Privilege and Female Complicities

Recently I was challenged in private correspondence on my view that motherhood is privileged within patriarchy. My friend insisted that feminism’s framing needs to be women vs. men; male supremacy is the real issue, and what happens between women is minor in comparison. This essay is an attempt to answer the challenge.

First some fundamentals:

Feminism is about, for, and by women and girls. That needs to be understood from the start. While male allies are welcome to consider and express alternate framings and explanations, feminist theory has to be constructed by females. Because only women and girls bear the burden of the oppression. Because the effects all accrue to females, only. This is not debatable; it is basic oppression theory.

A corollary: feminists are female. Period. Radical feminism is inherently trans-critical; men claiming to be women are appropriators. (Liberal feminists are collaborators, which I will explain later.)

Male allies may be called pro-feminists IF feminists find them to be true allies, but this designation is to be decided by women, feminists. Claiming to be an ally is all about intent, not identity. Being an ally is all about consistent behavior and action, not about a man’s right to claim the identity. Feminism may indirectly free or even empower men, but that is not and will never be its point. If the WATM (What About The Men?) whine ever comes up, that man is decidedly not an ally.

Radical feminism is also inherently pornstitution-critical. If a man jokes about pornography or prostitution as an OK, manly endeavor, he is not an ally.

Another corollary: women are born female; ‘woman’ is a word we NEED to explain female + human + adult. If we concede this term, Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding (she could not have meant that adult human females do not exist), we infantilize all female human beings!

Privilege is always a comparison in treatment between two or more groups. Privilege is a hierarchy — it is reflective of the hierarchy of the power structure. Privilege is not negotiable; it exists, and it is present all the time.

There is one caveat to privilege, however: marginalized groups CAN be played against each other to further reinforce the dominants’ power. Anyone who prances into the realm of whether women’s oppression, male supremacy, is worse than people of Color’s oppression, white supremacy, is dancing on a foundation of the absurd. Men of Color often claim that racism is The Worst. White feminists often claim that sexism is The Worst. Both are right and both are wrong. Foremost, these claims force women of Color to choose artificially between sides while the sides further marginalize women of Color. But also it’s important to realize that placement on the hierarchy is entirely at the whim and option of those with the most power, anyway. Positioning is flexible, and kept that way in order to garner numbers in stifling uprisings by a marginalized group. Black men can be and have been useful in alignment with the elite white male power structure: think pornography, think prostitution, and the fact of Black male involvement and ties with white dominants in these arenas. White women can be and have been useful in alignment with the elite white male power structure: think of how convenient the myth of the Black welfare queen to the majority of public aid recipients who are white women. Think of how many times white women have placed their own emancipation ahead of Black women’s and Black men’s — from the early days of the anti-slavery and woman suffrage movements right up to mainstream feminism’s unwillingness to confront the prison industrial complex that incarcerates disproportionate numbers of Black men. Or think of how the human rights atrocities against Gaza are ignored in favor of the not-Arab Zionists, even among feminists.

All hierarchies matter. Foremost is the male over female power differential, the thing that women’s liberation seeks to obliterate. But in order to do so, all women must matter. In the current scheme, put forward by my pro-feminist friend, marginalized women are expected to contain their issues and discomforts until some later, post-revolution time, under the banner of sisterhood. But “white women first!” is not a radical rallying cry, nor is any version of ‘privileged women first.’ We have to dismantle the oppressions enacted by women on other women in order to have a valid feminism. We have to examine our presumptions, and our comforts with that which other women don’t have, in order to build a valid feminism. We aren’t there. And men pushing for the continued marginalization of some women are not feminists’ allies.

So let’s jump into the main theme, whether or not motherhood is privileged.

All too often, when motherhood is discussed, it is in terms of how mothers are abused within patriarchy. They are. Mothers are in many ways captives of the system. They are intimidated by threats and acts of violence into support of and complicities with the power structure. They are manipulated and controlled, wills bent and bodies bruised, because of caring for their (and more-powerful men’s) offspring. All this is terribly true and not the point. Motherhood is still privileged.

An outrage! How dare I?

I dare because privilege is about treatment relative to another group. While folks rail about how horribly mothers have it, they are not talking about disprivilege. There is no reference group, except maybe men, the aggressors. The fact of women’s disprivilege in relation to men is not being disputed, though. We know women are oppressed as women, including within their expected roles within the patriarchal scheme. Female oppression does not disprove the privileging of mothers!

