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Elisabeth Badinter distorts feminism the better to fight it

1er octobre 2003

par Elaine Audet

Elisabeth Badinter

Since its publication, last spring, Elisabeth Badinter’s book, Fausse route (Wrong Route) has been the subject of many articles and interviews, mass media giving her the kind of “royal” attention bestowed on antifeminist discourse in recent years. This book gave them much to feed on. For Elisabeth Badinter, “the” current French feminism is monolithic, essentialist and anti-men. Influenced by some American radical theorists, it victimizes women, demonizes male sexuality and has managed to impose a new moral order.

In the same logic, Badinter agrees with the intensification of sexual stereotypes during childhood, the liberalization of prostitution and accuses feminists of Puritanism for their presumed inability to take into account the new currents of sexuality. Her leitmotiv : American feminists went too far ; if women do not want to cut themselves from men forever, it’s time to end the battle of the sexes. It is thus the American feminism as much as the French one, that the lampooner wants to put on trial.

First of all, what does E. Badinter call being a feminist ? Essentially, it is to aim at being equal to men and at sharing all their privileges. According to her, there is no male domination, but a lack of will by women to assert their autonomy. Where there is a will, there is a way ! She does not care much about the concepts of power and alienation. She does not practice this kind of philosophy ! It is not the first time that E. Badinter rushes to the defense of patriarchal values : all of her work testifies of it through a search for a complementarity which would not question male supremacy and a defense of the stereotypes of femininity and virility, which she considers essential in a healthy and solid identity construction of both sexes.

Badinter’s discourse : its method and sources

E. Badinter’s method of "analysis" is simple, effective and dishonest. First, it involves attributing to either all feminists, or only to a group alleged to represent a dominant current, words and ideas they have never voiced. Then, Badinter refutes these untruths by mere appeals to authority - her own ! - saying : please, believe me for it is I, Elisabeth Badinter, speaking. Although she often quotes statistics that contradict her bombastic assertions, these disappear under her accusations, repeated ad nauseam, that feminists victimize women and hate men. Again, these are simplistic assertions for which she is careful not to provide any evidence. For Badinter, it would be a proof of paranoia or of hatred toward men (misandry) to acknowledge accounts of a specific violence against women or of a system, patriarchy, which perpetuates itself using sexual relations of domination.

As for her sources, the author draws them especially from mass media such as Libération, Le Monde, Elle, L’Express, Le Point, Madame Figaro, Marianne, New York Times, France 2, whose antifeminism and, in some cases, sensationalism justify severe doubts regarding the quality of her arguments. Even though E. Badinter has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and she is a Maître de conférences at Paris’ École Polytechnique, she does not belong to the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) nor is she tenured in any University. This may explain her silence concerning the foremost feminist scholars, her lack of methodological rigor, and the questionable sources referred to in her book. Nothing surprising about the fact that her broadside was so eagerly echoed in male-stream media, which share Elisabeth Badinter’s class interests and patriarchal vision of the world. Fausse route belongs unmistakably to the current antifeminist backlash and to the vindictive, misogynous and homophobic Right-wing masculinist ideology, which finds a natural ally in E. Badinter.

Finding sexual symmetry in violence

An all-out challenge of the findings of a recent National Inquiry on Violence against Women in France (ENVEFF) is one aspect of Badinter’s broadside that gained her extra support from the media and the antifeminists. She claimed that this study, conducted among 6,970 women between March and July 2000, conflated psychological, physical and sexual violence in order to inflate statistical findings. The most summary perusal of this study’s report (1) reveals that, contrary to the claims of Fausse route, the statistics concerning these various forms of violence have been compiled separately. Researchers and feminists should not be held responsible for the fact that some journalists have merely added the findings concerning these various categories of violence against women. In their explanation of the methodology used, the researchers insisted on the distinctions to be made between situations of verbal and psychological conflict and those of physical and sexual violence, which always affect the integrity of the person targeted. They have also pointed to the existence of a continuum of violence in the case of conjugal violence. As for the scientific quality of the ENVEFF inquiry, it was duly controlled, including the cooperation of qualified statistician from the CNRS, and its report was endorsed by numerous scientific personalities (2).

