Thursday, December 13, 2007

When feminists become mothers

Students in New Zealand were asked in their geography exams this year a peculiar question. They were given photos of five city scenes ranging from a park to a business district and asked to explain how each image could be viewed from a feminist perspective.

Dr Julie Cupples, a feminist geographer from Canterbury University, answered the question for a newspaper by claiming that the suburbs are highly gendered given that many women are at home with children “and the interesting stuff that is happening downtown they are excluded from”.

So the “correct” feminist answer involves an assumption that motherhood isn’t so interesting and that women who are at home with their children are being denied access to something better.

Where does this anti-maternal assumption come from? It stems from patriarchy theory. According to patriarchy theory what matters most is that we are autonomous. The motherhood role is thought to be less autonomous than the traditional male career role, as it is based on a “biological destiny” rather than on an individual career path, and because it involves financial dependence on a husband. If the motherhood role is inferior, though, patriarchy theorists must deny that it is a natural one for women. Therefore, patriarchy theorists claim that gender is an oppressive social construct, imposed on women to uphold male privilege.

What happens, though, when feminists actually do become mothers? Is there a collision between patriarchy theory and real experience? Do feminist women still feel that autonomy is the key good in life?

The answer seems to be no, at least according to a set of interviews with feminist mothers I read recently.

The first to be interviewed was Theresa, who is a stay at home mum with a partner and a young son. At one level she is quite an orthodox feminist. She defines feminism this way:

My feminism supports a woman's right to make choices and challenges the status quo when it comes to limitations - no matter who's defining the status.

This is the typical autonomist line that we must be self-defining agents, so that the aim of politics is to remove impediments to individual choice in any direction.

And yet Theresa no longer thinks of this kind of autonomy as the highest good. She now values her own family higher. This means that she doesn't attack the family as an oppressive restriction on her personal autonomy; instead, she identifies her own interests with that of the family and she seeks to act for the benefit of her family.

The attempt to maintain an autonomist politics whilst identifying positively with her family leads to this curious position:

What makes your mothering feminist?

The fact that I'm doing what is right for my family and not what's best for society or some other outside influence. I make the choices. With my husband. Not my priest or my husband's boss or the mayor of our city or the writer with a big paycheck.

She still applies the logic of autonomy theory to the wider society, but from the vantage point of her own family, rather than herself as an individual. Even so, the basic shift is away from the absolute value of autonomy:

I grew up knowing that I shouldn't sacrifice myself to a job or a partner ... Yet, now I also know that the act of sacrifice is ultimately good for me, connecting me to the world and making me human.

This reminds me of what Alice James, sister of the famous American novelist Henry James, had to say of her spinsterhood:

to have no one to care and 'do for' daily is not only a sorrow but a sterilizing process.

Marjorie was the second feminist mother interviewed. She too is a woman who followed an autonomist culture by valuing independence above all else, by intending to remain childless and by intending to return to work once she had children. Again, though, after she had children she began to value family more highly than these forms of autonomy:

I am shocked and bewildered by how much I love my kids and love mothering them. I have a vague recollection of swearing I would never have children (and double- and triple-swearing that I would never have children), but I can't remember why now ...

I have also been surprised that I absolutely need my husband and family and friends to get through it all. I think I first said, "Me do it myself," at two years of age and said it until the moment before Martin was born. I absolutely need them to help me.

I don't feel like I've sacrificed my career in a negative way because the alternative was sacrificing this time with my children, which, to me, would have been the worse option. I thought I was going back to work, but I didn't even consider it once I had the baby.

The one aspect of patriarchy theory Marjorie still clings to is that of gender being an unnatural, oppressive construct. Yet, given that she herself is following a traditional gender pattern of stay at home motherhood, she feels conflicted:

I sometimes feel compromised and have trouble identifying as a feminist mother since I get so bogged down by the stay at home mother/housewife stereotype.

