Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Motherhood, it could be said, is the unfinished business of feminism.

The following is the keynote address given by Dr Andrea O'Reilly, a global scholarly expert on mothering studies, at the MIRCI Gala Conference a few weeks ago.  A full and complete version of the keynote address may be found in Andrea O'Reilly's most recent book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice - Available via Demeter Press website at 40% off using coupon code MOTHERS until December 1, 2016 


Dr Andrea O'Reilly 
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (1). For me, this quote serves to situate and frame what I explore in this book and what has been a passionate concern of mine over the past three decades as I have sought to do feminism as a mother and do mothering as a feminist: namely, that mothers need a feminism of their own. When I use the term “mothers,” I refer to individuals who engage in motherwork or, as Sara Ruddick theorized, maternal practice. Such a term is not limited to biological mothers but to anyone who does the work of mothering as a central part of her or her life. The aim of  my recently published book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice is to introduce this specific mode of feminism—what I have called “matricentric feminism”—and to document and detail how matricentric feminism is enacted in theory, activism, and practice. The book also, in its final chapter, examines the relationship between matricentric feminism and the larger field of academic feminism.

In this paper I will briefly introduce the concept of Matricentric Feminism and then examine its disavowal and disappearance in academic feminism

 The book works from one particular assumption: mothering matters, and it is central to the lives of women who are mothers. In saying this, I am not suggesting that mothering is all that matters or that it matters the most; I am suggesting that any understanding of mothers’ lives is incomplete without a consideration of how becoming and being a mother shape a woman’s sense of self and how she sees the world.  As a motherhood scholar, a director of a research centre on motherhood, an editor of a motherhood journal, and a publisher of a press on motherhood, I have talked to more mothers and read more motherhood scholarship than most, and I can say with confidence that for women who are mothers, mothering is a significant, if not a defining dimension of their lives, and that, arguably, maternity matters more than gender.  I do not seek to substantiate these claims but rather take them as my starting point. Mothers need a feminism that puts motherhood at its centre.

  Motherhood, it could be said, is the unfinished business of feminism. For example, a cursory review of recent scholarship on mothers and paid employment reveals that although women have made significant gains over the last three decades, mothers have not. Mothers in the paid labour force find themselves “mommy tracked,” making sixty cents for every dollar earned by full-time fathers (Williams 2). Indeed, today the pay gap between mothers and nonmothers under thirty-five years is larger than the wage gap between young men and women (Crittenden 94). And although the “glass ceiling” and the “sticky floor” are still found in the workplace, most scholars argue that it is the “maternal wall” that impedes and hinders most women’s progress in the workplace today. As Ann Crittenden writes “Many childless women under the age of thirty-five believe that all the feminist battles have been won.” But as Crittenden continues, “once a woman has a baby, the egalitarian office party is over” (88).

This book does not focus on why feminism has stalled for mothers; instead, the book positions mothers’ needs and concerns as the starting point for a theory and politic on and for women’s empowerment. This repositioning is not to suggest that a matricentric feminism should replace traditional feminist thought; rather, it is to emphasize that the category of mother is distinct from the category of woman and that many of the problems mothers face—social, economic, political, cultural, psychological, and so forth—are specific to women’s role and identity as mothers. Indeed, mothers are oppressed under patriarchy as women and as mothers. Consequently, mothers need a matricentric mode of feminism organized from and for their particular identity and work as mothers. Indeed, a mother-centred feminism is needed because mothers—arguably more so than women in general—remain disempowered despite forty years of feminism.

 I use the term “matricentric” to define and describe a mother-centred mode of feminism. Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter      uses the term “gynocentric” to signify a woman-centred perspective (“Toward a Feminist Poetics”); similarly, I use matricentric to convey a mother-centrered perspective. The choice to use the word matricentric over maternal and to use the term matricentric feminism instead of maternal feminism is done to distinguish a mother-focused feminism from the theory and politic of maternalism.      A matricentric perspective, therefore, should not to be confused with a maternalist one. Although some perspectives in matricentric feminism may be considered maternalist, they are largely limited to the activism of certain motherhood organizations, as discussed in chapter two.  Moreover, matricentric feminis  understands motherhood to be socially and historically constructed, and positions mothering more as a practice than an identity.  As well central to matricentric feminist theory is a critique of the maternalist stance that positions maternity as basic to and the basis of female identity; as well, matricentric feminism challenges the assumption that maternity is natural to women (i.e., all women naturally know how to mother) and that the work of mothering is driven by instinct rather than intelligence and developed by habit rather than skill. Although matricenric feminism does hold a mother-centred perspective, it does not advance a maternalist argument or agenda. Thus, matricentric feminism marks the crucial difference between a focus on mothers from a politic of maternalism.