Even if E. Badinter admits "a man who kills a woman - often his wife - does so in a movement of appropriation of the other", she can still wonder in the same breath why so many women do not manage to leave their torturer ! As if it was not generally known that the battered wife syndrome is based on the systematic destruction of one’s self-esteem by a sexual, psychological, and physical continuum of violence, which paralyzes its victims. As Badinter refuses to recognize the existence of a specific violence against women engendered by sexual relations of domination, she falls back on the "popular" mythology suggesting, despite a total lack of scientific evidence, that the primary cause of violence against women is men’s social and cultural misery. Yet, statistical data and daily evidence demonstrate that violence against women crosses all social classes, as we are reminded by the murder of French film icon Marie Trintignant, among so many others. But nothing survives the mettle of Badinter’s antifeminist biases. She even regrets that the inquiry’s questionnaire was not also administered to men ; according to her, this would have cast a welcome light on women’s abuses of power and specific violence. Still, showing no fear of contradictions, she acknowledges that men are responsible for 90 % of the acts of violence (3) !

Feminist victimization of both women and men

On the issue of prostitution, E. Badinter blames the abolitionists, whom she calls "prohibitionists", for conflating prostitution with rape and thus making prostituted women into "absolute victims" by refusing to hear their voices. Is it ignorance or dishonesty which brings her to discard the numerous testimonies of prostitutes and "survivors" published in the media, books or on-line, speaking of the hell these women have gone through and their desire to emerge from it (4) ? Badinter proves dishonest when she labels the struggle against this modern global-scale slavery, a "war against prostitutes". She deliberately misstates the struggle against a system of oppression, patriarchal or prostitutional, by calling it a struggle against individuals. She acknowledges no distinction between a minority individual’s choices and collective choices and stakes that have consequences on all of society. It is pure dishonesty to assimilate, as she does, denunciation of the violence against women to these women’s victimization.

All this rhetoric put out by Badinter serves one purpose : to disappear the fact that the perpetrators of conjugal violence or rapes are, for the great majority, not "maniacs, wretched, perverts" who roam the streets after nightfall in search of a prey, as she claims, but instead men well-known to the assaulted women. According to her, the issue is merely about some deranged folks who sometimes lose control. Building on such unsupported opinion, she claims that feminist analysis of sexual relations of domination amounts to an "unconditional denunciation of men".

We are then entitled to another fable from the author, when she asserts that "both sexes claim to be victims one of the other, except that women speak loud and clear while men murmur". Elisabeth Badinter, who has an excellent footing in the media as the heir, majority shareholder and President of the Board of PUBLICIS, the world’s fourth largest communications empire, has probably a selective ear. Soaking in the neo-liberal male circles, she shares the masculinist arguments and the doubtful conclusions of the so-called "Male Inventory" of men’s ills, published by the magazine Elle (5) on the occasion of the International Women’s Day. Some men claim that it is now women who are the masters and men the slaves. The access of women to full citizenry is alleged to send some of them in a state of "identity confusion", assimilated by them to a form of oppression. Of course, our antifeminist poster child is careful not to mention that the same magazine quoted other men who dismiss this alleged domination of men by women.

On what grounds does Badinter base her assertion that numerous men are battered by women but simply too ashamed to speak up, for fear of ridicule ? Negating the findings of a host of credible studies, the author discusses women’s violence against men as if it was a common occurrence and a reality symmetrical to that of male violence against women : "Men and women are subject to this pathology because violence belongs to humanity". She denies the systemic violence of men and its aim of controlling women and preserving the privileges that society continues to grant them, based on the uneven division of roles and sexual discrimination. In support of rapists and of their time-honored excuse when put on trial, Badinter tries to exonerate men by relying on a deceptive argument that society has fortunately left behind. She speaks of "the women’s no that really means yes", a reality which the feminist "Puritans"would try to deny. "It may be a law of nature that man conquers and woman surrenders to this sweet violence", she coos, justifying in advance all acts of sexist abuse.

The taming of sexuality

To buttress her attacks against what she calls the taming of sexuality by the "new feminist moral order" of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Badinter borrows from notorious American antifeminists, such as anthropologist Gayle Rubin, front-runner and theorist since the 80s of the sadomasochistic lesbian and queer current (6). This current interprets power disparities as being integral to sexuality, an ideology mirrored by both E. Badinter in France and Denise Bombardier in Quebec (7). Various manifestations of queer ideology have been mainstreamed by fashion and served as spearhead to undermine the influence of radical feminism. In Coming to Power (8), Rubin writes that feminists are integrated into the dominant hierarchical society and should be treated as enemies.

