“Women’s liberation must be mothers liberation or it is nothing.”
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman
[As I finished writing this article it struck me how imortant it was to preface it with some context.
Briefly, I am from a working class background in the UK. My grandmother worked full time in a factory while my grandfather minded their seven children at home (After the Welsh collieries were shut down he never found work again) My mother worked full-time while raising five children, eventually out-earning my father.
Women have always worked is the context I bring to this post. The fantasy that women of any society only began working outside the home in the latter half of the twentieth century, (along with the notion that they did not participate in heavy labour, such as mining), is just that: a patriarchal fantasy, a fiction; which unfortunately (and bizarrely) is still touted as a universal Truth.]
When radical feminist writing incorporates motherhood into womanhood all manner of misconceptions abound. Sometimes, when we attempt to attribute value to mothers and their work (the work of mothering) and assess its contribution to society, it can smack of idealization, synonymous with putting motherhood on a pedestal.
But it is not feminists who revere mothers. The beatific imagery and romantic portrayals of motherhood that saturate religious dogma and the media are the delusional imaginings of men’s minds: the 2D projections of a woman-hostile society serving to divide all women, from each other and from themselves.
The root of this reverence is the irritating Madonna/whore dichotomy, stemming from male psycho-sexual issues and the need to regard mothers as pure (and therefore asexual). Plenty of psychoanalytical theories strive to understand why so many men cannot make love properly to their wives.
Without lingering too long on Freud the Fraud, I will just mention that his work on psychoanalysis was an obfuscation, a consciousness lowering medium for women who might otherwize have questioned the unfairness of their circumstances. Nowhere in all the flowery analyses of the ego and “female sexual dysfunction” were the power politics behind husband/wife relations (or the female-specific harms of intercourse) addressed. That men historically granted themselves free reign to do the dirty on a woman (sleep around or otherwize treat her like dirt) once she’d been trapped into pregnancy was quietly overlooked. Meanwhile the wife, bored to death with the lumbering sexual fumblings of her incompetent husband, knew she would be punished severely for any transgressions.
Whatever the root cause, the simultaneous idealization and denigration of mothers –compartmentalizing– is a sign of an unhealthy mind, and an unhealthy society.
The labeling doesn’t end there. Women are divided into sub-categories of “Good Mother/Bad Mother”, which tightens the noose around their necks. Certain “types” of mothers are trotted out and praised in order to serve the patriarchy’s ends. Today in 2011, celebrities serve this function and are presented as role models for women to ‘aspire to’. They are given a platform upon which they are allowed to soar high above the heads of other she-mortals, reminding all women of their lot in life, of their highest aspiration. Brides are celebrated in much the same way.
Whereas other “types” of mothers face the full force of brutal male misogyny. They are the welfare queens, single parent chav scum, “fat bitches getting themselves knocked up”, or simply pregnancy abuse porn fodder
(F. u. u. u. c. k … I want this third wave to get off the ground so. badly. it. hurts.)
Just as Sheila Jeffreys in Beauty and Misogyny details the harmful beauty practices that are required of women, in The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and how it has Undermined all Women, Douglas and Michaels argue that maternal perfection is mandatory. But it’s lose-lose for all, even for those who are determined to scrape a pass in the Good Mother test:
“Both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers get to be failures. The ethos of intensive mothering has lower status in our culture (“stay-at-home-mothers are boring”), but occupies a higher moral ground (“working mothers are neglectful”)
Women should be told as soon as they conceive that the only Good mothers are those who die in childbirth (1), with extra points if the baby was a boy. This information should be handed out in a little booklets at ante-natal check-ups. Striving to please authority figures such as doctors (as we have been conditioned to do), submitting selflessly to the role, or believing that motherhood will offer us a sense of completeness are all nails in sanity’s coffin.
But woe betide the mother who does not at least aim for perfection. Mothers lose their children for specious reason such as: obesity (Fat Children Should be ‘taken from parents’ to curb obesity Epidemic, screams The Times.), or for refusing to drug their children with ritalin, or even for not getting their children to the brainwashing boot camp known as school on time (many mothers are too poor to own a car). A child can be whisked away if its mother is too poor to provide a bed; but as we all know, children in other cultures sleep together higgledy-piggledy on the floor with their parents.
Many a mother has failed to pass the arbitrary tests set by strange forces that did not know how much she loved the child she bore in pain, and who did not understand that she was doing the best she could with the emotional and financial crumbs she had been thrown.
(Dads? A Dad is a hero just for sticking around. Fathers often use their hero status to fight the mother for access to the babies she carried beneath her heart for nine months, only to abuse, neglect or kill them.” It is scarily common)
I give you Greer:
“It may be that the persecution of mothers is a permanent feature of patriarchal societies, but …contempt for the mother seems to have assumed a new dimension.
…The lives of single mothers consist of love and work which are their own rewards. For this loyal, unsparing labour there is no recognition, no promotion, no security, no help. Whatever we may think about the ideologies of different feminisms we must see that a feminism that does not address this situation is ostrich feminism.
…Population control, even if it did not deliver women into the power of the pharmaceutical multi-nationals, is not the right answer to the need for child support all over the world…We will be told that technology no longer requires a vast labour force, that these children are a product that is not marketable, and that money spent on them simply perpetuates the problem of too many mouths to feed, in other words, that the children of poor women should not have been born.
