French justice minister Rachida Dati was the centre of much media attention this week having reportedly returned to work just five days after giving birth by caesarean section. The nationals were quick to pick up the story. The Daily Mail, in true superficial style, concentrated its analysis on Dati’s “glamorous” appearance. The Guardian offered a compilation of opinions by its journalists , largely berating Dati for a move that will allegedly reverberate throughout the Western hemisphere and have damaging consequences for working women. The Telegraph, seeming somewhat impressed by her choice of “high-heels” as much as it was by her professional ambition, “breaking new ground with her maternity leave,” highlighted the secrecy surrounding the identity of her baby’s father. (Oh yes, because as well as refusing maternity leave entitlement, Dati openly admits to having a “complicated” personal life and has not surrendered to media pressure to name names). Her failure to “play the game” has made her a figure of intrigue, although with this has come a certain degree of criticism with media muppets metaphorically gnawing at her svelte post-partum silhouette, hoping that she will crack. But why? Is this really just? Is this even news?
French law states that women are entitled to six weeks leave prior to giving birth and up to ten weeks afterwards. However, Dati never intended to remain absent from the office for longer than she felt necessary. Just before going into labour she allegedly claimed that “giving birth is not a disease,” and was vocal about her intention to resume her position within a week – even working from her hospital bed. I’m not a medical profession, but as I understand it, a caesarean section is a complicated, serious procedure, with women often told to limit their physical activity for weeks following the operation. That Dati looked so healthy on her prompt return to work is impressive. For health reasons she will have to amend her schedule so that she can properly recover (and hopefully she has taken this seriously). That she decided to return so soon after giving birth is shocking because it is unexpected. It is shocking because the vast majority of media attention accorded maternity rights is orientated around the discrimination of expectant mothers in the workplace and reluctance of employers to neither support initial leave, nor introduce flexible working hours to cater for the needs of parents.
It’s a fact that pregnancy often leads to dismissal for many women, with those working in “the City” reportedly particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Mothers-to-be employed in the financial and legal sectors often work right up until they give birth, shrouding their baby bumps in black smocks to try and prevent their pregnancy from being visually apparent in male dominated environments. Why? Because many employers view pregnancy as a problem. Women who have babies are often not taken as seriously in the workplace. Their commitment and ambition is unfairly questioned, and thus many women feel that they have to work overtime in the hope that their careers won’t be irreparably disrupted. It’s unfair, but it’s common knowledge.
Therefore, that Dati has declined to take maternity leave to which she is legally entitled is seen as controversial and detrimental. Anne Perkins and Madeleine Bunting have heavily criticised Dati. Perkins wrote:
…her refusal to take maternity leave is the ultimate failure. If women in public life behave as if they cannot take time out from their career for the vital work of mothering, then who can? Dati has undermined the efforts of a generation to persuade employers to recognise the importance of family to their employees.
With Bunting claiming Dati has endorsed sexist speculation that women make an “inordinate amount of fuss” about pregnancy and childbirth, adding that:
Photos of her [Dati] freshly back at work are over all the newspapers on both sides of the Channel. Not only has the 43-year-old returned to her job but she has magically regained her figure and managed her usual immaculate coiffeured elegance. She has even, damn it, managed to find matching earrings at a time when most mothers are blearily staggering around their bedroom in a daze of exhilaration, exhaustion and pain. If she can do it, why can’t they?
The “ultimate failure?” Really? Not a bit harsh, do you think? Perkins and Bunting both make reference to Dati’s physical appearance. While she probably has a network of nannies working 24/7 to care for her baby (unlike the vast majority of new mothers who have to wake for night feeds and nurse their crying babies without the advantage of assistance), that she hasn’t gained a massive amount of weight and has regained her figure is not the result of “magic,” but probably good genes. Some of us have them, some of us don’t. Bunting takes a cheap shot. Sure, I can appreciate the argument that normal mothers may look at Dati and wonder why they haven’t recovered as quickly, but the vast majority will consider her relative position of privilege (she is, after all, something of a French celebrity and financially affluent), and also that what she has done is considered so extreme and unbelievable that it has been worthy of international media discussion. This is not what women do, and while I understand that, why, exactly, has Dati been so heavily criticised? And is it fair to claim that she has completely reversed the work of maternity rights’ activists?