It's a pity she doesn't realise that once you no longer hold autonomy to be the one, overriding value, there is no reason to judge the traditional female role as inferior and therefore no need to attack gender as an oppressive construct. Her residual feminism is making her feel unnecessarily uncomfortable in what she is doing.

The third interview is the saddest. Rose is a sole parent with three children. The father of the third child is a "baby daddy" - he has some kind of parenting role but is not her partner.

How has motherhood changed her feminism? She says in answer to this question that "I stopped being so angry at men when I had a son".

Unfortunately, Rose tried to apply the autonomy principle to her own children. She raised them, as Theresa put it, to challenge the status quo when it comes to limitations. She undermined her own authority as a parent in doing so:

My eldest two were encouraged to speak their minds, make their own decisions - to treat me as an equal. This - backfired somewhat.

For me, the egalitarian basis for feminism had dictated everything ...

When her daughter became a teenager the lack of parental authority had major consequences:

It was the beginning of a nightmare ... I think we had two years of pretty solid verbal abuse ... The biggest shock was the self-destructive ways these kids chose to behave ... we had drinking, drugs, self mutilation, eating disorder ... My kid and a couple of others made it their mission to be as aggressive as possible to just about everyone ...

She changed tactics:

These days I want them to respect me. I want to be treated as head of the household. I think that what I didn't teach them was that as a woman, as their mother, as a person who had strived to do the best for them, I was worthy of their respect, even if they didn't like what I had said.

Raising her children to challenge authority and rebel against limitations didn't create a sense of autonomous freedom in her family, but led instead to conflict and family breakdown.

Rose has travelled the least distance in rejecting an autonomist version of family life. When asked what feminism has given mothers, she mostly lists government programmes which allow her to be "independent" as a single mother:

What specifically has feminism given mothers? - the right to support their children if their partner leaves instead of being dependent on family ... Free education for children. The sole parent pension. Acceptance of childcare.

Finally there is Ariane. She recognises that the feminist orthodoxy has been anti-maternal:

I think at times feminism has belittled the role of mothers, as if a stay at home mum has betrayed women.

She makes, though, a similar mistake to Marjorie. Although she recognises that the sexes are different and complementary, she nonetheless seems keen to prove that gender is an open quality. She tells us, for instance, that her son was "hammered by his peers for dressing up as a princess and dancing like a ballerina" and that she has "no opinion" on the genders of the two involved parents kids should ideally have (which in itself belittles mothers by suggesting that it doesn't matter whether or not children have an involved female parent).

Overall, the message which comes through is that feminist women do tend to change in their attitude to autonomy when they become mothers. Although none of the women interviewed ceased to identify as a feminist, they did make a transition from a more orthodox attitude in regard to independence and careers to one in which autonomy was no longer the sole, overriding good.


  1. Good Post Mark.
    I think that not only feminism but also the left as a whole do not value the idea of raising and nurturing the next generation. As a conservative and as a man who has taken on the role of "primary care giver" for my children I get a constant line of abuse from various lefties that suggest that I am a "bludger" or that I should "get a Job". They seem incapable of comprehending that I am part of a family and we function as something more than a loose aggregation of individuals. It is exactly the same for the women who do what I do now , and we nurturers of the next generation have to take pride in what we do because for each young person who turns out to be a really worthwhile citizen you will find at least one parent who made the very rewarding decision to put their children ahead of the myth of "individuality".
    Raising children is by far the most important job that anyone can undertake and I for one am proud to be doing that role in my family.

  2. The real problem in the 'burbs is that hardly anyone is in them during the day.

    When I was growing up, most Mum's were at home with kids, therefore, they could support one another more.

    These days, I have a lot more trouble finding other Mums I can team up with for mutual support. This in itself probably tend to drive women back into the workforce.

  3. Thanks Mark for your interest in the feminist motherhood series. While I disagree with most of your conclusions I think we both found these posts fascinating.

