insisted. As Eggebroten puts it (emphasis mine):

The big attraction of the bus to Russell was that it represented a simpler lifestyle ... Russell's goal was to "travel light,"... "We just kind of lived," Rusty said to him. "We took it easy" (p. 46). Maybe this life was easier for him -- no lawn to mow -- but living with four toddlers in a bus was not easy for Andrea. When they were back in a normal home, Andrea confessed to Russell that "she felt she had 'failed' at the simple life in the bus" (p.47). Christian churches need to warn their members that simple living must be done in a context where both husband and wife are making choices and sharing the work. Otherwise it becomes just one more impossible ideal for a mother to live up to. [Ed. note: When the fledgling Evangelical Women's Caucus first met in 1974 (as a task force at the Second Thanksgiving Workshop of Evangelicals for Social Action), we drafted a list of proposals which included this statement: "We also urge that changes in economic lifestyles not be designed so that women are forced to make greater sacrifices than men."]

Eggebroten’s concerns echo those of Badinter: changes in lifestyle that are decreed to be better in the eyes of God or better in the eyes of Gaia often end up placing heavier burdens on women than on men. Women need to understand that an approach that urges them to sacrifice for the greater good while the men doing the urging skate is an unacceptable approach, regardless of how wonderful someone is saying that greater good is. If it’s that wonderful, the people doing the urging can do the sacrificing - or at least their fair share of it. There is a particular cruelty in taking someone’s desire to nurture, to help, to do what’s best for others, to make the world a better place, to live up to a higher ideal, and using that desire as a means to make her - or his - life worse.

The second EECW essay addresses Grim’s statement that:

Guilt comes from the inside. Someone may wish to make you feel guilt, but all they can actually do is bring the guilt you already feel to your conscious attention. If it isn't there, they can't create it.

What Grim is describing is how it should be; unfortunately, it’s often not how it is and it seems that it is particularly not how it is for women. Pat Gundry talks about Andrea Yates’ inability to say “No”, her inability to stand up for herself. Gundry believes there is something we can do to help make sure other women don’t end up where Andrea Yates did:

We can teach our girls, and all the girls we meet, to say no. We can teach them how to decide when to say no and when to say maybe and when to say yes for now, but it's open to change. We can give them practice saying no and making it stick. We can model saying no and making it stick, without remorse, without guilt. We can teach all the ways to say no graciously--and the few they'll need to say it not so graciously.

I don’t know if learning to say “No” could have saved Andrea Yates and her children. Maybe it could have. Maybe she would have said “No” to marrying Russell or “No” to having child after child or “No” to being left alone when she knew it was dangerous. Or maybe she was too emotionally and mentally ill even before she met Russell to protect herself.

Be that as it may, learning to say “No”, to stand up for themselves can help women who are encouraged to doubt their own wisdom, their own knowledge, their ability to stand on their own two feet. Learning to say “No” is crucial if women are going to stand up to the kind of societal pressure Badinter is talking about and decide for themselves the best way to raise their children and the best way to live their lives.