Our Symposium Transcription



Good afternoon, everyone! Here is the transcription for my essay "Feminism's Great Amnesia: Reclaiming the Fact of Motherhood." If you are reaching this through my blog and would like to see my video, here is the link.

Hi, everyone! My name is Ashlea Adams Hernandez, and I’m a graduate student in the English Dept at UWF. I am also a stay-at-home mother to two amazing little boys, who are currently outside playing while Mommy does her video. In the Fall of 2019, I took Dr. Blyn’s feminist theory class, where I explored what my fellow feminists have to say about being a mom, which I am sharing with you today. There is a link for this essay in the description below. It includes a transcription of the video as well as a list of the resources I used. I hope you enjoy.

Feminism’s Great Amnesia: Reclaiming the Fact of Motherhood

by Ashlea Adams Hernandez

When my first son was born, I was working as a private school teacher, making roughly $29,000 annually. Eighteen months later, my second son came along, and we now had two children under two years old. To put my youngest son in infant care in Florida, I would pay on average $9,238 per year, and for my eldest, I would pay close to $7,282 (“Child Care”). Those numbers come out to be about 57% of my salary, leaving me with roughly $240 per week to add to my husband’s salary. If I were a single mom, that would be $240 for me and my children to live on each week. Because of the cost of childcare, my husband and I decided together that I would stay home. It’s a privilege and a blessing, but, as you can imagine, it’s also hard financially.

My situation is not an anomaly. Mothers face not only societal pressures to conform to their roles as parents and workers but also major economic issues in becoming mothers, issues like unaffordable childcare, unpaid maternity leave, and low-paying, inflexible jobs. Second-wave and Marxist feminism have worked together to ensure women can join the work-force; however, they have done little to alleviate the underlying issues mothers face as wage-earners. I argue that feminism as a whole presupposes that motherhood is a bondage from which all women must escape; it does not grapple with the patriarchal image of the ideal worker; and it presupposes that all mothers desire to work. I will explore concepts like institutional motherhood, wage-earning, and others as well as how these unaddressed concepts affect the intersectional identities of mothers, resulting many rejecting feminism as a whole.

Through most of history, the patriarchal institution of motherhood relegated women to be solely responsible for childrearing and forced mothers to put their families first, at the risk of their own mental health and wellbeing. Second-wave feminist Adrienne Rich says, in her book Of Woman Born, that “I realize that I was effectively alienated from my real body and my real spirit by the institution—not the fact—of motherhood” (Rich 39). Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, explores “the problem that has no name” (Friedan 19). Rich gives a name to Friedan’s nameless problem: the institution of motherhood. In these texts’ passages alone, there are strong descriptors for the institution of motherhood: alienating, desperate, quieting. Rich wasn’t alienated from her husband or children or extended family members or friends: she was isolated from her own body and her spirit, her self. Another way to interpret alienated is to say that she transferred ownership of her self to someone or something else: the institution of motherhood, “the foundation of human society” (Rich 39).

Rich exposes the façade of institutional motherhood. For Rich, the institution of motherhood used everything from booklets in her obstetrician’s office to artwork and novels to guilt her into being an ideal, compliant housewife and mother (Rich 39). In effect, the patriarchal society assaulted women with venerate images like the perfect, silent Madonna when reality shows that Mary had to change diapers and clean spit-up like every other mother. By second-wave feminists sharing their personal experiences, by breaking the gag order, Rich and others are illuminating the effects of the institution of motherhood. The patriarchy, after suffering a blow when women gained rights, the vote, and a brief glimpse into the workforce, resituated the battlefield to the place where women had always complied in the past: motherhood. Suddenly, the patriarchy said that white, middle-class women—because lower-class women had to work whether or not they were mothers— that white, middle-class mothers could certainly have a career, but a “good” mother would stay home to rear her children to the point of sacrificing her self to the needs of her children. The workforce, once again, became the escape from her stifling life as a mother.