My use of the term matrifocal is drawn from Miriam Johnson’s discussion of matifocality in Strong Mothers, Weak Wives. Matrifocal societies, she writes, tend to have greater gender equality because of the power of a maternal paradigm. In these societies, regardless of the particular type of kinship system, women play roles of cultural and social significance and define themselves less as wives than as mothers.… Matrifocality however, does not refer to domestic maternal dominance so much as it does to the relative cultural prestige of the image of the mother, a role that is culturally elaborated and valued. Mothers are also structurally central in that the mother as a status “has some degree of control over the kin unit’s economic resources and is critically involved in kin-related decision making processes.” It is not the absence of males (males may be quite present) but the centrality of women as mothers and sisters that makes a society matrifocal. (226)

A matrifocal narrative, borrowing from Johnson’s terminology above, is one in which a mother plays a role of cultural and social significance and in which motherhood is thematically elaborated and valued, and is structurally central to the plot. In other words—and to draw on the work of Hirsh, Daly, and Reddy—matrifocal narratives “begin with the mother in her own right, from her own perspective,” and they “hold fast to a maternal perspective”; in addition, a matrifocal reading attends to and accentuates the maternal thematic in any given text.

 I am frequently asked what matricentric feminism is. As a new and emergent feminism, it is difficult to define matricentric feminism other than to say that it is explicitly matrifocal in its perspective and emphasis—it begins with the mother and takes seriously the work of mothering—and that it is multidisciplinary and multi-theoretical in its perspective. Below, I gesture towards a possible definition by listing what I see as the central and governing principles and aims of matricentric feminism:

           asserts that the topic of mothers, mothering, and motherhood is deserving of serious and sustained scholarly inquiry;

           regards mothering as work that is important and valuable to society but emphasizes that the essential task of mothering is not, and should not be, the sole responsibility and duty of mothers;

           contests, challenges, and counters the patriarchal oppressive institution of motherhood and seeks to imagine and implement a maternal identity and practice that is empowering to mothers;        .

           seeks to correct the child centredness that defines much of the scholarship and activism on motherhood and seeks to develop research and activism from the experience and the perspective of mothers;

           commits to social change and social justice, and regards mothering as a socially engaged enterprise and a site of power, wherein mothers can and do create social change through childrearing and activism;

           understands mothering and motherhood to be culturally determined and variable, and is committed to exploring the diversity of maternal experience across race, class, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age, and geographical location; and

           endeavours to establish maternal theory and motherhood studies as an autonomous, independent, and legitimate scholarly disciplines.

The above list is only partial and provisional. It my hope that this this book will lead to a more substantive and robust definition of this new feminist field of matricentric feminism.

 Overall, matricentric feminism, to paraphrase feminist writer and activist Marilyn Waring, seeks to deliver a mode of feminism in which mothers and mothering count.

The aim of this chapter is to explore matricentric feminism in relation to feminist theory and women’s studies, or what may be termed “academic feminism.” More specifically, this chapter argues that matricentirc feminism has largely been ignored by feminist scholars and has yet to be incorporated into the field of academic feminism.  In making this claim, I am not saying no feminist scholarship on motherhood exists—the previous three chapters show that much has been written on motherhood from a feminist perspective—but rather that matricentric feminism remains peripheral to academic feminism. As academic feminism has grown and developed as a scholarly field, it has incorporated various theoretical models and diverse perspectives to represent the specific concerns and experiences of particular groups of women, such global feminism, queer feminism, third-wave feminism, and womanism. In contrast, academic feminism has not recognized or embraced a feminism developed from and for the specific experiences and concerns of mothers, or what I have termed matricentric feminism. The first section of the chapter considers both the disavowal of motherhood in twentieth-century academic feminism and the disappearance of motherhood in twenty-first-century academic feminism. This section then examines the place of motherhood over the last decade in the following: 1) the syllabi of introduction women’s studies course; 2) articles and book reviews published in women’ studies journals; 3) the content of  introduction to women’s studies texbootks; and 4) papers presented at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference. The chapter then ruminates on possible reasons for the exclusion of matericentric feminism in academic feminism, including confusing mothering with motherhood, the conflation of matricentric feminism with maternalism and gender essentialism, and the cultural ascendancy of postmaternal thinking. The chapter concludes with a section on mothers in academic and considers the reasons for the low numbers of mothers in the academic profession.

The Disavowal of Motherhood in Twentieth-Century Academic Feminism
In her 1986 book A Lesser Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes “Motherhood is the problem that modern feminists cannot face” (184). Hewlett goes on to say: “many contemporary feminists have reviled both mothers and babies. Some feminists rage at babies; others trivialize them. Very few have attempted to integrate them into the fabric of a full and equal life” (184-185). Significantly, Laura Umansky in her book Motherhood Reconceived positions her argument as a rebuttal to Hewlett’s claim: “Critics who accuse feminists of ignoring mothers or motherhood,” Umansky writes, “are not only wrong [but] have completely missed the mark” (2). Motherhood Reconceived, as Umanksy explains, “addresses what emerged between the late 1960s and early 1980s as a public, nationwide, written feminist discussions about the meaning of motherhood” (8). She argues that “feminist discussions have subjected the institution of motherhood and the practice of mothering to their most complex, nuanced and multi-focused analysis” (2). Umansky identifies two distinct perspectives in this feminist discussion on motherhood:

the negative discourse that views motherhood as an oppressive institution and is aligned with birth control and abortion rights alongside a critique of the nuclear family … [and the] positive force [holding] the .potential to bond women to each other, and to nature, to foster a liberating knowledge of self, to release the very creativity and generativity that the institution of motherhood denies to women. (3)

Motherhood Reconceived documents and discusses the movement from a critical stance on motherhood found in liberal and radical-libertarian feminist writings of the late 1960s and early 1970s to the celebratory view of mothering present in black and cultural feminist writings of the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Her book concludes with this assertion: “American feminists have long and vigorously debated the many issues that lie at the heart of motherhood. They might disagree over whether the bath is half empty or half full, but they have most decidedly not thrown the baby out with the bathwater” (164).

