Fundamentals, Psychology

Mothers vs. Feminism: Social Change of the Mother Role

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
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