    Please remember that the women participating in this are real people who bravely put their thoughts and personal experiences out there for others (particularly other mothers) to read and reflect upon, and that most of them are not academics and aren't used to seeing their words selectively quoted for the purposes of counter-argument. Their stories should always be treated with respect.

    It is also worth remembering that these women are the experts on their own lives, not you or I (we're seeing a tiny snippet of these complex lives - even tinier when selectively quoted by you - that they've been generous enough to share with us) and describing their actions and decisions as "mistakes" is arrogant.

    The second last question I posed to feminist mothers was - "Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how?". I wanted to look at the much cherished right-wing notion that feminists are anti-mothers and see whether there was in fact a burning resentment out there among feminist mothers towards feminism. It is interesting to see that you've chosen to quote from one of the very few mothers who perceived feminism as having failed her to some degree as a mother, rather than the many more who didn't. All their responses are interesting, but why not also quote from the feminist mothers who expressed the opposite view? If you want to use these mothers' responses to support your theories, acknowledge where they challenge them too.

    Finally, a response to your own post's conclusions - ALL mothers, feminist and non-feminist alike experience a change in "attitude to autonomy" after motherhood, and I'd guess that pretty much ALL involved fathers do too. This is not some great lesson to teach feminists to come to heel, this is a lesson in the sacrifice of parenthood. No-one can really be fully prepared for the exhaustion of parenting, it takes us all by surprise. I would argue that the ones who cope best with this surprise are the ones who are empowered, supported, valued, and able to share the domestic workload fairly.

  4. Blue milk, it was certainly an interesting exercise for you to run the interviews. I appreciate too the reasoned tone of your comment.

    You say you wanted to "look at the much cherished right-wing notion that feminists are anti-mothers and see whether there was in fact a burning resentment out there among feminist mothers towards feminism."

    To me, feminism is necessarily anti-maternal. It must be so because it accepts the liberal orthodoxy that autonomy is the highest good. If autonomy is the highest good then women should seek independence and power and these aren't achieved through motherhood.

    That's why I was interested in, and quoted, the one feminist mother who openly recognised the anti-maternal aspect of feminist politics.

    As for my not "respecting" the women, I do in fact appreciate their candid responses. However, no-one can put their views in the public domain and expect that they will be used only to support their own causes.

  5. Mark, your ignorance – and arrogance - is astonishing.

    And you have me at a disadvantage – which you know – as its my life we’re discussing, and not yours. You get to be judge and jury. Once again, (but oh dear god, I’ve got used to it since I’ve been a sole parent) I’m supposed to defend myself. Strangely, neither of the men in my life get their choices questioned… but then, they aren’t caring for children. They are earning money.

    The first thing you need to understand is that I – and many others like me – did not choose to be a single parent. In the case of my third child, I opted to continue a pregnancy, and to make the best of what was an imperfect relationship (although one that I had been in for seven years, and was providing a secure family for my older children, if not always ideal for me.) Despite the fact that the relationship has failed, the parenting relationship is an excellent one – far better than my marriage. This man is still very much a part of my elder children’s lives as well. I wish the relationship has worked. It was his choice to end it. It might not be the way you like things to work, but it has turned out to be two people committed to making things work for three children, while being as polite, respectful and accommodating of each other as possible. To call him a ‘baby daddy’ is insulting.

    Here is the frightening discovery I made about the autonomy principle, Mark. I could have been the pin up girl of your pleasant Conservative utopia. I was a private schoolgirl who worked hard and earned a deposit for a house. I got married. I had two children, and stayed home with them. And then – over a period of six month my partner – my husband – decided that he didn’t want to do this anymore. And he ended it.
    It was, as you say, terribly sad. I was devastated. And here is the really frightening thing. Having been five years with no autonomy, with my work skills totally outdated ( I had been in IT), I was suddenly an absolutely pariah. When I walked into social security, it was the most humiliating thing that has ever happened. I was continuing to do the same job I had done for five years – only now I was ‘a sole parent’. Yes, I was infuriated with men, who seemed to be able to walk away with no consequences. When my ex husband complained about child support hampering his quest for a new beginning, I looked at my small children and lack of job prospects and was appalled by what I saw as the lack of options open to me.