 I read Motherhood Reconceived when it was first published in 1996 and have read it several times since. Although I found Umansky’s argument persuasive, it did not reflect my own experiences of being a motherhood scholar in the field of academic feminism or the experiences of the hundreds of motherhood scholars I have met over the last two decades plus as a motherhood researcher.   This year, MIRCI celebrates its twentieth anniversary, and Demeter its tenth. In those years, MIRCI has hosted forty-nine international conferences and have published thirty-eight journal issues and eighty plus books on the topic of mothering and motherhood. However, despite these many conferences hosted by our association and the journal issues and books published by our press, not to mention the many other conferences and books on motherhood that took place over the last two decades, I still hear, as I did twenty years ago at our first motherhood conference, stories from motherhood scholars about how their work has been ignored, dismissed, invalidated, or trivialized by academic feminists. I continue to hear how the women’s studies conferences that they attend have few, if any papers, on motherhood; how motherhood is seldom a topic of discussion in women’s studies classrooms and rarely included in academic feminist textbooks; and how articles on motherhood or reviews of motherhood books are all but absent in the leading women’s studies journals. How can we as mother academics reconcile the exclusion and isolation experienced by mother scholars in academic feminism with Umansky’s claim, noted above, that “feminist discussions have subjected the institution of motherhood and the practice of mothering to their most complex, nuanced and multi-focused analysis” (2)?

I think that this disconnect between what Umansky is claiming and what actual mother scholars are experiencing is the result of different historical timeframes and their particular view of mothering as well as the important distinction between feminist writing and the discipline of academic feminism. I agree with Umansky that from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, mothering was explored and, indeed, celebrated in feminist writings, but the theoretical perspective of this writing was specifically that of cultural-difference feminism—a mode of feminism that by the 1990s, as Samira Kawash notes, “had been eclipsed and was no longer a serious topic of discussion in feminist graduate programs or in the academic feminist press” (970). Thus, in the mid-to-late 1990s when motherhood studies came into being, the mode of feminist theory that would have been receptive to this new scholarship, that of difference -cultural feminism, had fallen out of favour among academic feminists. As well, an important distinction must be made between what has been written by feminists and what is canonized in and by academic feminism. Again, I agree with Umanksy that much was written on motherhood from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, but did these publications become the key texts in women’s studies and were they included undergraduate courses or on graduate exam reading lists? My experience and those of the many mother scholars I have spoken to over the years, suggest otherwise. Moreover, I contend that liberal feminism’s negative stance on motherhood has had a far greater effect on current thinking on motherhood than the celebratory view of mothering present in difference-cultural feminism. Ask any student of women’s studies and I would venture that they are more likely to regard motherhood as the cause of women’s oppression than as a site of and for women’s empowerment. Finally, moving two decades beyond the time period of Umansky’s study, I argue that in the twenty-first century, not only is motherhood now viewed negatively, as it was with liberal feminism, but it has all but disappeared as a topic in academic feminism.

The Disappearance of Motherhood in Twenty-First-Century Academic Feminism

 Samira Kawash argues that beginning with Rich’s Of Woman Born and until the late 1990s, there was in her words a “rich feminist tradition of thinking about motherhood … that was widely reviewed and recognized as groundbreaking” (970), and she highlights, in particular, the books Motherhood Reconceived by Laura Unmansky (1996) and Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (1996). However, she argues that by 2000, “the topic [of motherhood) had drifted to the margins of feminist studies” (970). The leading feminist journal, Signs, for example, Kawash notes, published a book review of two books on motherhood and reproductive technology in 2009. Before that, the last time Signs reviewed a book on motherhood was 1998 (Forcey). Kawash goes on to argue that “This trickle of attention is in dramatic contrast to the previous decade: in the the period 1995-1996 Signs published three review essays on motherhood studies, discussing in details more than 30 titles published between 1993-1994 alone” (970). The sudden disappearance of motherhood did not just occur in Signs. In 1999, Frontiers published a special issue on “Motherhood and Maternalism”; the next time a feminist journal offered a similarly themed issues was the fall-winter of 2009, when Women’s Studies Quarterly’s special issue on motherhood appeared (Kawash 970-971). After searching the women’s studies international index for the 2000s reveals, Kawash finds “a surprising paucity of critical essays, studies, or book reviews on the topics of mothering-motherhood” (971). In addition, she laments that when she was the director of one PhD program in women and gender studies in the mid-2000s, she could not “recall receiving a single graduate application that proposed a study on mothering-motherhood.” Kawash concludes that when mothering did appear, it was “subsumed into discussions of women and work, migration, or reproduction (new reproductive technologies and abortion)” (971).

