Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 43     2006

Third Wave Feminism
and the Politics of Motherhood

By MARY THOMPSON

[1] The publication of Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers (2001), co-edited by Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, marks a shift in the attention of third wave feminists away from the role of rebellious daughters to the role of motherhood.  This essay investigates the politics of motherhood in Breeder by extension the third wave’s thinking on reproductive rights and motherhood.  While Breeder recounts the experiences of young women carrying on the feminist struggle for reproductive rights and childcare, it also reveals the third wave’s problematic celebration of “choice.” Breeder’s mission falters when compared with Sapphire’s novel PUSH (1996), a feminist work of fiction about an African American teenage mother with two children living in Harlem.  Sapphire’s novel conjures the genealogy of the term “breeder” as a racist label for black mothers from slavery through welfare reform.  My comparison of Breeder and PUSH shifts the term “breeder” out of Gore and Lavender’s counterculture space by invoking this older, racialized use of the term.  The haunting of the term “breeder” by this older use is emblematic of how Gore and Lavender’s collection is haunted for me, as I will explain, by Sapphire’s novel. 

[2] While the explicit message of Breeder is a feminist celebration of reproductive choices, the text also asserts that young (counterculture) women, typically assumed too financially unstable to parent, participate in what Douglas and Michaels term “the new Momism,” and, as choice-making consumers, are thus culturally acceptable mothers.   By performing their legitimate claim to motherhood through their consumer choices, the young authors in Breeder mask how class-based and race-based privileges “trump” the disadvantages of youth in the cultural struggle to define “good mothers.”  From my use of these two texts in the classroom, I came to realize that the legitimization of the mothers in Gore and Lavender’s text is based upon an invisible, cultural de-legitimization of other “breeders.”   Based on student response to Sapphire’s novel and to Gore and Lavender’s text, I argue that Breeder’s celebration of the choice to follow unconventional paths to motherhood celebrates the privilege to make reproductive choices and, as Ricki Solinger argues, does the ideological work of distinguishing legitimate choice-making mothers from “bad” choice-making mothers.

Counterculture Breeders

[3]  While third wave feminist writings have never lacked discussions of motherhood, the majority of voices in the early collections speak from the subject position of the young 20- or 30-something feminist talking back to her feminist mother(s) (Findlen; Walker; Edut; Zahava) (notable exceptions include essays by Laurel Gilbert and the late Allison Crews in Findlen).  Indeed, third wave feminist identity defines itself against real and metaphorical feminist mothers, even as the metaphor of mothers/daughters is interrogated (Henry).  This preponderance of daughter voices in third wave writings is understandable considering that many third wave feminists have yet to become parents.  Recently though, young feminists have shown an increased awareness of and interest in their own subject position as mothers, as can been seen in the collection Breeder.

[4]  This intensified interest in the role and  politics of motherhood raises interesting questions about the third wave of feminists.  As Dicker and Piepmeier have observed in their work, the third wave suffers from allegations of frivolity, of creating straw-man definitions of second wave feminists against which to self-identify, and of being in danger of “reinventing the wheel” of feminist thought and action, but according to Heywood and Drake, this new generation can also be identified as particularly media savvy and uniquely well-informed by anti-racist, third-world feminisms.  What do these alleged characteristics signify for the maternal politics of this generation?  Rejected and celebrated, problematized by the politics of race, class, and sexuality, motherhood is arguably the defining issue of feminist theory and activism over several previous generations—what new insights are offered by these new writings?

[5]  In the introduction to Breeder, Ariel Gore recounts how as a younger person, she and fellow punks harassed pregnant women at the grocery store by yelling "breeder" at them, cynically questioning the wisdom of “[b]ringing children in to this world,” and sneering, “[h]ow deluded is that?"(xiii).  Now a mother herself, Gore’s perspective has changed.  In an interview in Clamor, Gore describes the collection’s themes as “love and death and surviving and mothering soulfully in this world—the one we swore we’d never bring children into, the one that spawned our cynicism and the one that, ultimately, nurtures our hope” (Adney 67).  Gore, who co-edits with Lavender the zine and website Hip Mama, sees their work as filling the need for alternative and empowering representations of motherhood.  Gore states, "As the daughters of the 1970s feminist movement, we cherish our reproductive freedom.  And as willing breeders, we refuse to be oppressed by the institution of motherhood” (Gore and Lavender, xiii).  Resisting what she calls the “diaper commercial” version of carefully planned and timed motherhood, Gore boasts, "In a culture where women often delay childbearing as long as nature and science will allow, we chose to have our kids while, not instead of, following our dreams” (xiii).

[6]  In the fall semester of 2001, I incorporated Gore and Lavender’s collection into a content-based, first year writing course.   The course serves as a writing-intensive introduction to women’s studies, and I wanted a text that would enable a discussion of the family and motherhood as sites of patriarchal control, as well as feminist resistance.  Norms of maternal self-sacrifice and self-effacement, the public surveillance of the pregnant body and mother, as well as the simultaneous social romanticization and discounting of mothers were some themes I sought to address.  In particular, I was interested in having students think critically about the recent explosion of media fascination with motherhood as a potential backlash against feminist gains.  Breeder served this purpose by addressing the following issues, which I will expand upon:  family structure, family planning, cultural narratives of pregnancy, and motherhood. 

