Subverting Motherhood as an Institution and Re-Imagining Mothering as Radical Political Practices

First of all I want to say how happy I am to be at this very important conference and how impressed and moved I am by the presentations before me. In fact they have paved the way for many things that I`m going to say, although my presentation is going to be a bit different. What I`m going to do is to put the accent on women’s struggle over motherhood, and redefine what mothering is. In a sense I want to redefine mothering beyond motherhood and certainly beyond the idea that there is a biological connection between mothering and caring for people. So I propose that we extend the notion of motherhood beyond the fact of being a biological mother.

Before I do that, however, I would like to speak of the theoretical framework from which I look at the question of motherhood as an institution. Why is motherhood an institution? My view is that every society that is based on the exploitation of labor has, also must, turn motherhood into an institution, it has to introduce regulations and forms of control over women’s reproduction and subordinate their reproductive capacities to the goals of the state. Capitalism is not an exception. On the contrary. More than any other economic system capitalism needs to control procreation as for the capitalist system labor is the main source of wealth. Thus from the very beginning of capitalist society procreation has been subordinated her to the production of workers and to the production of and reproduction of soldiers for the state. In this process mothering has been naturalized, it has been constructed as a woman’s natural vocation and made invisible as work.

However there are moments in history when the illusion of naturalization brakes down. For myself and for many women of my generation this moment was World War II, which was a watershed from the viewpoint of women’s relation to the state, representing a real moment of transformation in the relation of women towards the family and towards motherhood. 

Mariarosa Della Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati in Italy, have written interesting articles on this topic, describing the  transformations that the war brought about in the position of women. The war was a transition from the time of fascism, when motherhood was glorified as a patriotic duty, and mothers with 15 children were considered heroines and given medals and rewards. The war put an end to all this. The experience of seeing so many people killed also by the bombardments, seeing that the patriarchal family did not guaranteed women’s lives, showed that producing children for the state did not pay, it showed that as a reward for our mothers’ work the state had sent their children to die. That experience affected me and many women who grew up after the war. Many of us decided not to have children, both to avoid being dependent on a man, and because we did not want to bring children into a world that had produced so much destruction and could certainly not guarantee them a good life. We refuse having children under the conditions that state and capitalism offered to us.

Somebody this morning asked what went wrong with women’s movement and what can we learn from the mistakes the movement made. I would stress that in its initial phase, the women’s movement did not fight only for equality or a better position in the society, but wanted to change society from the bottom up.  We knew that to change the position of women we would have to change every aspect of social life. One of the main issues was how to redefine our ‘private life,’ the sphere of sexual relation and so forth. The contribution that feminists gave to social change has been to denaturalize mothering. We did not have to wait for Foucault or Judith Butler to teach us that mothering and motherhood are social constructs. Every feminist intervention in the 1970s illuminated that point: that is, motherhoods is imposed on us, there is not nothing natural about it, and that there is where the suffering and subordination that it involves, come from. They’re not a consequence of the mothering itself, but of what is mothering supposed to fulfill.  It was a mistake, however, for the feminist movement to equate control over our lives and control over our body and reproduction with the struggle for abortion. This was a myopic position which ignored that true control is to have the possibility to reproduce ourselves, something which many women across the world have been and are denied. For throughout the history of capitalism the state has wanted to decide who is going to be born and who is not going to be born on this planet.

State politics concerning mothering have always had a eugenic dimension. In US, in the 1970s, black women and generally low-income women who were on welfare, if they had no husband and they had children were likely candidates for sterilization. Often, in the hospital, after giving birth, they would be given a paper and told to sign hear that they accepted to have their tubes tied, for otherwise they would loose their welfare benefits. The feminist movement was not there for these women; it did not fight for their right to have children. And this was particularly problematic because by the 1980s with globalization and the restructuring of the global economy we saw a massive attack on women across the world in the name of population control. I believe that this attack, which led to the sterilization of many women in India, in Indonesia, made in the name of population control, was a political decision. Across the world, in the 1980s, a new generation was coming of age who wanted a new world order, a new distribution of wealth, more just, more egalitarian satisfying the aspirations of the anti-colonial struggle. This was the context in which women were blamed for world poverty, due presumably to their having too many children. So the campaign for population control was a true war on women, made the scapegoats for the devastating consequences of colonialism in their regions.

It was a mistake for the feminist movement not to fight for a redistribution of wealth and a rechanneling of the resources by which we reproduce ourselves.  Our fight for wages for housework moved in that direction, but it was not a popular strategy in the ‘70s, at least in the United States. Most feminists assumed that the road to women’s liberation would begin with work outside the home. As a result, reproduction as a terrain of struggle was largely abandoned so much so in the US, that feminist did not fight for maternity leave. They feared that if they asked for it they would not have the right to demand equality with men. Maternity leave was seen as a privilege that would undermine women’s claim to equality. Presumably to be treated equally in front of the law we had to show that we were exactly the same as men.  In other words, we had to become men. Very symbolic, in my view, was the case of women in West Virginia who decided to be sterilized in order to be able to work in the mines, because the mining companies otherwise would not employ them, because the work is dangerous for women’s reproductive system. A consequence of the women’s movement’s myopic politics was that it could not build a strong mobilization over the question of reproduction, intended in all its different dimensions –not only as a struggle for abortion – despite the fact that this is a struggle that united all women. But we see now that more access to waged work has not given women the independence many expected from it; women gained more autonomy from men but not from capital, having to perform two or even three jobs working in and out of the home. Indeed, women’s lives today are consumed by work, which leaves little for family, friends, relaxation and political activism. Having a child immensely adds to the work and the anxiety so many women today experience and that clearly has implication also for their relations with their children. Generally speaking, I would say that reproduction, including procreation, has been further devalued.  It is significant that women who have a career are ‘outsourcing’ this work through surrogacy or adoption. This is a very perverse phenomenon, the cruelty of which is already well documented. Not only we have women in many parts of the world who in order to have some money of their own produce children ‘for sale,’ but we also have a many displaced children, rejected by the parents who originally commissioned them as well as their biological surrogate mothers, at times because they are born with health impairment, but frequently because the commissioning parents are no longer interested in them. In the U.S. some use the internet to free themselves of children they have obtained through surrogacy, clearly having no attachment to them and viewing them as objects to be discarded.