In the spring and summer 2016, my research assistant and I undertook a study on the representation of motherhood in four women’s studies venues: panels presented at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association between 2010 and 2015; articles and books reviews in five feminist journals—Signs, Frontiers, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Feminist Studies, and Gender and Society—from 2005 to 2015; the table of contents of ten introduction to gender and women’s studies textbooks; and the syllabi of fifty introduction to women’s studies courses.

The breakdown of papers at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) annual conference (appendix B) is as follows: 2015: 506 papers with 18 on motherhood; 2014 593 papers with 29 on motherhood; 2013 767 papers with 24 on motherhood; 2012 741 papers with 10 motherhood and 3 on the maternal; and 2011 757 papers with 19 on motherhood and 2 on the maternal. Overall, 105 papers were presented on motherhood from a total of 3,364 papers or less than 3 percent. More popular topics included academe (118), activism (193), transnational (235), race (216), trans and queer issues (156), and gender (70). Thus, more than twice as many papers on transnational issues were published than on motherhood and twice as many papers on race than on motherhood. And combining the topics of trans, queer, and gender studies, more than twice as many papers on gender and sexuality were published than on motherhood. Less than three percent, I would suggest, is far too low given that motherhood studies is at least as established as an academic field as transnational studies and sexuality studies, yet there were twice as many papers on these topics than there were on motherhood. Moreover, to my knowledge, there has been only one plenary panel (in 2006) on the topic of motherhood at an NWSA conference, and there has never been a motherhood scholar or a motherhood activist as the keynote speaker in the organization’s forty-year history.

Similar low percentages are found in the number of articles and book reviews on motherhood in gender and women’s studies journals (appendix C). From 1 January, 2006, to 31 December, 2016, the percentages of articles and book reviews on motherhood are as follows: for Signs, only 3 percent of their articles and book reviews were on motherhood; for Frontiers, 6 percent; for Feminist Studies, 1.6 percent; for Women’s Studies Quarterly, 4 percent; and for Gender Studies, 5 percent. In contrast, the percentages for the topic of sex-sexuality are 11 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent, 4 percent, and 11 percent, respectively, and for gender, 17 percent, 8 percent, 9 percent, 6 percent, and thirty-one percent, respectively. While the combined totals for sex-sexuality and gender are 41 and 71, respectively, the total for motherhood is 19.6. The average percentage was 3.92 percent for motherhood, 8.2 percent for sex-sexuality, and 14.2 percent for gender. Thus, there were more twice as many reviews or articles on the topic of sex-sexuality and close to four times as many reviews or articles on gender than on motherhood.

 The percentage of motherhood content is even lower in introduction to gender and women’s studies textbooks (appendix D). None of the reviewed ten textbooks, published between 2001 and 2016, have a section on motherhood. This absence is particularly notable in such textbooks as the recent Everyday Women’s and Gender Studies: Introductory Concepts (2016), which has no section on motherhood but includes the chapter “The Manly Art of Pregnancy,” and Feminist Frontiers (2011), which likewise has no section on motherhood but includes the chapter “Masculinities and Globalization.” As well, Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (2001) has no chapters on motherhood but includes the chapters “On the Rag” and “Abortion, Vacuum Cleaners and the Power Within.”

 Four textbooks have sections on the family but only four of the approximately twenty-five chapters in these family sections cover the topic of motherhood. The most discussed topics are heterosexuality and gender. Interestingly, there are as many chapters on fathering as there are on mothering in the family sections, even though it is mothers, not fathers, who overwhelming do the carework in families. As well, the topic of motherhood, as opposed to fatherhood, is represented and regarded as an established scholarly field with considerable research. Thus, one would expect to find more scholarship on motherhood than fatherhood in introductory textbooks.

 Six of the collections have chapters on motherhood; however, all but one of the chapters was under thirteen pages in length. The page count for the above nine chapters is under one hundred pages. These nine chapters along with the four in the family sections make a total of thirteen chapters on motherhood in the introduction to women and gender studies textbooks examined. At approximately a combined page count of 150 pages of the total 5,111 pages of these books, the percentage of motherhood content in the ten introduction to gender and women’s textbooks is just under 3 percent.

 An even lower percentage of motherhood content is found in the fifty introduction to women and gender studies course syllabi examined. Ten of the fifty courses include at least one reading on the topic of motherhood (Appendix E). The initial count of ten suggests a percentage of 20 percent. However, the perspective of many of these courses is that of reproductive rights and justice. One course includes two readings on childbirth from a reproductive rights perspective. Interestingly, in three of the courses in which motherhood is examined, the subject of the reading is lesbian or black motherhood. Only one of the ten courses has a full unit on motherhood in which motherhood is examined from more than a single perspective and from more than a reproductive rights paradigm. But interestingly, this unit includes an interview with Rebecca Walker, a feminist writer well-known for her mother-blame perspective. In addition to the ten courses that have at least one reading on motherhood, two of the courses have readings on the family. However the themes of the one course are “Gender and the Family”, “Family Systems, Family Lives” and “Marriage and Love.” While with the second they are “Families: World’s Toughest Job, and “Why Women Can’t Have it All.” In total, these fifty course syllabi contain hundreds of readings, but I would argue that less than ten of these are specifically on the topic of motherhood and from a mother-centred perspective; that is roughly a percentage of less than 1 percent.

