familiy life stories

How the Social Construct of Motherhood is Deeply Shaped by Literature

“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.”

–David Lodge

Prior to the 21st Century, literature was dominated by the male perspective. Female writers, in order to be published, have often had to adopt male pen names. This practice has been both common and necessary throughout literary history and despite progress in women’s rights, continues to this day. Just as 19th century writer George Sand was actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, 21st century writer Robert Galbraith is actually Joanne, or J.K., Rowling.

Consequently, the perspective of women and children has been vastly under-represented in literature.

An article on motherhood in literature points out that the topic has often been portrayed in a negative light by male authors. Novels such as “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” have served to present society’s definition of a “good mother” versus a “bad mother”. Female protagonists that were deemed bad mothers in these family life stories were usually punished, often by death. At the very least, they were socially shunned and relegated to poverty and obscurity.

Even today, mothers in the family life stories of literature are still judged according to modern social criteria. A recent BBC article celebrating motherhood in literature compiled a list of the best, as well as the worst, mothers in literature. One writer contributed their own list of the ten worst mothers in literature.

Feminists such as Nancy Chodorow have written about the extent to which women’s personal identities have been formed as a response to the social construct of motherhood. Others have pointed out that that most mothers in fiction are objects of their husbands’ or daughters’ narratives, rather than having narratives of their own.

Feminist literary critic Luce Irigaray argues that under a system of patriarchy, mother/daughter relationships are often transformed into rivalries. In such rivalries, the daughter emerges the victor, while her mother’s personhood is subsumed by the role she plays as a mother. Alison Fell presented an analysis of motherhood in the works of French female writers like Simone de Beauvoir, while Adalgisa Giorgio‘s work examines motherhood in 20th century Western European literature.

Family life stories in literature

Family life stories in literature in which women were portrayed as achieving moral goodness through motherhood, such as the mother in “Little Women” were far more common than the portrayal of women who rebelled against male authority. For example, in Anne Brontë’s second novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall“, written under the male pseudonym Acton Bell, the heroine escapes her alcoholic husband to protect her son.

This novel dared to suggest that sometimes being a good mother meant challenging the patriarchy and breaking the law. At the time the novel was published, 1848, women were permitted no way to legally exist independently, and fleeing a marriage with a child was viewed as the crime of kidnapping. The novel was so controversial that after the author’s death, her sister Charlotte prevented it from being republished. However, in 1913, women’s suffragist May Sinclair said that

“the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Happily, a greater number of family life stories told from the perspective of women and children are being published and gaining a wider audience than at any other time in history. Diana Secker Tesdell, who has edited a number of Everyman’s Pocket Classic anthologies, has assembled a collection of family life stories that feature motherhood. “Stories of Motherhood” features some of the finest and most well-known female writers of this century including Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Amy Tan and Alice Munro . However, it also features some lesser known writers, such as Colm Tóibín and Anita Desai.

One review in the Guardian praised the collection, but pointed out that with the exception of one author, all the writers featured are from the United States. Despite this criticism, family life stories from a number of different ethnic cultures within the larger culture are vividly portrayed. This collection contributes the valuable perspective of mothers caring for infants such as Lydia Davis’s “What You Learn About the Baby” as well as the perspective of children, as in Ernest Gaines’s story “The Sky Is Gray“.

In life, as in literature, children represent both continuity and change, the past as well as progress. Their parents’ actions serve to illuminate the path towards posterity. By presenting family life stories in which mothers are portrayed not as good or bad, but as fully human, modern literature is helping to reshape destiny towards a more humane future.

familiy life stories
Daughter of Niobe (one of the 14 children killed) bent by terror, Niobe room in Uffizi gallery

June 6,2016  |

Parental Choice

Destruction of the Concept of Motherhood: Simone de Beauvoir on Parental Choice

Although she was not a mother, Simone de Beauvoir has, as a philosopher and an author influenced the intellectual women and mothers of several generations. Her views on parental choice was clear. Simone de Beauvoir, attributed her own intellectual development to the differences in her parents’ belief systems.

“…my father’s individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother’s teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual.”

However, the following quote perhaps best exemplifies the premise upon which she built her feminist philosophy.

