A feminist philosopher and writer, Elisabeth Badinter has been among the foremost and most controversial French intellectuals of her generation. She was born on March 5, 1944 in Hauts-de-Seine, France, one of three daughters of Marcel Bleustein Blanchet, the founder of Publicis, the first major advertising firm in France. Her father was a self-made man, the son of Russian-Polish immigrants, who left school at twelve to help his family in their furniture store. Elisabeth has declared that both of her parents—her mother worked for the magazine Elle—believed in equality of the sexes (perhaps because they had no sons).
With such a home environment, it is not surprising that Elisabeth became a feminist in her teens. She attributes her “conversion” to her reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) when she was sixteen. She studied philosophy and sociology at university and married at the age of twenty-two. Her husband, Robert Badinter, a prominent lawyer, intellectual and government official, was Minister of Justice from 1981 to 1986 in the socialist government of François Mitterand. In that post he spearheaded the elimination of capital punishment in France. The couple live in Paris in a building overlooking the Luxembourg gardens.
Between 1966 and 1970, while continuing her graduate studies in philosophy, Elisabeth gave birth to three children. She juggled childbirth and her oral and written examinations. In 1973 she received her agrégation in philosophy. She is a lecturer in philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris, the author of numerous books and a public personality.
From the first, Elisabeth Badinter has dealt with controversial topics, most of them inspired by her feminism and her commitment to Enlightenment rationalism and universalism. In 1980 she published L’Amour en plus, which provided a history of maternal love from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries and famously argued that maternal love was not an innate quality of women. In 1984, building on her interest in women and Enlightenment thought, she published Emilie, Emilie ou l’ambition feminine au xviiie siecle and in 1985 Les “Remonstrances” de Malesherbes. She next turned her attention to the universal context of gender issues in L’un est l’autre (1986) and to the negative impact on men of traditional gender roles in Paroles d’hommes (1989) and XY, de l’identité masculine (1992). In 1988, together with her husband, she published a study of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinker Condorcet, and later, by way of relaxation wrote an illustrated children’s book, Voyage en Laponie de Monsieur de Maupertuis (2003).
Badinter continued with her interest in the Enlightenment and in women’s participation in it in her projected three-volume Les Passions Intellectuelles, the first two volumes of which were published in 1999 and 2003. The books explore the personal and intellectual relations between French men and women of letters during the eighteenth century.
Because she has been such an ardent promoter of feminism, which she calls one of the most important revolutions in modern times, her 2003 book Fausse Route provoked shock and vitriolic attack in some feminist circles. In that book Badinter mounted a critique of one group of feminist activists, essentialists, who saw women as unalterably different from men. That stance, she argued, which was borrowed from radical Anglo-Saxon feminists, reveled in seeing women as eternal victims and contributed to their victimhood. “Man is not the enemy,” she declared in an interview. It is necessary to “fight to win equality with men, surely not against them.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Université de Liège in 2004.
Much as she was willing to fight against essentialism in the name of Enlightenment equality, so she remains committed to secularity, or laïcisme, in the public sphere. An identified Jew herself, she opposes government acceptance of religious symbols. Moreover, she considers the communally mandated covering of women’s hair in Islam as a form of sexual discrimination. In the celebrated and prolonged discussion of girls’ wearing of Islamic scarves in public schools, she staunchly argued against that right, noting, “If we allow women to wear headscarves in state schools, then the republic and French democracy have made clear their religious tolerance but they have given up on any equality of the sexes in our country.”
In addition to her roles as scholar and public intellectual, Badinter has also assumed the mantle of heir to her father’s business. She is the major stockholder in Publicis, now the fourth largest communications group in the world. Since 1996 she has also been the chairperson of its Supervisory Board.
Elisabeth Badinter has been a model of the engaged intellectual, participating in public debate on the major issues of her time. As the citation of her honorary doctorate proclaimed, Elisabeth Badiner constantly invites her fellow citizens to “remember the democratic and humanist foundations” on which French society rests.
“Remontrances” de Malesherbes , 1771–1775 (1978); Amour en plus: histoire de l’amour maternel (XVIIe -XXe siècle (1980), translated as Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981); Emilie, Emilie: l’ambition feminine au XVIIIe siècle (1983); Un est l’autre: des relations entre homes et femmes (1986), translated as Unopposite Sex: The End of the Gender Battle (1989); Condorcet, 1743–1794, with Robert Badinter (1988); XY, de l’identité masculine (1992), translated as XY, on Masculine Identity (1995); Passions intellectuals (1999–2002); Simone de Beauvoir, ou, Les Chemins de la liberté, with three others (2002); Fausse route (2003).