Mothers are privileged relative to non-mothers, relative to childless or child-free women. Mothers are rewarded for their complicity in this patriarchal demand, even as they are abused by proximity to their oppressors.

This is an important point: proximity to oppressors always holds some risk. It was easier for men in a household to rape women who were enslaved in the house than those who were less available to male householders, say field enslaved women. The exception to that was if a male householder also claimed rights to access enslaved women in their private quarters. At any rate, proximity does mean an increase in typical and customary violence for the oppressed. A woman who works alone in close proximity with her male employer is at greater risk than would be the average woman among many in his employ. A woman alone on the street at night is in greater danger from male aggressors than is a woman behind locked doors and alone in her own home. A woman who is partnered with a man, or with teen-or-older male children or grandchildren, is in far greater danger of physical and sexual violation than is a woman who lives alone or with other women. This is female oppression by males. Of course it exists.

Somehow this idea of the reference group gets downplayed; folks want to dwell on how mothers are oppressed within patriarchy, and not with how they are privileged relative to non-mothers. Part of this is simply our culture’s disregard for non-mothers! They don’t matter!

Outrageous, daring me! I am going to talk about the dis-privileging of non-mothers. First, let’s consider the privileging:

There are telling quotes all over, here. One common theme is that motherhood is female-appropriately altruistic:

“The natural state of motherhood is unselfishness. When you become a mother, you are no longer the center of your own universe. You relinquish that position to your children.” — Jessica Lange

Men share knowledge (they don’t possess). Honore de Balzac: “It is only in the act of nursing that a woman realizes her motherhood in visible and tangible fashion; it is a joy of every moment.”

While women hope: that motherhood is “joyful,” enjoyable, “beautiful and significantly life-altering,” “humanizing,” a “glory” or “glorious blessing,” plus “bliss, love and fulfillment,” and of course linked to that other female fulfillment, marriage to a man. (It is heterosexist, it is heteronormative, at its core.)

A few women dissent: Barbara Walters suggests getting a puppy instead, while Rachel Cusk waffles: a woman is “Part martyr, part pioneer” with some women deriving “feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” And Emma Goldman is quoted as having said, “Is there indeed anything more terrible, more criminal, than our glorified sacred function of motherhood?” Barbara Ehrenreich weighs in: “Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent.”

 But the problems with the dissent are many. Some waffle, while painfully few question the inherent complicities — that capitalism and its employment hierarchy is a given (the career ladder comment), that service to the patriarchy is still service to all of humankind, and is sacred. Loyalty to the power structure is not radical feminism; it is consistent with liberal feminism.

 But how is motherhood complicit?

First, the aggrandizement of motherhood is really about the favoring of sons — their creation, their nurture, their ultimate elevation into the power structure as high as they can go based on other factors, like race, class, and their own level of conformity. It is the duty of mothers to raise acculturated sons. Rape and male violence (down the hierarchy) are culturally-accepted norms. Mothers are to defend their sons against charges of rape and other forms of violence against ‘lessers,’ usually women but also marginalized men. And mothers do!

When I suggest that women’s loyalties must be to females, foremost, and against their misogynist sons, I get resistance. When I suggest that if a son rapes, is known to have raped, loyalty has to be to his victim, the female being, and he needs disowned, I hear, “How can you say this — he was born from my body, he is my child!?!” I can say it because it is high time our loyalties are to female humans. And I can say it because women defending the outrages done by patriarchy, even in the forms of their own sons, is a significant part of the problem. Patriarchy is maintained by unquestioned allegiances by the many, including the terribly-oppressed. All systems of subjugation can be reinforced this way (and usually are).

Second motherhood is, itself, loyalty to the norms of heterosexuality. I was at the time actually a part of the Great Lesbian Con into Motherhood. Lesbians everywhere were having children, and I wanted in! I read everywhere of women’s biological clocks and discovered I, too, had one! Is there an internal urge to procreate? There may well be, although I’m not convinced there is. Still, any valid urge or instinct is easily manipulable by incessant cultural pressure. Even more so if it’s subtle and proffered by members of your own minority group. The fact is that Lesbian Motherhood was an act of assimilation, complicity by its very nature. And I was a part of it. (Damn me!)

