What is a feminist mother?

  • Tuula Gordon
Part of the Women in Society book series (WOSO)


In Chapter 1, in considering the structural position of women, we noted the complex formation of class, race and gender, which intersect each other in structured inequalities within which the lives of women are heterogeneously constructed. While capitalist social relations posit women as classed subjects, patriarchal relations cut across these and formulate women’s position as women. Institutionalised racism further differentiates women, and constitutes new relations of domination and subordination. It is difficult to develop a coherent theoretical framework to account for the complexities within which subjectivities are located, but a few important analytical distinctions can be made. Relations of production determine class formations, but the position of women as women needs further analysis.

First there is a distinction between production and reproduction. The concept of reproduction has been used in different ways, and hence it is not without difficulties. Here I refer to the social reproduction of the labour force and biological reproduction — birth, growth, caring and death. To understand how this distinction has become connected to gender differences, the concept of patriarchy is used. It has a material basis in the control of women’s labour and sexuality by men; a hierarchical structure creates interdependence and solidarity among men, enabling them to dominate women. A further distinction can be made between the public and the private sphere: the primary location of women is in the latter, and the primary location of men is in the former. The location of women in the private sphere means that they carry the aura of that sphere, even when they venture into the public sphere, which women of course do in various ways, notably through paid work. Thus women have a specific cultural location as well, and the public/private distinction is utilised to understand women’s exclusion from mainstream culture, except as ideological constructions which evolve into narrow stereotyped expectations about how women and men should act. To specify this process further, a distinction is made between femininity and masculinity. The constructions of feminine and masculine are considered through psychoanalytical theories, but their social, structural and cultural connections can be understood by considerisng the process of individualisation and the ideology of individuality which have masculinity inscribed in them.

Though patriarchy differentiates between women and men, class relations undercut these differences, and place women in particular connections with men of their own class. Similarly, racist relations place women in particular connections with men, and thus undercut the homogeneity of women. Within these structural and cultural relations, personal lives and subjectivities are constructed. Structures of inequalities are complex, and do not form complete blueprints for the lives of people located within them. Tensions and contradictions within structures and cultures are the sites of spaces and possibilities, though within a framework of limitations, cutting down the number of options available.

In Chapter 2 research evidence was used to develop a picture of the position of women in Western societies. Socialisation processes that predispose girls to orientate themselves towards romantic love, marriage and motherhood were discussed. Underlying these processes are assumptions about sexuality, and restrictions under which the development of the sexual identity, orientation and behaviour of girls occur. The position of women in the family was also considered. Their options in the labour market are more restricted than those of men, because of their familial responsibilities relating to housework, childcare and, more diffusely, the emotional welfare of their household. The majority of women in Finland participate in the labour market in full-time work; provisions for maternity leave are significantly better than in England, and this facilitates the process of returning to work.

In Chapter 3 we considered the feminist critique and its alternatives. Feminism refers to political thought in the context of women’s liberation as political practice. Both of these contain diverse strands and practices. I have disentangled some fundamental issues. Firstly feminism is concerned with transformation, rather than working for equal rights for women and men. The structures of inequality were questioned, and radical changes were considered necessary. In the context of culture, feminism is concerned with finding a voice, giving representation to women and working against cultural exclusion. The distinctions between production/reproduction and public/private are challenged, and the constructions of femininity and masculinity are questioned. These processes are encompassed within the slogan ‘the personal is political’; by constructing analyses of personal lives and biographies, women can connect private experience, psychic structures and social structures. In this lies the political challenge of feminism; understanding one’s situation within structures and processes of subordination/domination is connected to conceptions of change. Feminism has also posed a theoretical challenge within academic research, by questioning theoretical assumptions and methodological procedures. Connection social and psychic structures has led to attempts to pose questions of validity and objectivity in new ways. Discussion relating to science and feminism has contained various analyses of what the relationship between these could be (Harding and O’Barr, 1987; McNeill, 1987), and contains criticisms of the detachment and rationality of science and scientific practice.

Motherhood as an experience and an institution is a fundamental aspect of women’s lives; it is also used to provide an explanation and a justification for the subordination of women. Production/ reproduction and public/private distinctions construct all women as potential mothers; thus women who cannot or do not wish to reproduce are placed in a relationship to motherhood, even if a negative one. Motherhood institutionally and the process of mothering practically raises the question of the subordination of women. Women with no dependants have, potentially, more freedom in negotiating the possibilities in their lives; their social gender may find more diffuse manifestations. The reproductive capacities of women both shackle them within patriarchy and place them beyond it. The task of feminism is to explore this contradiction, and the purpose of political practice is to eradicate it. Motherhood assumes dimensions of growth, responsibility and obliteration in the lives of the women in this study. It opens new experiences and perspectives. But the social construction of motherhood, and the restricted experiences of being at home with small children, are such that there are tensions in the practices of mothering. Feminism is significant in providing protection against the myths of motherhood.

