Elisabeth Badinter is one of the most well-known and controversial philosophers in France. The granddaughter of Russian-Polish Jewish immigrants, and the daughter of the founder of the first major advertising firm in France, she was born near Paris toward the end of World War II. Badinter was raised with the belief that women were worthy and capable of great achievements, and as a teen, she was deeply influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist writings. A self-identifying feminist, she has chosen to fight for women’s rights, not through political and social activism, but rather through writing. Over a career spanning nearly half a century, she has published widely on gender relations and motherhood. She is also an outspoken defender of French secularism (laïcité).
Family and Education
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, the son of Russian-Polish immigrants, was a self-made man who left school at twelve to help his family in their furniture store; he was also a resistance fighter during World War II. Her mother, Sophie Vaillant, belonged to the French Catholic bourgeoisie and was the granddaughter of left-wing French politician Édouard Vaillant, a minister during the Paris Commune of 1871. Vaillant converted to Judaism when she married Bleustein Blanchet in 1939. In an interview, Elisabeth Badinter recounted with fondness that her childhood bedtime routine included reciting both the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael with her father and the Catholic Lord’s Prayer with her mother. 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 taught philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris for 28 years and is the author of numerous books and a public personality.
Feminism and the Enlightenment
From the beginning, 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: Histoire de l’amour maternel (The Myth of Motherhood: a historical view of the maternal instinct), 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 siècle (Emilie, or female ambition in the eighteenth century) and in 1985 Les “Remonstrances” de Malesherbes (Malesherbes’ Protests). She next turned her attention to the universal context of gender issues in L’un est l’autre (One is the other, 1986) and to the negative impact on men of traditional gender roles in Paroles d’hommes (Men’s words, 1989) and XY, de l’identité masculine (Masculine identity, 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 (Monsieur Maupertuis’ voyage to Laponie, 2003).
Badinter continued with her interest in the Enlightenment and in women’s participation in it in her projected three-volume Les Passions Intellectuelles (Intellectual passions), published in 1999, 2002, and 2007. The books explore the personal and intellectual relations between French men and women of letters during the eighteenth century. Most recently, Badinter’s interest in powerful and influential female Enlightenment figures has centered on Émilie du Châtelet—Voltaire’s lover, and a philosopher and scientist in her own right—and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.
A Controversial Feminist Approach
Because she has been such an ardent promoter of feminism, which she calls one of the most important revolutions in modern times, Badinter’s 2003 book Fausse Route (translated into English as Dead End Feminism) provoked shock and vitriolic attack in some feminist circles. In this 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.” These statements are consistent with Badinter’s preference for “equality through resemblance” over “equality through difference.” She believes that men and women are more similar than they are dissimilar and rejects biological explanations in favor of cultural ones to account for gendered behavior. Moreover, she refuses to essentialize either men or women: while not all men are threats to women’s well-being and safety, not all women are “angels,” she argues. Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy surrounding her 2003 book, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Université de Liège in 2004.
In 2010, Badinter stirred up a new debate among feminists with the publication of her book Le Conflit, la femme et la mère (translated two years later into English as The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women). In it, she denounced the negative effects of the back-to-nature ideology on mothers. In her view, the combination of “naturalism,” which reduces women’s identities to motherhood, and radical environmentalism, has resulted in myriad obligations (such as making organic baby food, using cloth diapers, breastfeeding rather than using formula) that threaten the hard-won victories and freedoms achieved by women in the preceding decades. With this push toward hyper-intensive mothering, “the baby,” Badinter wrote, “is the best ally of masculine domination” (Le Nouvel Observateur, February 11, 2010). Although the book was severely criticized by French feminists of a younger generation, especially proponents of ecofeminism who view feminism and environmentalism as deeply intertwined, Badinter’s attempt to free women of the guilt of not being “perfect mothers” resonated with many.
In addition to her views on motherhood, Elisabeth Badinter has contributed much to public discourse related to gender relations and the family in France. In the 1990s, she fiercely opposed a draft law (which was eventually enacted in 2000) imposing sexual parity in political office on the grounds that inscribing differences between the genders into law opened a dangerous pandora box. In Badinter’s mind, this law rested on the flawed assumption that women are unable to access power on their own. Furthermore, between 2013 and 2016, Badinter unsuccessfully tried to convince French legislators to abandon a draft bill seeking to penalize clients of prostitutes. She reasoned that prostitution was a woman’s right, and that women should be able to use their bodies as they saw fit. Pursuant to this belief, she is also a strong advocate of legalizing surrogate pregnancy (“ethical surrogacy,” as she calls it). As a petition she spearheaded in 2010 read, “in the 21st century, the founding of a family is the expression of a will, that is, of the conjunction of individual freedom and a shared project. The birth of a child born results from this freedom and this project.”
Elisabeth Badinter’s opinions have repeatedly clashed with those of Sylviane Agacinski, a fellow left-leaning French philosopher and feminist, who, like Badinter, is married to a man of power (Lionel Jospin, who served as a Socialist prime minister). Contrary to Badinter, Agacinski favored the law on sexual parity in politics, as well as the abolition of prostitution. Agacinski is also one of the most vocal opponents of surrogate pregnancy, which she regards as “a commerce in human beings.” Badinter’s and Agacinski’s opposing views on women’s issues point to the diversity of French feminism, shaped by contrasting understandings of French universalism, and the ongoing tensions between freedom and equality.
