Maternal Thinking

  • Sara Ruddick
Part of the Child Nurturance book series (CHILDNUR, volume 1)


We are familiar with Victorian renditions of Ideal Maternal Love. My own favorite, like so many of these poems, was written by a son.


Daycare Center Feminist Study Public World Maternal Work Metaphysical Attitude 
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  1. 1) This article is reprinted from Feminist Studies9 Volume 6, Number 2 (summer 1980): pp. 342-367 by permission of the publisher Feminist Studies, Inc., c/o Women’s Studies Program, University of Maryland, College Park, D 40742.Google Scholar
  2. I began circulating an early draft of this paper in the fall of 1978. Since then, the constructive criticism and warm response of readers has led me to believe that this draft is truly a collective endeavor. I would like especially to thank Sandra Bartky, Gail Bragg, Bell Chevigny, Nancy Chodorow, Margaret Comstock, Mary Felstiner, Berenice Fisher, Marilyn Frye, Susan Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, Jane Lilienfeld, Jane Marcus, Adrienne Rich, Amelie Rorty, William Ruddick, Barrie Thome, Marilyn Blatt Young, reader for Feminist Studies, and Rayna Rapp.Google Scholar
  3. (2).
    For an extensive discussion of the power of mothers, see Dorothy Dinnerstein, 1976. In expressing our fears of maternal power Dinnerstein sometimes, unfortunately and unwittingly, gives voice to the very matriphobia she decries.Google Scholar
  4. (3).
    In traditional heterosexual parenting, a returning father may distract even the nursing mother from her child, demanding attention and service which is frequently more alienating, more threatening to a mother’s self-possession than children’s demands. To the extent that the infant is sensitive to the gender of the mother, as Dinnerstein and others claim, to that extent it would be dimly aware of the gender-linked character of the interruption. In any case, the child will soon become aware that females are caretakers whose work and caring is endlessly interruptible.Google Scholar
  5. On the politics of interruption, see Michelle Cliff. The Resonance of Interruption. Chrysalis, no. 8. Summer 1979; Pamela Fishman. Interaction: The Work Women Do. Social Problems 25, no. April 1978; and Don Zimmerman and Candace West. Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversations. In Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, eds. Barrie Thome and Nancy Henley. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1975.Google Scholar
  6. Many fathers are of course, socially unappreciated. Poor, declassed, or “failing” fathers know the pain of introducing their children to a world in which they do not figure. Sometimes their powerlessness is visited directly upon the mothers. Even when it is not, mothers suffer a double powerlessness when the “fathers” of her kin and cultural group are degraded by the Laws of the Ruling Fathers; the “world of the fathers” belongs neither to her sons nor to the men her daughters will live among.Google Scholar
  7. (4).
    I am indebted to Susan Harding for this point (personal conversation and lecture notes from the Residential College, University of Michigan).Google Scholar
  8. (5).
    For an analysis of the evil of factory work which emphasizes workers’ loss of control of their time, see Simone Weil. Factory Work. In Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas. New York: McKay, 1977. For a similar comparison of mothers’ control over time compared with that of other workers, see Barbara Garson. Clerical. In All the Livelong Day. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. Of course, many mothers also work in factories, stores, and fields; and some mothers work in managerial, professional, and executive positions. The issue is whether mothers have more control over time and order of their work (in the Weil sense) in their maternal than in their other working hours. Mothers do not have control over their lives, and this relative absence of self- determination has consequences which I will specify.Google Scholar
  9. (6).
    Carol Pearson. Women’s Fantasies and Feminist Utopias. Makes the general point that in several feminist Utopias, “human kinship procedures can govern an entire society because the people in the society are mothers.” See Frontiers 2, no. 3. Fall, 1977. Pearson quotes extensively from Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “You see we are mothers” is taken from Herland. New York: Pantheon, 1979. For a clear discussion of the significance of matriarchy, see Paula Webster. Matriarchy: A Vision of Power. In Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1975. pp. 141–156.Google Scholar
  10. (7).
    Among other possible aspects of women’s thought are those that might arise from our sexual lives, from our “homemaking,” from the special conflict women feel between allegiance on the one hand and their world, and on the other hand, to all people of their kin and culture. Any identifiable aspect of women’s thought will be inter-related to all of the others. Because women almost everywhere are relatively powerless in relation to men of their class, all aspects of women’s thought will be affected by powerlessness. Whether we are discussing the thought arising from women’s bodily, sexual, maternal, homemaking, linguistic, or any other experience, we are faced with a confluence of powerlessness and the “womanly” whatever that might be.Google Scholar
  11. (8).