“It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.”

Education of Simone de Beauvoir

Having grown up in an upper middle class, or bourgeois, family, she received an excellent Catholic education and even considered becoming a nun until the age of 14 (which would have led to the same parental choice she would make later on), when she instead became a life-long atheist. Intellectually precocious, after passing her baccalaureate exams, she studied languages, mathematics, and philosophy. At age 21, she was the youngest person to ever pass the agrégation exam at the Sorbonne, the scores of which were used for national ranking of scholars. She placed second, behind Jean-Paul Sarte, who placed first.

Works of Simone de Beauvoir

In her 1949 book The Second Sex”, she analyzed the phenomenon of women’s oppression and was one of the first feminists, although she did not formally declare herself one until 1972. In many ways, the book provided the framework for the later feminist movement. Other novels include She Came to Stay” and The Mandarins”. In a philosophical work titled “The Ethics of Ambiguity” she explored the concept of how freedom is affected by physical and social circumstances. Despite the lasting influence of her books, Simone De Beauvoir is as well known for her 45 year romantic relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as she is for her intellectual and literary contributions.

Controversy around the rebel Simone de Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre was an open one, which caused a great deal of controversy, as did her bi-sexuality. But perhaps the biggest controversy that surrounded her was when she was formally charged with abducting a minor. She had developed an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student whose parents were outraged. They demanded that she be formally charged and as a result, her license to teach in France was permanently revoked.

Years later, in 1971, she signed the Manifesto of the 343, which was a list of famous women who’d had abortions. She defended openly parental choice. This proved to be equally controversial, but these women were willing to give up their privacy and endure public shame to legalize abortion by forcing the government to either arrest and charge them all with a crime or change the law. At the time abortion was even more controversial than it is today. Partially as a result of the controversy, abortion in France was legalized in 1974.

Simone de Beauvoir maintained that womanhood, and by extension, motherhood, were social constructs that served as tools in the patriarchal oppression of women. I have written several articles where psychologists or anthropologists would come to the same conclusion. However Simone de Beauvoir states philosophical viewpoints about motherhood, parental choice and their consequences. I believe that by who she was and what she wrote -whether I understand or agree with her personal parental choice-she has indeed influenced our beliefs and broader theoretical concept of what it means to be a mother today and in our society.

Views of Simone de Beauvoir on Parental Choice and Motherhood

Simone de Beauvoir believed that society’s definition of human being was male by default, thereby relegating women to a social construct of an inferior “other”. Further, she felt that women must elevate themselves from the position assigned them through the power of their conscious choices. In an interview with feminist Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir stated that

“No woman should be authorized to stay at home to bring up her children… because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.”

She questioned the validity of “choice” , of which the parental choice was one, within a social construct that punished women for choosing differently.

“Do you think the mothers you know chose to have children? Or were they intimidated into having them?”

She questions women’s ability to make a choice when men

“behave as if only women who stay at home are “clean” while the others are easy marks.”

To support her argument, she pointed to the increases in rape and domestic violence as evidence of male aggression expressed as punishment in response to women’s demands for equal rights.

In a 1976 interview she challenged women to examine their individual choices and how they would affect other women by saying

“Those who profit from their “collaboration” have to understand the nature of their betrayal”.

While she believed that economic systems were partially responsible for the oppression of women, she saw that the power of the patriarchal system superseded both capitalism and socialism. Therefore, she concluded that the most revolutionary act that women could perform

“to change the value system of society was to destroy the concept of motherhood.”

Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir worked for the creation of a society on which both genders were equally valued, both economically, and as parents. Most importantly, she wanted parenthood to be a true parental choice, rather than a societal expectation. When asked how long it might take to achieve such equality, she replied

“Maybe in four generations. I don’t know about the revolution. But the changes that women are struggling for, yes, that I am certain of, in the long run women will win.”