In her last book, Thinking sex (9), referred to by Badinter in Fausse route, Rubin pursues her apology of pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism, and all dissident sexual minorities ; she concentrates especially on the defense of pedophilia by refusing to see in it a form of sexual exploitation. For her, any law aiming at governing sexuality constitutes "a sexual apartheid", intended to strengthen the structures of power.

Quoting current queer ideologues, E. Badinter similarly asserts that prostitution, pornography, sadomasochism, and pedophilia are only different forms of sexualities, which the Judeo - Christian Puritanism and what she calls "the new moral feminism" refuse to acknowledge. Yet, in the history of feminism, there was a moment when women constructed an ethics that rejected the socio-cultural construction of sexuality along with the sexual division of roles and the relations of power that it engendered. What was reprehensible in proposing such an ethics ? Contrary to Badinter’s attempt at persuasion, the issue at stake in the prostitution debate is not the recognition of an alternative individual choice to live fully one’s sexuality, but the right for the pimps to freely put women’s bodies on the market.

According to Badinter, the kind of feminism that criticizes the consumption and the marketing of sex is to be held responsible for the revival of sexual stereotypes, which were about to disappear ! She makes the struggle to legalize pornography and prostitution into a priority stake in the redefinition of the relations between men and women and their mutual liberties. She incidentally quotes Catherine Millet’s autobiography of sexual exploits, as an example of a new sexuality, freed from any censorship, and swiftly concludes that there is no such thing as normality in the field of sexuality.

E. Badinter also quotes Christina Hoff Sommers and Katie Roiphe. These are Right-wing academics, popularized by American mass media, whose interventions aim at defusing the critical analysis of male domination and violence against women. They wax romantic about a reconciliation of sexes through complementarity, women having, according to them, already reached equality.

Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, criticizes this militant antifeminism, in Ms. Magazine (10). Sommers and Roiphe’s method, she says, consists in uttering "reductionist, erroneous, easy opinions parading as serious and daring ideas". A closer look at their published work reveals that Sommers and Roiphe do not produce personal research ; they simply relay the attacks of the masculinist ideologues with whom they share the favor of the media. Moreover, their writings are amply subsidized by affluent Right-wing foundations, like Olin and Bradley, to accuse feminists of monopolizing the power everywhere, of victimizing women and of castrating men. These are of course familiar patterns in the work of Badinter, for whom it is feminists who victimize women rather than the men who target them with rape, sexual harassment, pornography and prostitution. Any protest against this anti-women violence is recast by Elizabeth Badinter as some sort of declaration of war against men.

Nevertheless, E. Badinter is forced to recognize the existence of a trash sexuality, often very violent, characterized by relations of domination and submission, where the body is turned into a mere consumer commodity. But the fact that hardcore films serve henceforth as "original matrix of fantasies", usually showing acts of triple penetration and gang rapes, and that there exist so-called "snuff" films where women are actually tortured and murdered, does not seem to disturb her excessively. She only sees these as facts of society, increasingly normalized and marketed, and not as values stemming from a structure of gender-based domination affecting all strata of social reality. And yet, further into the book, while discussing wife swapping, she acknowledges that this allegedly normalized reality only concerns a minute minority of French men (4%) and women (1 %). Still, she reiterates that sexuality should not be domesticated by the "new feminist moral order", the important goal being, for everyone, to give sexual practices, even the most extreme, free rein to "spice up" our lives.

To the historian and feminist Florence Montreynaud, who questions macho sexuality and its military vocabulary of conquest, she answers : "Intimacy and tenderness are not the alpha and omega of desire. The violence of the sex drive is not exclusively male and does not end inevitably in rape. There are all those women who unabashedly demand a master in bed and a partner outside." One will recognize here opinions - unsupported by evidence -advanced by Quebec pundit Denise Bombardier, for whom feminists have "gone too far" and risked cutting themselves away from men forever ( 11 ).

Lumping the return of essentialism with the Islamic scarf, gender parity and the maternal instinct

Cheerily mixing up every current issue, E. Badinter takes feminists to task for the acceptance of the Islamic scarf in public schools and for the gutting of France’s republican universalist ideal. One accusation is that feminists have, in the name of cultural relativism, legitimized polygamy and clitoridectomies. How can she assert such aberrations while recognizing in the same breath "the courage and convictions of (French feminist) Benoîte Groult and of some others" who denounced this scandal and demanded its interdiction ?

