Maternal Feminism Discussion


Maternal Feminism Discussion July, August 1996


Original Query for Info from Heather L. Garrett 15 July 1996

I am revising a paper for publication and have been asked to include a more critical discussion of maternal feminism that reflects the kinds of questions feminist historians have posed regarding this idea. In this paper I am looking at the Needlework Guild of Canada. This is a voluntary organization that originated in England and then emerged in Canada in 1892. The women in this group collected clothing and goods to meet the needs of state-operated orphanages, hospitals, homes, and charities. Does anyone know of any work, preferably Canadian, with a contemporary discussion of maternal feminism which goes beyond the class critique and/or identifies the debates surrounding the use of this concept? I would appreciate any sources you could suggest, as I am unfamiliar with this literature.

[Editor Note: For bibliography on Maternal Feminism, see bibliography section on H-Women

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>From Eileen Boris 17 July 1996

...The question remains, though, is maternal feminism the proper term? Is maternalism feminism? Is mother-talk strategy, discourse, or political position?

>From Karen Offen 17 July 1996

...But first, it would be good to know more about the work of your Needlework Guild and the organization's perspective. Was there a "feminist" component of any kind, i.e. a feminist critique of prevailing male-female relations in society, or is the group strictly philanthropic in the charitable sense?

>From Heather L. Garrett 18 July 1996

Re: Karen Offen's question: The group was philanthropic rather than feminist. I am arguing that the group provided the women with opportunities to meet others, learn new things they may not have learned in the home. I do not argue that the women were trying to break down class barriers or forms of patriarchal powers.

Re: Eileen Borris' question: If maternal feminism is not the term, my problem is that I do not know what the proper term is.

>From Eileen Borris 22 July 1996

On the question of what term to use for women who base philanthropic work on their identities as mothers and on the aid of mothers and children, why not call them feminists? Not all activist women are feminists. Why not just call them maternalists? or philanthropists? or reinforcers of class (race, ethnic, etc) hegemony? What did they call themselves? What did observers at the time call them?

>From Don Soucy (CSPACE) 22 July 1996

>Re: Eileen Borris' question: If maternal feminism is not the term my problem is that I do not >know what the proper term is.

Any reactions to the term "municipal housekeeping"?

>From Debra Michals NYU History 29 July 1996

I have to say I agree with Eileen Borris about using another term. Maternal feminism reminds me of domestic feminism--and in either case it is an uncomfortable blending of terms. Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s used similar arguments against feminism and the ERA, nothing that women's empowerment came from their traditional roles broadly conceived as wife and mother; narrowly conceived via their power to reproduce. Schlafly tried to label this "the power of positive woman" (she wrote a book of the same title), but I would hardly call her a feminist in any Western sense of the word (and context is important, after all).

The history of feminism or of women's activism in any public sense has in fact always been as much a debate among women about the source of female power--feminists, I would argue via the history of second wave feminism and to some degree its advocates all the way back to the 19th century, has in some way or another been about self-determination (as human beings, as political citizens, etc.) Traditionalists, like those you want to call maternal feminists, may agitate publicly, may be involved in movements for betterment or social change, but they do so from within social prescriptions about women's roles and nature. Therefore, while it may be fine to call them social activists, moral/social purity crusaders, it is hardly ok to use the word feminism to describe them. They are not about letting women decide for themselves individually what shape their lives should take but rather rely on prescribed roles as the source of their authority. One caveat: many of these women, typically, find such social work/activism transformative--that is, once publicly active, they cannot fully return to the very prescriptions that enabled their work in the first place. If you look at them after, then you may indeed be able to find some early stage feminism taking shape in their lives.

Either way, though, I am uncomfortable with projecting back onto a group a term they would never have used to describe themselves or what they thought they were doing. Good luck and regards.

