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
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

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

           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

           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

           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)

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

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

 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

 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 naïve 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

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

 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

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:

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”

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


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