The percentages of motherhood content in women studies conferences, journals, textbooks. and syllabi range from under 1 percent to just under 4 percent. Given that 80 percent of women become mothers in their lifetime, there is an evident disconnect between the minimal representation of motherhood in academic feminism and the actual lives of most women. Indeed, as Eva Feder Kitty emphasizes, most women care for their dependents at some point, and for many women, “this occupies the better part of their lives” (qtd. in Stephens 141). Moreover, these low percentages do not reflect or capture the considerable and significant research done on motherhood over the last twenty years.

The Baby Out with the Bathwater: Reasons for the Exclusion of Motherhood in Academic Feminism
 I have attempted to make sense of this disappearance of motherhood in academic feminism in the twenty-first century. The demand for a theory and practice based on a specific identity of women is hardly an innovative or radical claim. Over the last forty plus years, many groups of women have argued that mainstream feminism—largely understood to be liberal feminism—has not adequately represented their perspectives or needs. Women of colour, for example, have advocated that feminism address the intersectionality of their oppression as racialized women, a feminism now known as womanism; women from the global south have called for the development of a theory of global feminism; and queer, lesbian, bi, and trans women have supported growth of queer feminist theory and activism. Likewise, the development of third-wave feminism in the 1990s grew out of young women's sense of alienation from the aims of second-wave feminism. When such women demanded a feminist theory of their own, the larger feminist movement acknowledged, albeit often reluctantly, that such women had been excluded from the larger canon of feminist thought. Feminist theory was subsequently revised to include these different positions and perspectives within feminism. Most introduction to women’s studies textbooks or courses now include chapters or units on socialist feminism, global feminism, queer feminism, third-wave feminism, and womanism, and these perspectives and topics are well represented at women’s studies conferences and in women’s studies journals. Moreover, as documented in the above study, many topics relevant to the experiences of racialized, poor, transnational, queer and young women are examined in women’s studies conferences, journals, and textbooks.       

 However, as mothers began to call for feminism for and about mothers over the last decade or so—what I have defined as matricentric feminism—and to ask for its inclusion in academic feminism, their calls were not met with the same respect or recognition. More often than not, their claims were dismissed, trivialized, disparaged, and ridiculed: why would mothers need such a mother-centred feminist perspective? The question implies that mothers do not have needs or concerns separate from their larger identity of women. It troubles me deeply that feminists are able to understand the intersectionality of gendered oppression when it comes to race, class, sexuality, and geographical location but no so for maternity. But I would argue—and I suspect most mothers would agree—that maternity needs to be likewise understood in terms of intersectional theory. The category of mother is distinct from the category of woman: many of the problems mothers face—social, economic, political, cultural, and psychological—are specific to their work and identity as mothers. Indeed, mothers, arguably more so than women in general, remain disempowered despite forty years of feminism. Mothers, in other words, do not live simply as women but as mother women, just as black females do not live simply as women but as racialized women. Moreover, mothers’ oppression and resistance under patriarchy are shaped by their maternal identity, just as black women’s oppression and resistance are shaped by their racialized identity. Thus, mothers need a feminism of their own—one that positions mothers’ concerns as the starting point for a theory and politic of empowerment. For me, this seems self-evident. Why then is maternity not understood to be a subject position and, hence, not theorized as with other subject positions in terms of the intersectionality of gendered oppression and resistance? Why do we not recognize mothers’ specific perspectives as we do for other women, whether they are queer, working class, racialized, and so forth? Why do mothers and mothering not count or matter?

 Kawash in her review article discussed earlier argues that “the marginalization of motherhood in feminist thought over the last 15 years was a political rejection of maternalist politics constructed as a backlash to feminism and the result of dramatic upheavals in feminist theory” (971). Indeed, Kawash argues that “by the late 1990s difference feminism had been eclipsed and was no longer a serious topic of discussion in feminist graduate programs or in the academic feminist press.” “The deconstruction of ‘woman’ and the post structuralist accounts of gender and power,” she continues, “left motherhood to the side, an embarrassing theoretical relic of an earlier na├»ve view of the essentialist woman, and her shadow, the essential mother” (971). Building on Kawash’s argument, I argue that it is more precisely a misreading of maternity and maternalism in matricentric feminism that has resulted in the disappearance of motherhood in and by academic feminism. More specifically, I contend that academic feminism confuses mothering with motherhood and conflates maternalism, and hence gender essentialism, with matricentric feminism. Finally, I discuss Julia Stephens’s concept of “postmaternal thinking” as a deliberate and necessary erasure of the maternal in both culture and theory. This line of argument is not to say that these are the only reasons for the disappearance of motherhood documented in the above study. Although I would argue that Ann Snitow likewise misreads the representation of motherhood in matricentric texts, she argues in her 1992 article “Feminism and Motherhood: An American Reading” that it is the pronatalist stance of these writings that alienates feminists from motherhood scholarship. In her 1999 book The Impossibility of Motherhood, Patrice DiQunizio argues that feminism’s reliance on a politic and theory of gender-neutral individualism renders motherhood problematic, as discussions of maternity, by necessity, accentuate the gendered and relational dimensions of maternal subjectivity. Building on DiQunizo’s concept of “the dilemma of difference,” I consider specifically how academic feminism enacts confusion, conflation, and erasure in its understanding of motherhood, and how in doing so, academic feminism does indeed throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Confusing Mothering with Motherhood
 It is my view that the earlier negative stance on motherhood and the current disappearance of motherhood in academic feminism is the result of a larger and pervasive feminist discomfort with all things maternal and more specifically as a result of confusing the institution of motherhood with the experience of mothering. Much of second-wave feminism—in particular that of liberal and radical-libertarian feminism—views motherhood as a significant, if not the determining, cause of women’s oppression under patriarchy. As Rosemarie Putnam Tong notes in her second edition of Feminist Thought, Betty Friedan’s The Feminism Mystique, a central liberal feminist text, “advised women to become like men” (31). The now-infamous quote from The Feminine Mystique“—the problem that has no name” —quickly became a trope for the dissatisfaction supposedly felt by stay-at-home mothers. Friedan states that “in lieu of more meaningful goals, these women spent too much time cleaning their already tidy homes, improving their already attractive appearances, and indulging their already spoiled children.” (69-70). Moreover, Friedan argues that “contemporary women needed to find meaningful work in the full-time, public workforce” (22). Along the same lines, radical-libertarian feminist Shulamith Firestone claims that “the material basis for the sexual/political ideology of female submission and male domination was rooted in the reproductive roles of men and women” (qtd. in Tong52). Elsewhere, Firestone writes:

