"Misfitting" Mothers: Feminism, Disability and Mothering

By Robertson, Rachel | Hecate, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

"Misfitting" Mothers: Feminism, Disability and Mothering


Robertson, Rachel, Hecate


Rachel Robertson is warmly thanked for organising and assembling this Focus section. Some of the articles were presented at the 7th Australian Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (AMIRCI) international conference, Motherhood, Feminisms and the Future, held at RMIT, Melbourne in July 2014, convened by Megan Rogers and Petra Bueskens. (Ed.)

The claim that, "feminist scholarship and disability studies scholarship are natural partners" (Piepmeier, Cantrell and Maggio, np), is an increasingly common one. Over the last decade, a number of scholars (Garland-Thomson; Käfer; Lloyd; Wendell) have called for feminist thought to integrate the insights of critical disability studies and for disability studies to gain from taking a feminist approach. My interest is in how a feminist approach to motherhood can gain from disability studies. In this article, I use one particular feminist disability concept-the concept of "misfit" as elaborated by Rosemarie GarlandThomson ("Misfits") -to demonstrate how disability theory might illuminate certain experiences of mothering.1

My approach to this topic has arisen from personal experience. My son, who is now fifteen years old, is autistic. Mothering him is both like and unlike mothering a typically-developing teenager. While the examples I use are from my own life as a mother, I consider that concepts such as misfit can be useful in understanding other aspects of maternal subjectivity and maternal thinking, not just those experienced by mothers of disabled children.2 In particular, I argue that the concept of vulnerability can be transformed through the lens of misfitting. Patrice DiQuinzio warns that individual accounts of motherhood can lead to either essentialising motherhood-which generalises to the extent that difference is silenced or marginalised - or to individualising motherhood, which risks weakening the power of the collective. She suggests that this dilemma may be overcome by focusing instead on "specific instances of mothering in specific contexts" (28) and this is my approach here. I follow what GarlandThomson names as "the feminist disability studies practice of putting story in the service of theory" ("Misfits" np).

I start by providing a brief contextual discussion of the social model of disability before outlining the concept of misfit. I then explore the relevance of misfit to the experience of mothering and cultural constructions of motherhood. I end with some thoughts on the generative nature of misfitting, including in my own and my son's lives.

Disability as cultural construction

Just as feminist theorists recognise that the concept of gender (and motherhood) is culturally constructed, so do disability theorists identify that disability is a "culturally fabricated narrative of the body" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 5). Like gender, disability is a concept that pervades many cultures and yet is not always articulated. Feminists have shown how the ideal autonomous citizen is assumed to be a white male, although not always named as such. Disability theorists have demonstrated that this ideal citizen is also assumed to be able-bodied and able-minded. In fact, disability scholars such as Davis, Garland-Thomson and Mitchell and Snyder have shown that "the cultural function of the disabled figure is to act as a synecdoche for all forms that culture deems non-normative" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 4). Like women, the disabled person has been associated with vulnerability, inferiority and dependence.

Similarly to the feminist distinction between sex and gender, disability theory distinguishes between impairment and disability. In the widely accepted social model of disability (sometimes called the minority or cultural model in the USA), impairment is used to refer to a bodily state or condition, and disability to the social and cultural disablement resulting from a world structured for the able-bodied and able-minded. …

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