…Feminism has to believe that a technology that cannot feed its people is worse than useless. We do not exist to serve technology; technology exists to serve us. With modern technology nobody needs to die of the disease of malnutrition any more; every year untold millions of people do just that. We could distribute food rationally from places of plenty to places of scarcity; we don’t. We could provide everyone on earth with clean water; we don’t. We could use our standing armies and billions of pounds worth of materiel to protect people against the consequences of natural disaster; we don’t.” The Whole Woman
Motherhood is not given any value for the simple reason that it belongs to women. Women’s writing; women’s entire lives get the same treatment: trivialization and invisibility. Childless women fare no better; they are not regarded as complete humans the way that all men are. Often they are non-mothers: women defined, yet again, in the negative, in relation to… I am reminded of a Beauvoir quote:
Thus, humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.”
This diseased view of woman as the negative of man, “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,” infects the whole of culture. It is the cancer in the gut of every political and economic system, of every social institution. It is the rot which spoils all human relationships, infests all human psychological reality, and destroys the very fiber of human identity. (The Second Sex) “
All women. But a pregnant woman, lumbering down the street in her thirty eighth week of pregnancy has reached the nadir of all that the patriarchy despises about her sex. Passers-by can hardly contain their shivers of revulsion.
For although femininity is mandatory for women, femaleness ( when it is not actively being despised) is outrageously ignored. By refusing to reject the truth of the female body, radical feminists are accused of being essentialist, as though when the day comes that a cure is discovered (most likely by men) for the messy gloop of bodily fluids that is “woman”, be it menstruation, amniotic fluid, or a baby covered in vernix emerging from the birth canal, we will finally be free.
And perhaps in reaction to the ‘woman-as-breeder’ effigy, there has been a sentiment in recent years that equality can be had by overcoming the script of biology, an idea suggesting that outsourcing pregnancy to poor women is a reasonable thing to do, or that embracing men’s pettiness, whatever they find important, and making it part of our own lives as women is the way to freedom; followed by an even more incongruous notion that such a path is possible.
A paradigm shift is needed; society must get into a frame of mind where all women are valued for who they are and what they do. And where the “paper shuffling” of men is mocked and derided for being the waste of time that it is. Our world has been incongruously designed in such a way that women are subsidizing men’s mistakes . Women are paying for the blunders of incompetent rich white men who shamelessly rely on the money taken from the minimum wages of mothers’ part-time jobs, (jobs that women humiliatingly accept because it’s the only work that ‘fits around the kids’ ). Mothers paying money out of their taxes for bankers’ bonuses? Mothers paying out so that men can play war games in a sandpit for ten years? We are confronted with the charade that is patriarchy.
Within this shift, we must design practical solutions to the fact that to be a mother is to be:
a) stuck in the poverty trap
b) dependent on a man, or forced to pool resources with a man i.e. live with the father, or
c) forced to choose between independance (work) and being with her baby (which in turn is only made possible by relying on the class system, whereby a woman poorer and less educated will take over childcare duties– except for Sweden where a Masters degree is required to work at a kindergarten)
What are the solutions?
Refusing to have children is a good decision for a woman on a personal level. It frees up energy, and she is not bound to a man. She maintains her physical integrity and autonomy, and indeed the greatest minds (especially in feminism) have been childless women. Would Virginia Woolf had produced her final and greatest work, The Waves, if she had become a mother in a patriarchy?
Japanese women have taken this route ( Japan faces the steepest drop in fertility rates in modern civilization) Over 50% of Japanese women are single at age 30 and now the government is panicking. It offers sums of cash to mothers every four months, increasing with each subsequent child. Japanese women are not the street-marching type. To escape their oppression many have simply ‘opted-out’. “We are human beings, not machines” they say when questioned about their lack of interest in babies.
And yet the status of Japanese women remains low. They are still channelled into the pink collar ghettos, and as for politics: it’s a sausage fest.Which tells me that women wanting to have babies is not the main obstacle to women’s liberation. Men dominating women is.
I do not have a blueprint of solutions, but as a heterosexual woman, I will say that at this stage in the game –and at this point in my journey into feminism– political lesbianism (or at least rejecting heterosexual coupledom) makes the most sense. Reproductive technology is certainly not the answer, but restructuring society so that women of the middle classes no longer choose to live with the father of their children will be an important step. Private property is singularly responsible for turning women into brood mares whose purpose is to produce heirs.Women of low socio-economic status already reject the fathers of their babies in favour of living with their own mothers. It is imperative that middle class women stop being seduced into marriage by trinkets.
Whatever the final solution is, radical feminists such as myself are concerned with reversing the invisibility and trivialization of real mothers. Gorgeous propaganda does not put food in the kids’ mouths, or protect women from battery. But treating our biology as a side issue, or as something to be overcome, tamed, or denied has done nothing but shortchange women, who are forced to fit like a square peg in a round hole into a society which is inimical to what they do (biologically) and who they are. Our focus is women’s actual lives. We are not concerned with male psycho-sexual complexes. Leave romantic idealization, reverence and revulsion, the Madonna and the whore, to the men.
Because she has borne five children
And her belly is criss-crossed
With little tongues of fire…
Give her honour
Give her honour, you fools,
Give her honour
Grace Nichols, ‘Because she has come’ in The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer
1) The Whole woman pp249