Third, motherhood brings rewards and attention at the expense of childless or child-free women. Women who eschew childbearing are “selfish,” and more. See this for many more:

Fourth, if we honestly examine the cultural talk and behavior around it, motherhood brings clear rewards and positive attention, especially at the beginning. Two women I’ve been close to in my lifetime have sought out becoming mothers repeatedly, in great part for the attention and praise it garnered. In a culture that ensures we have soul-holes, spaces in our psyches that leave us pained and vulnerable, self-doubting and searching for relief, two things emerge as solutions. One is finding others who compare unfavorably, and the other is finding ways that the power structure will reward us.

Women use weight in this way. Women will befriend fatter women so that they, themselves, appear thinner and therefore more attractive by fat-phobic cultural standards. And women will attempt to lose weight to gain cultural kudos, acceptance, and ‘desirability’ in the mating scheme. Mating schemes are taken as givens, with heterosexuality (fuckability in the eyes of men) as priority. And sisterhood is trounced in favor of personal gain, as women compete for the elusive fuckability-while-human (not merely being used but also at least marginally valued for her beingness).

An aside: in this Scheme of Het, can a conventionally-attractive woman ever be sure she is seen as a whole being, and not just valued as a Desirable Object? It seems better to not be conventionally-attractive! And yet can a conventionally-non-attractive woman ever be sure she is not being mentally replaced by a Better Object in his mind, that she’s the best he can get in reality but not in fantasy? Why, again, are women ever heterosexual? Add into this the extreme dangers faced routinely by women at the hands of men!

And the answer, of course, is at least in part because of the reward system. The privilege. And the comparison groups are lesbians, and asexuals who are willing to claim that. If motherhood is so maligned, why do women continue to reproduce? Again, because of the reward system, the privilege, in comparison to non-mothers, to childless and child-free women.

This is rough, a beginning. More with commentary. Thank you.


14 thoughts on “Privilege and Female Complicities

  1. As an antinatalist and ally, I’m really grateful you wrote this entry. Thank you! You’ve written things I’ve been thinking about but wouldn’t have dared write.

    I did have one question though: I didn’t understand the connection between “black welfare queens” stereotype and white women on welfare gaining something from it. I’d think anyone on welfare stands to lose quite a bit from bad stereotypes of people on welfare, no matter the race. But it’s just a detail, anyway.

  2. I don’t get the part about feminism ignoring the industrial prison complex and it’s mass incarceration of black men, or woman suffragette’s somehow being wrong for not fighting for black male votes? Which black males already had before them.If some “feminists” don’t understand how males oppress other men during the war on women than they probably aren’t feminists. But whatever that’s not really relevant.

    I think it should be made clear that all males have privilege over women regardless of their race, class, ethnicity, because all males are prone to violence, rape, and abuse of women. And when men are oppressed by race or class it’s other men oppressing them, not women. Women are just handmaidens and property to the men that are oppressing other men, who are in turn oppressing them.

    I agree that women have children to gain attention, feel worth, and value by men and society. I’ve witnessed it, but the “happy” feelings and attention are not worth the price of extreme exploitation of labor and diminishment of the self. I know this is true because women I know have had children and then felt depression and loneliness if not everybody around them is invested 100% in them. Another thing about pregnant women and women who choose to be mothers is that they are actually interfering with other women’s independence because they force other women to take care of their children and demand more labor from other women. Because for most women, the men are 100% absent in child caring even if they are married.

    I always felt bad for not wanting to have children or being disgusted by motherhood but It’s good to know someone shares the same feelings as I do. Whenever someone I know has a new baby I am disappointed a little inside, and I see how hurt they are when they can tell that I’m just not that excited. But these women have to seriously think through their decisions when they choose to bring a life into a toxic patriarchal society, where we might have less than 50 years left on here because of the destruction? it’s just irrational and unfair to the kids and other life forms.

    • Feminism, though not the radical version mind you, has been too silent on the racism within the culture — and within feminism. (That should not be news.)

      There was a point where neither Black men (and women) nor white women (and Black) had the vote, and both sides pretty much chose to throw the other under the (not yet invented) bus. There were some solid outliers, but they got written out of history because the correct side is white-man-loyal, which both the Black men and the white women were. Of course Black women (and Hispanic and First Nations and Asian women and …) were left out entirely. One awesome outlier was Matilda Joslyn Gage. Who befriended the Haudenosaunee women leaders, but I digress ….

