6 minute read

Motherhood and Maternity

Feminist Critiques

Debates over motherhood have been fundamental to feminist movements, whether in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, India, or China. In this context, the issues for feminism are numerous. Some of these are analyzed in a historical context below, with references to how literary representations use tropes of motherhood that reinforce patriarchies of race and gender. Finally, contemporary debates on issues such as abortion, the use of reproductive technologies, surrogate motherhood, and single mothers are examined.

Broadly speaking, critiques of motherhood argue that femininity is widely defined in essentialist terms that assume that women have instincts that make them selfless nurturers. Such assumptions, in turn, shape social practices that make women automatically responsible as caregivers. Feminist theorists argue that such myths, constructed by the patriarchy, undergird social practices that eventually restrict women. Although contemporary feminisms have widely vocalized these issues, it is important to recognize that the first formulations on this issue predate twenty-first-century feminism.

The French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) argued that women are repeatedly told from infancy that they are "made" for childbearing. While the "splendors of maternity" are forever being sung to her, the drawbacks of her situation—menstruation, illnesses, and even the boredom of household drudgery—are all justified by this "marvelous privilege" she has of bringing children into the world. Beauvoir pointed out that such pervasive socialization shapes women's desire to "choose" motherhood.

The second-wave feminist movement in the United States (after the 1960s) brought these interrogations to center stage. Feminists argued that throughout human history, maternal experience has been defined and written by patriarchal culture. Religion, art, medicine, psychoanalysis, and other bastions of male power have objectified motherhood, have disregarded female subjectivity, and have silenced the voice of the mother. Feminist activists insisted on middle-class women's right to work and participate in public life beyond the family (working class and poor women had been working all along, while also raising their families), and, along with this, that mothering was not essential to women's fulfillment or necessary to every woman's life.

Feminists in the United Kingdom, North America, and Europe began to challenge the overemphasis on fertility, insisting that the link between childbearing and childrearing is socially manipulative and serves to exclude women from other productive roles. Feminist theorists debunked the social pressures of a mothering role that seeks to control women's bodies and energy. They argued that such notions limit women's possibilities to the domestic sphere and restrict their entry into the public domain, thus vitally feeding into patriarchal agendas.

Although the second-wave feminists vocalized the issue of fertility more aggressively than before, it is important to remember that the earliest efforts in this direction were made in the 1920s through activism of the suffragists and women like Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), who founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. Sanger's movement made an impact in North America, Britain, and India, and forcefully argued for "planned parenthood" as essential to ensure women's participation in the public domain. Since the work of the second-wave feminists, fertility has remained a crucial part of the feminist agenda.

Literary criticism.

Since the 1970s, feminist critics have generated a prolific body of literary criticism that demands an inquiry into the nature of the maternal instinct and the psychology of the mother-child relationship. This task is common to feminism in the West and the widely different cultures of Japan and India. In the 1970s, Japanese feminist critiques began to assert that bosei (innate maternal instinct) was a social construct. They sought to demonstrate that modern Japanese conceptions of womanhood as motherhood, of motherhood as something natural and instinctive to women, were artifacts of contemporary society whose construction could be historically interrogated. Contemporary Japanese fiction such as Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (1983), about a woman struggling between the reality of motherhood and the expectations of society influenced by an idealized good mother paradigm, presents a stinging critique of rigid and constraining constructions of motherhood.

Along a related trajectory, the work of Marianne Hirsch from the late 1980s captures the spirit of Western feminists' preoccupation with the literature of matrilineage in conjunction with an ongoing feminist pursuit of retrieving maternal subjectivity. The literary representations of mother-daughter voices in contemporary matrilineal narratives open up a new chapter in the feminist project of repositioning mothers as individuals and as subjects. This repositioning sheds new light in the study of relationality in the field of feminist maternal scholarship.

Feminist scholarship from Latin America has critiqued the implications of local mythologies and motherhood discourses for Latina women. A feminist analysis of the La Malinche/Virgin of Guadalupe dichotomy reveals that the Virgin (symbolizing passivity, tenderness, and self-sacrifice) is central to the construction of femininity in Latin American cultures because she embodies virtues convenient for the patriarchal order. La Malinche—the sexualized, headstrong woman who freely chose her destiny—is dangerous to the patriarchal order and is presented as hateful. Women thus feel compelled to emulate the Virgin, a less threatening figure. In effect, the Virgin image serves to suppress the threatening or deviant femininity embodied La Malinche—regarded as the Mexican Eve. The Virgin becomes the embodiment of Mexican motherhood, while La Malinche's depraved sexuality becomes a reason to justify the oppression of women.

Motherhood and race.

Feminism and the self-reflexive questionings within the women's movement in North America also drew attention to the fact that notions of motherhood are racially specific and conditioned by prevailing social hierarchies. For instance, in North America from the Reconstruction through the Progressive Era, African-American and white women were encouraged to view motherhood as a national racial imperative. The mother-nation symbolism was anchored in a patriotic discourse. Literary representations depict a conflated mother-nation as a protector who also needs protection by her children/citizens, who must ensure the mother-nation's perpetuation by reproducing her progeny. Novels of sexual awakening by Kate Chopin (1851–1904) and Edith Wharton (1862–1937) depict motherhood as personally limiting but racially necessary. Women writers and activists responded to this imperative by using diverse strategies that reflected the broader public debates about race, reproduction, and female agency.

In the American context, it has also been argued that early-twentieth-century depictions of motherhood for African-American women sought to depict mothers as active agents rather than passive instruments of reproduction. However, the narratives also revealed that women's agency as mothers comes at a price and was continually constrained by fixed gender roles and social expectations. The brutalizing effects of slavery marred the joys of black motherhood, as did complications of biracial identity (Berg). Such fictional and nonliterary texts also reflected the early twentieth-century debates over birth control, feminism, and eugenics in the United States, using motherhood and race as key tropes for discussions of social progress and decline. These texts also established that even notions of universal motherhood that fostered cross-racial conversations reinforced social and racial hierarchies.

Feminist critiques from South Africa point out how nationalist and patriarchal causes have appropriated the African-woman-as-mother. This figure has been used to extol the ostensibly unique qualities of nurturance, protectiveness, and altruism of African women, qualities that are often believed to make them morally and culturally superior to Western women. Celebrated in much of the nationalist poetry and prose during the 1950s and 1960s, the African mother recurs in a range of present-day discourses in public and domestic life.

From another context, ethnographic research from Asia and the Pacific shows that maternal experiences vary greatly depending upon historical time and local discourses. For instance, motherhood as embodied experience for women in colonized societies was shaped by colonial policies, missionary influence, and conflicts between Western medicine and biomedical birthing methods. All these shaped the experience of modern mothering in many colonial societies (Ram).

Feminist theorists and writers challenge valorizations of motherhood fostered by conservative patriarchies. However, it is important to emphasize that feminists do not reject maternity or devalue the woman-centered experience of birthing and mothering. Their project is to interrogate the myths and assumptions that impose oppressive role expectations and erase the reality of maternal experience. Feminist voices seek to liberate motherhood from the institution and the myth that confine it to the narrow playing field of the conventional family, leaving no space for women to choose alternative identities.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motherhood and Maternity - History, Religion, And Myth, Feminist Critiques, Motherhood And Development Discourses, Contentious Debates