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Motherhood and Feminism, by Amber Kinser.

August 20, 2012

Motherhood and Feminism: Seal Studies, by Amber E. Kinser.  Seal Press (2010), Paperback, 216 pages.

An excellent discussion of the ways in which feminism has related to women’s roles as mothers over the past two centuries and how feminists and mothers need to rethink issues relating to motherhood today.

A couple of month ago I read and reviewed Conflict Elisabeth Badinter. At the time I said that she raised important issues but her discussion of them was badly flawed.  Since then I have been looking for a book that covered some of the same material in a more accurate and balanced manner.  I found that book in Motherhood and Feminism.

Much of Kinser’s book describs how motherhood was a central theme for the women who worked in the early women’s rights movement which led to the granting of voting rights to women in the US in 1920.  Their message was that women needed the vote in order to care for their homes and children adequately.  If given the vote, they could “clean up” politics just as they cleaned up their homes.   Kinser goes on to describe the ways in which increasing numbers of women combined child-rearing and wage-earning by choice or necessity in the twentieth century.  When feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, motherhood was again a concern for women.

Kinser’s history of the first and second waves of feminism is solid and accurate, but my take would have a slightly different emphasis. Movements to improve women’s options have always contained two somewhat contradictory messages; one that women need more power because they are different than men, especially as mothers, and the other that women deserve more power because they are the same and equal with men.  With a few exceptions such as the Quaker Lucretia Mott, the first women’s right movement focused on how women were special. Their needs as mothers were prominently raised.  In the twentieth century, especially as the feminist movement peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, women’s rights as individuals equal to men were stressed.  In our rejection of our mother’s lifestyles, we often ignored the importance of mothering.  Some women, like Adrienne Rich, wrote about motherhood.  Women of color expressed real insight on the topic, but most of us, the white, financially secure feminists, couldn’t or didn’t hear them.  We are only now engaging in meaningful discussions of how motherhood is being redefined by the economy, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps the strongest discussion in the book is Kinser’s description of the backlash against women that began during Reagan’s presidency and continues today.  She tells about the attempts to cut back on women’s ability to control their bodies and the loss of much needed government assistance to those whom Reagan mistakenly labeled “welfare queens.”   Retaining assistance required women to take jobs which were inadequate to support their families and left their children without care.   Middle-class women were told they should stay home and take care of their children, but the poor were told to desert theirs.

Kinser is never judgmental about either those who mother or those who do not.  She describes how politicians and the media have shaped women’s issues.  In doing so, she is able to put together what we couldn’t always see at the time and to redefine what is at stake for all women.  She points out that the “mommy wars” surfaced just as political leaders were cutting back on assistance to mothers and women began to enter the professions in significant numbers.  Those who opposed women having significant roles outside their families complain that such women expect “to have it all,” as if motherhood and employment were nothing but pure pleasure.  In reality, increasing numbers of women have too many conflicting responsibilities “to do it all.”  If they are to be successful they need outside help.  Kinser’s account of the past three decades makes clear that the current “war on women” being waged against birth control, women in poverty, and professional women is only the latest, and harshest battle in an ongoing struggle.

In the last section of her book, Kinser discusses the various organizations which mothers are in the process of creating.  Most of these would not consider themselves feminists, although their goals are certainly similar to those which feminists have long supported.  That is both a critique of feminism and an example of how successful radical conservatives have been in dividing women.  Mothers are organizing around an amazing range of issues.  Several groups, like literarymamas, provide support and exchange for those combining motherhood and writing careers.  Others organize around specific issues like welfare reform or music.  Check out the list and the sites suggested.

A major theme of Kinser’s book is that the public debates may focus on mothering, but the issues at stake affect us all.  Cutting back on health care for women, on education, and on jobs for teachers, social workers and others in the service sector have their greatest impact on mothers, but they affect all of us.  Attempts to control women’s bodies are particularly dangerous.  Motherhood becomes a symbol for how men and women, single and married, gay and straight, deal with the need for individual options and the need to act for the good of others.  That is an issue this country has avoided for too long.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers, but especially to mothers and/or feminists and to those who are interested in mothers as writers.

RELATED BOOKS

Conflict, by Elisabeth Badinter. See my review.
The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood…,by Shari MacDonald Strong.  On my TBR shelf.

SUGGESTED BY KINSER

Mothering and Blogging, by May Friedman and Shana Calixte.
How Mothers Decide about Work, Career, and Motherhood, by Kathleen Gerson.
Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, edited by Evelyn Glenn.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2012 10:43 am

    Wow this sounds like a really interesting book, that touches on a lot of interesting points. Thanks for bringing it to my attention through your review!

  2. August 31, 2012 8:39 am

    Yes, it is an excellent overview of two topics that don’t often get treated together as they should. As the author points out, how our society thinks about mothers influences all women, not just those who give birth.

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