      One of my least favorite political theorist tirades takes one of two forms: that Black men have all the power because they are men; that white women have all the power because they are white. I explained why this is inaccurate in the text. But also both are irksome because they are victim-based anti-oppression (the ones screaming demand to be The Victim here). We need care-based anti-oppression (and if that’s separatism I’m fine with that). Both white women and Black men can and do solicit allyship with elite white men sometimes. Both are dangerous. Both are puppets and pawns to the elites. Neither is solely Victim though the clamoring is deafening.

      I don’t understand the point of your third paragraph. Are you saying it isn’t privilege, then? Wrong, and I already explained why. Are you saying even privileged people get cultural crap? I already said that, too, but the detail is a nice add.

      Yes, motherhood is irrational and unfair to the kids (given impending collapse), to other life forms, and to every not-first-world being already here! And it’s privileged. Which helps women to not think anything through. A friend asked recently if I wanted to see baby pictures of her 9-year old son. I said “no.” I think I caught her by surprise, but she was OK if momentarily stunned. Such interruptions to motherhood privileging need to happen more often.

      • “Feminism, though not the radical version mind you, has been too silent on the racism within the culture — and within feminism. (That should not be news.)”

        When you said FEMINISM, I assumed you’re talking about radical feminism since you are one and I’m guessing this blogs audience is only radical feminists. So, sorry that’s why I was questioning why you were bringing up ignorance of racism since radical feminism has a strong analysis of it, but you were speaking of liberal feminism.

        “Of course Black women (and Hispanic and First Nations and Asian women and …) were left out entirely. One awesome outlier was Matilda Joslyn Gage. Who befriended the Haudenosaunee women leaders, but I digress ….”
        There were notable woman of color suffragettes who organized black women groups and larger organizations with white women who also wanted the vote. But there was obviously white women who only wanted it for themselves and excluded women of color, mostly Southern, and there were white women with the intentions of including all women. But all in all, though there have been few true and useful feminists and woman who came out of that movement, unfortunately it was all about gaining privileges and equality with males. Not liberating all women, but begging men to kick down some rights. That’s why I was never truly astounded by that era.

        I guess we agree on the privilege thing. But I don’t think oppressed men have ALL the power, because they don’t. But they are capable of practically the same things as the colonizing class of men. But oppressed men definitely have more power and ability than the women of the colonizing class of men, because they can rape, and be violent. Also another thing to point out, white women, all women who collaborate with men are operating under colonization.

        I haven’t used the word privileged in a long time to describe women under patriarchy, so sorry if It sounds like I’m saying women can’t be privileged. I just don’t like the term, because women who comply with men only get the bare scraps and basically kicked down “benefits” from men in exchange for their souls and bodies. I see only men as the sole owners and obtainers of privilege, because they run it, created it, and patriarchy itself is an extension of their fucked up nature, and was created for their benefit and existence above all life. Also sometimes i feel describing women under patriarchy as “privileged” inspires hatred and bitterness between women. Instead of degrees of suffering and focusing on how we all connect to each other but our oppression just looks culturally different and how we are all interconnected in the super-patriarchal hierarchy. If that makes sense.

        Also, you said you didn’t want to see your friends baby? Ha, that’s me, I was forced to visit my sister in the hospital to see her baby who was coming to our house the next day. WTF. Stupid rituals reinforcing the importance of motherhood. I was honestly irked. The family is a the most overrated unit of all time, intact it just plain out fails and doesn’t work.

  3. Thank you for this!

    I keep seeing a divide between true Radical Feminists and the “radfems” who are actually quite liberal to right wing in saying we have no divisions or inequalities of privilege or oppression among us because they are so focused on men.

    One way to make it really simple is to stop talking about men (after acknowledging how they are in control and destroying the earth as a group) and keep it to just how women treat each other. Of course there is racism, classism. Lesbian-hating, ageism, ableism, fat oppression, etc. Of course we don’t have equality unless we name the differences and try to equalize things. (The most privileged women are also able to oppress some men and are way more than handmaidens, though the power goes back and forth. It’s not good to deny that the most privileged women as upper class and middle class are in a position to evict and fire some men, or, as judges, approve when they are killed by racist men or put in prison when innocent, etc.)

    But when we focus just on women, then we see how powerful privilege and oppression can be, and how those who choose to be mothers often expect worship, and how those who choose to invest in men are reproducing more men or women for patriarchy, can collude with their men and sons in oppressing girls and women, or as “Lesbians” are reproducing 85% males while demanding Lesbians take care of their kids. In what other life choice do women feel justified in demanding other women help them? We’re not expected to help pay for or work for women who get pets or buy a house or car or land or anything else I can think of.