Another problematic development of the worldwide restructuring of reproduction is  the ‘globalization of care,’ i.e. the fact that impoverished women from ‘Third World’ countries come to US to work as maids, nannies, and other types of care-workers. Many times these are women who are leaving their children behind, who feel terribly alone, and often became very attached to the children that they are caring for, though these are very precarious relations and at any moment they can be separated.

It is evident then that we need to rethink the question of mothering and refocus the feminist struggle. An important contribution the women’s movement has made has been analyzing the place of mothering in the capitalist organization of work, and recognizing that this work has been subordinated to the needs of the labor market. Obviously ‘mothering’ and producing workers for the market are two different processes, but this is what women live, experience, perform, with great contradictions. We have learned that we can disentangle our ‘mothering’ from the work of disciplining our children and families, so they can perform as it is expected of them in the capitalist organization of work. I am not suggesting that discipline is not necessary; certainly children need to understand that they are part of collective world and being part of a collectivity requires we understand certain social rules. Recognizing the difference between disciplining our children so that they can perform for capital and teaching them to live as part of a community has been very important for us. Among other things, it has made us realize that in refusing certain aspects of housework we liberate not only ourselves but our children as well. For there is a relationship between disciplining our children and disciplining ourselves. In fact the women’s movement has given power not only to women but also to other members of their families.

Something interesting has happened from the 1980’s and 1990’s to the present that can give us hope for the future. This is the development of what I would call ‘rebel mothering.’ It has taken different forms. One is the struggle for self-determined procreation. This is deciding not only if and when we want to have children, but how we want to give birth. There is a movement now in the US opposing the industrialization of birth-giving, i.e. the fact that delivering is often done in an assembly-line fashion. You are given a few hours – this at least in hospitals for low-income people – and if you cannot deliver within the allotted time you are given a Cesarean cut.

There are also other forms of struggle. In particular we have been inspired by the struggle the women in Latin America have made in the ‘80s and ‘90s in response to the liberalization of their economies that has caused mass impoverishment. Already in Chile, after the Pinochet coup – which marked the beginning of the neo-liberal regime, as well as instituting a regime of terror – women who came forward, protected by the fact that they moved as mother, as providers for their families. In a conservative regime committed officially to the celebration of motherhood, they were able to engage in activities that over time transformed not only the society, but their experience of motherhood. They began to organize their reproduction collectively. They set up shopping and cooking committees. They began shopping together, as this would reduce the cost of food; they set up popular kitchens, and then gardening committees, sowing committees. They did that as a survival mechanism, but it helped them as well to break down their isolation and the sense of paralysis that the brutality of the repression had generated. They broke down their isolation at a time when in Chile nobody could come together without being arrested, without being tortured, disappeared. It took a long time for the government to understand what was going on, to understand that through these activities women were creating a new reality. A point came in fact when the government began to accuse the women and these activities as communism. The same experience was repeated in Peru, in Argentina where women brought pots and pans to the piquetes. Much has been said about self-managed factories, but not enough about the self-managed reproduction that women have created, which we now recognize as a sort of political motherhood. ‘Political motherhood’ because even though women fought in the name of mothering in reality they transformed what mothering means. In the words of one woman: `Today to be a good mother you have to make a struggle`. To be a good mother you have to go out of the home, to connect with other people, and confront the authorities, the institutions, because nothing is guaranteed any longer.

We seen the same development not only in Latin America but also in other parts of the world. One of the latest examples today comes from Japan. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster the Japanese government has denied that serious danger exists and evacuated people only from a very limited area surrounding the nuclear plants where the explosion occurred. They have then made an appeal to patriotism, asking people to carry on their lives as usual, and continue to consumer the products of the contaminated areas, to support the economy. In Tokyo they are selling `love tomatoes`, grown in contaminated arias. In this situation mothers have been mobilizing. They have refused to accept this propaganda and feed their children radioactive food and now we do not trust anything that government says. There is a movement of women now in Japan who are organizing as mothers, but are in fact going way beyond the traditional forms of mothering. They too are showing that to be a good mother today you have to learn about radioactivity, you have to learn about food, that you have to come together and put together your resources to bay Geiger counters, so that you can see if you can let your children go out to play, whether the sand is radioactive or not. And now they also come together in the neighborhoods to buy the machines to check the radioactivity in food, because the government is recognizing only high levels of radioactivity and is constantly redefining upwards what constitute a safe level of radioactivity. The response of the Japanese government to Fukushima is emblematic of the attack companies and governments are launching today against our means of reproduction. And we should not be surprised that in this situation it is women in particular who are responding and organizing. They are moving as women, as mothers, but at the same time they are really transforming mothering and creating a political form of motherhood. 

The last point I want to make is that we also see a move, particularly among the new generation of women activists, towards a conception of mothering that goes beyond biological parenting. It is a notion of mothering that comes from the desire for a new way of doing politics, where political and personal, where the time of activism and the reproduction of our everyday life are not separated. The Occupy movement is an example. Activists today are realizing that if they want to change the world they must start from their own lives. And we have to develop a responsibility not only towards our children, the children that come from our womb or that we father, but we have to have responsibility towards all the new generations.


Transcript: Ana Vilenica