[7]  Recurrently throughout the collection, family structure is questioned and redefined. One narrative on lesbian parenting humorously tells the story of a couple's not so humorous, unsuccessful struggles to conceive through artificial insemination and later to adopt, while in "Becoming His Mother" another woman reflects on establishing a sense of connection with the child birthed by her partner and to whom she is not "biologically" related.  In another thoughtful story, two single mothers, whose children’s fathers are absent, cohabitate and collaborate on raising their daughters.  The author reflects, "While the four of us dance around the living room in circles, our tiaras bouncing, skirts flying and bracelets jangling, the neighbor downstairs knocking on the ceiling and screaming for us to please stop stomping, I think to myself, we are re-creating family” (100). The collection also includes "imperfect" families, whose structures are disrupted by suicide, manic-depression, bulimia, autism, and infertility.  These stories affirm alternative family structures and question the assumed normalcy of the hetero-normative, two parent family. 

[8]  Several of the narratives deviate from the social script for timing and size of families.  "When I was Garbage," (a favorite story with my students) is the narrative of Allison Crews (one of the authors in Findlen’s collection and founding editor of the mothering zine girlmom.com, who sadly died this year).  As a pregnant tenth grader, Crews ignores pressure from her family and friends to either have an abortion or put her child up for adoption and decides to keep the baby.  Another narrative, "Progress" recounts the pressure the author felt from peers to return to college after her second child was born.  She tells her friends, "the thing is, I think I want to have more children,” (84) a choice that shocks and offends them.

[9]  The narratives about family planning often reflect the role of technology in alternative motherhood.  The author of "Real Moms," who investigates artificial insemination with her lesbian partner, reflects on how the promotional materials for sperm donor clinics and fertility treatments presume their readers to be married heterosexual couples.  Birth control pills, pregnancy tests, neo-natal care units for premature babies, and breast pumps that allow new mothers to work nine-to-five jobs also reveal the technologizing of motherhood in the stories.  However, some stories challenge technologized and medicalized motherhood.  In defiance of medical authority, several mothers in the collection give birth at home or unassisted. 

[10]  In other stories, powerful cultural narratives of pregnancy are shown to de-legitimize some women’s experiences.  For example, the narrative of pregnancy as a "happy time," marginalizes and condemns some women’s feelings of ambivalence.  In “Will,” after conceiving a planned pregnancy, the narrator reflects on her own overly self-sacrificing and unsatisfied mother, prompting her realization that she is not prepared to have a child. When the author later miscarries, she struggles with the guilty belief that her lack of joyful anticipation caused her miscarriage.

[11]  Several stories offer alternatives to the image of mothers as a-sexual and passive.  For example, in "Baby Vibes" a mother is dismayed to find that her infant son has been chewing on her brand-new vibrator.  Humorously, she realizes she will never feel comfortable using it after this episode: "Perhaps I could exchange it for a new one.  But how would I explain the teeth marks?" (174) Another story recounts a single mother's efforts at dating and the tension between her desire for exploration and concern for her son’s attachments to her ephemeral partners.  In addition to sexualized mothers, the collection contains stories about empowered mothers.  In "My Secret Weapon," the author discusses teaching her daughter to fly an airplane, arguing, "a girl who grows up powerful, intelligent, skilled, a girl who knows her value -- won't that girl be less likely to be victimized?"(64) In another story that seems equally appropriate for inclusion in The Vagina Monologues, a mother casts about for a word for "down there" to give to her young daughter, musing "pussy sounds a bit too submissive, cunt is too powerful a word for a toddler, vagina is fine for when you're discussing yeast infections, which brings me to the term yoni, the gateway to nirvana or sacred place” (185-6). Like this mother, several of the authors see feminism as the legacy they pass along to their children.

[12]  After selecting Breeder to use in my class, I was immediately concerned that I had picked something a little too alternative for my freshman composition course.  How, I wondered, would the uninitiated handle stories about lesbian parenting, vibrator-wielding single mothers, and a mother who works as a stripper?  My students, however, almost unanimously reacted with enjoyment to reading Breeder.  Many of the stories shocked them, but to my surprise, they were less unsettled by alternative family structures than by home births and breast pumps.  Curious to understand their enjoyment and for their thoughts about the authors, I asked them to reflect in their journals on the characteristics of a “good” mother, then to use these characteristics to discuss the mothers in Breeder.  My intention was to have each student clarify her/his definition of motherhood and then gauge how the various authors matched or deviated from her/his definition.  Looking back over their journals and reflecting on the class discussion, I notice that, despite the alternative choices made by these counterculture mothers, the way most students connected with the stories was through very traditional understandings of motherhood. The favorable response of my almost entirely female and almost entirely white class of first year students (all non-mothers) arose from their conventional understanding of motherhood, which the text surprisingly did not ultimately challenge.  I would like to discuss these responses more specifically, but first I want to establish what I think is the reason for how Breeder can be read so conventionally, which is the text’s participation in what Douglas and Michaels have termed “the new momism.”

“New Momism” and Consumerism

[13]  In The Mommy Myth, Douglas and Michaels analyze the phenomenon they dub the new momism, an ideological backlash against feminist gains in the arenas of childcare and the family.  Douglas and Michaels trace the intensification of media coverage of motherhood over the last three decades, from the “internal threat” displayed by mothers who kill their own children, to the alleged national threat of so-called welfare queens, to the praise bestowed upon celebrity moms for their superior mothering style (albeit without mention of their legions of invisible, well-paid staff).  Douglas and Michaels identify the process by which mothers (including those stay at home, those who work outside the home, those with special needs children, those who buy only organic foods, and many others) became markets, gaining the media’s attention, and thereby burdening women with the media’s obsession with hypernatalism, maternal vigilance and self-surveillance. 

