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Motherhood: The Mother of All Sexism

by Marilyse Hamelin; Arielle Aaronson (trans.)

An admirable boldness infuses Marilyse Hamelin’s Motherhood: The Mother of All Sexism, originally published in French in 2017. She dares to speak out about discrimination against women in Quebec – a province that, with its subsidized daycare and generous parental leaves, is a shining light compared to the rest of Canada. But these benefits are not enough, declares Hamelin, and the state must go further to create a culture in which mothers and fathers share equal responsibility for care of their children, where both have the same access to professional success.

Hamelin is not a parent (“mostly because I wanted to see through all my projects, dreams, and ambitions. I’m not ready to risk giving all of that up just to watch from the sidelines,” she explains, with some hyperbole). But she makes the remarkable move of situating discrimination against mothers as an issue that affects not only mothers themselves. Her evidence includes women being passed over for promotions due to the expectation they’ll get pregnant. She further posits that the assumption of mothers as primary caregivers robs fathers of the opportunity to connect meaningfully with their children.

Hamelin offers solutions, including instituting recruitment agencies that specialize in filling parental leaves, addressing conditions for working-class women whose needs Quebec’s benefits program currently overlooks, and enabling gradual returns to work to ease the transition for new parents.

These ideas are undermined, however, by the book’s disorganization and by an awkward translation that is rife with clichés and difficult to understand in some places. Hamelin is also too quick to dismiss any significance in a mother’s role: “The only biological difference [between mothers and fathers] is pregnancy and breastfeeding,” she writes, as though these experiences weren’t huge, risky, and life-changing.

But to seek nuance in a bold political argument is also to miss the point. As Hamelin writes, “suffragettes didn’t get the right to vote by drinking tea in their sitting rooms.” If we hope to find answers to how demands of family and careers can be balanced, these ideas need to be probed. To that end Hamelin has done a great service.