No matter how much educational, legal, and political equality women achieve and no matter how many women enter public industry, nothing fundamental will change for women as long as natural reproduction remains the rule and artificial or assisted reproduction the exception. Natural reproduction is neither in women's best interests nor in those of the children so reproduced. The joy of giving birth—invoked so frequently in this society—is a patriarchal myth. In fact, pregnancy is barbaric, and natural childbirth is at best necessary and tolerable and at worst like shirting a pumpkin. (92)
For Friedan and Firestone, motherhood is a patriarchal institution that causes women's oppression, and, thus, for them, the feminist solution is to disavow and denounce motherhood.

 However, as motherhood scholars and mothers alike have rightly argued, such reasoning is deeply flawed in its failure to take into account the important difference between the institution of motherhood and women’s experiences of mothering. In Of Woman Born, as discussed in chapter one, Rich distinguishes between two meanings of motherhood, one superimposed on the other: “the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children”; and “the institution—which aims at ensuring that that potential—and all women—shall remain under male control” (13),The term “motherhood” refers to the patriarchal institution of motherhood, which is male defined and controlled and is deeply oppressive to women, whereas the word “mothering” refers to women’s experiences of mothering and is female defined and potentially empowering to women. The reality of patriarchal motherhood, thus, must be distinguished from the possibility or potentiality of feminist mothering. To critique the institution of motherhood, therefore, is “not an attack on the family or on mothering except as defined and restricted under patriarchy” (Rich 14). In other words, whereas motherhood as an institution is a male-defined site of oppression, women’s own experiences of mothering can be a source of power. It has long been recognized among scholars of motherhood that Rich’s distinction between mothering and motherhood was what enabled feminists to recognize that motherhood is not naturally, necessarily, or inevitably oppressive. Rather, mothering, freed from motherhood, could be experienced as a site of empowerment and a location of social change if, to use Rich’s words, women became “outlaws from the institution of motherhood.” However, in much of academic feminism, this crucial difference between the institution and the experience is not recognized or understood. As a result, mothering becomes confused with motherhood, and maternity is regarded solely and exclusively as a patriarchal entity.

Conflating Matericentric Feminism with Maternalism and Gender Essentialiam
 Rachel V. Kutz-Flamenbaum, as noted in the introduction, argues that “maternalism, like paternalism, is an ideology and philosophy” (712). She continues:
It [maternalism] asserts that “mother knows best” and that women, as a group, maintain a set of ideas, beliefs or experiences that reflect their motherly knowledge and motherly strengths. Maternalism suggests that women are (and should be) the moral conscience of humanity and asserts women’s legitimate investment in political affairs through this emphasis. (712)

However, as noted above, a matricentric perspective is not to be confused with a maternalist one. Although some perspectives in matricentric feminism may be considered maternalist, they are largely limited to the activism of certain motherhood organizations, as noted in the second chapter. Moreover,  maternalism in these instances functions more often as a position rather than an identity; it is performed rather than essentially determined and derived. Moreover, matricentric feminism, as evidenced in chapter one, understands motherhood to be socially and historically constructed and positions mothering more as a practice than an identity. Central to matricentric feminism is a critique of the maternalist stance that positions maternity as basic to and the basis of female identity; it challenges the assumption that maternity is natural to women—all women naturally know how to mother—and that the work of mothering is driven by instinct rather than intelligence and developed by habit rather than skill. Although matricenric feminism does hold a matrifocal perspective and insists that mothering does matter, it does not advance a maternalist argument or agenda.