>From Sue Schrems 29 July 1996

The discussion on defining Feminism has confused me about my own research on conservative women in the 1920s. For instance, what term do we use for women who used the political process to fight for issues that covered a broad spectrum of women's concerns? Many of their concerns were maternal, such as the child-labor amendment, care of orphans, the Sheppard-Towner Bill, continuation of the children's bureau, the creation of a women's bureau in the Department of Labor, the establishment of a federal department of education, etc. In Oklahoma, after the legislature passed women's' suffrage in 1918, women became politically active and by 1920 elected women to the state senate and house, and sent the second woman to the United States Congress. After women were elected to state and national office, women's organizations in Oklahoma, from the National Women's Party, to the Legislative Council, to the DAR and the LWV, lobbied for legislation that concerned women and children. So, would we classify these women, as we do Alice Paul, as feminist, or would they fall in line with those women we call domestic or maternal feminists?

>From Jeanette Keith 31 July 1996

To Sue Schrem' inquiry...Why not just "activists?" If we call any woman who is politically active in behalf of what she defines as a women's issue a feminist, then the word loses meaning.

>From Heather L. Garrett 31 July 1996

In my search for the debates surrounding the use of maternal feminism, I have come across Naomi Black's (1989) Social Feminism. In this book in chapters on defining feminism and categorizing feminism, she distinguishes between social feminism and equity feminism. She discusses exactly what you describe re: the vote and the aftermath once the vote passed. She would consider maternal and domestic feminists to be social feminists. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who responded to my query re: maternal feminism. I have learned a lot from the discussion and now am a little more critical of the term.

>From Cynthia Harrison 31 July 1996

It is my view that we reserve the term "feminism" to refer to the post-1966 phenomenon, which was the first women's movement to assert that women's biology did not *necessarily* bind her to a special role with respect to children. (Even Charlotte Perkins Gilman assumed that some women would be doing childcare --just not her.)

It's hard enough to distinguish among all the modern variations of the term without taking on the burden of re-labeling and then offering new explanations for the label for groups who would never have used such a label for themselves. Even for the National Woman's Party, feminism meant something different from its contemporary meaning--it was much narrower in significant ways and didn't really challenge the nexus between women and childcare.

The question is why we want to use a label if it confuses rather than illuminates. If we describe activists on behalf of women with a specific term that refers to their specific brand of activism (e.g. "advocates of protective labor laws," versus "E.R.A. proponents"), we don't get into this fix. Such a strategy obviously does not preclude our discussing in other contexts what "feminism" really means and whether an older ideology can rightly be described in that way (although I do think that such discussions can easily lapse into anachronism).

>From Karen Offen 02 Aug 1996

Apropos Cynthia Harrison's suggestion that we "reserve the term 'feminism' to refer to the post-1966 phenomenon...", I absolutely disagree. The term is launched by the French in the 1880s -1890s, much debated after that in a number of countries, and to use it only for post-1966 totally erases this history and falsifies the record. This term is deeply embedded in the history of women's movements and emancipation efforts; to shear it of this is nonsense. Moreover, the term is historically connected with the notion of "femme" and womanliness, in the most positive sense. To describe what Harrison wants to get at, namely a notion beyond women's reproductive role, beyond "biology" as it were-seemingly beyond sex and gender--maybe a new term is in order. Any suggestions?

>From Theresa Kaminski 05 August 1996

I agree with Karen Offen that we cannot deny that women at the turn of the century were feminists. That is the term that they used. Nancy Cott's book covered this topic. But we can't redefine what women in the post-1966 era called themselves. They used the term feminist as well, but they frequently attached adjectives to it such as radical, socialist, etc. Therefore a wide variety of women accepted this term. However, it seems more difficult today to find women who accept the term feminist to describe the beliefs they hold about gender equality. I can't count the number of times that young women in my women's history classes have started a sentence with the phrase, "I'm not a feminist, but..." and then go on to describe something that most women of the 1960s would have embraced as feminism. And perhaps, like the phrase "maternal feminist," this means that women today aren't really feminists at all if they themselves don't use the term.

>From Debra Michals 05 Aug 1996

Theresa Kaminski makes a point I very much share on the use of the word feminist. It dates back to the turn of the century, and so it is appropriate to use it to describe women activists who fit the label as such. I think, however, as she implies, that the term meant something different in the early 20th century than it meant during the era of the '60s and '70s that Cynthia Harrison refers to. As such, I think we need to be clear when using the term about what it meant during a given era.

