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Mothering and Feminism

MMO Editor Judith Stadtman Tucker reports on the 8th annual conference of the Association for Research on Mothering

When the Association for Research on Mothering was founded at York University in 1998, it was the first and only research association in the world devoted to advancing scholarship on motherhood and mothering. Now, ARM provides an essential forum for discussion and dissemination of research on motherhood and mothering through its conferences and journals.

Mothering and feminism are often considered ncompatible, and it’s not too hard to figure out why. In the early 1960s— when radical fervor was running high in the women’s liberation movement— certain vocal feminists denounced marriage and motherhood as instruments patriarchal oppression and blasted the “false consciousness” of happy homemakers who failed to perceive the personal as political. Sentiments in the Women's Liberation movement shifted rather quickly when it became obvious that revolutionary rhetoric castigating women for their cherished attachments to men and children was unlikely to foster a universal spirit of sisterhood, and feminist theorist began the critical process of separating the social and cultural construction of motherhood from the intimate relational practice of mothering. As it turned out, homemakers weren’t all that happy and the mainstream women’s movement ultimately transformed wives’ and mothers’ expectations about what constitutes fair and equal treatment at home and in the workplace. But lingering doubts remain in both popular and academic culture about what feminism has to do with mothering, and vice versa. Thanks in part to the neo-conservative political drift of the last two decades, American mothers (and fathers) may be tempted to think that life would be easier if second wave feminists never muddied the waters with their big ideas about economic independence for women. In the academy, the challenge has been to get research and scholarship on motherhood and mothering recognized as a legitimate topic of formal inquiry.

As Adrienne Rich wrote in the foreword to her influential book Of Woman Born, “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” According to a background brief from The Association for Research on Mothering, scholarship on motherhood has finally found a place in women’s studies, but “still remains, in many disciplines, on the margins of scholarly inquiry. Most maternal scholars can recall and recount an instance where their motherhood research was viewed with suspicion, if not outright dismissal.” Founded in 1998, ARM is the first feminist association devoted to advancing interdisciplinary scholarship on mothering and motherhood. The association currently has over 500 members worldwide including scholars, writers, activists, social workers, midwives, nurses, therapists, lawyers, teachers, parents, politicians, students and artists. Through its conferences and journals, ARM provides an essential forum for discussion and dissemination of research on motherhood.

“When we organized the first conference in 1997— on Mothers and Daughters— we had an amazing response to our call for papers, although we’d done very little advertising,” explains Andrea O’Reilly, PhD, Director of the Centre for Research on Mothering at York University in Toronto, Ontario. “The women who attended that first conference shared the belief that motherhood was an important topic worthy of serious scholarship. I realized that these researchers wanted a “room of their own” for motherhood studies, and many felt there was an urgent need to create a community of maternal scholars.”

When O’Reilly founded ARM, she assumed there were other academic centers for scholarship on motherhood, and that ARM would merely be the first Canadian center. “But I discovered that in 1998 there did not exist a single association devoted to the study of motherhood— not one— and that amazed me. The same thing was true when we launched the journal— internationally, it was the first and only journal devoted specifically to the topic of motherhood or that examined the maternal experience from the mother’s point of view.”

Given the overall lack of academic interest in mothering and motherhood, I asked O’Reilly if she encountered any resistance when she made the decision to promote the formal study of motherhood. “When I became a mother unexpectedly at the age of 23, I reflected back on all the courses I’d taken and realized I’d never had a single course in which motherhood was discussed in a thorough way— and this was coursework leading to a degree in Women’s Studies.” To fill the gap, O’Reilly developed a course on motherhood— the first course on motherhood and mothering in Canada, which is still taught every year. “Resistance might be too strong a word— it wasn’t even indifference, but more of a puzzlement about why we were doing this, why we felt we needed to offer a course on motherhood— it was more like, ‘who cares, don’t women already know how to do this?’ People assumed I was instructing women on how to be good mothers. They didn’t get it, or they trivialized it as a practical course. Resistance would have been more welcome— at least it could have led to a discussion about how motherhood is ignored and devalued.” O’Reilly says it’s not so much resistance or apathy that seem to undermine efforts to advance formal scholarship on mothering and motherhood so much as lack of support— “a kind of benign neglect”— from the academic community that continues to limit the resources and funding available to for maternal studies.

If the academy fails to appreciate the value of research and writing on motherhood, there is good reason to believe that a growing community of like-minded women know exactly how crucial an informed discourse on motherhood and mothering is to the process of social change. The ARM Conference on Mothering and Feminism (held in Toronto on October 22-24, 2004) provided a remarkable opportunity for over 150 scholars, writers and activists to share critical thinking on feminist mothering and the politics of motherhood. With three keynote sessions and thirty-plus panels over a three-day period, presentations covered a wide range of topics, including blogging as a form of resistance, representations of African American mothering in film, the politics of attachment parenting and the natural mothering movement, motherhood in literature and memoir, feminist critiques of advice to mothers, lesbian motherhood, mothering and third wave politics, and maternal activism past and present. Speakers came from Canada, the U.S., and Australia.