    The pervasive and false identification of womanhood and biological or adoptive motherhood injures both mothers and nonmothers. The identification obscures the many kinds of mothering performed by those who do not parent particular children in families. It frequently forces those labeled “nonmothers” to take a distance from their own mothers and the maternal lives of all women. Out of justified fear and resentment of the obligation to mother, these “nonmothers” may become caught up in socially induced but politically myopic efforts to divorce female identity from any connection with maternal practices. Meanwhile, mothers engage in parallel self-destructive efforts which further divide women from each other. In their fight to preserve their nonmaternal aspirations and projects, mothers may belittle the importance of maternal experience in their lives. Or out of fear of their own anger at a limiting social identity as well as out of legitimate fury at the devaluation of mothers and motherliness, they may overidentify with the maternal identification foisted upon them, letting their nonmaternal working and loving selves die. Whichever we mothers do, and frequently we do both, the cost to our maternal and nonmaternal works and loves is enormous.Google Scholar
  12. (9).
    For the most complete and sensitive account of girl’s special relation to mothers’ mothering, see Chodorow. The Reproduction of Mothering. See also Jane Flax. The Conflict Between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism. Feminist Studies 4, no. 2. June, 1978. pp. 171–189.Google Scholar
  13. (10).
    See Nancy Chodorow. Feminism and Difference: Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective. Socialist Review, no. 46. July–August, 1979. “We cannot know what chldren would make of their bodies in a nongender or nonsexually organized social world….It is not obvious that there would be major significance to biological sex differences, to gender difference or to different sexualities” (p. 66).Google Scholar
  14. (11).
    Examples of the invariant and nearly unchangeable include: long gestation inside the mother’s body; prolonged infant and childhood dependence; physical fragility of infancy; radical qualitative change (“growth”) in emotional and intellectual capacities from infancy to adulthood; long development and psychological complexity of human sexual desire, of memory and other cognitive capacities, and of “object relations.” Features which are nearly universal and certainly changeable include: the identification of childbearing and childcaring, the consequent delegation of childcare to natural mothers and other women, the relative subordination of women in any social class to men of that class.Google Scholar
  15. (12).
    To see the universal in particulars, to assimilate differences and extend kinship is a legacy of the ecumenical Protestantism in which I was raised. I am well aware that even nonviolent, well-meaning Protestant assimilations can be obtuse and cruel for others. Therefore I am dependent on others, morally as well as intellectually, for the statement of differences, the assessment of their effects on every aspect of maternal lives, and finally for radical correction as well as for expansion of any general theory I would offer. However, I do not believe that the thinking I describe is limited only to “privileged white women” as one reader put it. I first came to the notion of “maternal thinking” and the virtues of maternal practices through person exchange with Tillie Olsen and then through reading her fiction. My debt to her is pervasive. Similarly, I believe that “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” by Audre Lorde. Conditions, no. Winter, 1979. pp. 30–36, is an excellent example of what I call “maternal thinking transformed by feminist consciousness.” My “assimilation” of Olsen’s and Lorde’s work in no way denies the differences which separate us nor the biases that those differences may introduce into my account. These are only two of many examples of writers in quite different social circumstances who express what I take to be “maternal thinking.”Google Scholar
  16. (13).
    Nothing I say about maternal thought suggests that the women who engage in it cannot engage in other types of intellectual discourse. A maternal thinker may also be an experimental psychologist, a poet, a mathematician, an architect, a physicist. I believe that because most thinkers have been men, most disciplines are partly shaped by “male” concepts, values, styles, and strategies. However, unless we have identified “male” and “female” aspects of thought, the claim of gender bias is an empty one. I do not doubt that disciplines are also shaped by transgender interests, values, and concepts, which women, whether or not they engage in maternal practices, may fully share. To the extent that the disciplines are shaped by “male” thought, mothers and other women may feel alienated by the practices and thinking of their own discipline. Correlatively, when thinkers are as apt to be women as men, thought itself may change.Google Scholar
  17. (14).
    I derive the vocabulary most specifically from Jiirgen Habermas. Knowledge and Human Interest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. However, I have been equally influenced by other philosophical relativists, most notably by Peter Winch, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna. See Winch. Understanding a Primitive Society. And other papers, in Ethics and Action. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972; Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics9 Zettel, and On Certainty. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953, 1956, 1967, 1969. Kessler and McKenna. Gender. New York: Wiley, 1978. I am also indebted to the writings of Evelyn Keller. Especially, Feminist Critique of Science: A Forward or Backward Move, He, She and Id in Scientific Discourse (unpublished manuscripts); and Gender and Science. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1, no. 3. 1978.Google Scholar
  18. (15).
    See Habermas. Knowledge and Human Interests for the view that scientific knowledge is organized by its interests in control.Google Scholar
  19. (16).
    The words are Mrs. Ramsay’s in Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1927, p. 92.Google Scholar
  20. (17).
