Viewpoint: Liberating Motherhood and the Need for a Maternal Feminism

Viewpoint: Liberating Motherhood and the Need for a Maternal Feminism

Vanessa Olorenshaw

Motherhood has been a minefield for feminism since the inception of the women’s movement. We have fought for reproductive freedom, we have pushed for economic equality, we have called for universal childcare and we have worked towards greater success in the ‘public sphere’.

However, we remain faced with one problem. There remain a sizeable proportion of mothers who actually want to care for their families. Not all mothers want to be liberated from mothering their children. Those who take time out of the workforce are penalised financially; and those who return to employment against their wishes face strain of a double shift.

We refuse to see that what mothers do in reproducing the human race and caring for vulnerable, dependent children is important and necessary work. Indeed, ‘dependence’ has become a dirty word, rather than acknowledged as an intrinsic part of the human condition (1). Having children is not a lifestyle choice akin to keeping lizards: it is socially imperative to produce and raise the next generation (2).

Women who are mothers are at higher risk of poverty. Mothers who care for their families may not have an income in their name: they remain – as highlighted by the women’s movement – at the financial mercy of a partner and thereby vulnerable. While the answer to this predicament has effectively been ‘get a job’, feminism has failed to answer what we are to do with about mothers if we are to ensure that they do not sacrifice economic autonomy or full citizenship when they care for their children. Childcare and ‘sharenting’ answers the question only for those families for whom that is preferred or suitable.

Feminism has moved towards a capitalist equality which has no room for women’s liberation. I discussed how the Women’s Equality Party has given every impression that it is the Women Employees Equality Party. When it comes to equality: some women are more equal than mothers. Every woman must now have a ‘job of one’s own’, not a room at home with the children. Sheryl Sandberg tells us to ‘lean in’ and lead – but when we push for more women at the top, we forget that this requires plenty at the bottom.

I have been an activist and writer in the field of mothers, politics and feminism and am a Friend of the organisation Mothers At Home Matter. Before the General Election 2015, I published a pamphlet entitled The Politics of Mothering. I was clear then, and I am clear now, that feminism and politics has failed mothers who want to care for their children. No political party spoke for a woman who wants to care for her children: the one-upmanship in the main parties about funded childcare, and the launching of the Labour Party’s manifesto in a children’s nursery, told mothers at home that they were effectively non-citizens, disenfranchised and disempowered. The ‘Family Test’ for civil servants failed to mention the word ‘mother’. Once. Feminism has to step up and address the injustices for women economically, socially and politically. Speaking on the women’s unwaged work panel (hosted by Mothers At Home Matter and featuring maternal feminist organisation All Mothers Work and academic Karem Roitman) at Feminism in London Conference, and at the GWS International Women’s Conference in 2015, I have been clear that feminism cannot embrace women unless we also embrace mothers: all mothers, in all our diversity.

The neoliberal project has squeezed families and forced women into low paid, low status and low security work which many would prefer to decline – if they had the opportunity. Those women who are at home with their children are penalised in the sacrifice of an income and the family purse is taxed disproportionately compared with families earning the same – but split into a dual income. An average family is around £3,000 worse off in tax. In short, the State penalises care and marginalises carers. As though feminism had never happened.

Kathleen Lynch, of University College Dublin, and other academics talk about affective labour and affective equality. She is clear that the ‘affective’ (as opposed to ‘political’, ‘economic’, or ‘socio-cultural’) is vital (3). Yet, the necessary work of family remains one of the most neglected areas of feminism and politics.

The debate about the pay gap has consistently failed to consider the income gap. The Wages for Housework Campaign has, since the 1970s, had the temerity to demand a living wage for carers. Feminism fears that it would institutionalise or ghettoise women into domesticity; Capitalism refuses to see what women do in the home and in raising families as ‘work’. And so, the demand and perspective of the campaign has faltered consistently, rejected by capitalist patriarchy. Of course it has.

However, the campaign for a Universal Basic Income is gaining momentum: perhaps the gender-neutral nature of a citizens’ income for all has lessened the objection that a wage for care will push women back to the home and housewifery. It reduces the resistance to ‘giving women money’. It certainly appeals to those who, to quote Kathi Weeks, see a Problem With Work (4).

Despite the success of suffragette and independent MP Eleanor Rathbone in securing the Family Allowance in 1946, with the rationale that no woman caring for children should be economically impoverished and financially beholden to a partner, the Coalition Government removed the universality of the payment in 2011. It had been a feminist success – it was a payment for the mother, not for the child. Gender-neutral language hid the fact that it was women who were losing a hard won payment – by then renamed in a sleight of hand as Child Benefit – to reduce their exploitation in their unwaged work and to ensure that no woman, no matter the income bracket of the wage earner, be economically isolated. It was a feminist failure that the assault on the payment was carried through.

After all, when jobs are being lost to automation; when wealth is accumulating in the 1%; when the workplace increasingly encroaches on family life; and when women remain at higher risk of poverty because they have cared for their families, feminism has to start to ask itself: are we ever going to find creative ways to protect, support and empower women beyond simply pushing for paid employment? We must start to recover some of the intellectual and creative verve of the original women’s movement: we have to return to discussing redistribution of wealth and the fair organisation of labour. The fact is, many mothers remain trapped by the market either as workers or as unwaged carers. We need to find ways to value care, to support carers, and put money into the pockets of those who sustain and nourish the human race. Mothers.

There has been significant academic work undertaken in the field of motherhood since Adrienne Rich reminded us that we are all Of Woman Born (5). Andrea O’Reilly and the Motherhood Institute for Research and Community Involvement and Demeter Press are addressing motherhood through the feminist lens. Maternal Theory (6), as an introduction to the wealth of literature about motherhood, is a good start.

However, mainstream politics and feminism continues to apply the new gender contract: whereas once our place was mandated to be at home, it is now firmly in the workplace. There is no flexibility. No recognition of the diversity in mothers’ wishes, skills, inclinations or needs, or the validity of mothers taking a short or longer period of time out of continuous workplace participation in order to do the important work of care.

One of the significant barriers to valuing care is the fact that dominant strands of feminism have become what Nancy Fraser describes as the handmaidens of capitalism. We talk about the boardroom, not the birthing room. We talk about the feminization of poverty without stopping to acknowledge that a significant reason women face poverty is because we, still, refuse to put money in their hands to reflect the valuable work they do. The unwaged work of children and home.

In my book Liberating Motherhood – Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, I argue for feminism to mobilise with mothers. When mothering is on our terms, it is a liberating motherhood. Yet, we need to liberate motherhood from patriarchal neoliberal capitalist constraints so that mothers can finally enjoy economic autonomy and self-determination.

(1) Fineman, Martha Albertson. The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies. New York: Routledge. 1995.
(2) Folbre, Nancy. The Invisible Heart, Economics and Family Values. New York: The New Press, 2001.
(3) Lynch, Kathleen et al. Affective Equality. Love, Care and Justice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009.
(4) Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work – Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. London: Duke University Press, 2011.
(5) Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution. London: Virago, 1977.
(6) O’Reilly, Andrea, ed. Maternal Theory, Essential Readings. Bradford: Demeter Press. 2007.


Vanessa Olorenshaw is a mother of two young children. She is a friend of the organisation Mothers at Home Matter and was a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party UK. She is the author of The Politics of Mothering, a political pamphlet. Her book Liberating Motherhood – Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, will be published later in 2016 by WomancraftPublishing. She tweets on @VOlorenshaw and blogs here.

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