“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud- puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Over the last forty years, as feminist theory and women’s studies have grown and developed as a scholarly field, they have incorporated various and diverse theoretical models to represent the specific perspectives/concerns of particular groups of women; global feminism, queer feminism, third wave feminism and womanism. In contrast, I will argue that women’s studies has not likewise recognized or embraced a feminism developed from the specific needs/concerns of mothers, what I have termed matricentric feminism. The paper will consider possible reasons for the exclusion of matricentric feminism in feminist theory and why this school of feminism must be accorded the same legitimacy and autonomy as other feminist theoretical models in the discipline of women’s studies.
The title of this paper paraphrases two central and significant quotes from Feminist Theory. One from Sojourner Truth’s speech at an abolitionist meeting:
And the 2nd from Virginia Woolf, drawn from her book A Room of One’s Own (1929): “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
For me, these quotes serve to appropriately situate and frame what I will be arguing in this talk, and what has been a passionate concern of mine over the past 3 decades as I have sought to do feminism as a mother and do motherhood as a feminist: namely that we need a feminism –in both theory and practice– specifically for mothers. In this paper, when I use the term ‘mothers’ I refer to individuals who engage in motherwork, or as Ruddick theorized: “maternal practice”.
Such a term is not limited to biological mothers, but to anyone who takes upon the work of mothering as a central part of her or his life. This paper will argue that as feminist theory and women’s studies have grown and developed as a scholarly field, it has incorporated various and diverse theoretical models to represent the specific perspectives and concerns of particular groups of women; global feminism, queer feminism, third wave feminism, and womanism. In contrast, as I will go on to argue, feminist theory and women’s studies more generally have not likewise recognized or embraced a feminism developed from the specific needs or concerns of mothers, what I have termed ‘matricentric feminism’. The paper will consider possible reasons for the exclusion of matricentric feminism in feminist theory and demand this school of feminism must be accorded the same legitimacy and autonomy as other feminist theoretical models in the discipline of women’s studies.
This is not to suggest that a matricentric feminism should replace traditional feminist thought; rather, it is to remind and emphasize that the category of mother is distinct from the category of woman, and that many of the problems mothers face—socially, economically, politically, culturally, psychologically and so forth—are specific to women’s role and identity as mothers. Indeed, mothers are oppressed under patriarchy as women and as mothers. Consequently, mothers need a mother- centred or matricentric mode of feminism organized from and for their particular identity and work as mothers. I would argue further that a mother-centred feminism is urgently needed and long overdue because mothers, arguably more so than women in general, remain disempowered despite forty years of feminism.
However, as mother scholars and activists have been engaged in matricentric feminism for two plus decades (the former in creation of a canon of Maternal Theory and the latter through the formation of a Motherhood Movement), the work of such matricentric feminism (in both theory and practice) has not been, I argue, recognized by or incorporated into mainstream feminist thought. This paper will attempt to answer why this specific “identity based” theory and practice of feminism, i.e. matricentric feminism, still remains marginal to Feminist Theory and Women’s Studies more generally.
The demand for a theory or practice based on a specific identity of women is hardly an innovative or radical claim. Over the last 40 plus years many groups of women have argued that mainstream feminism –largely understood to be Liberal Feminism—has not adequately represented their perspectives or needs. I think particularly of women of colour and their call for feminism that understood the intersectionality of their oppression as racialized women: a feminism now known as Womanism, or women from the global south and the development of a theory of global feminism, or queer/lesbian/bi/trans women and their call for queer feminist theory and activism. Likewise, the development of 3rd wave feminism in the 90s grew out of young women’s sense of alienation from the aims of 2nd wave feminism.
When such women demanded a feminist theory of their own, the larger feminist movement acknowledged, albeit often reluctantly, that such women had been excluded from the larger canon of feminist thought and feminist theory was revised accordingly to include these different positions and perspectives within feminism. Most introductions to feminist theory textbooks now include chapters on socialist feminism, global feminism, queer feminism, 3rd wave feminism, and womanism.
However, over the last decade, as mothers began to call for feminism for mothers, such, I would argue, was not met with the same respect or recognition. More often than not the claim was dismissed, trivialized, disparaged, and ridiculed: why would mothers need such (implying I assume that mothers do not have needs or concerns separate from their larger identity of women). It troubles me deeply that feminists are able to understand the intersectionality of gendered oppression when it comes to race, class, sexuality, and geographical location but not so for maternity. But I would argue, and I suspect most mothers would agree, that maternity needs to be likewise included in, and understood in terms of, theories of intersectionality. Mothers do not live simply as women, but as mother women — just as black females do not live simply as women but as racialized women– and mothers’ oppression and resistance under patriarchy is shaped by their maternal identity just as a black woman is by her racialized identity.
For me this seems self- evident; why then is maternity not understood to be a subject position and hence not theorized as we do with other subject positions, in terms of the intersectionality of gendered oppression and resistance? Is it because maternity is seen to be less significant in determining our lives as women, that it doesn’t count somehow, simply doesn’t matter; that somehow as mothers we can see ourselves, and live our lives outside of our maternal selves? Non-racialized women understand that race and gender cannot be separated out; that black women’s sense of who they are is simultaneously racialized and gendered. Why then can non-mothers not recognize the same for mothers?
Andrea O’Reilly, PhD, is Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University and is founder and director of The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative and founder and editor of Demeter Press, the first feminist press on motherhood. She is editor and author of 20 books on motherhood including most recently 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency (2010) The 21st Century Motherhood Movement: Mothers speak out on why we need to change the world and how to do it (2011); Academic Motherhood in a Post Second Wave Context: Challenges, Strategies, Possibilities with Lynn O’Brien-Hallstein (2012); and What do Mothers Need: Motherhood Activists and Scholars Speak out Maternal Empowerment for the 21st Century(2012). She is editor of the first encyclopedia on Motherhood (2010). In 2010 she was the recipient of the CAUT Sarah Shorten Award for outstanding achievements in the promotion of the advancement of women in Canadian universities and colleges. She is twice the recipient (1998, 2009) of York University’s “Professor of the Year Award” for teaching excellence. She is the proud mama of three fabulous and feminist adult children. Andrea O’Reilly, firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea O’Reilly’s Demeter titles
Rocking the Cradle: Thoughts on Motherhood, Feminism and the Possibility of Empowered Mothering, 2006
Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, 2007
Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice, 2009
The 21st Century Motherhood Movement: Mothers Speak Out on Why We Need to Change the World and How to do it, 2011
Academic Motherhood in a Post-Second Wave Context: Challenges, Strategies and Possibilities, 2012
What do Mothers Need? Motherhood Activists and Scholars Speak out on Maternal Empowerment for the 21st Century, 2012
Mothers, Mothering and Motherhood Across Cultural Differences: A Reader (forthcoming, May 2014)