Parental Choice
Simone de Beauvoir with Jean Paul Sartre, welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg by Flickr GovernmentPress Office

August 28,2015  |

Social Change of the Mother Role

Mothers vs. Feminism: Social Change of the Mother Role

“We think back through our mothers if we are women.”
Virginia Woolf

Feminism has made progress on numerous critical issues in women’s lives — but not all.  Social Change of the Mother Role was spared. The philosophy of women’s liberation has surprisingly little to say on the topic of motherhood. As a result, mothering has remained a bastion of oppression for most women. Patrice DiQuinzio in The Impossibility of Mothering asks questions like,

Is liberated mothering possible? Does motherhood have to limit women’s options and divide their interests?

She says no and believes we have to think a little differently if we want to start moving in the right direction. She believes we are stuck and have not envisioned a social change of the mother role yet. The book considers how people like Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Nancy Choderow and Adrienne Rich struggle with this dilemma of difference in analyzing mothering, encompassing the paradoxes concerning gender and representation they represent and considering social change of the mother role.

Feminism and Mothering: A Conflict of Interest

Mothering can be a major source of oppression in women education and working lives. Despite the fundamental importance of mothering for virtually all societies and individuals, mothering work remains undervalued and unpaid.

Women overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of childrearing labor and are judged harshly for their failures as mothers, even when those failures are the result of malfunctioning social structures. In today’s male-dominated cultures, mothering tends to limit the material independence of women, and often entails harsh psychological regimes that control rather than empower women as mothers.

From reading many of Western feminism’s star thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Adrienne Rich, we might think, Does all this mean motherhood is bad for women? Is it “impossible” from a feminist standpoint? Modern feminism, DiQuinzio says, has biased itself against mothering and women’s work in the domestic sphere, preferring to define liberation as progress in women education and the labor market.

But this individualist approach leaves mothers out in the cold. As a result, little or no feminist progress has been made with respect to mothering. Compared to women education as workers, women as mothers continue to be held back by centuries-old sexist norms, laws and behaviors that make their lives more difficult. This uneven progress against sexism has left working mothers with more work and less freedom, as they try to balance career and domestic responsibilities without compensatory resources.

A Politics of Mothering: Social Change of the Mother Role

Mothering isn’t going away any time soon,

says DiQuinzio.

It’s time to develop women education so as to make progress in this key area of female experience. Is there a way to embrace mothering without reinforcing patriarchal ideas about how women are born to be society’s happily unpaid child-rearers? Can feminism theorize the liberation of mothers?

If so, DiQuinzio says,

the path forward must deviate from Western feminism’s obsession with individualist success and its pathological fear of exploring the ways in which women differ from men, especially as mothers.

Feminists have rightly condemned puritanical gender ideologies that define women as little more than their ability to make and raise babies – the ideology of “essential motherhood.” But should feminism deny all forms of sex-based difference? Doing so risks trammeling over highly gendered experiences like mothering, DiQuinzio argues. Instead, feminist theory should unashamedly take up the unique differences that drive some women to become and identify as mothers.

Women Education and the Liberated Mother

Western feminists have so far failed to come up with an effective politics of mothering and have not defined social change of the mother role. Instead, they have wrestled with motherhood as a problem that needs to be solved. But when we look at real women’s experiences, it looks like motherhood is not the problem – it is the social overdetermination of mothering.

Women are not going to stop being mothers any time soon, and it’s not clear that the end of mothering is a feminist goal worth pursuing. But how we define mothers and their work, the circumstances of childbirth and mothering, girls’ and women education, and the support available to moms for the resolution of their distinctive problems can and should be questioned as a matter of feminist strategy.

This is DiQuinzio’s thesis.

Mothering is a feminist issue. It is time for women, mothers, and feminists alike to challenge not only the patriarchal ideology of essential motherhood, but also the individualism that obstructs justice in this critical arena of women’s lives.

Social Change of the Mother Role
Hamlet and His Mother, Eugène Delacroix, 1841. Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 13,2015  |

social change

The Seventies: Negative Motherhood, Social Change and the Celebration of Women Power

The sanctity of motherhood is a modern concept

Although there was a wave of social change and women’s liberation in the 1920s throughout the world, which led to women’s suffrage, as the world got pulled into war, the realization of such women power became a little diluted as the world strived toward bringing back peace. Women were not yet soldiers, but did help out amply in the war efforts, either as nurses, military officers or various forms of support.