    For the comparison, see Murdoch. Popular moralities as well as contemporary moral theory tend to emphasize decision, assertion, happiness, authenticity, and justification by principle.Google Scholar
  21. (18).
    Spinoza. Ethics, Book 3, Proposition 42, demonstration. See also Proposition 40, Note and Proposition 45, both in Book 3.Google Scholar
  22. (19).
    For example of the first, see Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1925. In which Lady Bexborough opens a bazaar holding the telegram announcing her son’s death. Her action is simultaneously admirable, repellent, and politically disturbing as I hope to show in the section on acceptability.Google Scholar
  23. (20).
    The words are a Texas farmwoman’s who quilted as she huddled with her family in a shelter as, above them, a tornado destroyed their home. The story was told to me by Miriam Schapiro.Google Scholar
  24. (21).
    These are differences often attributed to women both by themselves and by psychologists. For a critical review of the literature see Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin. The Psychology of Sex Differences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974. For a plausible account of women’s valuing of inner life, see Patricia Meyer Spacks. The Female Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1975. Maccoby and Jacklin are critical both of the findings I mentioned and of adequacy of the psychological experiments they survey for testing or discovering these kinds of differences. I make little use of psychology, more of literature, in thinking about the kinds of cognitive sex differences I discuss. Psychologists are not, so far as I know, talking about women who have empathically identified with and assimilated maternal practices, either by engaging in them or by identifying with their own or other mothers. It would be hard to identify such a subgroup of women without circularity. But even if one could make the identification, tests would have to be devised that did not measure achievement, but conception of achievement. Mothers, to take one example, may well prize the inner life, but have so little time for it or be so self-protectively defended against their own insights (as I will discuss shortly) that they gradually lose the capacity for inner life. Or again, a mother may not maintain sharp boundaries between herself and her child or between her child’s “outer” action and inner life. However, she must maintain some boundaries. We value what we are in danger of losing (e.g., inner life); we identify virtues because we recognize temptations to vice (e.g., openness because we are tempted to rigid control); we refuse what we fear giving way to (e.g., either pathological symbiotic identification or an unworkable division between our own and our children’s interests). It is difficult to imagine tests sophisticated and sensitive enough to measure such conceptions, priorities, and values. I have found psychoanalytic theory the most useful of psychologies and Chodorow. The Reproduction of Mothering. The most helpful in applying psychoanalytic theory to maternal practices.Google Scholar
  25. (22).
    One reader has suggested that my account of a mother attuned to her own child’s thoughts and fantasies is biased by my white, middle- class experience. By appreciation of a person’s continuous mental life, I do not mean only the leisurely (and frequently intrusive) hovering over the child’s psyche, hovering which is often the product of powerlessness and enforced idleness. The appreciation I think of is often a kind of pained groping for the meanings that a child is giving to its own experiences, including to its own sufferings. I believe I have heard these gropings both first-hand and in literary reflections of mothers who are not white and/or middle class. For two of many examples, see Tillie Olsen. I Stand Here Ironing. From Tell Me a Riddle. New York: Delacorte Press, 1956. And Audre Lorde. Man Child. If my interpretation of others’ experiences is wrong, other women with different lives will correct me. Expressing maternal thinking is necessarily a collective project.Google Scholar
  26. (23).
    Weil. Gravity and Grace. And other essays in Gravity and Grace. Both the language and concepts are indebted to Plato.Google Scholar
  27. (24).
    Bernards words in the summing up of Virginia Woolf. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1931, p. 294.Google Scholar
  28. (25).
    As Habermas argues, Knowledge and Human Interest.Google Scholar
  29. (26).
    This vast experience is unrecognized partly because psychologists assume that while mothers are responsible for preservation, fathers are responsible for growth. This view of psychologists “denies the possibility of a maternal nurturance which actually encourages autonomy. But what is nurturance if not the pleasure in the other’s growth? If not the desire to satisfy the other’s needs whether it be the need to cling or the need to be independent?” Jessica Benjamin. Authority and the Family Revisited: or, A World Without Fathers? New German Critique, no. 13. Winter 1978, pp. 35–57.Google Scholar
  30. (27).
    I am indebted to Rich. Of Woman Born. Especially chapter 8, both for this phrase and for the working out of the idea of inauthenticity.Google Scholar
  31. (28).
    On the riskiness of authenticity and the courage it requires of women, see also Miller. Toward a New Psychology of Women. Chapter 9.Google Scholar
  32. (29).
    For a discussion of the relative weight of parents’ and children’s values in determining children’s lives, see William Ruddick. Parents and Life Prospects. In Having Children, eds. Onora O’Neill and William Ruddick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sara Ruddick
    • 1
  1. 1.Seminar College, Department of PhilosophyNew School for Social ResearchNew YorkUSA

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