[14]  Today’s woman, according to the ideology of the new momism, is not complete without a child, she must be the primary care-giver of that child, and she must devote herself utterly to her children (4).  While seemingly a celebration of motherhood, this message reflects profound patriarchal surveillance and constraints placed upon and internalized by women.  Douglas and Michaels’ work, in addition to critiquing the new ideology of motherhood as neither new nor progressive, offers an astute, documented analysis of the media’s role in this surveillance of motherhood and dissemination of the new discourse of motherhood. 

[15]  While the authors in Breeder  reject certain media images of motherhood and materialism, the underlying tenet of the new momism—consumerism—remains unchallenged in their stories and becomes the basis for their assertion of themselves as “good choice makers” and entitled mothers.  Gore and Lavender describe their audience as women who, because of their young age, are ignored equally by mainstream and feminist publications.  In an interview with Clamor, Gore explains she created HipMama because "neither the parenting magazines nor the feminist press magazines nor any of the zines I could get my hand on covered single parenting or urban parenting or young-mama issues in any way—let alone in a way that felt real and empowering” (Adney 68). Gore furthers her description of her authors and intended readers in her introduction:

Women of my generation grew up in a blur of ERA demonstrations and disco dancing.  We were commune babies, latchkey kids, the daughters of women who changed what it meant to be female in America….  We became riot grrls, sometime slackers, student-loan queens.  We published zines, pioneered the new high-tech economy, revitalized the American tradition of political protest. (xii)

This brief description reveals that Gore and Lavender’s authors and intended audience are a fairly specific group.   The “hippies and punks” included in the pages of Breeder  represent an ideological counterculture to middleclass American values, and as riot grrls, college students, and technology pioneers, they are also clearly marked as counterculture consumers (of music, media, education, technology, etc).  HipMama and Breeder are products marketed for a particular consumer group.  The brief essay by Kimberly Bright at the beginning of the collection works well to illustrate the shared consumer characteristics of the authors and intended readers.  Bright’s “Breeder Rites of Passage” lists a series of “firsts” presumably shared by the authors, including “college: obscure liberal arts school on scholarship,” “trip to Europe (Montmartre, Soho, Prague),” “psychotherapy; detox center or Prozac prescription,” “motherhood,” “Volvo purchase” and “mortgage (funky cottage, townhouse or bungalow in artsy neighborhood” (2).

[16]  The fact that counterculture mothers constitute a niche market is probably unavoidable and is not a problem per se.  But, as Douglas and Michaels argue, increased mediation of motherhood has rendered parenting increasingly commercial and has placed mothers under intensified surveillance:

The new momism gained momentum in the 1980s because of media panics about endangered kids, the lack of institutional supports for families, and because of right-wing attacks against working mothers.  But let’s not also forget that a key tenet of the new momism—that it was crucial to invest in as many goods and services for your child as possible—was very, very profitable.  The spread of cable TV, which brought distant UHF stations and kid-specific channels like Nickelodeon, Disney, The Cartoon Network, Fox Family, and MTV into the home, made targeting mothers and kids much easier, and more incessant.  The ever-ballooning standards of good motherhood were inflated even further by the simultaneous exhortations to buy more, buy better, buy sooner.  (269)

Being a counterculture mom (even a particularly media-hip one) does not make one immune to the forces of the new momism and its dissemination by the media.  My point is that while seeking to promote a media alternative to the “diaper commercial version of mamahood” the text of Breeder participates in the same mechanism and some of the same messages that the new momism does.  Although young consumers, the authors validate themselves as politically correct, thoughtful consumers, who make politically superior choices about in vitro fertilization, adoption, home births, and parenthood, education, and careers etc..  In short they participate in the reification (thing-ification) of pregnancy and motherhood. 

[17]  Douglas and Michaels reveal that analysis of the particular psychological power of the new momism to control women through alternating threats of failed parenting and promises of good parenting cannot be accomplished with a shallow feminist critique that might locate the source of women’s domestic oppression in the figure of the father/husband/patriarch:

[T]he new momism is not about subservience to men.  It is about subservience to children.  And there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  On the surface, the call to motherhood seems more liberated, if you will, than the stifling housewifery of the 1950s.  And in a way it is.  But beware what lurks beneath.  Whether you are a married religious fundamentalist, a partnered lesbian, a divorced secular humanist with a Ph.D., or a single twenty-year-old trying to make it in the big city, if you are a female human, the new momism has circled the wagons around you.  This is not to say that young mothers today are any less savvy than their predecessors in seeing through media hype.  They are simply surrounded, in a way their mother were not, by efforts to commercialize virtually every step of pregnancy and childrearing.  (299).

“Circling the wagons,” a protective gesture normally, in this case aptly describes the way in which the new momism promises false protection to mothers all the while suffocating them with products and foreclosing avenues of escape from a relentless message to define successful womanhood in terms of ceaseless self-surveillance, motherhood, and consumption.