    This is the thing conservatives like you don’t like to take into account. The real world does actually value people on the basis of what they earn. A stay at home mother without an income is a parasite – I can smell your contempt by the way you define me as ‘a SOLE PARENT’ . Happily next year I will be employed, and won’t have to accept money from anyone.

    You’ve made some strange leaps with your comments on my parenting, too.
    Saying I ‘encouraged my children to speak their minds, make their own decisions’ is not quite the same as ‘challenging authority and rebel against limitations.’ I don’t encourage my children to throw water bombs at policemen, or break the law. I expect them to go to school and be responsible members of their community… but I also want them to consider the world they live in and what the laws are and why they are made. I want them to be informed, and I want them to be proactive.

    My daughter never lacked ‘parental authority’. She was not allowed to go out at night, to take drugs, to break the law. If you read what I wrote, what actually shocked me was the way the community worked to undermine these boundaries. There were plenty of ‘nice kids from good homes’ indulging in behaviour that would make your hair stand on end. What led to conflict, I believe, was partly that fourteen year olds are often difficult – challenging boundaries is a developmental stage. (read ‘princess bitchface’, by michael carr gregg) – and partly that the external; boundaries expected by the community are a damn sight less constricting than mine. For example, I don’t let my underage children drink alcohol, whereas according to a school counsellor this is ‘normal.’ I do believe this time would have been far easier with two parents working together – as it might be in your conservative paradise. But here’s the thing – until you legislate to make my ex husband work with me on that one instead of trying to score points by ‘being cool’, it is going to remain theoretical. While I’m not sure your version of ‘authority’ is what I’m after, I was certainly undermined in my ability to maintain behavioural boundaries by my children’s father, by school counsellors and by the complete lack of boundaries in the families some of my child’s peers. As a feminist, I’m very concerned about the dangers that lack of boundaries mean for young girls. They are negotiating status in a peer culture that looks to me like something out of Lord of Flies.

    What feminism gives me, Mark, is an identity beyond the one that you are so determined to paste on my forehead. I am more than a sole parent. Over the last seven years I’ve brought up my children, got an education, I’ve started to work, I’ve renovated my house, I have plans for my future. I have always wanted to be a mother, and I don’t see that – and feminism as being incompatible. I have been autonomous because life required me to be so. Luckily for me, feminism provided a safety net that was not there for the women of previous generations. I could have been like my grandmother, who was widowed with two young children, taking in washing.
    I could have been like my friend’s grandmother, abandoned when pregnant, marrying a much older man who took pity on her when her family threw her out.
    In my capacity as the mother of these children, I belong to them when they are young and vulnerable, but as they grow, they will become autonomous too, and while I intend to be parts of their lives for as long as I live, I will have other things to do.
    I have choices and opportunities. My life has had sad parts, but I’m no longer restricted to the role as ‘rejected mother of two’ that is the other side of the model you promote. I’m optimistic and happy.

    If you choose I am happy to debate points, but I will no longer debate my life, my choices or my children. If you wish to put forward your own experiences, I am happy to discuss them.
    I’ve found feminist sites often share experiences, joys, discoveries and opinions based on very personal insights. There is an openness and compassion in those forums that allows people to network in this way. It is a means of connection, a way of generating understanding. Bluemilk shares her experiences on her blog. I contributed – and answered with mine. While it’s in public, and you do have the right to do as you did, really, my anecdotes have little value as ‘proof’ of anything when taken so radically out of context. You’re overhearing me, and using my experiences to justify your prejudices.
    Remember, as Bluemilk says, these stories are attached to a real person, with real feelings. Your opinions on the other hand, are expressed in a vacuum. This is what you think about other people. This is how they look to you from where you are standing. It might not look quite the same if you found yourself in my position.

