Elevate Difference

Motherhood and Feminism

I doubt any role is more judged than mother. Add sexuality, class, and race into the equation and, for some of us, we will never be a "good" mother. But what are we really comparing ourselves to?

We are trying to live up to a myth. A myth of Biblical proportions that has been around for less than sixty years. Stephanie Koontz’s The Way We Never Were does an excellent job at debunking the myth of a Leave It to Beaver family and letting Donna Reed be our benchmark. Amber E. Kinser picks up that conversation and runs with it.

In Motherhood and Feminism Kinser outlines the evolution, both natural and government imposed, of the role of motherhood in American society. At the same time she is tracking the evolution of the feminist movement in the United States. Sometimes both areas collide; other times they complement each other. And that is what is fascinating about this book: how easily motherhood and the role of women in families can be shifted by outside economic pressures and government propaganda, as well as how the feminist movement often takes its cues from how motherhood is framed.

During the first wave of feminism, it was obvious that many of the women who were engaged in the fight for suffrage took a look at themselves and said, “Hey, women need the vote so we can be better citizens for our children and because women are just better people than men.” The theory that infusing women into politics would clean it up remains with us today. The fact that women could not ask for their own rights for their own sake, but rather used their children as the reason why they shouldn’t be left penniless after her husband dies, also remains with us. Consider how many mothers' organizations fight for rights on behalf of children rather than for women themselves.

In many ways the fight for women’s rights has and continues to be fought in the home. The so-called Mommy Wars are a proxy for where a woman should be in society and not about the well-being of children. It is also a proxy for who is worthy of support. (How dare that woman take government money to stay home with her children when my husband works hard and I budget so I can be home?) The backlash against mom bloggers earning money, directly or indirectly through free samples, is yet another battle over where a woman’s priorities should be: her career or her children.

Kinser makes the point over and over again that not all mothers movements are feminist, nor do they want to be. It is honestly easier to get a thousand women to rally for children’s health care than to rally for their own health care that includes access to full reproductive health services. And that’s where the gruff lives.

I've talked with feminists who wished that mothers organizations would just claim the damn label, but I get it. And yes, it usually falls to the abortion question. Kinser has one of the best rationales on why feminism must include a pro-choice stance—no ifs, ands, or buts. She also does a good job at tackling moms of color, queer moms, and low-income moms. This is not a history of white middle class feminist motherhood, although she correctly states that much of mainstream feminism and motherhood expectations are modeled on white middle class norms, and then she rips it apart.

Motherhood and Feminism is well written and documents a shared history that many moms and feminists often forget or aren't even aware of. Without moms, we wouldn't have won the right to vote. Without feminism, moms wouldn't have the rights they have today. We're like peanut butter and chocolate—and some us are peanut butter cups.

Cross-posted from Viva La Feminista

Written by: Veronica I. Arreola, May 28th 2010

This sounds like one of those books you just can't put down and are telling your friends all about. I'm going to buy it. However, when will all these feminist mothers' rights books morph into a powerful movement that nobody can ignore, a movement that will get things done?

I know several activists will say that there is already a mothers' movement, but I don't see it getting traction. Indeed, if the mothers' movement had real momentum, Michelle Obama would have lived up to her promise to take on the work-family balance. And she and Barack would have called it work-family policy and mothers' rights.