[18]  It is against a limiting message of motherhood that Gore and Lavender propose to position their book.  In the introduction to Breeder, Gore describes the authors as resisting “the institution of motherhood” and the social script telling women that they must first complete their higher educations, begin a career, get married, achieve financial stability, and that only then will they be deemed “good choice makers” and entitled to legitimate motherhood status. However, Gore’s claim that the authors chose to follow their dreams while having children, taken in another light, replicates (seemingly without irony) the social directive that women be superwomen, striving to “have it all,” a problematic message due to its impossibility and anti-feminist narrowness  (“having it all,” in a feminist sense would presumably include equal pay, freedom from sexual violence, and reproductive rights—to name a few unmet desires).  Both Douglas/Meredith and Gore/Lavender critique the media, but their texts differ in their assessment of what is actually oppressive about contemporary constructions of motherhood.  While Gore argues that the current media construction of motherhood leaves out young mothers (they simply are not represented or shown adeptly parenting), Douglas/Meredith argue that the new momism oppresses all women by reducing their worth to childbearing and rearing, by setting impossible ideals of mothering, and by normalizing this overachieving superwoman myth.

Sacrifice and Maternal Privilege

[19]  Breeder appealed to many of my students by reaffirming the highly conventional gendered belief in women’s natural primacy in childcare, which is central to the new momism ideology describe by Douglas and Michaels.  Despite alternative lifestyles, these mothers still enjoy, uphold, and celebrate maternal privilege, and it is this privilege, I believe, to which most of my students responded positively.  For example, while the text does the important work of affirming mothers and the work they do (especially as single moms), the very premise of the text put forward by its subtitle (“Stories from the New Generation of Mothers”) focuses exclusively on parenting as mothering and thereby re-inscribes the “natural” primacy of women in childcare and locates their power in this role.   In Breeder, there are some fathers who appear in these stories, sharing duties and responsibilities; however, except for Dan Savage, who wrote the collection’s forward, the only father who is the primary caregiver to his child is the father in Alisa Gordaneer’s story “The Pump and I.”  In the other thirty-four stories in the collection, the women are the primary (or only) parent, suggesting that mothering is synonymous with being the primary caregiver.   Their position as mothers legitimates the authors, as in the case of teenage mother Allison Crews, who defies popular perception by declaring, “I am not garbage.  I am a mother” (37). Similarly, being a mother elevates Firefox’s social status in her story, as she observes at a family dinner, “I am seven months pregnant. I am the matriarch in the family house. This causes some tension with my mother” (230). In “God the Mother,” Mossbridge elevates maternal power even further when she compares Moses’ prayers to god as being like the demands of a child to a mother; she goes on to observe:

By being moms, we can do God’s work—God’s actual daily work of loving and bringing forth souls—and we can get credit for it.  Is this the secret? Have mothers always privately seen themselves in God in order to save their own lives and their children’s? Maybe.  For me, this is the secret. This is how it all turns out fine. God is my mother, and with her I am well pleased. (260)

I do not have any problem with Mossbridge and other authors legitimating women’s labor as mothers, but when the collection is taken as a whole with its absence of fathers as caregivers and troubling abundance of mothers undertaking attachment parenting, the overall thrust of the text reinscribes mothers as the natural primary parents.

[20]  bell hooks has suggested that one goal of feminist movement should be progress toward feminist parenting.  Feminist parenting would involve equalizing the duties and work of parenting as well as its privileges.  This diminishment of gendered labor within family partnerships, she argues, is key to achieving gender equality.  A stumbling-block to this renovation has come from women themselves: “To a grave extent women, who on one hand critiqued motherhood but on the other hand also enjoyed the special status and privileges it gave them, especially when it came to parent-child bonding, were not willing to relinquish pride of place in parenting to men….  Individual feminist thinkers who critiqued biological determinism in every other area often embraced it when it came to the issue of mothering” (83).   The danger in the premise of Breeder is that, while it importantly re-legitimizes the work of mothers in response to attacks on them (in particular single mothers), it does so by reifying the powerful chimera of maternal primacy.

[21]  In addition to asserting maternal primacy, Breeder also follows the new momism dictum that idealizes maternal self-sacrifice.  My students’ were quick to notice this element in the stories in the collection.   Despite expressing some uncertainty over the life-style choices made by the authors, many students praised them for exhibiting unconditional love, a quality they identified as being important to being a good mother.  Several students, as the following journal excerpts reveal, could not point to specific maternal actions that clearly exemplified unconditional love, but they nevertheless attested to its existence in the stories:

"People might look at the non-hegemonic lifestyles as being wrong and traumatizing for the children.  However, the book does not portray them as being that way.  They stress the fact that they love their children unconditionally, so raising them in a non-hegemonic environment doesn't seem to have an affect on the child." [student 1]

"Another very important quality of a mother is unconditional love.  This is seen in some of the stories by the struggle that some of these women went through to have a baby." [student 2]

Almost unanimously, the students applauded what they called "mother love."   I suspect that, at least in part, these reactions, with their vague grounding in the text and recourse to idealized notions of motherhood, arise from the fact that none of my students were parents themselves, and so the only way into discussing motherhood for some of them was through these ideals or through (wishful?) reference to their own mothers.

