|Professor Ellen Lewin|
Anyway, I did a little search on Dr Lewin. It turns out that she is a very orthodox liberal. She has written a book titled Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture. The basic argument she runs in the book is that divorced single mothers and lesbian mothers have something significant in common: by raising children without husbands they both have achieved the good of motherhood without a loss of autonomy through dependency on men.
The message is that divorce can be good for heterosexual women because it liberates women to be autonomous.
I have to say that there's a contradiction in Professor Lewin's argument, but I'll get to that a little later.
It's interesting to see how liberal autonomy theory plays out in Professor Lewin's book. For instance, she argues that there is a difference between being a good mother in a marriage and in a divorce. Being a good mother in a marriage is not so good because it is merely a "natural attribute" (not something self-determined). But if a mother gets custody in the courts, that is a "self-conscious achievement" and "evidence of skill" in "protecting the integrity" of her family:
Mothers who face actual or potential custody challenges use strategies of appeasement, support, and autonomy in the course of protecting the integrity of their families. The claim to being a "good mother," a key element of feminine gender identity in American culture, is transformed from a natural attribute into the product of self-conscious achievement...
In this situation a competent mother is one who accedes to enough of her husband's demands to discourage a custody challenge but not so much that her concessions can be turned against her. Being a "good mother" is thus transformed from a state of being, a natural attribute, into evidence of skill, rewarded by the father's failure to gain custody or, better yet, by his failure to pursue it at all. [pp.177-178]
As for divorce being a step up for women, this is how Professor Lewin puts it:
These convergences between lesbian mothers' coming-out stories and the divorce stories of both lesbians and heterosexual mothers point to a telling contradiction in American culture. Marriage is seen as a special kind of success for women, but it also imposes a loss of autonomy and personhood that threatens to compromise the individual's quest for accomplishment and individuality. As observers of American culture have noted since Alexis de Tocqueville described his impressions in the mid-nineteenth century, individuality and the related concept of privacy are such core dimensions of American culture that conditions or behavior that might be interpreted as dependency seem questionable if not shameful...
... Both coming out and divorce shift women's status downward in the eyes of the society as a whole, yet the women who experience them view them in many respects as steps up. At the core of both coming-out and divorce stories is the theme of increasing autonomy and competence, and both kinds of accounts tend to focus on discovery of one's "true" self. In these respects, as Kath Weston has observed, they constitute odysseys of self-discovery; at the same time, they demonstrate a concern with achieving adulthood and autonomy which is a particular consequence of the infantilization that both marriage and heterosexuality can impose on women. [pp.43, 45]
The logic of the argument is that in a marriage women are dependent on a man, that this makes married heterosexual women infantile, so that divorce and/or lesbianism represent a step forward toward an adult, autonomous life.
The fact that the conclusion is so odd, that it suggests that being a lesbian or a divorced woman is more adult than being a married mother, should suggest to us that there is something wrong with the premises of the argument.
My own view is that the mistake is to think of autonomy as a single, overriding good. In practice, we don't do this. We marry despite the fact that we thereby limit our autonomy, because there are other important goods associated with marriage, including those of marital love and parenthood.
As it happens, Professor Lewin finds it difficult to maintain the consistency of her argument. She argues for divorce and lesbianism in terms of autonomy, but when it comes to justifying motherhood she is at a loss – becoming a mother does not increase a woman's autonomy, so it has to be justified on other grounds, but these same grounds could then just as easily justify a commitment to heterosexual marriage:
Lesbians who are not mothers share with other childless women a feeling of distance not only from the kinds of things "ordinary" women do but from the special relationship to the spiritual world women can derive from their connection to children. By becoming a mother, a woman can experience a moment of transcendent unity with mystical forces; by being a mother, she makes continuing contact with her inner goodness, a goodness that is activated by altruism and nurtured by participation in a child's growth and development.
By becoming a mother, a lesbian can negotiate the formation of herself: she can bring something good into her life without having to sacrifice autonomy or control. Thus the intentional single mother (whether she is lesbian or heterosexual) can achieve a central personal goal – the goodness that comes from putting the needs of a dependent being first. By becoming a mother through her own agency, she avoids the central paradox that motherhood represents to married women – a loss of autonomy and therefore of basic personhood in a culture that valorizes individualism and autonomy. Like ending a marriage, having a baby on her own allows a woman to meet her basic personal goals, and she may see it as a critical part of establishing a satisfying identity in a culture that often blocks women's efforts to be separate individuals. [p.73]
She is running with two very different sets of principles here. When it comes to motherhood, what matters to her is not autonomy but feeling connected and the good of altruistic care for another. The very close, dependent relationship of mother and child is seen as a good. But when it comes to heterosexual marriage, personhood is defined solely in terms of being a separate, autonomous individual.
She could just as easily have defined the good of marriage in the way she defined the good of motherhood: in terms of the closeness of the relationship, of finding inner goodness in the giving of oneself altruistically to one's spouse, of the spiritual fulfilment of marital love, and of the completion of a feminine identity in being a wife.
I'll finish with one more inconsistency in Professor Lewin's position. She justifies motherhood in terms of participating in a child's growth and development. But what if that child is a boy? What is that boy growing and developing toward?
If Professor Lewin had her way, that boy would not have much of a future role in society. He would grow up in a society in which women aimed either at intentional single motherhood or else at divorce as a pathway to autonomy, adulthood and self-discovery.
It's not much for a boy to grow and develop toward. So what would be the point of a woman committing herself to participating in his development? What mothers need to justify their role are young women in society who are willing to make a life together with their sons. Professor Lewin doesn't like the idea of this life together and so is no true friend of motherhood.