(Another instalment of my booklet, hence the length)
What liberalism asks men to accept is that they are to be liberated from being fathers – at least fathers with a distinctly paternal role.
This explains the attitude of Sara Maitland who associates fatherhood negatively with authority. She has confessed her desire to,
...cast out the Father in my head who rules and controls me ...This frightens me; I want to protect my father and my love for him. I do not want to kill him, to see him dead. I want to set the man free from having to be a father.
That is an anti-paternal understanding of what freedom means. It is freedom from fatherhood, rather than freedom to be fathers.
You might think that motherhood would fare better. After all, the new unisex parental role is drawn from the traditional motherhood role.
But unfortunately there is a logic to liberalism by which motherhood is also reduced in status.
In part this is simply because the maternal role, just like the paternal one, is based on something predetermined rather than self-determined, namely our sex. Therefore, there are liberals like Alison Croggon who view the maternal role negatively as a restriction on the individual:
the role - rather than the task - of motherhood is an iron cage
There are liberals too who dislike the connection between motherhood and a woman’s biology.
After all, the liberal theory is that we become human through self-defining or self-determining acts.
But motherhood is something common to all females, human and non-human, as a matter of inherited biology. So it is dismissed harshly by many liberals as a mere “biological destiny”.
Motherhood also offends some liberals because it leaves women relatively dependent on others for support; rather than enhancing a woman’s autonomy it tends to reduce it.
Here is Kate Millett putting the full-blown liberal view:
In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience. Therefore, nearly all that can be described as distinctly human rather than animal activity (in their own way animals also give birth and care for their young) is largely reserved for the male.
If you really believed the theory, you would not want as a woman to prioritise motherhood. It loses its place at the centre of life and becomes instead a limiting and non-human activity.
What are women expected to prioritise instead? There is a simple answer: careers. Careers fit in better with autonomy theory because they can be individually chosen (i.e. they can be thought of as a uniquely chosen life path in contrast to the predetermined role of motherhood) and because they are thought to leave women less financially dependent on men.
Fiona Stewart gave voice to such liberal attitudes in 2004 when a baby bonus was introduced in Australia. She was concerned that some young women might not prioritise education and careers over motherhood:
Everyone in the youth sector was - and still is - committed to encouraging girls to see motherhood as one of many choices. To move away from the historical model of "the baby maketh the woman"...This strategy of encouraging choice over biological destiny was aimed particularly at girls from non-English-speaking backgrounds... If we have to pay women to have children...it should be done in a way that ensures that education and career still come first.
And there’s this from American professor Laura Kipnis:
For the first time in history, women are relatively free from traditional fetters. No longer is womanhood synonymous with motherhood...
...with more control over maternity, record numbers of women are now participating in the workforce, meaning that womanhood is no longer synonymous with dependency. In fact, women can now be entirely free from men should they so choose.
The language used here is typical of liberalism: motherhood is thought of as closing off choice and therefore as being a “fetter.” And it is associated negatively with dependency. What is thought to matter to women is not the freedom to marry well and have children but the freedom to live apart from men.
Australian newspaper columnist Alan Howe is another liberal who belittles motherhood as being a preordained role:
It used to be that your early 20s were an ideal time to have children. Newly married and generally expected to do little more than care for little nappy-clad economic stimulation packages, women's lives were often predetermined events.
But as educated, ambitious waves of women entered the workforce...things changed
Mothers “do little more” than care for babies complains Alan Howe. He does not, as a liberal, accord motherhood a high status.
Kasey Edwards is a Melbourne woman who was brought up to be career ambitious. She rose high in the corporate world but at age 30 ditched her career because she felt the corporate drudgery to be unfulfilling. What was she to do instead? She felt the urge to have children but resisted it on these grounds:
I'm prepared to accept that having kids could be one answer to being thirty-something and over it, but I don't want to accept that it is the answer. It seems so stiflingly predetermined to think that it doesn't matter who we are or what we have done with our lives up until now, we all have to breed in the end.
Motherhood has lost prestige in her eyes because it is not a uniquely self-created life path.
Here is a more radical interpretation of autonomy theory by an American feminist blogger:
Women, however, particularly women with children, don’t have access to the full menu of choices. In our culture “motherhood” is a kind of prison...
As for freedom from biology... there can be little argument against the notion that females bear a disproportionate burden, biology-wise...That women have to do the pregnancy is not a “cultural construct.” What Firestone and others have postulated is that until women are liberated from this burden, their personal autonomy will always be compromised...by the actual physiological process of hosting a parasite for nine months.
If the point of life really is to maximise autonomy then it makes sense to treat motherhood negatively as a limitation (a “prison” is the term used above) and pregnancy as a biological burden from which women are to be liberated.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, took this negative view of motherhood. She once justified her childlessness on the grounds that,
You’ve got better things to do with your time, unimpeded.
The seeds of this anti-maternal attitude were sown early. In 1892 Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a speech to a U.S. senate committee. She told the committee that the aim of life was the “self-dependence of every soul” and that women had a “birthright to self-sovereignty.” Woman, she declared, “as an individual...must rely on herself.”
This female autonomy was to be achieved through education and careers. And, predictably, family relationships were radically reduced in status. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described them as “incidental” to life:
...it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother, wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties...
In the introduction to a book Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited in 1881 there is a longer treatment of the same theme. She wrote of her own sex that:
Womanhood is the great fact in her life; wifehood and motherhood are but incidental relations...Custom and philosophy, in regard to woman's happiness, are alike based on the idea that her strongest social sentiment is love of children...But the love of offspring, common to all orders of women and all forms of animal life...calls out only the negative virtues that belong to apathetic classes, such as patience, endurance, self-sacrifice...
Maternal love isn’t seen as being as meaningful when you believe that independence and self-assertion are what really matter in life.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was very radically individualistic. She thought that society should be structured around “the isolation of every human soul”.
But most of us don’t share that view. Most of us do want a degree of independence, but we also want to be fulfilled in our relationships with others and we don’t care if those relationships are preordained – they still matter.
Take Lori Gottlieb. She and a friend decided “in a fit of self-empowerment” to have their children as single mothers. In doing so she went further than most women in the pursuit of a life independent of men.
But even in her case “self-empowerment” was not what she most valued. She has described a moment when she and her friend were having a picnic in a park and watching their children play:
“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist — vehemently, even — that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.
For Lori Gottlieb, being a wife and mother are not “incidental” relationships. They were once part of her dreams and longings. And yet they don’t fit in well with the ruling ideology of our society. It’s not easy for liberal intellectuals to view motherhood as promoting female autonomy and so the maternal role, just like the paternal one, has lost status in the modern West.