[22]  Additionally, students identified selflessness and sacrifice as being important traits for a mother.  While many were quick to point out in their journal responses that extreme maternal self-sacrifice can also be a negative trait, many saw it as a defining quality. As the following journal excerpts show, other students went on to argue that this trait manifests itself in narratives in Breeder:

"When I think about what a mother should be, many characteristics come to mind.  One is to be unselfish and to put the needs of the child's before the needs of the mother.  I saw this in many of the stories I read in Breeder." [student 2]

“All of the stories involved the mother sacrificing something in her life such as a job or time in order to be a better mother.” [student 3]

"Good mothers are willing to make sacrifices for their children." [student 4]

"I think of my own personal ideas on motherhood:  Not for me!  Any way you cut it, parenthood is about sacrifice.  Of course for some the gains are worth the losses but the losses are profound nonetheless." [student 5]

"I think the number one characteristic for a good mother is sacrifice, which all of the mothers in Breeder did." [student 6]

Sacrifice strikes me as a strange quality for my students to appreciate in a collection of stories that the editor claims is about women who chose "to have our kids while, not instead of, following our dreams."

[23]  However, some students observed that some of the authors do in fact give up careers and educations or switch careers and educational plans, as a result of having children.  The following journal excerpt summarizes two such examples:

“Another story that showed this motherly quality [being unselfish] was ‘The Piano Tuner.’  This story talked about a woman who had studied music all her life.  She had worked very hard at it and had a true passion for it.  She then got pregnant and had a little girl.  Because she had a child, she put her dreams on the back burner.  Another story this characteristic is found in is the story about the mother who was a poet.  Once she had children, raising them became a priority.  Even though she would have loved to have time to write, that time was very limited once she started a family.” [student 2]

Gore’s point that these mothers are challenging the socially scripted time-line for when women should have children (after education, career, and marriage have been achieved) seems lost in my students’ assertion that these mothers follow the conventional social script of women sacrificing their careers for their families, which the students saw as desirable if not unavoidable.  My students’ observations suggest that despite subverting culturally scripted time-line for motherhood, Breeder can be read as upholding the anti-feminist romanticization of maternal sacrifice.

[24]  My point is not to chastise the writers or Gore for any of their choices. However, I believe that there are several ways by which Breeder encourages traditional understandings of motherhood.  One of these ways, as I’ve argued above, is by reifying motherhood and giving it primacy over non-gendered parenting; another is by tacitly affirming reproductive choice as the privilege of the educated, predominantly white, middleclass.

[25]  In her recent work, Beggars and Choosers, Solinger argues that in the struggle against women’s oppression, the discourse of rights has been supplanted by the discourse of choice, which raises several alarming concerns for feminists, foremost of which is the relationship of this language to the marketplace.  As Solinger asks, “How can users of such a term avoid distinguishing, in consumer-culture fashion, between a woman who can and a woman who can’t afford to make a choice?” (6), suggesting the discourse of choice’s power to efface the real material differences between mothers.  As a result, we lose sight of how one woman’s access to choices depends upon another woman’s being denied choice.  She uses the example of how foreign adoption by U.S. parents depends upon the effacement of the biological mothers in poor countries whose parenting “choices” are profoundly limited.  Additionally, the discourse of choice establishes categories of “good choice makers” and “bad choice makers” that reinforce the belief that motherhood is the earned privilege of the middleclass.  Here Solinger points to recent punitive public policy and welfare reform that judge women of color (predominantly) as bad choice makers who are not entitled to their children or to making decisions about them because they are too poor and/or got pregnant too young or too often.  While the discourse of rights has certainly been problematic for feminists as Conservatives and the Religious Right use it to position the rights of the fetus against those of the mother in abortion debates, the notion of “rights” would still appear more useful than the discourse of choice in defending all women’s access to reproductive control and self-determination.  Arguments for reproductive freedoms based in rights discourse assert the full humanity of all women regardless of their consumer power in a way that the discourse of choice fails to do.

[26]  Gore and Lavender’s text is saturated with the discourse of choice as the authors celebrate hard-won access to reproductive options.  Breeder’s challenges to hegemonic cultural narratives of family structure, family planning, pregnancy, birth, and parenting reflect the editors’ intention to celebrate a continuum of women’s reproductive choices and experiences.  However, Solinger’s reminder that access to choice only reflects consumer power helps to contextualize this celebration:  “’Choice’ degrades a woman’s decision about whether to become a mother by tightly associating that decision with the most essential consumerist concept of our time: choice” (Solinger 224).  Solinger uses as example the funding cases that followed the legalization of abortion; in the debate leading up to the Hyde Amendment, Solinger describes how abortion was framed as a consumer service that the government could not prevent a woman from getting but one that it also would not help to fund. Thus, abortion became a consumer choice but not a guaranteed right for all women.  Taken in the context of Solinger’s work, many of the stories in Breeder seem less alternative and more an assertion of relative class privilege.  Regular access to birth control, artificial insemination, abortion and adoption all require a certain level of means that not all mothers share. 

