Art Annex: Exhibition & Education Center

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Reflections on Introduction to Mother Studies Course – by Zairunisha Jnu

Zairunisha photoAbout a month ago, I posted my reflections on the summer intensive course taught through the Museum of Motherhood. I invited my comrade, Zairunisha Jnu, to do the same and offer her impressions from Introduction to Mother Studies.  Zairunisha is a PhD. candidate in the Centre for Philosophy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.  She is presently working on her research project entitled ” Rhetorics of Choice and Coercion on Motherhood: Revisiting Bioethical Debates from Feminists Perspectives.”

Here is what she said:

I am a student of philosophy and my research area focuses on issues in the field of bioethics with special reference to the impact of new reproductive technologies on motherhood.  During my studies on my research project, I hadn’t studied motherhood in such a broader perspective before doing the Mother Studies course offered by the Museum of Motherhood. The Introduction to Mother Studies course provided a panoptic platform for mothers, students, scholars, professional, etc. where the participants are encouraged and motivated to critically examine, analyse, and correlate problems faced by mothers in their day to day lives from various perspectives, especially from a sociological lens within historical, economic, political and sociological frameworks. Also sometimes we were asked to try to find out solutions to the problems and challenges.  

For me this course was very enlightening in the field of motherhood. I have a knowledge of mother-related problems, issues not only from an American perspective, but an Indian perspective too. Different tools and methods of teaching for instance video lectures, mind blowing movies, news reports, reading materials, writing assignments (hardest part of the course 🙂 etc. made a great combination of practical and theoretical knowledge which encouraged and forced me to rethink about the situation of mothers in the society and question on the pre-established image of women and the role they perform in the family.

As I mentioned above that I am a philosophy student, just familiar with the name of some feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Sara Ruddick, Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Katz Rothman and a few others. I have come to learn more about their work and contributions through the Mother Studies course importantly on mother, mothering and motherhood.

In the book Of Women Born, the issues of sexuality, childbirth, child care, and women’s health, Adrienne Rich questions and critiques male-centric cultures and practices. The articleUndivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice” by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried and others, focuses on women’s awareness in the field of reproductive rights and gender inequality. Additionally, Barbara Katz Rothman’s book, Recreating Motherhood shows the perpetuating condition and coercion over ignorant women still continuing in modern technological time and world. It is so hard for competent women to save themselves from the milieu of the society and perform their choices as a free being where mothering is always considered a personal activity and unconsciously become political matter. The crude reality is, only society will decide about you, being a woman  how threatening it is! Nevertheless in this scenario, Mother Studies offers a positive approach and hope for action.  

In this manner, I agree with Jenny’s view that the emerging Mother Studies course is a revolutionary step in the way of making the personal political and academic. It was such a wonderful and unique experience for me working together throughout the coursework with our teacher and classmate/friend. I am keenly looking forward to the possibility of a workshop regarding Mother Studies where we can meet again and explore more prospects and opportunities for our Mother Studies work.   

Written by: Zairunisha Jnu
Arranged by: Jenny Nigro, MoM Online Intern

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On My Experience of Motherhood Studies

PatriciaHillCollinsYou may have seen some of my blog posts over the last several weeks that came from the response papers I wrote for the Introduction to Mother Studies course offered through the museum. With a capstone paper using research on current topics related to reproductive technology, the class culminated three weeks ago last Sunday afternoon. I promised myself that I would not begin watching the newest season of Orange is the New Black until the course finished, and I have since been relishing these moments of TV consumption.

Other than satisfying my Netflix addiction, I have been able to reflect back on the course since finishing it. I was a Sociology major in college but took a lot of classes in the Women’s Studies department. Adrienne Rich and Patricia Hill Collins contributed foundational texts to our study in Introduction to Mother Studies. The names and works of these scholars were familiar to me from undergrad. However, studying them in the context of Introduction to Mother Studies, I began to see them in a new light…as mothers. Because of the strength of their words and power of their knowledge, I had always identified them as feminist first, whatever else second. But in a movement where “the personal is political” has been a rallying cry, perhaps for them, they would see themselves as mother/sister/self first, feminist second.

In “Beyond Mothers and Fathers,” Barbara Katz Rothman, a pioneer to the movement, said: “Mothering is an activity, a project…[M]otherhood…is not just a physical or emotional relationship – it is also an intellectual activity.” Scholars and writers have known this and have been doing Mother Studies work for a long time. Whether we have seen it as such or not, the personal has always been political. When women gave birth in their homes attended by practiced midwives, and then again when slander campaigns saw the shift to in-hospital births, Mother Studies was in action. When white middle-class housewives’ alienation derived from raising children in suburban America gave way to the rise of second-wave feminism, Mother Studies was in action. When the eugenics movement created a legacy of racist and anti-poverty sterilization policies, Mother Studies was in action. When images of the super-mom were contrasted with social commentary on the decline of the American family, Mother Studies was in action. When feminists came to the defense of Mary Beth Whitehead, a surrogate who refused to give up her baby, questioning what makes a mother, Mother Studies was in action. We are not recreating the wheel. Our Introduction to Mother Studies is the first time that we are calling it such and the first time we are carving out a space for it as a legitimate discipline. We are making the personal political…and academic.