Marxist feminists, like Heidi Hartmann, fought for women to join the workforce and explored how men have used motherhood as a means of controlling women’s labor and wage-earning. Hartmann addresses the fact that mothers in the workforce are doubly burdened by both motherhood and wage-earning. She says that “the material base of the patriarchy, then does not rest solely on childrearing in the family, but on the social structures that enable men to control women’s labor” (Hartmann 12). I take issue with the term women’s labor. It’s just not enough: a more pointed term would be women’s wage-earning. Women have always labored, but they have not always been compensated with fair wages (Gilman 14). Let’s put the idea of wages versus labor in current terms. A recent study, quoted in the New York Times, that found if American women earned minimum wage for their unpaid labor, for the work of caring for their children or even their elderly family members, they would’ve earned roughly $1.5 trillion last year (Wezerek). Globally, that’s comes out to $10.9 trillion (Wezerek). For perspective, that’s more than what the 50 biggest companies in the world made last year (Wezerek).

So again, Hartmann is pointing out that by controlling women’s wage-earning, men prevent women from gaining independence “by excluding women from access to necessary economically productive resources” that would allow her to earn a wage, thus gaining independence (Hartmann 14). Those kinds of resources are access to affordable childcare or jobs with equal pay for women and men. The focus amongst feminists then became how we get women into the workforce and alleviate the burdens of childrearing. Their solution was the breakdown of the nuclear family, but even today, households predominately require two incomes to survive. Marxist feminists fail to realize that the workforce is founded on privileging the father as the ideal worker; without altering this ideal, mothers will not achieve economic independence.

Moving forward to a contemporary feminism, we now encounter third-wave feminism, which unfortunately learns nothing from its predecessors’ mistakes. The issues of institutional motherhood and the patriarchal workforce continue to be ignored in third-wave feminist texts like The Motherhood Manifesto. What the text succeeds in is recognizing the diverse issues mothers face. The authors understand that “by tackling these interconnected problems together—rather than in isolation—we create a powerful system of support for families” (Blades 17). Note that, they are looking for systems that support families in any form that takes, not necessarily breaking down the nuclear family. This slight shift demonstrates that the authors know the struggles of mothering across the board. However, much like its predecessors, the manifesto merely tackles the lack of resources that prevent women from entering the workforce with more policy changes, which are necessary. I don’t disagree. But my issue is that we are relying on a patriarchal government to change their rules for our benefit. We can’t solely rely on that. We have to change the culture. We, as mothers, rear each generation of humanity. We are the catalyst for social change.

The patriarchal institution of the workforce remains unchallenged in any of the texts, even in The Motherhood Manifesto. As workers, women have economic value, whether in a socialist or capitalist society, provided they can conform to the model of the ideal worker. The ideal worker is still a man, specifically a father who leaves the personal, meaning the family, at home and dedicates his life to his job (Paustian-Underdahl 986). “Fathers are paid more and are considered more hirable and competent than childless men” (986). Good for fathers, right? You’d think it would be the same for moms, but the fact is that “mothers receive fewer promotions and face wage penalties compared to childless women” (986). Yes, women are penalized monetarily for being a mother. This is appropriately called the motherhood penalty. Even between mothers and non-mothers there is a thirteen-cent wage-gap. So, if a non-mother makes an average of eighty-one cents to a man’s dollar, then a mother makes sixty-eight cents to a man’s dollar (“Workplace” and “Wage Gap”). To shed further light on the gravity of this gap, the mother wage-gap comes out to be $18,000 annually (“Workplace” and “Wage Gap”). This financially devastating gap is in place because mothers are thought to be not as “dedicated to their careers,” and they “violate the ideal worker norm [of] ‘always there’ for their employer” (Paustian-Underdahl 986). In other words, the patriarchal workforce demands that women choose an institution that could replace her with little effort or consideration over her own children whom she loves and nurtures. The workforce has not moved beyond the family wage system Hartmann decries, a system that keeps women from earning fair wages and thus keeps women from being equal partners in the home and society (Hartmann 15). Certainly, we have made some strides in getting women resources to join the workforce, earn a wage, and have a semblance of independence, but we’ve really done nothing more than double a mother’s labor. We have to change the image of the ideal worker. It must be overhauled. If we don’t broaden this father-privileging, ideal-worker image, if we don’t shift our allegiance from businesses to our families as a society, we are merely perpetuating a patriarchal institution that continues to subjugate families as a whole. But because we feminists didn’t broaden the image of the ideal worker, mothers now must mold themselves to that patriarchal ideal-worker image, meaning putting work before family. The outcome of this oversight is that women, in becoming mothers, suffer additional penalties, like an even wider wage-gap than non-mothers, resulting in monetary losses that follow women into retirement. In other words, because mothers don’t make as much as fathers or even non-mothers, we can’t save as much for retirement which sets us up for a host of financial problems in the future.

