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A step too far? Body troubles, gendered lives

Updated Thursday, 22nd January 2009

Kath Woodward suggests that Rachida Dati's five-day maternity leave should probably be a cause for concern

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In sport athletes sometimes push themselves to the limits and beyond. Boxers still come out when they should probably stay in their corner and throw in the towel. Corporeal achievement is crucial, so perhaps it’s not surprising, even if damaged limbs and a whole season out or even a career destroyed are sometimes the outcome.

In other areas of experience, where bodily competition is not so central, it may be more difficult to comprehend the French justice minister Rachida Dati’s decisionto return to work only five days after giving birth by caesarian section. Perhaps, as an ambitious, successful woman of 43, she was anxious about showing any signs of weakness?

Rachida Dati Creative commons image Icon by Ma Gali under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Rachida Dati

It certainly made the papers and she did look stunning: a supreme embodied achievement. It was newsworthy, because most people don’t don 5 inch stiletto heels a few days after surgery, even if they have a reputation for wearing stunningly fashionable clothes and dressing impeccably in the day job. The tabloid press did focus on what she was wearing with some voyeuristic pleasure, for example the Daily Mail’s concern with her being ‘more glamorous than ever’.

More seriously, could it be the feminist concerns with women’s hard won rights to maternity leave being so flagrantly disregarded by a high flying successful woman in high office that make this an important matter to explore in the political public arena? As Madeleine Bunting noted in the Guardian, 'this is bad for her and bad for us too’.

As a public figure, Dati also has some responsibility and her actions have meanings about what is important for all of us. Dati’s actions make it clear that, not only are the rights that women have fought for to protect their physical well being as mothers, but also the relationship between the mother and her child which represents emotional intimacy, much less important than career success. Breastfeeding her baby and its accompanying intimacy will be very difficult under these circumstances, but although breastfeeding may be promoted by health professionals it occupies a very uneasy place in contemporary culture.

Bunting’s feminist political argument is countered by French claims that things are different across the channel, as Agnès Poirier argues. Poirier suggests that ‘French women view themselves as women first, mothers second’ and ‘don't see maternity as their sole raison d'être. You could call it feminism’. However, it is still more usually women who give birth and women who breastfeed. (A US woman who had her breasts removed, grew a small beard and became legally male as Thomas Beatie, subsequently gave birth very publicly as a man, albeit with a woman’s reproductive organs, apart from the excised mammary glands. The beard, like the shoes, may be a distraction).

There are, of course different feminisms, but Poirier’s version is somewhat disembodied with no recognition of the specificities or values of embodied experience. Resting after major surgery, accessing the legal and civil rights that are embedded in contemporary neoliberal governance and investing in emotional life do not constitute throwing in the towel or turning your back on competition and success.

 

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