  6. I also responded to Bluemilk's questions, and read all the others carefully.

    I think if you look iain hall, you will see several 'lefties', including me, swooning over men who take on primary caregiver roles.

    It's not 'the left as a whole' who fail to value the work of mothers. Our Entire Culture Does. 'Value' isn't the same as 'putting on a pedestal', value in our society and economy is very much measured by what people are prepared to pay. We don't pay very many women (and even fewer men) to take leave to spend time with their children (or their elderly parents). We don't pay very much to parents who stay at home, certainly not as much as most of us can earn by going to work.

    Going out to work earns you a living, staying home means you are taking a huge punt on someone else being financially responsible for you for the rest of your life. Most of the people who take that risk in our community are women, most men don't value the good parts of staying home enough to take that risk.

    Not only did I not reliquish my feminism when I became a mother, it was re-invigorated by my partner's and my new roles as parents as we found a way to live differently from our own parents.

    And finally, supporting my lesbian or gay friends to become parents doesn't diminish or belittle my or my partner's parenting, any more than the woman across the road can belittle my role as a mother by slapping her kid. We are involved parents for our son, they would be involved, loving and responsible parents for theirs.

  7. Kate,

    You have to look at how things work overall. For instance, if society paid mothers, then the role of men as providers would be undermined, which would then remove an important motivation for men to work, which would then further delay family formation.

    It's the same with gay marriage. If society were to accept gay marriage, then marriage could no longer be conceived as a naturally complementary union between a man and a woman.

    Marriage would have to be reconceived as a more open-ended form of relationship. In particular, there would be no logical reason to limit marriage to two persons. You would have to accept polygamy.

    Furthermore, heterosexual marriage is bound up with family formation - with procreation. Heterosexual men in particular wish to ensure paternity, and therefore there is a strong reason to emphasise exclusivity within heterosexual marriage.

    This is less true of gay relationships. Two men don't have any reason connected to procreation for exclusivity. Therefore acceptance of gay partnerships as "marriage" is likely to erode the connection between marriage and exclusivity.

    Third, if marriage is extended to gay relationships, so that society officially sanctions, say, two lesbian women bringing up children together, then the logical implication is that children don't need both a father and a mother.

    If this is true, then a father can much more comfortably walk out on his children. After all, society has already declared that a child doesn't really need a father.

    You can't give up on heterosexual norms without doing damage to traditionally heterosexual institutions. You will find that heterosexual marriage will become less stable, less exclusive and less monogamous.

  8. Rose is funny :-)

    Questioning feminist-left ideology and its consequences on society is just heresy, taboo, untouchable! We simply mustn’t!

    As if we on the traditionalist right would ever get the same considerations Blue Milk asks we take when our life experiences are discussed by others.

    Really, we could generate the world's electricity on the feminist-left's fury at being deconstructed.


  9. I understand why Rose feels offended. It is clear that she has accomplished a lot in her situation. One thing which ought to be said clearly here, which hasn't been said, is that it was wrong for her husband to leave her, and society ought to enforce that with much more condemnation than it does. Because it does put women in a pretty helpless situation to stay home for years with small children. You can't expect them to take the risk of doing that if they are at great risk of being left stranded with no marketable skills or work history. I think we do have a right to speak scornfully both of her ex-husband and of the father of her third child, who ought immediately to have married her when she was pregnant with his child. It is better that he hasn't just disappeared, but it isn't enough. What she calls our conservative paradise, or perhaps dreamworld, absolutely does depend on men fulfilling their responsibilities. Otherwise women have to do what they can, work and use daycare, even if they would rather not leave their small children. So this discussion can't be only about women's attitudes. It also has to be about men's attitudes.
    Susan Peterson