She dutifully slanders feminists who criticized some of her positions, at the time of the campaign to establish gender parity in French politics, for example, when they rejected, the abstract universalism defended by Badinter, a mere mask for traditional male universalism. She, who does not hesitate to appeal to essentialist arguments when it serves her purpose, accuses feminists of having used such arguments in order to justify legalizing sexual duality in the Constitution and of having opened the door to various categories of citizens (homosexuals, ethnic communities, etc.) to also demand political parity.

Once again, she conjures up a conflict in order to attack some feminists who, as Gisèle Halimi (12), believe that it is wrong to assimilate half of humanity into a category. Just like the other half, men, women include all categories of ages, classes, professions, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, political memberships, etc. Defined during 30 centuries by sexual relations of domination, the universalism to which E. Badinter refers is male, as reflected in the French polity where women barely wrest 10 % of political representation. What kind of democracy excludes half of society ?

Neo-liberal context and class interests

To better understand Elisabeth Badinter’s positions, one must situate them in the context of neoliberalism and of the precise class interests that she defends within this current. As owner of one of the most important advertising conglomerates in the world, it is not surprising that she considers as enemies feminists who denounce sexism in publicity and everywhere else and who commit to the altermondialist movement in support of a more equitable distribution of wealth.

While it is in the interest of the neo-liberal dominant current to convince women to return home and settle for part-time work, leaving the best jobs to men, Badinter manages to lay at the feet of feminism the return of maternalist ideology. She pretends not to notice the appropriation of women’s bodies by medicine, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies that treat them as new sources of profits, notably as producers of embryos and surrogate mothers, when they are not used to supply the prostitution industry.

Distorting the road ahead to better condemn it

Elisabeth Badinter ends her broadside by predicting an impasse between the sexes, for which, of course, feminists are held responsible. At no time does she intuit that men have to make some kind of effort to avoid such an impasse. For her, to denounce discrimination and violence against women only manages to irritate men and to stir up the war of the sexes. Such is the "wrong route" taken, according to her, by the current feminist movement, it is the trap women must sidestep to avoid sacrificing our freedom there and slowing down the march towards equality. However, it is certainly not by supplying the system with antifeminist, masculinist and misogynous arguments that Elisabeth Badinter will support the march towards a non-sexist society in which women will be free to choose their condition without being accused of limiting that of men.

Upon closing the pages of Fausse route, one cannot refrain from wondering why E. Badinter is so intent on declaring herself a feminist, if not to deceive her readers and to convince women that their best interest lies in rallying around male universalism. And this, despite abundant evidence of the impossibility for them to achieve fair political representation in such a system, despite their continuing exclusion from positions of command in all fields, and despite persisting sex differentials in wages. What a strange feminist, who denies sex-based hierarchy on sex, who is acclaimed by the system for generally denigrating feminists with amalgams, generalizations and lies, and who apparently only feels solidarity with men, with whom she identifies totally, perhaps in the hope of being recognized as "a man like every other" in a male plural universalism.

The need to publish a broadside of such evident bad faith may, in the end, bear witness to the fear generated by a powerful new feminist wave which, far from victimizing women, invites them to rally together against poverty, injustice and violence. This is evident looking at events such as the 2000 World March of Women, organizations such as the European Lobby of Women, the fieldwork and electronic networks of hundreds of associations against prostitution, rape and sexual harassment, a movement such as Ni putes ni soumises (Neither whores nor controlled), the feminist presence in peace demonstrations and the social struggles waged on issues such as wage equity, the sharing of housework, and implementing political parity. On the theory front, there are also the important contributions of numerous scholars, such as, in France, Michèle Le Doeuff, Geneviève Fraisse, Christine Delphy, Christine Bard, Christine Fauré, Marie - Victoire Louis, to name but a few. The greatest imposture of this book doubtless consists in claiming that feminists are victimizing women by their resistance to any form of oppression. It is their struggles on the contrary that allowed them, from yesterday till today, to widen their autonomy in all spheres.

Praising Fausse route in Le Nouvel Observateur, Pascal Bruckner claims that Badinter "took the splendid risk of betraying her camp ; but it is because her camp has betrayed the cause of emancipation, which concerns altogether women and men (13)." Her loyal services have bought Badinter a grand platform throughout the mass media and the unanimous applause of male-stream pundits. A splendid and very lucrative risk indeed !