Highlights of the conference included a thoroughly entertaining but pointed presentation by Faulkner Fox (Dispatches from a Not So Perfect Life) on judgementalism among mothers and the challenge it presents to feminist community-building (Fox’s essay will soon be available on LiteraryMama.com), a thought-provoking keynote by historian Katherine Arnup on the potential of gay marriage to further complicate the social and legal challenges of lesbian parenting, an evening of selected readings by Hip Mama’s Ariel Gore, and an exploration of the paradoxical politics of the natural mothering movement by sociologist Chris Bobel. Is the natural mothering movement “viable as an effort to reform society, one family at a time, or is a simply a form of narcissistic retreat void of impact beyond the empire of the individual family?,” she inquired. Bobel’s research led her to conclude that a successful “maternal movement” will be one “that challenges, not bargains with patriarchy, one that champions motherhood without essentializing it. We need a movement that faces privilege and finds ways to make itself accessible… Until then, we hazard maternal-based movements that fail to move us forward, but simply keep us running in place.”

I especially enjoyed a commentary by Mother Shock author Andi Buchanan on the way maternal narrative and memoir are reshaping ideas about the “real” experience of motherhood in popular culture— despite an absurd lack of interest from the publishing world. “I have learned,” Buchanan remarked, “that it is assumed that mothers not only do not read books or buy books or go to bookstores for readings, they also do not write books very well.” Fortunately, as Buchanan noted, mothers “are incredibly resourceful. So mothers who do not see themselves in what they read or see on TV have begun to create their own narrative and to publish it in a place where anyone with access to a computer can find it: the internet.”

In a closing address, Andrea O’Reilly spoke about the “possibility of empowered maternity”— how might we transition from a culture that values motherhood— an institution that constrains women’s behavior for the benefit of a social order predicated on male dominion— to one that respects and supports mothering— the complex and variegated relational experience of women who mother? O’Reilly explored the potential of “outlaw mothering” to dismantle patriarchal motherhood as we know it: “An outlaw mother does not necessarily have authority, agency, autonomy, authenticity, but she recognizes that she is entitled to them and seeks to achieve them.” O’Reilly was particularly critical of the cultural mandate of intensive mothering— which, as she noted, The Mommy Myth authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels have dubbed “the new momism.” “The discourse of intensive mothering becomes oppressive not because children have needs,” O’Reilly commented, “but because we, as a culture, dictate that only the biological mother is capable of fulfilling them, that children’s needs must always come before those of the mother, and that children’s needs must be responded to around the clock with extensive time, money, energy… I believe it is these dictates that make motherhood oppressive to women and not the work of mothering per se.” (For more about outlaw mothering and the possibility of empowered maternity, see O’Reilly’s introduction to the anthology Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering, Women’s Press, 2004.)

I presented a paper on a topic central to my work for the MMO— the political and ideological grounding of the emerging mothers’ movement. I was gratified to discover that my core concerns— about the child-centric tradition of maternal activism as opposed to the woman-centric tradition of feminist activism, and where both ideologies fall short as a framework for the new mothers' movement; about the inherent problems with relying on the discourse of “choice” to advance women’s equality; about the dead-end nature of lifestyle politics; about the formulation of third wave feminism and its capacity to sustain a full-scale social movement— were echoed and expanded upon during a number of panel discussions and private conversations over the course of the weekend.

Although one of ARM’s primary objectives is to bring together maternal scholars, writers, artists and activists, most of those who attended the Conference on Mothering and Feminism were academics— and those who were not confided that they felt some tension about their “outsider” status (hint to scholars: the “Where do you teach?” thing is a bit off-putting). Certainly there are academics— especially feminist academics— who use their scholarly work to elucidate the pressing need for social change. But since academic culture tends to be frustratingly insular and highly competitive, real barriers remain to forging productive links between formal scholarship, popular discourse and social activism. ARM deserves credit for what it has achieved in this regard— I’ve attended other academic conferences dedicated to “bridging the gap” between scholarship and activism where no one was at all curious about my work on motherhood as a social problem— in fact, the other conference-goers barely even spoke to me. The wall between the academic enclave and everyone else who has something intelligent and interesting to say about literature or social conditions is a long-standing problem, and something both sides need to keep chipping away at. As Mothers & More Executive Director Joanne Brundage remarked during the course of the conference, “We’ve been hearing all about the social and economic disadvantages of motherhood, but what are we supposed to do about it?”

Personally, I felt honored and excited to be included in such a stimulating and passionate discussion about the political dimensions of both “lived” and “examined” mothering and the future of feminism. And I came away with an even stronger conviction that a broad-based grass roots mothers’ movement is absolutely necessary. We need a mothers’ movement not only to change the adverse social and cultural conditions under which women today must mother, but also to ensure that all mothers have the freedom and power they need to determine for themselves the authentic meaning of their own maternal experience. We need a mothers’ movement to create a more just and sustainable society. And since attending the recent ARM conference, I can say with great confidence that I’m not the only mother out there who happens to think so.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online

mmo : November 2004

About ARM Membership:

ARM membership is open to all; a variety of membership levels and rates are available. Full membership includes a subscription to the ARM journal (two issues/year). Abstracts are presently being accepted for the 2005 conference on Mothering, Race, Ethnicity and Culture (you must be a member to submit). For more information about calls for papers, upcoming ARM events or membership, visit the Web site at www.yorku.ca/crm/

Motherhood and its discontents: The political and ideological grounding
of the 21st century mothers’ movement

Presentation by MMO editor Judith Stadtman Tucker
for the ARM Conference on Mothering and Feminism,
October 23, 2004. (in .pdf)
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online