Re-imagining Democracy and PUSH

[27]  Breeder’s affirmation of reproductive choice and motherhood as a middleclass (white) privilege came into relief for me when my class read the novel PUSH by Sapphire.  I chose this text because of Sapphire’s condemnation of welfare/workfare reform and for how her novel challenges preconceived notions about “rightful” (white, privileged) and “illegitimate” (black, underprivileged) mothers (Miller).  Precious Jones, the African American protagonist of PUSH, is a sixteen year old, illiterate, incest-survivor, living in Harlem on welfare with two children by her father.  Precious has her first child when she is twelve years old, prior to the novel’s action, which begins with her expulsion from junior high school due to her second pregnancy and her discovery that she has contracted HIV from her father.   In addition to seeking the reality behind the stereotype of the “welfare mother,” Sapphire’s novel reveals how social institutions, such as education, law enforcement, the medical establishment, the welfare state and the “family,” reflect and work to protect (white) racial privilege through the exclusion and neglect of women of color.  I chose this novel for my students to read because it foregrounds the racial dimension of motherhood, and enables readers to see what Zillah Eisenstein has argued is the need for feminists to re-imagine the fight for rights using a model that “specifies diversity” (199).

[28]  The narrative of PUSH is a meta-fictional journal written by Precious through which readers witness not only her coming to terms with her abuse and HIV, but also her progress into literacy. The unconventional form of the novel (the journal becomes more epistolary in form when Precious’ teacher, Miz Rain, reads it and writes responses to Precious’ direct appeals) is complicated by Precious’ challenging narration; as an abuse survivor who suffers from post-traumatic stress flashbacks, Precious, as a narrator, struggles to order events that she is only beginning to put into language.  For example, one central moment in the text is Precious’ realization, “I think I was rape” [sic] (68), when she discovers the word for her father’s abuse.  Storytelling, which she masters progressively, gives her control over ordering events and thus over her experience. The themes of incest, forced motherhood, and the role of acquiring language as a means for women to voice their oppression create an intertextual dialogue with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which is directly referenced when Precious and her peers read Walker’s novel in their class. One can read Sapphire’s work as retelling Walker’s narrative from a contemporary, urban perspective that forgoes the romantic ending of The Color Purple and denies readers a comfortable historical distance on issues of racism and sexism.  Significantly, Precious wonders, “Where my Color Purple?” [sic] (87) at the point when she realizes her life will not turn out like the ending of Walker’s story.

[29]  Readers witness Precious’ growing awareness of how her compromised literacy is part of her social voiceless-ness and disenfranchisement.   She observes at one point that her existence is like that of the otherworldly vampires she sees on television, whose presence is not recorded by mirrors and photographs:

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say.  But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist.  Don’t nobody want me.  Don’t nobody need me.  I know who I am.  I know who they say I am—vampire sucking the system’s blood.  Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.  (31)

Sapphire’s use of black vernacular and phonetic spelling engages readers’ stereotypes of young, black, single mothers, but as this passage shows, the narrative challenges any readerly assumptions that Precious is deficient in self-knowledge and broader cultural wisdom.  Sapphire pointedly reveals Precious’ recognition that she is victimized not only by her father and mother but also by the application of this “vampire” stereotype to her by medical providers, educators, and the police.  Moreover, each subsequent abuse leads to her further marginalization.  Precious’ observation in this passage that she and her children are at best invisible to society and at worst are seen as parasites who require the disciplining of workfare forces readers to consider how the de-legitimization of some women’s claim to motherhood is directly related to racist and class-based stereotypes.

[30]  The issue of who has a legitimate claim to motherhood is central to PUSH.  Understanding Precious’ situation as fundamentally a feminist issue requires readers first to recognize and critique “the whiteness of feminism” (Eisenstein 200) or the way in which feminist agendas have failed to take up the issues faced by non-white women.  This focus has often left women of color, whose experiences because of racism have been different from white women’s, on the margins of feminist thought and action or inadequately lumped into the white feminist worldview.  For example, the white, middleclass feminist struggle to gain access to the labor market failed to speak to the needs of many women of color, who of necessity have always worked outside the home. In the case of PUSH, access to the labor market is not a primary concern for Precious, who will be forced into low-wage, workfare jobs that more problematically will take her away from her children. 

[31]  Furthermore, understanding Precious’ situation as a feminist issue also means seeing her struggles to legitimize herself as a fight against an exclusive definition of womanhood that reflects what Zillah Eisenstein refers to as “racialized gender.”  In her chapter, “Imagining Feminism:  Women of Color Specifying Democracy,” Eisenstein argues that “Racism is used in the articulation of gender discrimination, and there are particularly racist ways of depicting women of color as women” (201). Eisenstein observes that, “Women of color and white women are defined as women in relation to each other, through a racial privileging of white women” (214).  Eisenstein argues that dominant definitions of femininity (including the traits of beauty and sexuality) depend upon the positioning of one racial group over another.  For example, Precious initially compares herself unfavorably to white girls, whom she sees as beautiful and assumes are never raped by their fathers.  Fighting against internalized racism means that Precious must recognize that she is not ugly and that her abuse is not something that happens because she is black.

[32]  Precious’ situation is emblematic of the need to rethink feminist discourses of choice and rights.  Eisenstein seeks to re-imagine democracy by re-thinking the rights-based discourse characteristic of liberal humanism. Her project arises from the recognition of liberal humanism’s unspoken reliance upon a normalized male subject, which much feminist scholarship has worked to expose as inadequate for explaining and defending the experience of women.  As feminist critics have shown, the state of pregnancy, for example, confounds the logic of the male humanist subject.  Eisenstein proposes for her re-imagined democracy a new subject, one that specifies diversity:  the pregnant woman of color.  This subject, she argues, “pushes feminist discourse to a more inclusive moment” because “pregnancy is a reminder of bodily diversity and of the need for reproductive rights,” while women of color “remind white women of racial diversity” (218).  Eisenstein’s model takes into account the gaps in feminist discussions of choice pointed out by Solinger.  By taking a non-white, pregnant woman as its subject, feminism is better positioned to see the ways in which the range of reproductive choices available to white (privileged) women is denied to and dependent upon the exclusion of other women from these choices.