That having been said, I wanted to respond to her reference to students who say, "I'm not a feminist, but..." and then go on to describe themselves in ways that match the definition of a feminist. I have a particular way of dealing with this in my courses and in my work with student groups. I tell them that I will never ask whether they are a feminist, but nor will I accept the statement, "I am not a feminist, but..." because when they do that, they contribute to the further stigmatization of language and of the group of women it describes. I tell them it is OK to say they are not a feminist if the word truly does not describe their lives, politics or beliefs. But if it does, and they run from it simply because it has a negative connotation (despite the neutral denotation), then they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I run a women's studies student journal here at NYU, and last fall we did a survey of feminism and responses to feminism on campus. What we found was that when we asked students to say the first thing they thought of when they heard the word "feminism/feminist," they often recited the litany of negative stereotypes--bitch, dyke, man-hater, militant, know the list. But when asked to define the word, these same people offered a value-neutral definition such as, "the movement for the equality of women in America," or "women who want to end discrimination, particularly in the workplace." And more than half of the respondents noted in a final question about what feminism has meant in their lives, the debt they owe to second wave feminists. Replies noted that they wouldn't be in the university at all or wouldn't expect to be able to compete for jobs or have safe access to contraceptives and abortion without feminism. Lots of these respondents--male and female--noted the benefits of feminism in their lives from equality to, in the case of so many women, the right and freedom to "speak my mind." (The idea of being able to say what they think publicly seemed paramount to so many of the respondents.) I have used this survey to make the point with my students--that they have internalized the negative stereotypes unconsciously, even when they embrace the real meaning of feminism and see how it has enabled them in their own lives. (Of course, I do all of this within a larger academic discussion of how language functions in our culture, and in all cultures--talking about the difference between literal meaning and cultural meaning.)

In any case, I share this story because it has been enormously effective. Many students at the end of the term who would never have labeled themselves feminist when they walk through the door the first day, leave my class re-appropriating language and understanding how important it is to fight such stigmatization. Some of them even leave calling themselves feminists. And those who don't at least understand why they should never say, "I'm not a feminist, but..." IN the alternative, I tell them that when someone asks them if they are a feminist--whether that person is curious or accusatory--they should reply, "I'm a feminist if by that word you mean...(and then define it for themselves and the inquirer.") That's how you reclaim and hopefully de-stigmatize language. In any case, it's worked for me. I'd love to hear what you all think and if there are similar stories of teaching in this regard.

>From Jo Ann McNamara 08 August 1996

Feminine denial of feminism is not a recent habit but extends at least back to the sixties. I have had a whole class full of women who had elected to take a women's studies course deny that they were feminists and when I asked why, I got answers straight off the macho hotline: They did not hate men; they did not want to be identified as angry or as lesbians or as bra-burners. In brief, they did not want to make themselves unpopular and they perceived of feminists as frumpy, unsexy outcasts. I don't have the least idea how to change that and indeed at the time I lost my temper and told them that is exactly how every unfair situation they resented was perpetuated.

>From Theresa Kaminski 08 August 1996

Debra Michal's way of dealing with the "I'm not a feminist but..." situation is one I'll try the next time that I teach one of my women's history classes. It really does get into the importance of defining terms and acknowledging how they change over time and WHY they change.

Her experience with her feminism survey parallels my own when I have spoken to various groups about feminism. A couple of years ago I talked to an AP history class about feminism of the 1960s-1970s and started off by asking them what a feminist was. The first definition was "man hater" and the rest roughly corresponded to that. And when I asked what feminists wanted then I heard a lot of things about equality of opportunity, etc. Most of them recognized that feminism had a lot to do with opening up sports to girls, something that is very important to this high school crowd.

Definitions and perceptions are very important to the subject of feminism. It is always interesting to find out how others deal with it in their work.

