The feminist ideas and positioning in relation to motherhood and caring for children are quite complex. Regardless of one’s positioning, it is clear that the analysis of the relationships between production and reproduction is a central one for most feminists. But the answers and political positioning have differed quite significantly, also over time and in different contexts.
In some contexts motherhood has been the point of departure for radical mobilising against oppression and violence. In others, women’s quest for autonomy has been synonymous with refusing to reproduce, refusing motherhood. Valerie Solanas proposed that reproduction be carried out by machines, which she saw as the only decent solution to relieve women from an ungrateful and degrading reality. On the one hand it is clear that productive work is valued ; it is usually performed in a paid capacity, and gives access to a series of social rights and also status in our western European societies.
Reproductive work however, carries many of the opposite characteristics. It is largely still unpaid or underpaid, considered low status. The division of reproductive and productive work is also extremely gendered. Productive work has been seen as a male priority and privilege. If there is scarcity for jobs, many people still consider it normal that men get priority for the jobs that are out there. Reproductive work, including bringing up children and taking care of all dependant persons, is seen as women’s work. And women’s work does not count. Not in real terms in the sense that women often do not get paid for the bulk of this work, and not in official economic statistics either, where all our agencies still fail to produce figures that would tell us something about the value of women’s work in economical terms. No wonder then that feminists have had a hard time to reconcile with motherhood and ‘reproductive work’ at large, let alone see it as a potentially empowering position from which social and political change can be brought about.
Where I come from, in the Scandinavian countries, much of the care work has been ‘commodified’, meaning that this work has moved out of the private and into the public sphere – and more specifically into the public sector services. This has meant that women have had the opportunity to actually get paid for the work that before was unpaid. This has led to increased economic autonomy for women, and is a big reason why scandinavian countries have gained the reputation as some of the most gender equal societies in the world. I would be the first to defend this strategy, in which women have ‘used’ the state -through the expansion and investment of the state in care sectors - to gain more independence and autonomy, widening the life choices of women. To work has been an imperative for at least three generations of Scandinavian women, and Scandi feminists have largely treated with suspicion all women in any way trying to re/up-valuing the practice of motherhood and caring (outside the public sector sphere). Quite reasonably so, considering that the conservative right always tended to recuperate and essentialise any argumentation in this sense. One of the scariest things for a feminist (like me anyway) is to fall into the essentialist trap, in which women are bound and defined in relationship to their bodies primarily, the reproducing, childbearing body. This is a position from which it has been nearly impossible to demand equality, resources, and autonomy for women. It is the same argument that our enemies have always used : ‘women cannot do politics because they breastfeed (read have no brain), women cannot be part of an efficient work force since they are main carers of children’ - women’s role is in the private, nurturing sphere. Of course one cannot buy into that, or even risk being misused by our opponents – that are still out there. Very much alive and kicking. But where does this leave us then ? Especially today, in a political context where market liberalisation, privatisation, and deregulation are the leitmotivs ? Is my feminist vision limited to a version where all women should work full time in a capitalist, profitdriven economy, most of the time with precarious and bad working conditions ? In order to secure ourselves security and autonomy, I might recommend it on an individual level. But as a feminist (transformative) vision, it is seriously haltering to me. Nor can a feminist vision be constructed around a reality where slightly more wealthy women will rely on other women with less power and resources, to be able to ‘reconcile’ family and professional life (reproductive and productive work), and thereby maintain their autonomy and economic independence. It seriously bothers me that we as feminists, despite the great plans of socialist and radical feminism, have not managed to formulate demands and visions that go beyond slightly fixing the dominant model, but not shaking the underlying value-system, nor the production system, nor the way we ’relate’ and care for each other. And this is not specific to the Scandinavian ‘state feminism’ model in any way. Which is one of the reasons I am tuning into a strand of feminism that I have not looked so favourably upon before, that of the so-called ‘care-feminists’. The care-feminists for me were a dangerous mix of essentialist actors, arguing on the basis of women’s biological difference, launching utopian, largely naïve feminist theories. At 23 I did however sign up for a seminar around a book of a brilliant feminist Swedish philosopher, Ulla Holm, to learn about her theories on mothering and practice. What was important for me in this approach was the understanding of mothering or even motherhood as not a essentialist condition, not a bodily or biological state, but a matter of practice, of doing – taking care of children and/or other dependants. ‘Mothering’ or ‘caring’ in this sense also goes well beyond the upbringing of children ; there are many persons in our societies that need caring – young, old, and in-betweens. It is an essential fact in our societies. And in this understanding, anyone could be a ‘mother’, doing mothering - it is a practice, not a condition. Needless to say, men are in this vision perfectly capable of caring, as caring is not bound or reserved to a specific gender.
The practice of mothering and caring can perhaps in this version be defined as an alternative point of departure to transform society ? Being involved in these practices generates a different set of values and gives a different outlook on things. It is a different reality, and this reality shapes our understanding and also how we want to see the world shaped. So the values are nothing biological, nothing essential, but something that develops through caring/ mothering. Only when the political, economic, social, and cultural are adapted to these values and structured around the necessity, the absolute essentialness of these practices, can we speak about feminist transformation and a different vision for society. In organising our societies, production should be structured around reproduction, not the other way around.
In underlining the potential of gender ’neutralness’ in delivering and engaging in such a political path, I don’t want to deny the possibility that women’s and men’s different embodiment counts. As women have the capacity (in most cases) and the experience (in many cases) of childbearing, delivery, etc., it might make us more proned to take up on a political positioning that makes caring and ’reproductive’ work more central ? But that is another article all by itself, so I will not venture further into the ideas of embodiment and their possible political implications right now.
Today, as I am slightly coming back to the work of ’care-feminists’ and to other feminist works around the same theme, I must still admit that some of it does not sit too easily with me. But I definitely think that there is a point to make, for feminists that want to criticise the dominant system to introduce the idea of taking reproductive practice, mothering/ caring – as central points for the formulation of policy in our societies. I am concerned though. Concerned of the political forces in Europe today, where the power largely lies with conservative forces that use essentialist arguments to deny women autonomy, be it economic independence or autonomy over our bodies. They will in every way try to co-opt our strategies, our words, our practices even – but I believe I would still be very curious to try this path of feminist resistance at this moment in time.