[33]  Like this new subject that Eisenstein imagines, Precious “pushes” from the margins and demands that feminist readers centralize her in our theory and activism in order to achieve revolution and democracy.  Forced to see the world from the margins through the eyes of Precious, my students expressed feelings of alienation, frustration and disgust.  Their outrage, however, was more directed at Precious than at the interlocking systems of oppression that constrain her.  They disliked Precious’ lack of options and control (why doesn’t she leave? they asked) and support (why don’t the teachers/police officers/social workers/nurses help her?), her lack of self-knowledge (how can she not know she’s pregnant?), her lack of control over her body’s reactions (why does she respond sexually to being raped by her father?), and her lack of control over the future (if she knows she is being tracked by social workers towards a GED and dead-end job, why doesn’t she resist?).  Most shocking to them, however, was the realization that those who are most marginalized in society are often not even aware of the choices from which they are being excluded.  Early in the novel, when she arrives at the alternative school, Precious asks a staffer, “What alternative is?” [sic] (26), an emblematic question that aptly expresses the extent of limitations on her options.

[34] During class discussion, I learned that while my students pitied Precious and admired how her abuse did not prevent her from loving her children, they were very skeptical of her ability to be a “good mother,” as they had defined it:  how would she get an education, a job, and break the cycle of welfare? how would she survive AIDS? they wondered.  While their concerns were expressed in terms of class and economic issues, the unspoken issue of race is clearly interwoven.  My students were evasive in placing blame for Precious’ situation.  They did not fault Precious, and instead saw her as a caring mother, but one who faces the insurmountable “obstacles” of being black, poor, young, under-educated, and having HIV, which in their assessment prevent her from being an adequate mother.

[35]  I pointed out to my students that Allison Crews (the author of “When I Was Garbage,” the favorite story in Breeder for many of them) had many similar “strikes” against her, in that she was young, single, and dependent upon family and the state.  Crews, however, was white.  Why, I asked the class, did they favor Crews’ ability to parent over Precious’ ability?  There was a significant, uncomfortable silence in class, which no one could or would break by answering my question.  My sense is that juxtaposing Crews and Precious, despite being a comparison of a real person to a fictional character, required students to recognize how Crews’ motherhood is legitimized in part due to racial privilege.

Breeders and Choices

[36]  In the eyes of most of my students, the counter-cultural mothers in Breeder, despite their alternative lifestyles, have a more legitimate claim to motherhood than the women whom mainstream America more readily and scornfully identify as “breeders”:  urban-dwelling, resource-less, African American, teenage mothers on welfare.  As Solinger has observed, the increasing commodification of pregnancy and motherhood has resulted in some women coming to be defined as having “more legitimate relationships to babies and motherhood status” while other women are defined as “illegitimate consumers” (7).  While age can be one factor in determining a woman’s legitimate claim to motherhood and reproductive rights, the combined factors of race and class standing hold greater sway. 

[37]  It is in this sense that I find the title of Gore and Lavender’s collection most problematic.  The editors appear to take the term “breeder” from both punk and gay counter-culture lexicons. The collection is introduced by gay author/columnist Dan Savage, who jokingly recalls the comment made to him by a lover, “Breeders make babies…they breed.  We don’t.  Gay people don’t have to worry about birth control or children or expectations” (ix).  This breezy, rebellious invocation of the term “breeder,” however, eclipses the older, racist genealogy of the term, during which it was used by white society to hyper-sexualize and dehumanize black women, reducing them and their children to the status of animals.  Angela Davis describes the condition of African-American mothers under slavery in the following terms:

When the abolition of the international slave trade began to threaten the expansion of the young cotton-growing industry, the slaveholding class was forced to rely on natural reproduction as the surest method of replenishing and increasing the domestic slave population.  Thus a premium was placed on the slave woman’s reproductive capacity.  During the decades preceding the Civil War, Black women came to be increasingly appraised for their fertility (or for the lack of it): she who was potentially the mother of ten, twelve, fourteen or more became a coveted treasure indeed.  This did not mean, however, that as mothers Black women enjoyed a more respected status than they enjoyed as workers.  Ideological exaltation of motherhood—as popular as it was during the nineteenth century—did not extend to slaves.  In fact, in the eyes of slaveholders, slave women were not mothers at all; they were simply instruments of guaranteeing the growth of the labor force.  They were “breeders”—animals, whose monetary value could be precisely calculated in terms of their ability to multiply their numbers.

            Since slave women were classified as “breeders” as opposed to “mothers,” their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows. (6-7)

Patricia Hill-Collins connects the historical figure of the breeder to contemporary stereotypes about African American women in her discussion of the 1980s mythology of the welfare mother:

Essentially an updated version of the Breeder woman image created during slavery, this image provides and ideological justification for the efforts to harness Black women’s fertility to the needs of a changing political economy.  During slavery the Breeder woman image portrayed Black women as more suitable for having children than White women.  By claiming that Black women were able to produce children as easily as animals, this image provided justification for interference in enslaved Africans’ reproductive lives. (78)

Shifting to the changing economy of the 1980s and the issue of the perceived threat of welfare dependents, Hill-Collins argues, “[c]ontrolling Black women’s fertility in this political and economic context became important to elite groups.  The image of the welfare mother fulfills this function by labeling as unnecessary and even dangerous to the values of the country the fertility of women who are not White and middle-class” (79).  Gore and Lavender’s text’s celebration of the choice to become breeders, rather than challenging dominant power arrangements, performs what Susan Bordo (1993) calls a postmodern effacement, a moment when “the rhetoric of choice and self-determination…efface […] the inequalities of privilege, money, and time” (247).

