Just five days after giving birth by caesarean, French justice minister Rachida Dati stunned the public by strutting into work wearing high-heels and a chic all-black outfit. The 43-year-old reportedly made her stunning return so that she could be present for President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement of significant judicial reform. It isn't clear that she has actually returned to full-time work -- but she has nonetheless earned the scorn of some very vocal fellow Frenchwomen, who call it "scandalous," "irresponsible" and a feminist betrayal.
According to them, by declining to take the 16 weeks of maternity leave afforded to French women, Dati has single-handedly rendered that right obsolete. (That right, by the way, isn't extended to ministers!) "She has turned the clock back for a new generation of mothers," writes Anne Diamond, a journalist who regrets going back to work days after giving birth (but apparently doesn't believe Dati has the right to make the same decision for herself). Maya Sturduts, of the National Collective for the Rights of Women, tells the Scotsman, "Employers can now use this to put pressure on women, especially during the current tough economic times when employers may be looking for excuses to cut staff."
But that's exactly why France has legally required that employers offer four months of paid maternity leave. Of course, this highly publicized example will make some women feel guilty about exercising that right, and some employers might be led to think of Dati, "Now that's real commitment -- my employees should do the same." But we shouldn't have to deny women the right to choose to opt out of full maternity leave in order to protect those who would like to opt in. That wouldn't be a defense of women's rights, it would be a defense of certain women's rights.
Some have speculated -- and it is pure speculation -- that Dati was pressured into her quick return by the president; if so, that is outrageous and wrong. But maybe, just maybe, she actually wanted to return to work. She is a woman in a consuming, high-powered job, after all, and you don't reach that extreme height without obsessive drive. It's also worth mentioning the obvious: Her male colleagues would never be subjected to this speculation and judgment -- about their fitness as fathers and how their decision impacts generations of men.
All that said, my disbelief at the outrage and anger over this story can really be boiled down to one simple question: If employers use Dati as an excuse to pressure or threaten women out of their rightful maternity leave, shouldn't they be the ones morally (and, far more important, legally) attacked?