I’m not going to rehash the entire tale of Rachida Dati’s return to work five days after giving birth. Everyone has made their various opinions known: from the defenders to the outraged to the plain stupid. But here’s a little background: the French Justice Minister, 43, gave birth to her daughter Zohra on January 2nd, was photographed leaving the maternity clinic five days later, and an hour after that - in stilettos and a tight, black suit – appeared at the weekly Cabinet session.
Apparently, how dare she? Dati has been flagellated in the press and elsewhere for setting a bad example for women, abandoning her daughter, undermining the feminist struggle that fought and continues to fight for maternity rights, and numerous other transgressions. But there are several things wrong with this crucifixion scene.
First, one of the prime tenets of the feminist doctrine is choice. By opting to forego maternity leave, Dati has not made an indictment on all women who find it necessary, or sent a message to employers that truly committed employees find a way to return immediately. She has merely exercised her right to make her own choices regarding her formal market work (government) and her informal/domestic market work (home), and she decided that at that time, she was willing and able to return to the business of government. And quite frankly, she had to. With a reshuffle imminent, a new judicial plan being announced, and a reputation as an undeserving and wildly unsuccessful justice Minister, Dati likely felt pressured to defend her position. But one gets the sense that even were she the Princess Di of French politics, she would not have spent much time convalescing. Love her or hate her, Rachida Dati appears to thrive on public life. And if eager to return to it, she does not then owe her constituents proof that her daughter is not suffering from neglect.
Second, we are forgetting that the analysis of women’s rights is not a discrete exercise. It is connected to class, race, age, income level and other variables. Women are not a homogeneous group with identical sets of rights and opportunities. Most women will need maternity leave in order to recover in a way that their resources will allow and to adjust to their new family life. Ms. Dati, as the first senior French minister of North African origin, no doubt feels she has a lot more to prove, and arguably has the resources to make her transition to family life a much smoother one. Any employers who take her case as the exception rather than the rule are simply looking for an easy escape, and all eyes should be on them, not on the Minister.
Furthermore, and picture me yelling these next words, what manner of modern-day, anti-feminist witch hunt is this? If this were a man who had returned to work five days after the birth of his child, no one would bat an eyelash. In fact, chances are no one would even know he had reproduced. Women’s own choices about their reproductive health belong in the private domain. The furor over this ‘incident’ has even obliged Dati’s good friend Bernadette Chirac, wife of the former president Jacques Chirac, to reveal that Ms. Dati “is breastfeeding her baby, which is a guarantee of very good health for an infant, it's a natural thing". Because if she had dared to pump or use formula, she would be an abomination and probably the secret bride of Satan. Are we still stuck in that practice of reducing even the most accomplished and influential of women to their value as wet nurses and incubators?
Well yes, we are. Because even before this nonsense became a public debate, the justice Minister was being pressured to reveal the identity of the father of her child. Claude Askolovitch, the editor of the Journal du Dimanche called her “… a solitary character, [who] even in happiness, [she] often inspires a little sadness.” I’m not sure why Mr Askolovitch would be sad about Dati’s solitary nature. I hope (but frankly doubt) it has more to do with her struggle as a North African woman in politics and less to do with her being a single woman over 40. And a single woman over 40 who dares to have a child with no paternal source in sight! Well, that’s just crazy talk.
Some people naysay her return to work as another in a series of Ms. Dati’s attempts to court the press and public in matters wholly unrelated to her performance as a government Minister. She’s a drama queen, they say, and they’re tired of it. This is a separate argument. The Minister has made some questionable public image decisions, chief among which was the one to pose for Paris Match in a Dior dress and stiletto boots at a time when her ministry was experiencing severe job cuts. But whatever the reason for objecting to this last, private decision, stripping bare the sexual and reproductive choices of one woman, laying them open to judgment and simultaneously burdening her with the responsibility for the maternity choices of all the women in an entire country is as anti-feminist as you can get.