So, as I mentioned earlier, second-wave feminists, like Rich, gave a voice to their entrapment in motherhood, not realizing the shaky ground they’re on, but Hartmann noticed there’s something wrong. She notes that “the radical [socialist, communist, Marxist] wing of the women’s movement has lost momentum while the ‘bourgeois’ sector seems to have seized the time and forged ahead” (Hartman 22-23). When a movement stops being representative of those it wishes to help, people will stop listening. Our mothers of feminism have fought for us, their daughters, to gain economic independence from men through wage-earning, but feminist theorists forgot not only the subtleties of patriarchal reach, but they also forgot to take “the ordinary and the everyday” into account: they forgot that there is a difference between motherhood and the patriarchal institution of motherhood (Moi 1739). Consequently, they have forgotten that in the ordinary and everyday, most mothers find the fact of motherhood fulfilling, rewarding, and life-alteringly empowering. They’ve forgotten that motherhood is intensely personal. The veil of the “good” mother that the institution of motherhood wore is being torn aside: there is an emerging push for mothers to understand that they are not alone in their struggles with everything from dealing with low-milk production to mothers who don’t feel a bond with their infant right away. Things that were too taboo before to even discuss. But, these emerging voices, these everyday women, do not identify as feminists. Feminists have forgotten that once a woman becomes a mother, that fact becomes a vital part of a woman’s intersectional identity. In doing so, feminism loses its appeal and relevance to everyday women.

Feminism’s greatest misunderstanding is that motherhood is oppressive and stifling. As mentioned previously, women were “denied independence on the ground that motherhood prevents [their] working” (Gilman 21). Repeatedly, motherhood is blamed for women’s dependence on men. Rich at least makes a distinction when she says that “I realize that I was effectively alienated from my real body and my real spirit by the institution—not the fact—of motherhood” (Rich 39). Not the fact, meaning being a mother, is interjected for emphasis that is quickly overlooked, almost like a parenthetical; most feminists, however, don’t provide that distinction. For Rich, being a mother wasn’t stifling: “this institution—the foundation of human society as we know it—allowed [her] only certain views, certain expectations…[that were] embodied” in every “perfect” mother idol (Rich 39). It was the institution that allowed, and the institution that restricted her, not her children. However, for the sake of wordiness or maybe repetition, the full institution of motherhood is truncated to just motherhood or, in other cases, simply called motherhood. Without intending to, such statements imply that having children, the state of being a mother, is to blame; therefore, being a mother should be avoided. We see this shift in statement’s like Jeffner Allen’s where she says that “motherhood is dangerous to women” (Trebilcot 315). Allen even cites Simon de Beauvoir as cautioning women to “not fall into the trap of children and marriage…because child-bearing at the moment, is real slavery” (315). Laying blame for women’s subjugation on motherhood rejects a vital part of women’s multifaceted identities while doing nothing to extricate the patriarchal reach within the institutions of motherhood and the workforce. Laying blame for women’s subjugation on motherhood is a win for the patriarchy: not only are women still the primary parent and a wage-earner, but the power, now with fewer responsibilities, still rests in the hands of the patriarchy. We’ve merely added to our own burdens.