In Chapter 5 work emerged as a crucial area in the process of women placing themselves in a societal context beyond the role of a ‘mother’. Work means getting away from home, having other interests besides children, having financial independence, being competent; it provides status and self-esteem. But work also has intrinsic meaning; most women felt that it was an avenue through which they could explore their interests and/or campaign for societal changes. This can be understood by considering the range of jobs they were involved in: teaching, social work, research, voluntary work, women’s organisations, nursing, etc. Women gravitated towards such jobs and, furthermore, such jobs gave them scope to develop their thinking and its practical application. A sense of exploitation and subordination was missing, and those who found work unsatisfactory tended to remain outside the paid labour market.

Yet the majority of women were not interested in careers; building a career was seen to contain masculine patterns, single-mindedness, and a detachment from everyday life and radical political orientation. Thus feminist ideology provided a context within which ‘careers’ and ‘success’ could be questioned. From an equality-of-opportunity point of view this can be constructed as women doing what they have always done: placing their work orientation in the context of their other interests and obligations, and thus doing themselves a disservice by removing themselves from any possibility of participating in structures of power and influence. But feminism is a politics of transformation, a way of finding a voice, a way of connecting the personal to the political, which leads to a critique of the content of success, and the content of the structures that one can be successful in. Hence feminists do not want to be ‘honorary men’, but want to be successful in ways which integrate their particular perspectives. Yet a considerable proportion of the women in the study considered themselves ambitious, but their ambitions were formulated in a diverse way, and were related to diffuse goals ranging from personal development to societal concerns.

In Chapter 6, children and partners were discussed. Flexible, reliable childcare of a good standard is crucial in freeing women to concentrate on their work. Yet for many women childcare arrangements were coloured by practical problems which in some cases led to grave difficulties both for mothers and children. The significance of good childcare was evident in the lives of those women for whom childcare worked smoothly. Many of them noted their privileges in that they obtained good childcare because they could pay for it. In some cases the fathers were the main carers of the children and, particularly in England, the informal networks of women were also important. In Finland such networks are less significant, partly because the majority of women are in full-time work and therefore do not have the time to formulate such networks or to participate in them. The equality perspective so strongly prevalent in Finland also leads to a situation where it is more unusual for women to get together as women; several women noted their conscious decision to avoid mother-and-toddler type interaction and feminine domestic concerns.

In relation to children, the focus is mainly on the orientations of mothers towards girls and boys; mothers felt that they were reproducing themselves and their own struggles through their daughters, as their daughters would, they hoped, grow up assertive and prepared to fight for their rights. These hopes had some justification, since a large proportion of the mothers of the women in this study had been involved in paid work outside the home. Also those with older daughters could see them stepping outside stereotypical expectations, and some were developing a conscious femihist orientation. Within a general concern for non-sexist upbringing, there was also concern for the autonomy of children. Women felt that it was crucial to maintain an open contact with their children and to encourage them to think for themselves. The feminist emphasis that the personal is political (and for some a radical libertarian orientation reinforced this) meant that most women did not consider it desirable to approach the task of upbringing with clearly defined goals which set the parameters for their mothering practices. The active way in which they had formed their own political outlook led them to think that they could not provide their children with ready-made analyses and answers. Thus with their sons most women tried to encourage sensitivity and consideration for others, and the possibility of expressing feelings, but understood also their need to engage in masculine behaviour in order to survive within the sexist context of their schools, for example. Yet women tended to be more fearful for the future of their sons. Although they considered the male social gender to provide their sons with future privileges and advantages, masculinity was seen to pose a great deal of restrictions on happiness. Thus the distinction between feminism and the equality of opportunity perspective is evident: their daughters were growing up in a society where women were subordinated, but they could fight against that, and in co-operation with other women they could carry on the work of transforming it.

These women who lived with the fathers of their children were, mostly, positive about their joint lives, and the sharing of responsibilities towards childcare. Those who had found the fathers of their children unsupportive had left them, and carried on as single parents, sometimes with little or no contact with the fathers. In a society that emphasises the importance of the family as an institution, and where private lives are supposed to be lived out in homes, women turn towards their partners for support when children and childcare are placed in the privatised terrain, rather than in the communal context. Many men, according to their partners, were prepared to consider their roles as men, their masculine construction, and the implications of fatherhood. Most women, however, refused to be grateful for this. Yet those who had chosen to become single parents felt relief in being able to assume responsibility for their own lives, and while caring for children alone was hard work, it was also rewarding. Here the welfare state in Finland posed particular advantages and removed some of the financial and practical pressures that complicate the lives of single parents.

There were women who lived communally, either with their children and partners, or just with their children. Communal living was both practically and ideologically perceived: practically, in that it removed some of the difficulties that a privatised family life posed — there were more people available to provide support and assist with childcare in particular. A feminist critique of the family as the site of women’s oppression had also led some women to place themselves outside family households. However, societal structures and cultures are internalised to the extent that moving beyond was not always an easy task. There were also women who lived in lesbian partnerships. One couple had formulated a framework within which they jointly cared for the other’s child, and had considered legalising this arrangement. Otherwise women seemed rather careful in what they expected from their partners in a situation where the children were already there. While many aspects of their lives were shared, mothers tended to consider their children as their responsibility, and expected and received help, but not a joint commitment.