 However, matericentric feminism, in its focus on a gendered experience that of mothering (and the related ones of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding), does force us to address the thorny issue of gender difference. As noted above, feminist theory, with the notable exception of difference-cultural feminism, positions gender difference as central to, if not the cause of, women's oppression. Liberal feminists advocate what has been called “sameness feminism,” wherein women become more like men; radical-libertarian feminists promote androgyny; and poststructuralist feminists seek to destabilize and deconstruct gender difference all together. Indeed, as Niamh Moore notes, “challenging biological determinism and other essentialisms has been a crucial policy strategy for feminists” (qtd. in Stephens 141). Thus, because feminists are uncomfortable with anything that underscores gender difference and suggests essentialism (i.e., man are naturally this way, and women are naturally this way), motherhood becomes problematic, as it more than anything else is what marks gender difference: only biological females can biologically become mothers. And because gender difference is seen as structuring and maintaining male dominance, many feminists seek to downplay and disavow anything that marks this difference—the main one, of course, being motherhood. For many feminists, to call attention to women's specific gendered subjectivity as a mother is to subscribe to an essentialist viewpoint: acknowledging and affirming what is seen as marking and maintaining gender difference and, hence, the oppression of women. Indeed, as Julie Stephens writes in Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: “the primary focus of the second-wave feminist movement has been one long struggle against essentialism, whether this be biological, cultural or ideological. This makes any discussion linking women and care, or mothering and nurture, particularly troubling” (10). Consequently, as Stephens goes on to argue, “any activism done in the name of the maternal will be unsettling, particularly for those who perceive feminism as primarily a struggle against essentialism” (141).

I agree that gender is constructed—sex does not equal gender or as Simore de Beauvoir said “one is not born a woman but made one”—and thus people cannot define themselves or limit their lives to that which is socially constructed by gender. However, I likewise believe that feminists should not disavow motherhood to facilitate this destabilizing of gender. I believe it is possible to simultaneously argue that gender is constructed and that motherhood matters and that maternity is integral to a mother women’s sense of self and her experience of the world. In my view, the apprehension over gender difference is the elephant in the room of academic feminism; it has shut down necessary and needed conversations about important—and yes gendered—dimensions of women’s lives: menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and mothering. Mothers can no longer talk about their reproductive identities and experiences without being called essentialist. But maternal scholars do not reduce women’s sense of self to motherhood, nor do they say that this is what makes her a woman or that motherhood is more important than other variables that constitute self. They say only that motherhood matters and that it is central and integral to understanding the lives of women as mothers. Thus, mothers need a feminism, in both theory and practice, for and about their identities and experiences as mothers.

Postmaternal Thinking
Julie Stephens in Confronting Postmaternal Thinking argues that there exists today “a cultural anxiety around nurture, human dependency, caregiving and emotion (1). This anxiety is what she calls “postmaternal thinking.” Importantly, Stephens’s concept of the maternal refers not to a belief in innate gender difference but to a concept of what she describes as a relational, dependent, connected maternal subjectivity—“a selfhood that is the antithesis of the abstract, gender-neutral, individual, [who is] self-sufficient, free-floating … [and] favoured by the neoliberal market” (33, 35). As Stephens writes:

Repeated expressions of anxiety around the naming of certain values as maternal, go far beyond individual instances of maternal ambivalence. The point here is a cultural one. It is not about mothering but about the way the maternal is constituted in policy debates, popular culture, personal narratives, and conceptions of desirable selfhood. (41)
 Thus, according to Stephens, “the current cultural devaluation of the principles of nurturance and care are akin to an umothering of society as whole” (132). She warns that “failing to remember the relational, connected maternal self, is to risk joining hands with neoliberalism in masking human dependency” (35). Her book Postmaternal, Thinking, in Stephens’s words, “strives toward an active practice of remembering the maternal (and maternalism) as a paradigm of nurture and care applicable to other social relations [and] [it] also remembers maternal care as an impetus for social activism” (14).

  Significantly Stephens argues that postmaternal thinking emerges in and through what she terms “cultural forgetting” and that this has been pronounced in academic feminism:

In the popular imagination, second-wave feminism is still linked with the glorification of market work and the devaluing of family work. This memory of feminism relies on a particular kind of cultural forgetting. More specifically, it is a forgetting that renders invisible forms of feminism that have always challenged an assumed alliance between economic participation and emancipation. (26).

The question that must be asked, according to Stephens, is not why feminism has failed motherhood but why “feminism is remembered as having forgotten motherhood and whether the dominance of this cultural memory has contributed to the emergence of post-maternal thinking” (41). Feminism must forget what Stephens terms “the nurturing mother,” for to remember her is to remember dependency, which is in Stephens’s words “the anathema to a particular kind of feminist selfhood” (53). As Stephens explains: “Familiar, public renderings of feminism’s history often depict the women’s movement as an inexorable march towards modernity. If women were to become modern, emancipated subjects, certain things would have to be left behind. The so-called ancient maternal ties were seen to be the first to go” (94). “While this celebratory narrative of feminist modernity,” Stephens continues, “may capture significant dimensions of the women’s movement, it reinforces postmaternal thinking: the widespread cultural anxiety around nurture and care … and naturalizes an opposition between feminism and maternal forms of subjectivity and strengthens neoliberal policy agendas” (94). This telling enacts one version of feminism’s history as orthodoxy and serves to reinforce and legitimate a “farewell to maternalism,” in which “care is viewed as a constraint and dependency a burden for the free-floating autonomous individual” (29).