With the end of the war and soldiers returning home, the world was now concerned with peace time needs and rebuilding. Industry mushroomed in the western world as did families. Soldiers rushed back to their wives or to find wives and much of the western world in the late 40s to the late 50s was devoted to building families. This was the era of social change before birth control became popular and a time in history when women themselves were almost like commodities. Once they married, at the average of 20, they then officially “belonged” to their husbands as did any of the property they owned. When a women married in this era, she pretty much signed her rights over to her husband.

Also, at this time, in the 1950s, women were only offered the very basic jobs, the usual ones dedicated to women: secretary, nurse, librarian, or teacher. Fewer women went to college in 50s than in the 20s.

Luckily, this type of social behavior began to be put into question, like much of the status quo, in the 1960s. An air of social change was blowing and affecting all of western society, including women and women power. Everything from the past was being redefined to suit modern-day society, including women’s roles. Social change was taking place. The sixties led the way for social change in large stride throughout most of the western world.

Social change  from the sixties on

This was a powerful era for women and from it emerged strong women archetypes that were no longer pinned to the role of the commonly accepted woman at the side of man, having his children. Birth control made it possible to no longer be controlled by the birthing process; social change in marriages meant divorce became a way for women to leave marriages when they no longer felt fulfilled or happy without having to prove wrongdoing. Women became free from the heaviness of roles from the past, which were often inflicted on them, and many strived to make a difference in the world. In short, it was truly an era of growing women power and social change.

The angry seventies

As a result, the seventies was an era where the concept of motherhood took a great beating. Because this was something previously forced on women, many were only too happy to publicly knock it, and to drag the concept of motherhood through the mud, using another one of the concepts birthed in the sixties: Free speech, which although it had been around for a long time, got a real boost in this era.

This became visible in the way women presented themselves in the seventies: Women were in their power, quite naturally. From a psychological perspective, the seventies could be viewed as an individuated period that followed the permissiveness of the 1960s, which was in reaction to the authoritarian model of the 1950s. As mothers were finding their voices, so were there children. This was a period that could be referred to as under-mothering, where moms with kids did not necessarily put their kids first, as modern-day moms frequently do. There was still distance between parents and children and children were left more on their own to develop.

But next to this wave of mothers, were women who were downright indignant with the whole image of motherhood referring to it in a very negative manner publicly.

Car stickers appeared announcing,

Babies are Pollution
World pollution is YOUR baby

Earlier Simone de Beauvoir had written of the ‘ordeal of pregnancy’ (though, to her credit, she also writes a lot of good sense about mothering). Juliet Mitchell writes of maternity as possession. One writer discusses ‘the negative role of Mum’.

Another writes

‘The big push to have children, whether we are married or not, should be viewed as one of the strong links in the chain that enslaves us.’

Kate Millett writes that a woman is

‘Simply by virtue of her anatomy … prevented from being a human being.’

Some feminist writers are downright hostile to the whole business. Penelope Leach quotes an example from a widely-read women’s liberation magazine which describes the full-time care of a baby or very young child as:

‘Like spending all day, every day, in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective.’

Shulamith Firestone in her Dialectic of Sex describes pregnancy as ‘barbaric … shitting a pumpkin’ and announces:

‘Pregnancy is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.’

She ends her book with the following announcement:

‘With the disappearance of motherhood, and the obstructing incest taboo, sexuality would be re-integrated, allowing love to flow unimpeded.”

Women power or Motherhood

Modern articles today look back on the seventies as a time of social change and a unique time where women could be themselves and mothers at the same time, the true definition of women power. It is portrayed as a more laid back time where children required less care than today’s modern children. This could be due to the fact that women were choosing motherhood instead of feeling it thrust upon them. It was also before the time when women inflicted the role of wonder women on themselves, attempting to juggle home, office, family and personal life all at once. As one writer says,

A life is long enough to do everything we want, only we can’t do it all at the same time.

Seventies’ moms seemed to instinctively know this and if there is a lesson to take away from that period, it would be this, which is the true source of women power.

Want to know more on the origins of feminism and motherhood, head over here.

social change
Head of the Artist’s Mother, Umberto Boccioni, 1915. Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 31,2015  |