>From Cynthia Harrison 08 August 1996

To rejoin the discussion, let me say that I see as the problem that feminism has a contemporary meaning, used in common parlance by many unfamiliar with international debates around the turn of the century, undergraduates being one such group. Since it is the modern feminist movement that generated broad-based adoption of the term, and that defined "feminism" as the premise that sex roles are socially constructed *including the nurturing of children* (the key departure from earlier women's movements) I think modern feminists are entitled to the term.

I plead guilty to slight acquaintance with those early debates in Europe, but in the United States, even those few groups that *did* apply the term to themselves used it in ways that differ substantially from the contemporary use, and therefore using that label, even with an initial explanation, seems to me likely to cause confusion.

This discussion started with the problem of what to call women activists who did not use the label "feminist" to apply themselves, and in women's history courses we talk for the most part about these women. Thus, to some degree, this problem is one of the audience. Students don't parse the various meanings of the word and therefore if we refer, for example, to the members of the NWP as "feminists," despite how much we might have explained their construction of it, what they hear is "good guys" versus opponents of the ERA (Not-feminist)=bad guys. If we then--ahistorically--decided to label both sides *some* kind of feminist, we fall back into the trap of calling women feminists who would have recoiled at the ascription. We also find ourselves defining as feminist women whose platform would have been endorsed by Phyllis Schlafly.

I guess what I would propose, at least for the undergraduate classroom, is that we reserve the term "feminist" without qualification only for those women who would have applied it to themselves post-1960, "feminist" with qualification in talking about proto-feminist thinkers, and, for subsequent references in discussions about the NWP or Heterodoxy, find a term to distinguish them from the post-1960 feminists that does not imply that they were always the good guys. My preference is a descriptive epithet that doesn't include the word "feminist," such as "ERA supporter" (if apt) or "NWP member."

>From Gerda Lerner 08 August 1996

I agree with Karen Offen and all those who urge us to recognize and respect the historicity of the term "feminism" and not to restrict it only to its 20th century, post-1966 meanings. I have long wrestled with finding appropriate definitions for the term which would include the complex of definitions clustered in that word, among them woman's rights, woman's emancipation, the body of theory women have created about their social condition and others. See my Creation of Patriarchy, pp. 236-38 and for a definition of "feminist consciousness," see The Creation of

Feminist Consciousness, p.274. It is not unusual for theoretical terms and definitions to hold different meanings at different historical periods, as f. ex. the idea of "Liberty", "Progress," etc. What we today call "feminism" was called "woman's rights" in the 19th century and even then it held different meanings, ranging from Frances Wright's theories of sexual liberation to Sarah Grimke's definition of religious equality to S.B. Anthony's /and others/ political definition.

It is, in my opinion, helpful to use a modern term and apply it to people who would not, themselves, have used this term, as long as we keep our definitions clear and make them available to the reader. Feminist consciousness, a realization of inequalities under which women suffered were societal in origin and demanded collective, societal remedies for their solution antedates the emergence of an organized feminist movement in the 19th century. By using the term "feminist" we can show the continuity of women's progress and awareness over the centuries and we can illuminate the important fact that such awareness did not reside solely in organized movements.

As for young women who use "I'm not a feminist but..." I agree that they have absorbed negative stereotypes and are unconsciously reproducing them everytime they use such a phrase. It is something we should continue to challenge in our classes and in the media. For a "feminism" that has a history going back at least 1400 years.

>From Cliff Hawkins 09 August 1996

Someone may have mentioned this--I was off the list for two weeks--but there is a flyer/poster in circulation that has, at the top, in large capital letters: "I am not a feminist but..." It seems addresses to exactly the people this discussion is talking about.

It then lists about seven propositions--such as "do you believe that women and men should be paid equally for equal work, and have equal opportunity on the job..." or "do you believe that a woman should control her own body..."etc. At the bottom of the flyer/poster the reader is told that if she/he believes in those ideas, she/he IS a feminist.

This poster was in circulation in the UC Davis history department for quite some time; I have not seen a copy recently. I think it would be effective in provoking thought among people who shy away from the feminist label, but who are in fact, feminists.