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.