1. For a Summary of the Inquiry.
2. Clarisse Fabre et Nicolas Weill, « Violences sexuelles : débat autour d’une enquête », Paris, Le Monde, June 3rd 2003.
3. A new Statistics Canada report on infractions to the Criminal code in Quebec in 2002, published on July 25, 2003, shows that all categories remained stable except for sexual attacks which increased by 14 %, reaching the level of attacks recorded ten years ago. Girls are the majority of victims. "If the problems of boys in school and their general confusion have been much discussed recently, it would be premature to forget that to be under 18 and a girl - characteristics of the great majority of victims - remains a high-risk mixture", writes journalist Josée Boileau. (Josée Boileau,
« Agressions à contrôler »
Le Devoir, July 28th 2003.
4. For references on prostituted women’s testimonies see : Mathieu, « Fausse route ou faux procès ? Élisabeth Badinter ou la philosophie dans le bas-côté », , Chiennes de garde, Paris, 23 mai 2003 : et Élaine Audet,
« La Prostitution : Droits des femmes ou droit aux femmes ? »
Montreal, September 15th 2002
5. Elle, March 10th 2003.
6. Queer : literally strange, "odd", but it is also a lesbo/gay-phobe insult to which were subjected several generations of non-heterosexuals. To demands structured for the most part around gay and lesbian identities succeed an anti-identity, anti-assimilationnist discourse, which not only rages against intolerance and heterosexism but against all normality constraints. This new current is partially due to the disintegration of community politics, its internal power relations creating divisions and new margins : "transvestites" for gays, S/M for lesbians, etc. ; all of which did not resemble the respectable, white, healthy, " physically attractive " American citizen, well-integrated into a consumer society. See multisexualites-et-sida
7. Denise Bombardier, La déroute des sexes, Paris, Seuil, 1993.
8. Gayle Rubin, « A Personal History of the Lesbian S/M Community and Movement in San Francisco », in Samois (Eds). Coming to Power.Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M, Boston, Alyson Publications 2nd Edition, 1982, p. 215 - 216.
9. Gayle Rubin, « Penser le sexe. Pour une théorie radicale de la politique de la sexualité », Marché au sexe, EPEL, 2001.
10. Susan Faludi, « I’m not a Feminist but I Play One on TV », New York, Ms., March-April 1995.
Laura Flanders The "Stolen Feminism" Hoax : Anti-Feminist Attack Based on Error-Filled Anecdotes
11. Denise Bombardier, op. cit.
12. Choisir - La cause des femmes, Femmes moitié de la terre moitié du pouvoir - Gisèle Halimi, plaidoyer pour une démocratie paritaire, Paris, Gallimard, 1994.
13. Pascal Bruckner,
« Les raisons d’un succès/Contre le nouveau féminisme/Elisabeth Badinter, qui refuse de transformer la femme en victime absolue, ose défier les Chiennes de Garde »,
Paris, Le Nouvel Observateur, May 22nd 2003-no2011.

Élisabeth Badinter, Fausse route, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2003.

- Version en espagnol sur le site
- Version en français sur Sisyphe

Mise en ligne sur Sisyphe le 1er octobre 2003.

Elaine Audet


Sisyphe’s suggestions

Associations which support the group Ni putes, ni soumises. Among them many feminist groups and websites. Website of Ni putes, ni soumises.
Catherine Albertini, Fausse route et vrai anti-féminisme régressif !
Duracell, « INTERGOOD… RÉPONSE À BAD INTER », Les Chiennes de garde, May 23rd 2003
Fédération nationale solidarité femmes, « Élisabeth Badinter : caricatures et approximations ».
Gisèle Halimi, « De quel féminisme parle-t-on ? », Paris, L’Humanité, June 25th 2003.
Association Mix-Cité, « Femmes : fausse route ou marche arrière ? », Paris, Le Monde, May 16th 2003
Mathieu, « Fausse route ou faux procès ? Élisabeth Badinter ou la philosophie dans le bas-côté », , Chiennes de garde, Paris, May 23rd 2003.
Florence Montreynaud, « Le féminisme, chèvre émissaire ! », Encore féministes !, May 17th 2003.
Saratoga, « Pour un féminisme de la sexualité », Les Chiennes de garde, May 23rd 2003.
Josette Trat, « Élisabeth Badinter/Du haut de son salon », Rouge, June 12th 2003.
Jacqueline Remy, « Dossiers. Féminisme. Le J’accuse, d’Élisabeth Badinter », Paris, L’Express, April 24th 2003.
Élaine Audet et Micheline Carrier, « L’Express fait fausse route ». Lettre ouverte à Jacqueline Remy, journaliste, Sisyphe, July 29th 2003.

Elisabeth Badinter’s picture comes from her publisher’s website Odile Jacob.

Copyright Sisyphe 2003.

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