Dati can return to work at her own discretion. She is accountable to no-one but herself and her child regarding her approach to work and motherhood. Regardless of her professional position, her role as a mother is part of her personal life; she shouldn’t have to justify her actions, nor amend her behaviour to do what is seen as the “right thing” by the standards of people she does not know. No one should, unless they are acting illegally or inappropriately in a way that is detrimental to another person. As with the vote, campaigners wanted women to have the option of maternity leave. They wanted it to be mandatory only in so much as it would be a viable option for a working mother, allowing us to be mothers and have careers. It needed to be made available so that women who wanted it could take it without judgement. While women can vote, not all women do. We have the privilege of choice, and that is what our foremothers wanted. Dati chose not to take maternity leave because she did not feel the need. We can speculate on the underlying reasons and consider her decision in the context of our pre-conceived ideas of motherhood, but the fact remains that it was a personal decision that she had the right to make. The personal life of any politician is often subject to media scrutiny, with those in the profession often invested with the responsibility of providing a “good example” to the masses about how one should behave. However, is this not a poisitive example? Is this not feminism in action? Can Dati not be viewed as the archetypal liberated woman since she has refused to do what is seen as convention, instead doing what she wants despite the anticipation of vitriolic criticism and speculation about her mothering abilities?
While men in the UK are now permitted to take a period of paternity leave at the discretion of their employers, very few do. The vast majority of new fathers rarely take more than a day or so off work depending on the time and day their offspring decides to make an appearance. So, should the fact Dati was eager to get her political thinking-cap back on almost immediately as the dressing was applied be seen as gender equality in action? Siobhain Butterworth echoes the same sentiments and has, in my opinion, produced the best commentary on this issue. She states that we should “mind our own business” and that:
Undoubtedly, if Dati had chosen not to return to work for several months, if she were to come out strongly in favour of breastfeeding, and if she were fatter, some women would feel reassured about their own choices. But you have to wonder where feminism has taken us when women are judged because they don’t conform to the current view of what a “good mother” looks like. This stay-at-home version of feminism may not suit every mother or every family. Women shouldn’t feel pressured by employers or anyone else into going back to work early after childbirth, but nor should they be made to feel that it is socially unacceptable, or that they are letting the side down, if they decide to take only a short maternity leave.
The most destructive aspect of Dati’s decision has been the news articles and commentaries it has provoked (which is not her fault). The vast majority of journalists – especially those writing most vehemently – have been women. That the national media has shown en masse the extent to which women can be women’s worst enemies (Bunting’s analysis, for example, is unnecessarily catty), judging each other most damagingly when one is not seen to conform (and at worst, as transgressive) does nothing for feminism. The implication is that should a woman decide not to take the maximum maternity leave then not only is she failing as a mother, but also as a woman, and ergo not only is she failing herself, but also womankind. Harsh, no? It’s certainly too much pressure. The unnecessary emphasis place on the fact that she wanted to return to work – which in this instance has been considered synoymous with the professional environment – does nothing for the status of mothers. The implication is that motherhood is easy, that caring for a new baby is almost like a vacation, when, while the demands are different, many would argue that motherhood can be not just as (but often more) demanding and rigorous than a job with designated hours of service and a set salary.
When stripped of polemic this was simply a woman who was told she could take 10 weeks off work and thought, should I? Nah! I’m alright, thanks. This isn’t news. It was suprising, but not news, and definetely not news that warranted the media attention it received. Maybe this is what Dati wanted. As a public figure increasing in status internationally any media coverage can be used to her advantage. However, what does this say about the nature of news in general? This shortly followed the groundbreaking reports that Paris Hilton claims to have slept with just two men (who really cares, would it matter if it was 100? It’s her business.) and Cheryl Cole’s admission that she does, in fact, struggle to keep her weight down. Both made national headlines and both were broadcast on news programmes. Perhaps critics would have performed a better public service had they considered Dati’s story in the context of the trivilisation and marginalisation of women’s news, since this is one of the biggest obstacles facing feminism in the twenty-first century – not a woman deciding she wants to work before her baby has even seen a rusk, let alone chewed one.