Excerpt from Theory as Liberatory Practice by bell hooks

I love reading bell hooks, I love children, I love questioning the things that do not feel right. This is an excerpt from hooks’s Theory as Liberatory Practice.

“I came to theory young, when I was still a child. In The Significance of Theory Terry Eagleton says:

‘Children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practices as ‘natural’, and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten. Since they do not yet grasp our social practices as inevitable, they do not see why we might not do things differently.’

Whenever I tried in childhood to compel folks around me to do things differently, to look at the world differently, using theory as intervention, as a way to challenge the status quo, I was punished. I remember trying to explain at a very young age to Mama why I thought it was highly inappropriate for Daddy, this man who hardly spoke to me, to have the right to discipline me, to punish me physically with whippings: her response was to suggest I was losing my mind and in need of more frequent punishment.

Imagine if you will this young black couple struggling first and foremost to realize the patriarchal norm (that is of the woman staying home, taking care of household and children while the man worked) even though such an arrangement meant that economically, they would always be living with less. Try to imagine what it must have been like for them, each of them working hard all day, struggling to maintain a family of seven children, then having to cope with one bright-eyed child relentlessly questioning, daring to challenge male authority, rebelling against the very patriarchal norm they were trying so hard to institutionalize.

It must have seemed to them that some monster had appeared in their midst in the shape and body of a child-a demonic little figure who threatened to subvert and undermine all that they were seeking to build. No wonder then that their response was to repress, contain, punish. No wonder that Mama would say to me, now and then, exasperated, frustrated: ‘I don’t know where I got you from, but I sure wish I could give you back.'”

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Feminism and Motherhood

baby-20boy-20clipart-baby_carriage_blueTo 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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Feminism and motherhood

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To some feminism and motherhood are only natural. To others the two are complete opposites. It is important to realize the real work that women put into mothering while at the same time not romanticizing motherhood the same way male supremacists have. Motherhood is hard work women have shouldered and needs to be both respected and valued.

Social theorist Patricia Hill Collins says in her essay ‘Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing About Motherhood‘  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. There was an assumption that financial security existed within all families, so something like affordable and accessible childcare was not an issue. Not everyone 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 her essay ‘Revolutionary Parenting‘ feminist bell hooks 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 better accepted in feminist theory. hooks offers this 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, however, alienating. 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, families with queer parents, 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. The women telling the stories need to be more intersectional as opposed to white, middle-class women who have benefited in some ways under the patriarchy. These women cannot honestly tell the stories of those who have not benefited from the same privileges.

I write other stuff too! Check out HillaryDiMenna.com