[38]  My argument is that my students’ enjoyment of Breeder and tolerance for the mothers’ alternative choices was prompted by the recognition of the authors’ class-based and race-based claim to these choices.  While some of the authors identify themselves as non-white, they are not the economically disadvantaged authors.  And while a few of the authors in Breeder (five out of thirty-six) discuss being on welfare, and an additional few discuss struggling financially, this condition appears related to educational expenses and seems fleeting, as well as on par with other challenges (such as when to discretely pump one’s breasts).  Poverty for some of the authors appears to be a choice related to their art, education and/or politics but is not inescapable in the way that it is for many women.  None of the authors’ situations explicitly reflect the intersecting constraints of racism and class oppression.  Overall, the text is a celebration of the relative freedom to choose when to go to college, when to have careers, and when to have children—choices that reveal the class and race privilege of most of the authors, to which many of my students strongly related. 

[39]  Despite its popular success in my classroom, I came to realize that Breeder did more to idealize and mystify motherhood than it did to disrupt it.  Arguably, more rigorous close-readings could have enhanced student appreciation for how the narratives challenge conventional understandings of motherhood; however, I also believe that certain structural premises of the text work to confound its feminist messages.  Race-based and class-based privilege remain relatively untroubled in these accounts of motherhood, while parenting remains the domain of women and the source of their power, to the exclusion of fathers.  The problem, I believe, when young feminists (I’m thinking here of some of my students, many of the authors in Breeder, and many third wave writers) accept the idea of having choices as being synonymous with having rights, it is difficult to see the fact that systems of oppression can come together in such a way that women such as Precious are prevented from exercising basic rights, and it can then appear that these women are simply being bad choice-makers (hence my students’ urge to question and second-guess their actions).  

[40]  While it would be dangerous for me to generalize broadly about the politics of motherhood in the third wave of feminism based only on my experience reading and teaching this text, it is fair to consider some questions raised by Breeder.  Has the discourse of choice compromised the ability of third wave feminists to talk meaningfully about reproductive rights?  Does the third wave of feminism recognize its “possessive investment” in whiteness?  How does this generation contribute to feminist imaginings for how we could parent in new and progressive ways that equalize the burdens and privileges of childcare?  I believe that the answers to these questions are fundamental to the third wave’s self-definition. Family and children have been the bedrock concern of the first and second waves of feminism. Rather than being resolved, the issues pertaining to motherhood faced by previous generations have transformed in response to consumer culture, to advances made by feminists, and to conservative backlashes.  More than a lifestyle or commodity, feminism must remain a sharp analytic tool that allows us to examine motherhood as a highly contested cultural site. These concerns must be taken up meaningfully by young feminists in order to counter the accusations that their generation is academic, self-absorbed, preoccupied with style, and inefficiently reinventing the wheel.

WORKS CITED

Adney, Kaile.  Interview with Ariel Gore and Bee Lavendar.  Clamor.  July/August, 2001.  67-8.

Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight:  Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993.

Davis, Angela.  Women, Race, and Class.  New York: Random House, 1981.

Dicker, Rory and Alison Piepmeier, eds.  Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century.  Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2003.

Douglas, Susan and Meredith Michaels.  The Mommy Myth:  The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women.  NY:  Free Press, 2004.

Edut, Ophira Ed.  Adios Barbie:  Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity.  Seattle:  Seal Press, 1998.

Eisenstein, Zillah.  The Color of Gender:  Reimaging Democracy.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Findlen, Barbara Ed.    Listen Up:  voices from the next feminist generation.  Seattle:  Seal Press, 1995.

Gore, Ariel and Bee Lavender, eds.  Breeder:  Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers.  Toronto:  SEAL Press, 2001.

Henry, Astrid.  No My Mother’s Sister:  Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2004.

Heywood, Leslie and Jennifer Drake, eds.  Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Hill-Collins, Patricia.  Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciouness and the Politics of Empowerment.  2nd Edition.  New York: Routledge, 2000. 

hooks, bell.  Feminism is for Everybody.  Cambridge, MA:  South End Press, 2001. 

Miller, Lisa.  Interview with Sapphire.  http://desire2.desire/2.4/Word/Reviews/sapphire

Sapphire.  PUSH.  NY:  Vintage, 1996.

Solinger, Rickie.  Beggars and Choosers:  how the politics of choice shapes adoption, abortion, and welfare in the United States.  NY: Hill and Wang,  2001. 

Walker, Rebecca Ed.  To Be Real:  Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.  NY:  Anchor Books, 1995.

Zahava, Irene.  Feminism3: The Third Generation in Fiction.  Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1993.

Contributor's Note

MARY THOMPSON is an assistant professor of American and women's literature at James Madison University.  She has presented on and written about representations of women's bodies in literature and popular culture.

 

 

Copyright ©2006
Ann Kibbey.

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