Find out more about classes in Mother Studies online here.

By: Jenny Nigro, MoM Online Intern

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Mother Studies Summer Accelerated Class: A Student’s Reflections

As posted on the website, we are underway with the seven-week intensive course offered through the museum, “Introduction to Mother Studies.” The course explores key questions related to motherhood, feminism, and the family – issues that the museum seeks to bring awareness to as an institution of thought. We are happy to share a glimpse into week one of the course, which has delved into the rich foundational text, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich, as well as a quick introduction to Sociology and a couple of short films about birth.

In Of Woman Born, Rich gives an in-depth historical, social, and economic context to motherhood.

Patriarchy would seem to require, not only that women shall assume the major burden of pain and self-denial for the furtherance of the species, but that a majority of the species – women – shall remain essentially unquestioning and unenlightened. On this “underemployment” of female consciousness depend the morality and the emotional life of the human family. Like his predecessors of fifty and a hundred and more years ago, [theorist] Hampshire sees society as threatened when women begin to choose the terms of their lives. Patriarchy could not survive without motherhood and heterosexuality in their institutional forms; therefore, they have to be treated as axioms, as “nature” itself, not open to question except where, from time to time, and place to place, “alternative life-styles” for certain individuals are tolerated (Rich 1986).

Below is a response paper to the reading/viewing assignments from week.

“Repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers” (Rich 1986). Though succinct, Rich has loaded this quote with key points of her thesis in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Embedded in it is Rich’s plea for women to reclaim consciousness and agency over their bodies, with special respect given to the institution of motherhood. The reference to Marx is intentional, as theory has pointed at capitalism as the root cause of the domestication of motherhood. However, as has been the primary feminist complaint of the father of socialism, Marx has overwhelmingly failed to account for gender in his observations of the proletariat – and this applies in the family, too. Though perhaps the reason for women’s reign over the domestic sphere, the subversion of women’s bodies occurs much deeper than in economics and cannot seek absolution from economics, as Engels would suggest. In Of Woman Born Rich maps the subjugation of women by the patriarchy and shows how this has extended to motherhood and the family.

If we understand sociology to be “the scientific study of human society – its institutions and people’s social behavior”, then borrowing Rich’s wisdom we will most certainly see patriarchal influences at work within medical institutions. The more egregious manifestations of this, of course, are in birthing practices that treat labor as an ailment in Western cultures, which she explores in the chapter, Alienated Labor (again, a nod to Marx). However, the less insidious assertions of male dominance in the medical field (but perhaps the most devastating) are in medical language itself. Anthropologist Emily Martin has devoted several publications to analyzing the use of masculine language when framing processes within human sexual reproduction. In the short medical video, Fertilization,” we hear phrases describing the life-cycle of the sperm as “a perilous journey against incredible odds,” “strength,” and “swimming harder and faster” amid a backdrop of language that describes the female reproductive system as an “acidic environment” (Nucleus Medical Media 2013). Presumably, Rich would attribute this what she sees as men’s fear of women’s ability to bear new life and of “her apparent power to affect the male genitals.” So of course, in a routine video describing the fertilization of an egg, the women’s system would a hostile, acidic environment designed to hinder the powerful sperm facing incredible odds.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Rich says that with this intrinsic fear of women’s bodies came men’s decided action to shackle the divine worship of women’s power. Women’s bodies, once revered and worshipped as an aspect of the hunt – a matter of survival for Neolithic cultures – were later looked at as forces to be controlled. However, where Rich’s argument falls short for me is in its ability to situate the rise of patriarchal dominance across all the diverse cultures she mentions. In one instance, she talks about the devaluing of goddesses in ancient Greece and credits another theorist’s explanation for this:

He theorizes that this fear of maternal woman derived from the sexual politics of fifth-century Greece, where women were ill-educated, were sold into marriage, and had no role except as producers of children, the sexual interest of men was homoerotic, and for intellectual friendships a man sought out hetaeras…or other men. He assumes the mother to have been filled with resentment and envy of her sons, and in frustration, excessively controlling of her male children in their earliest years. Her feelings would have been experienced by her sons as a potentially destructive hostility which is later embodied in mythology and classical drama.

This is one theory of the social climate in ancient Greece that caused the transformation of goddesses’ role in mythology. But what, exactly, brought about the patriarchal awakening across other cultures, in the same time period?

It would seem that if repossessing our bodies would do more to boost women’s power than the overthrow of capitalism, we should know how to dismantle the very patriarchal notions that have caused it subdominance in the first place.