Laïcité in the Public Sphere
Much as she was willing to fight against essentialism in the name of Enlightenment equality, so Badinter 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. When the Islamic scarf controversy erupted in French schools in 1989, Badinter forcefully advocated for a prohibition on wearing religious garb in school. Unsurprisingly, she was among the most vocal proponents of the 2004 law banning “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools. 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.” Badinter has also repeatedly supported the 2010 French ban on face coverings, which was primarily directed at niqab-wearing Muslim women, and in 2016 she called for a boycott of Western brands that sell Islamic clothing. Since the “Baby Loup Affair” of 2013, in which a Muslim day care worker was fired for refusing to remove her niqab in the workplace, Badinter has championed legislation prohibiting “ostentatious” religious symbols in the early childhood sector.
Badinter’s views on religion in the public sphere reflect the belief both that French secularism can protect women, especially Muslim women, from gender discrimination, and that the privatization of religion stems from the universalist worldview inherited from the Enlightenment period: as she has explained, “the excess of exteriorization of the religious, the rituals which become sacrosanct, the withdrawal into one's community to the exclusion of other groups, is profoundly contrary to my universalism, to my philosophy, above all founded on the conviction that our similarities unite” (Le Monde des Religions, 2011). Badinter has expressed feeling betrayed by the French left, which, she believes, has surrendered secularism in the name of religious tolerance.
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. She joined its Supervisory Board in 1987, served as its Chair from 1996 to 2017, and is currently vice-chair.
Speaking Out Against Antisemitism
Despite acknowledging the importance of her Jewish identity in shaping her intellectual fights, Badinter has remained largely silent on Jewish issues throughout her career. However, the rise of antisemitism in France, and more specifically the defenestration of Sarah Halimi, a middle-aged Jewish observant woman, in Paris in April 2017, prompted Badinter to co-sign a letter with sixteen other prominent intellectuals, published in the French press in June of that year, asking that light be shed on Halimi’s death. As Badinter has argued, Jews should not wage the fight against antisemitism alone, but rather with the support of the national community.
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.
L’Amour en plus. Histoire de l'amour maternel (XVIIe-XXe siècle). Paris: Flammarion, 1980. [The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London, Souvenir Press, 1981.]
L'Un est l'Autre. Des relations entre hommes et femmes. Paris: Odile Jacob, 1986. [The Unopposite Sex: The End of the Gender Battle. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.]
XY, de l'identité masculine, 1992. Paris: Odile Jacob, 1992.
[XY, on Masculine Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.]
Fausse route. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2003. [Dead End Feminism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.]
Madame du Châtelet, Madame d'Épinay ou l'Ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle/ Paris: Flammarion, 2006.
L'infant de Parme. Paris: Fayard, 2008.
Le conflit, la femme et la mère. Paris: Flammarion, 2010. [The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.]
Le Pouvoir au féminin, Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche 1717-1780. Paris: Flammarion, 2016.
Les Passions intellectuelles. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2018.
Petitions signed or co-signed by Elisabeth Badinter:
Elisabeth Badinter, Régis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Elisabeth de Fontenay, and Catherine Kintzler, “Profs, ne capitulons pas!” Le Nouvel Observateur, November 2, 1989.
Elisabeth Badinter, “Non aux quotas des femmes.” Le Monde, June 12, 1996.
Elisabeth Badinter, “Adresse à celles qui portent volontairement la burqa.” Nouvel Observateur, July 9, 2009.
“Tribune: Gestation pour autrui : un cadre contre les dérives.” Le Monde, December 13, 2010.
“L'appel de 17 intellectuels: ‘Que la vérité soit dite sur le meurtre de Sarah Halimi’.” Le Figaro, June 1, 2017.
“Tribune: On ne peut plus ignorer les enfants nés par GPA.” Le Monde, January 16, 2018.
Célestin, Roger, Eliane Françoise DalMolin, and Isabelle De Courtivron, eds. Beyond French Feminisms: Debates on Women, Politics, and Culture in France, 1981 – 2001. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Frerejean, Alain. Robert et Élisabeth Badinter: Deux Enfants de La République. Paris: L’Archipel, 2018.
Interview with Elisabeth Badinter. Le Monde des religions, No 49 (September-October 2011).
Kramer, Jane. “Against Nature. Elisabeth Badinter’s contrarian feminism.” New Yorker, July 25, 2011.
Munier, Paul. La Ressemblance Des Humains: L’oeuvre d’Élisabeth Badinter. Collection “Les Clés de La Philo.” Meaux: Germina, 2013.
Rodgers, Catherine. “Elisabeth Badinter and ‘The Second Sex’: An Interview.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21, no. 1 (October 1995): 147–62.
Van Renterghem, Marion. “Elisabeth Badinter, la griffe de la République.” Le Monde, June 13, 2016.
Zaretsky, Robert. “Égalité Meets Gay Marriage.” New York Times, February 8, 2013.