Though not emphasized by Stephens, the cultural ascendancy of postmaternal thinking in feminism and the general cultural has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism; both began in the 1900s and gained momentum in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Yet neoliberalism is what gave rise to postmaternal thinking, and postmaternal thinking, in turn, secures and sustains neoliberalism. It is important to note that the emergence of both neoliberalism and postmaternal thinking corresponds to the disappearance of motherhood in academic feminism. Moreover, this disavowal of the maternal in twenty-first-century academic feminism is deliberate and necessary, and it is enacted in order to protect and promote the illusion of the autonomous subject favoured by neoliberalism and celebrated in much of feminist theory. Just as the maternal was actively forgotten in the telling of feminism, today, it is actively ignored. I argue that the erasure of the maternal in feminist theory is less about concerns over gender essentialism than about the need to mask and deny the maternal—nurturance, human dependency, caregiving, and emotion—in in our lives. To acknowledge the maternal is to remember that human beings are not self-sufficient, free-floating, and unencumbered subjects—the kind who are championed by neoliberalism and celebrated in feminist modernity. Finally, postmaternal thinking facilitates and justifies the confusion of motherhood with mothering and the conflation of the maternal with gender essentialism, which is accomplished, as discussed earlier, by positioning the maternal as both obsolete and aberrant: the very antithesis of modern and emancipated feminist subjectivity.

 “Motherhood studies as an area of scholarship,” Kawash writes in her review article, “is on precarious grounds: ignored by mainstream academic feminism, fragmented and discontinuous in the academic margins (986). In making this argument, Kawash uses as her example York university’s refusal to provide institutional funding for The Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) and the resulting closure of the association in 2010. Kawash writes that “The fact that neither the university system nor the institution of academic feminism appears willing to support a scholarly community and research program that explicitly foregrounds mothering is discouraging” (986). However, as Kawash goes on to argue, “but the fact is, even before York pulled the plug, the established academic community completely ignored the work of ARM. Neither O’Reilly’s work nor the Demeter volumes were reviewed in any significant feminist journals, and JARM had few institutional subscribers” (986). Thus, “while motherhood has been an energizing topic in the past decade,” Kawash argues, “there has been little of boundary-crossing movement between academic and popular discussion, and the movement between feminist studies and motherhood studies has been only in one direction” (986). But as Kawash, concludes:

Feminist theorists, scholars, and writers, as well as feminist mother activists, have a lot to say to each other, and a lot to learn from each other, about motherhood. Motherhood studies needs the perspectives and commitments of feminism as well as the institutional resources that feminism and women’s studies have accumulated over the past four decades. At the same time, feminism cannot possibly hope to remain relevant without acknowledging motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities. (986-987)

Indeed, in the words of maternal theorist Patrice DiQuinzio. “to the extent that mothering in all its diverse forms, remains an important aspect of women’s lives and that decisions about whether, when, and how to mother continues to face almost all women, feminism cannot claim to give an adequate account of women’s lives and to represent women’s needs and interests if it ignores the issue of mothering (“Mothering and Feminism”, 545).

In this chapter, I have discussed the disavowal of motherhood in twentieth-century academic feminism and documented its disappearance in twenty-first-century academic feminism. As well, I have suggested possible explanations for this disappearance: the confusion of mothering with motherhood, the conflation of matricentric feminism with maternalism and gender essentialism, amd the cultural ascendancy of postmaternal thinking along with the inadequate representation of mothers in academe.

However, despite the disavowal and disappearance of motherhood in academic feminism, we do have a feminist theory and movement of our own as evidenced in the previous three chapters. But matricentric feminism must be more than acknowledged as a legitimate, viable, independent school of feminist thought; it must be integrated into mainstream academic feminism. But how do we accomplish this? We need more women doing motherhood scholarship and more mother professors in academe. We demand that matricentric feminism have a chapter of it is own as do other schools of feminism theory—queer, global, womanist, third wave—in our feminist theory readers, that introduction to women's studies courses and textbooks include sections on motherhood, that women's journals and conferences include more papers on motherhood, and that more books on motherhood are reviewed. We must continuously challenge the conflation of mothering with motherhood within academic feminism as well as counter the association of matericentic feminism with gender essentialism. And decisively and urgently, we must interrupt the received narrative of academic feminism, in particular its normalization of the genderless and autonomous subject, in order to foreground the centrality of women’s reproductive identities and lives and the importance of care in our larger culture. Indeed, as Ann Marie Slaughter comments, “The bottom-line message is that we are never going to get gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work. That’s the unfinished business” (qtd. in McCarthy). Finally and most importantly, we must demand that matricentric feminists be recognized and respected as the feminists that they are and that their feminism, that of matricentric feminism, have a room of its own in the larger home of academic feminism.

A full and complete version of the keynote address may be found in Andrea O'Reilly's most recent book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice

Available via Demeter Press website at 40% off using coupon code MOTHERS until December 1, 2016 


No comments

Post a Comment