    When this happens it’s women tranferring their reasonable demand on fathers unfairly onto other women and Lesbians, in a skewed distortion of feminism. Why on earth should we be expected to help such a het choice by women? Those women’s descendants may be our rapists some day and certainly are competition for housing and food. (I was in a Separatist group with a Lesbian who sounded extremely anti-male except that she was very pregnant with a male. After she gave birth to what she now admits is one more boy who throws rocks at animals, she actually said she would have me doing diaper duty. This outrageous arrogance and sense of entitlement is privilege.)

    There is no legitimate reason to reproduce when there are 8 billion people multiplying every day.

    Another good article is at

  4. I think its great that motherhood bringing more work to other women’s lives as well was brought up. The ways in which mothers are privileged under patriarchy are immense but I’d like to focus on that particular aspect. In workplaces mothers are always given preferential treatment to take time off, to not have the same expectations of work-muling etc. Its amazing to me how anyone whose ever worked in a workplace can sit there and say mothers don’t receive any privilege under patriarchy when this is always the case. I’ve also noticed in most feminist spaces preferential treatment given to mothers. Like even suggesting that childfree women clean up for them so they can go be with their kids. As if their lives are more important than the shit we’ve got going on. Its also considered totally okay to expect childcare from childfree women. Even if we haven’t got a damned clue how to take care of or relate to kids properly. Feminist spaces that have boy children brought into them are billed as “woman-only” when they are not. When women object this is seen as irrational. As if boys didn’t torture us growing up. Its a total mindfuck.

    • I so much agree. These are all reformist het feminist politics about martyred mothers and demanding the men take care of their kids and has nothing to do with other feminists and Lesbians. Why, when we have said no to the privilege of motherhood and the crime of adding to overpopulation, are we expected to take care of a woman’s choice to fuck and reproduce? It’s outrageous. There is no other selfish, destructive decision a woman makes that we are demanded to help her with.

      And yes, boys oppress us, and often little girls already learning Lesbian-hating, male attitudes oppress us too as they call us names or otherwise harass us. But destroying rare female-only space on behalf of boys does harm girls too.

  5. I am “childfree”, but I do live in a country where the retirement of elderly people is (directly) paid for by the next generation. As such, I cannot really agree with the stance that having children is selfish.

    You can, of course, work hard enough to pay for your own retirement, but the physical work you cannot do anymore will always be done by younger people.

    Since when is motherhood in and of itself rewarded by the patriarchy? Not so long ago, unmarried mothers were treated with contempt. The privilege only extends to the married mother. And is it really she who is privileged, or is it her husband? She gets to leave paid work – to do more housework.

    Why do women keep having children? Well, they are not. Where I live, the average woman has 1.2 or so children, later and later in life. The government is worried about the low birth rates.

    In some other countries, it is quite obvious that women do not choose to become mothers, they just cannot opt out.

    I don’t have numbers, but I think a significant percentage of children, even in countries where most women have access to contraception, is the result of “accidents”.

    (Married) women are rewarded for being mothers, but that reward is more empty words than anything else. The patriarchy is not really willing to pay for something it has gotten for free all the time. At least that is the case where I live. And women make their choices accordingly.

    You have a point in that, as contraception becomes more available, and more women are free to choose celibacy, motherhood WILL be increasingly rewarded by the system.

    I just can’t see that happening right now.

    As for boy children … well, every rapist is a mother’s son. I absolutely agree that women should not side with male offspring against other women.

  6. I don’t take the given system of retirement paid for by the next generation as a given. Capitalism, and for that matter any social system that is more than tribal, is going to have selfishness written in. Socialism is better, and then you get to the next-gen thing. But better doesn’t, to me, mean “not selfish.”

    Um, the privilege of motherhood extends to unmarried women, too. Remember I WAS one, and the adoration and the belly-pats by strangers and … all lavished on unmarried me. Remember that privilege is something someone gets RELATIVE to a similar group, so motherhood confers cultural approval and privilege while being childfree does not.

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. The fact of still having to argue and defend the more-elites’ privilege over that of the marginalized after four decades of diligence? Depressing.

  7. Pingback: The Decline of Oppression Theory for Discussing Racism, Part One | Forest Green Feminism

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