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1‘Motherhood is a thread that runs through all of her thinking’, Geneviève Fraisse writes in the preface to this work by feminist historian Yvonne Knibiehler, presented as the fruit of a lifetime of research. Now 98 years old, Knibiehler is a pioneer in the analysis of motherhood as a social fact. The defence of the social dimension of both motherhood and fatherhood lies at the heart of her thinking. In La révolution maternelle [The maternal revolution] (1998), she called for motherhood—and fatherhood—to be lived as a component of citizenship because parents are responsible for having given life and thus for the child’s future. [1] Her ambition here is more political than academic. Through reflections that draw on several decades of historical and empirical work, she creates a veritable manifesto for the reform of parental leave in France. She presents it as an ‘opportunity to rethink the relationship between mother and father, between parents and children, between private life and society’ (p. 10). She is, of course, not the first to call for a reform of parental leave. A report published in February 2019 by the Haut Conseil de la famille criticizes the current system, deeming it ‘flawed, and proposes measures to remedy this’. [2] But the overview presented in Knibiehler’s book makes it of particular interest.

2The work is divided into three parts. The first concerns previous policy gains on parental leave, presenting a summary of the history of maternity, paternity, and parental leave in France. The creation of maternity leave in 1909 was a ‘fait social global’ [general social fact], affecting all areas of private and public life. Knibiehler argues that this leave ratified the idea of female employment in the context of developing productivism, while a century later, paternity leave would emphasize the importance of private life and family values. An objective of parental leave, which emerged in the 1970s and which has been shared between mother and father since the reform of the Shared Child Rearing Benefit in 2014, is to show concern for equality. In reality, however, this leave is far from fairly shared between parents, a fact Knibiehler fails to mention. Moreover, it is small and not proportional to the parents’ wages, which she also omits. Furthermore, the book scarcely mentions the many studies that have demonstrated the negative effects of such leave—whether taken full-time or part-time—on distancing women from the job market or hindering their career progression. Finally, while those taking this leave are overwhelmingly women (almost 96% of all beneficiaries), those who take it full-time are mainly women in the lowest income groups, whereas those who take it part-time tend to be in the middle classes (more in the public sector). In sum, Knibiehler’s presentation of the reform would have been clearer if the ambiguities surrounding this mechanism had been better explained.

3In the second part, Knibiehler focuses on four ‘feminist demands’: the condemnation of violence against women, sparked notably by the Weinstein affair; the general reduction of working time; the demand for equality between women and men; and improving systems of childcare for young children. In this part, she returns to the core theme of her thought, namely the need for feminism to integrate the issue of motherhood and take into account ‘domestic health work’. She addresses the recently recognized problem of obstetric violence and the right of women to give birth at home or to breastfeed beyond the end of maternity leave. Finally, according to Knibiehler, women must be able to choose to be mothers, but also to live their motherhood as they see fit. They are still the ones tasked with raising children, as while fathers may demand certain rights (shared custody in the event of separation, for example) they most often neglect their duties. This is why, in her view, the demand to extend paternity leave (currently 10 days in France) fails to address the main issues at stake: while it would enrich father–child relationships, it would not necessarily lead to an equitable sharing of tasks, notably in the home. In Knibiehler’s view, the core issue is the rehabilitation of tasks within the family that could be favoured by parental leave, [3] which at 3 years is much longer than paternity leave and encourages a better reconciliation of productive and reproductive activities. Parental leave could thus be used to learn the métier [profession] of parenting because raising a child requires specific skills, as demonstrated by the very existence of professionals specializing in early childhood.

4Knibiehler thus wishes for the parental function to be better recognized and valued. But how can it be ensured that this increased recognition will not lead to additional pressure on parents? [4] While the ‘profession’ of parenting may indeed ensure the recognition of parental tasks, does it not risk leading to the development of basically Western standards, drawn from the middle and upper classes? Finally, it strikes this reader as utopian to imagine, as Knibiehler suggests, that the organization of networks of parents within the framework of parental leave could allow parents from different backgrounds and cultures to meet.

5The third part of the book presents prospects of parental leave reform, focusing on the issue of parenthood. The main prospect remains the positive and benevolent parenting that many parents aspire to. However, is this form of parenting not based on a concept that remains too focused on the middle and upper classes? Knibiehler is, however, sensitive to the need to take the working classes into account, as shown by her frequent references to the anthropological literature and to aspects of child-rearing in other cultures. The conclusion invites us to consider utopian vistas, proposing rites of welcome for young people, new forms of socialization to help them grow, through ceremonies and symbolic tests, marking a progression of stages in childhood.

6The merit of this work is the invitation it issues us to reflect on the parental condition, on the ‘choice to become parents’, and the responsibilities it brings. Finally, based on a reform of parental leave, Knibiehler draws the portrait of a way of co-constructing child-rearing, combined with shared responsibility between parents and institutions.


  • [1]
    Histoire des mères du Moyen Âge à nos jours, 1980 (with Catherine Fouquet), Montalba illustrated edition; Les pères ont aussi une histoire [Fathers also have a history], 1982, Hachette Pluriel; Histoire des mères et de la maternité en Occident [History of mothers and motherhood in the West], 1987, Hachette (2017, PUF, Que sais-je? no. 3539).
  • [2]
    It recommended an extension of paternity leave to 1 month, a revaluation of the Shared Child Rearing Benefit (PreParE), and the sharing of part-time leave between parents.
  • [3]
    Parental child-rearing leave can be taken by one of the employed parents (with at least 1 year of seniority) during the year following a birth or an adoption. It can be renewed until the child is 3 years old if taken in at least one of the years by each of the parents. The employment contract is suspended, and the employee is not paid and instead receives benefits paid out by the Caisse d’allocations familiales.
  • [4]
    On this issue, see for example Martin, C. (ed.), 2014, ‘Être un bon parent’: une injonction contemporaine, Rennes, Presses de l’EHESP.
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