French President Emmanuel Macron probably didn’t know he was wading into a culture war when he called for more educational opportunities for African women. Surely we could all agree that girls have the same right to attend school as boys?
Macron’s comments, however, hit hard for some women in the United States who felt he was saying women couldn’t choose to both pursue an education and have a big family.
“I always say: ‘Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children,'” Macron said at a Gates Foundation event in New York. “‘Please present me with the young girl who decided to leave school at 10 in order to be married at 12.’”
Several days later, social media began to light up with women who wanted to show Macron they were both educated and mothers to several children. It didn’t have to be one or the other, they said.
Catholic University professor Catherine Pakaluk was the first to post to Twitter with the hashtag #postcardsformacron and a photo of six of her eight kids. She urged other educated women who chose to have large families to send messages to the French president.
Pakaluk posted that she has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a master’s degree and a PhD from Harvard University. “Let’s flood Macron with beautiful postcards from educated women with large families born from their own loving choice,” she wrote.
Pakaluk, who is researching education and family size, said she was surprised to see her hashtag take off. Educated women have tweeted not just from the United States but also from France and African nations to share photos of their children.
“This group of women who do choose to have large families is maybe bigger and more frustrated by being unnoticed than I realized,” Pakaluk said in an interview with The Washington Post.
About a minute after his first comment, Macron clarified that he was talking about women in impoverished and isolated communities who start childbearing at very young ages, not about Western women who choose to have many children for religious or other reasons.
“I’m fine with a lady having seven, eight children if this is her choice, after education," he said. "This is not the case today. That’s why for me, education is the main answer — first, to avoid the worst; second, to maximize opportunities in African countries and in the rest of the world; third, to properly monitor demography.”
Whether properly taken in context or not, Macron’s words have touched a nerve with many American moms.
“I don’t think it’s a completely different context,” Pakaluk said.
Gretchen Livingston, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, said it’s true that family size in the United States correlates with education. Of women with postgraduate degrees, 8 percent have four or more children, whereas the same is true for 26 percent of women with less than a high school degree.
Mothers with less than a high school degree may not have postponed having children in favor of their education, leaving them with more childbearing years, Livingston said. She said women with more education often face greater opportunity costs for having additional children.
“If you have a postgrad degree, taking three months or six months out of your career to care for your baby and then to continue your role as a mom while working might have larger costs to your career,” she said.
Overall family sizes in the United States have declined since the 1970s. The average family had just over three kids in the late 1970s, while the average family now has about two kids. Still, there has been a slight uptick in family size over the past decade, Livingston said.
As more women postpone marriage and motherhood, the number of children they have goes down, Livingston said. Women who pursue higher education tend to wait to have children until after they have finished their degree, she said.