In addition to struggling against the patriarchal workforce, we must still be the primary parent, the one who stays home from work when our little one is sick, the one who knows when school projects are due, the one who comforts heartbreak, who knows our child’s need just by the kind of cry they make from the crib. As feminists and as a society, we must have a more inclusive image of motherhood. Given the compounded duties as a worker and a mother, there is little wonder why many women wish to opt out of working and stay home with their children. But even without the issues working mothers face, many women just want to stay home with their children. Given society’s view that the best situation for a family is a part-time working mother, staying at home is now as frowned upon as going to work was fifty years ago. We have to give excuses for being stay-at-home mothers, like no one would really want to be around their children. There must be something wrong. And so, because feminists have touted that motherhood is oppressive, we have forgotten the beauty in the relationship between mothers and our children. We’ve forgotten that awe-inspiring strength a biological woman’s body possesses in birthing a child or the bravery an adoptive mother shows us when she mothers an unwanted child. We’ve forgotten the terrible strength a mother exerts in watching her child leave home, the culmination of years of hard labor and love. We’ve forgotten that motherhood doesn’t really end when a child leaves home: mothers are always and forever mothers. We have forgotten all that is good and inspiring in motherhood. In doing so, we’ve allowed the institution of motherhood to supersede the fact of motherhood. In this—hopefully temporary—amnesia, we’ve devalued the art of motherhood and raised up labor and making money as the ultimate realization of womanhood. But let me be clear, we are more than our children just as we are more than our paychecks.

Until we recognize the gaps in feminist theory on motherhood, we will continue to miss the mark as each wave of feminism has. We must stop predicating our entire theory of motherhood on the misunderstanding that motherhood is the problem. It’s not: the patriarchal institution of motherhood is the problem. To support working mothers, we must create a family-centric image of the ideal worker: being a father doesn’t make a man an ideal worker any more than being a mother makes a woman a less desirable one. In dismantling the stigma against motherhood, we must also accept that motherhood is multifaceted, that just as many women find their greatest fulfillment at home with their children as there are mothers who are fulfilled by working outside the home. Both choices are equally valuable and admirable. By rejecting the patriarchal institution of motherhood, by embracing the ordinary and the everyday, and by accepting the beautiful intersectionality of motherhood, we will finally be able to reclaim the fact of motherhood.

Thank you for your time and the opportunity to share my findings with you. I wish you and your families a safe and healthy day.

Works Cited

Blades, Joan, and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner. The Motherhood Manifesto: What Americas Moms Want and What to Do About It. Nation Books, 2006.

“Child Care Costs in the United States.” Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/child-care-costs-in-the-united-states/#/FL.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. WW Norton & Company, 1983.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics. Source Book Press, 1970.

Hartmann, Heidi I. "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union." Capital and Class, vol. 8, 1979, pp. 1-33. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.uwf.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.uwf.edu/docview/61062741?accountid=14787.

Kolmar, Wendy K., and Frances Bartkowski. Feminist Theory: A Reader. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.

Moi, Toril. “‘I Am Not a Feminist, but...’: How Feminism Became the F-Word.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 5, 2006, p. 1735. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.25501655&site=eds-live.

Paustian-Underdahl, Samantha C., et al. “Pushed Out or Opting Out? Integrating Perspectives on Gender Differences in Withdrawal Attitudes during Pregnancy.” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 104, no. 8, Aug. 2019, pp. 985–1002. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/apl0000394.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton, 1976.

“The Wage Gap for Mothers by Race, State by State.” NWLC, National Women's Law Center, https://nwlc.org/resources/the-wage-gap-for-mothers-state-by-state-2017/.

Trebilcot, Joyce. Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory. Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.

Wang, Wendy. “Mothers and Work: What's 'Ideal'?” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 19 Aug. 2013, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/19/mothers-and-work-whats-ideal/.

Wezerek, Gus, and Kristen R. Ghodsee. “Women's Unpaid Labor Is Worth $10,900,000,000,000.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/04/opinion/women-unpaid-labor.html?auth=link-dismiss-google1tap.

“Workplace Justice: The Wage Gap: The Who, How, Why, and What to Do.” NWLC, National Women's Law Center, Sept. 2019, https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Wage-Gap-Who-How-Why-and-What-to-Do-2019.pdf.

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