Academic journal article Hecate

Outlaw(ing) Motherhood: A Theory and Politic of Maternal Empowerment for the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Hecate

Outlaw(ing) Motherhood: A Theory and Politic of Maternal Empowerment for the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

In her groundbreaking book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and institution, Adrienne Rich wrote: 'We do not think of the power stolen from us and the power withheld from us in the name of the institution of motherhood'.1 In the more than three decades since the publication of Rich's ovarian work, the empowerment of mothers has been a central, if not defining, concern of maternal activism and scholarship. More recently, with the emergence of an international motherhood movement and the development of Motherhood Studies as an academic discipline, maternal scholars and activists have sought to define and develop a politic or theory of maternal empowerment. Maternal activists and researchers today agree that motherhood, as it is currently perceived and practiced in patriarchal societies, is disempowering if not oppressive for a multitude of reasons: namely, the societal devaluation of motherwork, the endless tasks of privatized mothering and the impossible standards of idealized motherhood. Likewise, maternal activists and researchers have developed a plethora of theories of, and strategies for maternal empowerment, in order to contest, challenge, and counter patriarchal motherhood. This article will not so much revisit these ideas and strategies as it will request that scholars and activists alike rethink received or accepted notions of how and why motherhood functions as an oppressive institution for women.

When they are asked, students, mothers, and researchers readily describe the exhaustion, guilt, boredom, anxiety and loneliness that accompany contemporary Western motherhood, but are less forthcoming on why this is so. Indeed, mothers in North America are overwhelmed, fatigued and guilt-ridden because of the hard work and responsibility that they alone assume in motherhood. Yet the larger question remains: why is this so? Despite forty years of feminism, it is my view, and the argument of this article, that modern motherhood continues to function as a patriarchal institution which is largely impervious to change because it is grounded in gender essentialism, a gender ideology that establishes a naturalized opposition between public and private spheres. Only by unearthing and severing the ideological underpinning of patriarchal motherhood, gender essentialism, can we develop a politic of maternal empowerment and a practice of outlaw motherhood for the twenty-first century.

Theorizing and defining maternal empowerment

Any discussion of maternal empowerment must begin with the distinction that Rich made in Of Woman Born between two meanings of motherhood, one superimposed on the other: 'the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children/ and 'the institution- which aims at ensuring that that potential- and all women- shall remain under male control' (emphasis in original).2 It has long been recognized among scholars of motherhood that Rich's distinction between mothering and motherhood was what enabled feminists to recognize that motherhood is not naturally, necessarily, or inevitably oppressive, a view held by some second wave feminists. On the contrary, if freed from motherhood, mothering could be experienced as a site of empowerment and as a location of social change if, to use Rich's words, women became 'outlaws from the institution of motherhood.'3 However, while Of Woman Born interrupted the patriarchal narrative of motherhood and cleared a space for the development of counter narratives of mothering, it did not generate a discourse of outlaw motherhood or maternal empowerment. Moreover, while much has been published on patriarchal motherhood since Rich's inaugural text- documenting why and how patriarchal motherhood is harmful, indeed unnatural, for mothers and children alike- little has been written on the possibility of empowered mothering or outlaw motherhood. As Fiona Green writes, 'a discussion of Rich's monumental contention that even when restrained by patriarchy, motherhood can be a site of empowerment and political activism [is] still largely missing from the increasing dialogue and publication around motherhood. …

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