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.