Monday, October 18, 2010

Thank Heaven You're Not French, Ethel--Have Another Bag of Them Freedom Fries

If a male journalist led off a feature article explaining the news that as part of their post-natal care, French women are offered “a state-paid extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer,” readers might assume a certain degree of prurient interest on his part. When a woman begins a front-page International Herald Tribune article with this fact, and then follows it up with “French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job, and often, a figure to die for,” it’s forgivable to think there’s a tiny bit of guillotine-sharpening going on.

“What they do not have is equality,” the article trumpets, pointing out that in a recent gender equality report, France lags behind the U.S., Japan, Jamaica, and Kazakhstan. French men occupy 82% of their country’s parliamentary seats and earn 26% more than their female counterparts. French women spend twice as much time on domestic duties than men do, while popping out more babies and popping in more antidepressants than women in any other European country. (“More babies,” as the article admits later, means an average of 2 children, rather than the 1.5 in the rest of the EU—which erases the brood mare image that the reporter offers in her opening paragraphs.) “They worry about being feminine, not feminist, and men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution.”

The editor in chief of Elle complains “We have the right to do anything as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner, and look immaculate. We have to be superwomen.”

Let’s stop and sob for our poor oppressed French sisters—women whose government guarantees four months of paid maternity leave, the right to take time off or reduce hours at work until the baby turns three—and don’t forget those bouts of “perineal therapy.” French families receive “a generous family allowance” that kicks in after the second child, plus tax deductions—and France provides free all-day nursery school with childcare from 8:30 am until 6:30 at night for “toddlers as young as 2.” Oh the horror, the horror. To top off this grisly picture, every day “French women spend on average 5 hours and 1 minute on child care and domestic tasks, while men spend 2 hours and 7 minutes.” And in France there is a Baccarat crystal ceiling, or as one Frenchwoman puts it, “a patriarchal corporate culture.”

I come from a country that has yet to pass a constitutional amendment that would guarantee American women equal rights, and where the Roe versus Wade decision teeters on the brink of extinction with every Supreme Court justice chosen by a Republican president. I never totaled up the amount of time I spent after work on “childcare and domestic tasks,” but I’m quite sure it was hovering around that average of 5 hours and 1 minute, and equality of pay in my workplace fell under the category of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At that time of my life, I remembered reading long ago about the oppressed women in Communist Russia who worked all day and then went home and worked some more. As a small girl in the 50s, I thought that was horrible. As a wife and mother in the 80s, I found that was my life.

American women continue what seems to be a losing battle for subsidized—if not free—childcare, for paid maternity leave, for pediatric health care that won’t beggar their bank accounts. The last time I checked, the House and Senate were male-dominated and corporations headed by women were still a back-patting anomaly. Many American women have figures that are potentially deadly, rather than “to die for,” because the food they can afford to put on their tables is highly processed, flavorless, and fattening. Macaroni and cheese, anyone? Or how about a nice tuna casserole for that “delicious dinner…”

We Americans might outrank French women in equality to men, but they have advantages we can only dream of. Healthy vaginal muscles may be one benefit of being French and female, but that is far outweighed by—oh free childcare, perhaps. It would be interesting to see a similar profile of American working mothers in the IHT. One thing is certain, if such a story were published, it wouldn’t lead off with the state of our vaginas. Because we have superior gender equality, n’est-ce pas?


Katia said...

You know, I had my kids in the US, and always regretted not being able to benefit from this post natal free perineal gymnastic :) In fact, what I heard and read about the process of giving birth in the US when I was pregnant was what led me ultimately to switch to my midwives in NY. And it was also the difficulty of working and having small children that pushed us out of the country so fast after our first child's birth. How women with babies and toddlers manage in the US is often nothing short of heroic. Good for you for shedding some much needed light over the matter.

janet brown said...

I was hoping you would give some insight on this! Thanks, Katia!