Last Saturday The Age ran a story on the now 77-year-old French ("The French Revolution" 5/5/07). What struck me most about the piece were the "disconnects" in the views of the ageing feminist writer.
For instance, Marilyn French's two children are now in their 50s and both are childless. It's understandable that French should miss being a grandmother and therefore lament the growing rate of childlessness in Western society:
She still has a dim view of marriage, but is passionate about motherhood, believing it should be the central organising principle of society. She sits forward, eyes flashing, when I ask why. "What else are we here for? I mean, if there is a god, what did the god put us here to do? One thing: have children. That's it. And what do we do? We make it into the least interesting, unpaid, on-the-side thing you can do - societies are geared so that really, you'll have an easier ride if you just don't have children. Perverse values.
She points to rising childlessness among women of the current generation and says it's only going to get worse. "You make it so hard, they're just not going to have the babies - people are going to have to pay them to have babies. Building airplanes - is that really what we're here to do? Going to the moon - is that really a primary consideration? No.
I agree with much of this. In a sense society traditionally has been organised around motherhood: around creating a protected and secure space in which women can bear and nurture their children. Most people too do ultimately think of their children as being the most important of their life achievements.
I wonder, though, how French thinks motherhood can be treated as the central organising principle of society if men aren't brought into an active and enduring support for the mothers of their children through marriage.
It's odd too that French thinks that the way to make motherhood more interesting and attractive is to commodify it. Usually the left is opposed to the commodification of social relationships under capitalism, so it's notable that French wants motherhood to be valued in terms of wages and market value.
However, there is a more jarring disconnect in French's views on motherhood and children. She proudly tells her interviewer that:
I've had more love affairs than anyone else except for my daughter ... The number amounts to the hundreds.
We learn too that French has,
a strict policy of living for pleasure. This is a big thing for French.
She won't commit to living with anyone else, choosing instead to live independently:
I've had lovers that would come for four, five days or every other weekend - and that's fine with me. I like that.
She has spent her time writing, travelling (most recently to the Amazon), and having casual affairs. It's the standard modernist lifestyle choice, if you think that autonomy (independence) is the key good in life and that traditional commitments represent an oppressive restriction.
The problem is that it's difficult to fit children into it. When we have children we give up part of our autonomy: we are no longer unimpeded in choosing what to do or be. So French is living and advocating an autonomist lifestyle, the classic single girl lifestyle, in which motherhood is likely to loom as a repressive defeat.
French wants things which are at odds with each other. She advocates autonomist views which are likely to lead people to associate motherhood negatively with oppression. Consider the opinions of right-liberal Charles Richardson, quoted approvingly at the left-liberal Larvatus Prodeo site. Charles Richardson recently attacked the Treasurer's calls for improved fertility on the grounds that:
Decreased birthrates are associated with two things: increased standards of living and improved status of women ... If Australia wants more people we don't have to return our womenfolk to domestic drudgery in order to get them. We just need to open the door (to immigrants) a bit wider ... The drivers of fertility crusades are racism and misogyny: keep the women barefoot and pregnant ...
So autonomy theory led Marilyn French in the 1970s to condemn marriage as a domestic restriction and to propose an independent lifestyle in its place; the same theory now leads modern liberals like Charles Richardson to condemn motherhood as an oppressive domestic burden on women, limiting women's independence.
There's one other disconnect in French's views I'd like to briefly mention. French believes a true revolution in the relations between the sexes has stalled because men haven't changed enough:
Too many are still trapped in the old deluded myths of masculinity, a "hollow suit" of actions and beliefs that has proved extremely stubborn to alter, despite all the talk of SNAGs and metrosexuals, she says.
But is French romantically attracted to the modern metrosexual male? When asked why she wrote, My Summer With George, a novel about an older female pursuing an eligible male journalist, this is the response:
"Well, I got a crush on a guy," she says bluntly. "I realised, I've gone through all these experiences, and here I am - how old was I? I don't know, in my late 60s - and it was like Cinderella. I'm not kidding. You really mean I still have these feelings, that somebody's going to come along, this prince, and make my world wonderful? ... Talk about the triumph of hope over experience."
So the fundamental relationship between men and women, the fundamental attraction between the sexes, is still experienced, even by an ageing radical feminist, in terms of traditional gender. Yet, Marilyn French is calling for a revolution in which traditional masculinity is overthrown.
In other words, she admits that she herself responds romantically to the traditional male, and yet she criticises men for being too traditionally masculine. It seems to me that her own heterosexuality is getting in the way of a consistent politics here. Personally, I'd suggest that she modify the politics at this stage, but I think it's more likely for expectations of love to be sacrificed. A pity, though, if women in general are encouraged to follow suit.