"It is often argued that art, industry and government
create new human reality while mothering merely reproduces human beings and
their cultures and social structures. In reality, mothering persons change
culture and social reality by creating the kinds of persons who can continue to
transform themselves and their surroundings." – Virginia Held,
Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society and Politics (University of
Chicago Press: 1993)
The origins of the
word mother are said to be the Latin mater,
meaning source or substance, and mamma,
meaning breast. It was only in 1863 that the use of "mother" meaning "to take
care of" became common. Motherhood has many meanings across cultures and many
of these meanings have changed over time.
For many, the most
familiar and enduring meanings of motherhood are those commonly
associated with caring, relating, intimacy and emotional needs. Particular
human relations in the family, friendship as well as sympathy and concern for
others have traditionally been neglected and excluded in the field of
ethics and moral philosophy.
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experience of women began to be brought into the domain of moral consciousness, feminist philosopher Virginia Held noted that what emerged as the most
fundamental and central social relation was the relationship between the mother
or mothering person and the child. Yet even as many cultures accord motherhood
and what they consider "motherly" roles with a great deal of reverence and
respect, the same roles also oftentimes overlap as a site of subordination and
devaluation for both women and girls.
Feminists are credited with pointing out the way in which the acceptance of the domestic ideal is the
foundation of women’s oppression. While some radical feminist positions
(popularized by media) did, early in the women’s movements, portray the choice
of motherhood as "false consciousness," it is hardly fair to say that women
cannot freely choose to be mothers and take on primarily domestic roles in the family
without ending up oppressed. The point about linking motherhood and women’s
oppression is perhaps best understood in the context of the enforced ideal, role and state of
In many societies,
to this day, becoming a wife and mother continues to be the only option for women and girls. As a
matter of survival, often compounded by societies’ claims of cultural and
religious identity, women and young girls are pressured and become mothers. In such situations,
choice is simply not an issue.
We don’t even have
to make a comparison from our great-grandmother’s generation, to imagine how
this works — because it’s still happening today.
The Texas sect practicing polygamy in
violation of US laws, was also discovered to be marrying off girls aged 14-17 to
much older men with several wives. Warren Jeffs, the reputed leader of the
Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), who has been charged by the
authorities in Arizona with conspiring to commit sexual conduct with a minor,
himself had 70 wives.
In the sect,
marriage and submission to one’s husband (in a polygamous marriage) was the only future for a woman since the
sect believed that men had to have at least three wives in order to "reach the
highest degree of glory in heaven." One of Jeff’s former
wives recounted her life in the sect, as a young girl forced to marry a man
with several wives, and how after running away, she faced a custody battle over
her children. As alarming as the story was to the public, it was painful to
witness how the children were hauled off and taken into custody by the police
and now continue to be separated from their mothers. Easily, the moral hysteria
around polygamy tends to focus on the "unusual" sexual arrangement without necessarily
taking issue with the lack of women’s agency and freedom in such arrangements.
Indeed, the issue of polygamy is a complex issue, one which is usually
complicated by cultural difference. But as we bore witness to the fumbling
state, ill-equipped to handle the complex issues of individual women’s and
children’s rights clashing with "religious group rights," many were left
wondering about the future of the children who were placed in foster care. But
how about the wives and mothers left behind? Admittedly, a case like this
presents no easy solutions or answers.
On the other hand,
FLDS’s practices (which included controlling women’s and girls’ mobility and
access to information) are certainly not a unique feature of one cult. All over
the world, major religions led by its male religious authorities still actively
work to limit women’s and girl’s access to information, particularly when it
comes to sexuality. Conservative opposition to sexuality education in the US for instance,
is not just a matter of religious preference but the very stuff
of politics. Similarly, politicians in Manila
in the Philippines
have gone as far as banning modern family planning methods simply by virtue of
their own religious beliefs on the matter.
religious traditions, considering motherhood as a choice and a woman’s decision
remains a big challenge. According to Lynn Freedman, the threat that the
International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) posed for religious
fundamentalists was not really fertility regulation itself but the challenge to
traditional patriarchal social structures.
Their fear really
isn’t so much that feminism or women’s human rights will suddenly lead all
women to reject motherhood but rather that in the capacity for choice, women are challenging
the very notions that rationalize male domination embedded in traditional
meanings of motherhood.