How Mistakes About Maternal Instinct, Explained By Imagination And Even Poetry By Victorian Scientists Including Darwin, Still Resonate Today

According to Robert J. Stoller in his book “Sex and Gender”, Herbert Spencer, an important English philosopher, biologist and anthropologist of the Victorian era said that

“Given women’s and men’s respective shares in the rearing and protection of offspring, women must have been endowed more than men with that form of the parental instinct that responds to infantile helplessness, that doubtless this biologically given specialized instinct conferred on women special aptitudes for dealing with infantine life”.

Maternal Instinct in a Victorian Era

This belief in the existence of maternal instinct was typical of the time. When the age of industrialization began, this perceived basic difference between men and women was further magnified by the division of labor.

The division of labor resulted in a large degree of division, even segregation, between the worlds of men and women. Women and children were largely isolated within the confines of home and hearth, while men’s lives were largely conducted in the social world of business and commerce outside the home.

Maternal Instinct and the Impact of Darwin

That concept of maternal instinct was one that Charles Darwin himself had written about. He rejected the idea that social feelings were acquired through experience, formulating instead what he called the “associationist doctrine“. According to this doctrine, humans, like animals, also possessed social instincts.

The fact that Darwin’s theory seemed to support the belief in maternal aptitude helped to solidify it in the form of rigid social structures. Darwin wrote in 1871 in his book “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”

“Maternal instincts lead women to show greater tenderness and less selfishness and to display these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree”.

The Ideal Mother with Biological Instinct

Quotes such as these were used to form society’s definition of the ideal mother. However, the concept of women possessing maternal biological instincts was never sufficiently explained by science.

It was explained instead using imagination, and even poetry. For example:

  • some claimed that the maternal instinct was located in the “cerebral organs of sense”(Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92), which today we would call the brain
  • others believed them to be located in the “reproductive organs” (Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92)
  • with one group further specifying the “uterus” (Thomas, W. I., 1897,  On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes. American journal of Sociology 3:31-63)
  • some even claimed that the instinct was dependent upon the “mineral manganese“.

Relegating the maternal instinct to organs that only women possessed gave these theories further credibility.

Astoundingly, the fact that women’s breasts often produce milk in response to the sound of their babies’ cry was not included in this body of “scientific evidence”.

The Choice Between Motherhood and Public Life

Spencer also explicitly stated that parental aptitude, or maternal instinct, meant that women should not seek at all to enter into public life. Women today seem to agree with the first part, the existence of maternal instinct. However, most would disagree with the conclusions on maternal instinct that the male scientists of two hundred years ago reached. Their own conclusions might be stated in this way: The biological gifts of women to take care of children should be recognized, nurtured and respected in our societies.

What is strange is that even though they did not know what we know now through extensive research, somehow people knew that biology, to some extent, decided the fate of women. Many years later, in the aftermath of the feminist seventies, it still does.

However, there are many women who envision equal participation in the workforce and society, and this is regardless if the existence or scientific proof of a maternal instinct. According to Adrienne Rich, an American poet and essayist, women will achieve sexual liberation when they have learned to think ‘through their body’.

Adrienne Rich was one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. In her book Of Women Born, we see Rich believed women need to connect to their

“our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense: our genius for close observation; our complicated pain enduring, multi pleasured physicality”.

She definitely offers a different viewpoint than other liberal, socialist or Marxist feminists who see state childcare as a prerequisite to women’s liberation. In fact, she is explicitly opposed to any form of state childcare.

“The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers”

The American sociologist Alice Rossi has also changed her position from that of the liberal feminism of the seventies and rejects the concept of sexual equality. In her book “A Biosocial Perspective on Parenting”, she stated already back in 1977 that

“you do not have to do the same things in order to achieve equality”

This has become a classic phrase in the ongoing social dialogue on the topic of equal rights for women. To a degree, such reactions in the early eighties served as a kind of corrective pendulum swing from the extreme feminism of the seventies.

It was with this pendulum swing that biological essentialism was born. Terms such as “nurturance”, “community sense”, “family support”, “institutional innovation” and “volunteering” became much more in vogue beginning in the eighties.

Women should band together in challenging society to improve and foster childcare while recognizing and rewarding the unique talents and abilities which are bestowed by nature upon women. Indeed, future generations, for both men and women, depend on it.

maternal instinct
Young Mother Gazing at Her Child, William Bouguereau, La Rochelle, 1871

September 11,2015  |

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  |