Chapter 7 explored the pleasures and pains and contradictions and difficulties in the lives of mothers who are feminists. In Chapter 4 motherhood had been constructed predominantly as a triumph and a resource, and responsibility was not, overall, a problem. However, when we consider the responsibility for children in a wider sense than the issues involved in caring for them day-to-day, many women experienced guilt and pain, when their power as mothers of their children was contrasted to a framework of limitations that they lived in. The world was seen as uncaring and unjust; mediating between this world and their children was a hard and emotional task, and mothers felt relatively powerless. Yet having children was also a strong incentive to carry on with the project of trying to change the world. Along with the private side of motherhood there stood a public one, where women tried to carry their particular responsibilities as a mother to a wider arena, and tried to accomplish there what they could not do within the confines of their own situation. In some cases this attempt was clearly articulated (see Sally, pp. 107–8); in others it was more implicit. But turning away from the personal to the public sphere in attempting to resolve the contradictions of power and powerlessness also created ambiguities and dilemmas. Women who worked did not, on the whole, question their right to work, but they had to consider how much they should orientate themselves to their children and to their work. It was at this interstice that the tremendous push and pull occurred: women were torn between feeling that their children needed more from them than they were giving, but if they did not invest a great deal in their work, nobody else would do it; they could not hope for someone else to carry on their struggles. This dilemma posed sharply and personally the need for altered structures and cultures, the need for radical transformations. Withdrawing into the family would not solve their pain and guilt, but nor would it be solved by shutting off everyday life and responsibilities within which their anchorage lay. This was expressed explicitly by one woman, who felt that staying in touch with her pain gave her a chance to maintain her struggle against the framework which creates it (Liz, p. 107).

A large proportion of the women were involved in some kind of political work, ranging from self-help groups to political parties. The push-and-pull factor related to these activities as well. But in these cases many women participated with their children, and where it was difficult to involve children, women criticised the internal processes of those groups, including practices and orientations, internal hierarchies, and patterns of interrelationships.

The contradictory push-and-pull of societal orientation and motherhood poses problems in trying to combine leisure and friends. The diverse orientations and the time restrictions raised the question of housework poignantly. The organisation of everyday domestic life is a necessity at some level for all of us. It is an area where negotiation between partners was characterised with more difficulties than childcare. Many women felt that they were ultimately responsible, and their (male) partners expected praise for their contribution. While women used organisational skills at home, men, it was suggested, found those skills difficult to apply in the domestic arena.

Discussing men as partners raised ambivalences and dilemmas, but considering men as men, as a social gender, posed greater problems. Many women drew attention to the restrictions of masculinity, and believed in the possibility of men changing, and could think of examples. Particularly those living in partnerships with men, and those with sons, maintained an optimistic stance in relation to the possibilities of men changing. For socialist feminists, problems posed by gender inequalities could not, whatever men were seen to be like, be solved without including men in the solution in the context of socialist politics. But many single parents felt that finding men in whom responsibility and liberation coexist was a difficult task, and their faith in ‘mankind’ was diminished. Moreover, radical feminists and lesbian separatists wished to have as little to do with men as possible; this stance had formed either through their life-styles, or was combined with a political perspective of ‘putting women first’.

The problem of men raises some of the dilemmas of feminism. Equality in men’s world in men’s terms is questioned within a transformational orientation; future goals consist of equality or of women-centred vision. The path to the former is not clearly explicated and theorised; the latter alienates a large proportion of women, not least mothers with sons. Though sexuality is socially as well as biologically structured, and a site of struggles about domination and subordination, the construction of sexual identities is a complex process with its roots in infancy and childhood, and with its connection to fantasy and desire. Several women in this study had shifted their sexual identity. Heterosexuals had become bisexual had become lesbians, but also, lesbians had become bisexual had become heterosexual. Posing lesbianism as a political option, and heterosexuality as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘false consciousness’ (Stacey, 1986) both desexualises lesbianism and simplifies tile construction of sexuality and desire.

Feminism thus contains paradoxes, related to the construction of social gender, and the fact of the existence of biological sex; if the sex-gender system is emphasised, then what space is there for women and men to move beyond their biological destinies; if structures and cultures contain limitations connected to power and privilege, then how can our social construction be challenged? And if feminism stems from a particular social and economic location — white middle-class women — then how can questions of power and domination within feminism be addressed? To explore these issues, we need to discuss the feminism of feminist mothers in this study.


Black Woman Sexual Identity Feminist Critique Social Gender Stereotypical Expectation 
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  1. 3.
    Mary Gordon (1985) Men and Angels, Ballantine Books, New York.Google Scholar

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© Tuula Gordon 1990

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  • Tuula Gordon

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