To some feminism and motherhood are only natural. To others the two are contradictory. It is important to realize the real labour women put into mothering. It is also important not to romanticize motherhood the same way male supremacists have.
In her essay ‘Shifting the Center: Race, Class and Feminist Theorizing About Motherhood’ Sociology professor Patricia Hill Collins says that motherhood cannot be analyzed without considering the unique contexts of different people and family situations. This is how second wave feminists judged motherhood. The second wave was about white, middle-class women speaking for all women. Issues were understood from the point of view of women who had the privilege of certain choices, like being able to enter the career workforce. There was an assumption that financial security existed within all families, so something like affordable and accessible childcare was not an issue. Not everybody can afford the choices that supposedly empowered this very specific demographic who spoke of women as a monolith.
White, middle-class women saw motherhood as an obstacle. In feminist and social activist bell hooks‘s essay ‘Revolutionary Parenting’, she writes that motherhood was seen as the locus of women’s oppression. “Although early feminists demanded respect and acknowledgement for housework and childcare,” writes hooks, “they did not attribute enough significance and value to female parenting, to motherhood. It is a gesture that should have been made at the onset of the feminist movement.” Women being defined as mother, and consequently as a wife and housekeeper, is a white, middle-class, heteronormative issue. This way of thinking excludes race and/or class in feminist theory.
bell hooks says for black women, and white working-class women, the right to work was not as much an issue as it was for white, middle-class women because the former have always worked, “From slavery to the present day black women in the U.S. have worked outside the home, in the fields, in the factories, in the laundries, in the homes of others.” For a racialized working-class, more time with family was the ideal. These women were forced to work in order to take care of their family, working was not a choice and could therefore not be the source of empowerment middle-class, white feminists made it out to be. These early feminist attacks on motherhood alienated women of colour and working class women.
Since the second wave motherhood has been more accepted in feminist theory. hooks proposes this new acceptance is because bourgeoisie white women want to make up for their alienation of mothers in the past, as well as pay respect to their own mothers.
Romanticizing motherhood is still an act of alienation. What bourgeoisie white women are now doing is promoting the same image of heteronormative, middle-class women that the patriarchy does. Male domination is still assumed and alternative family structures like single parenting, parenting in polyamorous relationships, queer parenting, and community parenting are ignored. Romanticizing motherhood can be a male supremacist ideology the same way ignoring motherhood is.
In order to properly understand motherhood through a feminist lens, women need to stop being viewed as a monolith. White, middle-class women, who have benefited in some ways under the patriarchy, need to allow for other voices to be heard.
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