Although the ideology of identity politics remains hegemonic in the academy and in many social institutions, a growing—and arguably necessary—body of critique has been emerging. These critiques have emanated both from the arbiters of the so-called silent majority and from those on the Left who are concerned by the displacement of class by identity and by the unremitting politics of grievance. It is time to interrogate these important critiques in the context of the woman question.
From the outset, feminism inherited a problem by virtue of its existence. This problem dates back to the early modern feminists, who were not called feminists but woman’s rights activists. Political philosopher Carole Pateman calls this problem Wollstonecraft’s dilemma, after intellectual pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
The dilemma is this: feminism calls for equality with men and it does so under the sign of difference. It says we women over here—marked by our exclusion from the social contract—want to be equal. In other words, we call forth difference, we collectivize and politicize that difference and give it a name—feminism—in order to argue for its precise opposite: equality.
Historian Nancy Cott has written about how this dilemma affected the formation of modern feminism in the early twentieth century, when the term first entered general usage in the Anglophone world. For Cott, the early feminists wanted equality with men, but also a recognition of what made them different from men. They promoted gender consciousness, while hoping to abolish gender roles. Just over a hundred years later, Wollstonecraft’s dilemma is still with us. It may be irresolvable—although I explore possible ways of resolving it in two forthcoming papers—but it represents the fertile coming together of opposites that philosophically and politically animates feminism.
What Does This Have to Do with Identity Politics?
The identity woman—like black or homosexual—has to be politically created, in order to defend itself against its constitutive exclusion. This is what Michel Foucault and Judith Butler mean they talk about the social construction of homosexuality or gender. Women are created as the second sex, the Other and, on this basis, we seek to reverse our devaluation, starting from the devalued place, which we also attempt to revalue, hence the focus on difference.
Feminism grew out of the contradiction between a society based on freedom and equality for all—the great promise of the European Enlightenment—and the denial of these same rights to women, among others. This gave rise to the woman’s rights movement (in the singular), as it was then known.
The identity in identity politics was assigned to women, not chosen by us: even though the identity was taken up by feminists, turned on its head and politicized. This is where neo-conservative, new right, alt-right and intellectual dark web critics get it wrong. Feminists—like any other minority or oppressed group—didn’t choose the sign of their exclusion, and they didn’t choose the meaning—real or imagined—attached to their difference. That’s why feminists—even those like myself who cringe at the excesses of identity politics—cannot simply get rid of it.
Feminism is a politics of identity, the identity woman, which has, more recently, been pluralized, to reflect the many and varied women for whom the movement speaks.
From Wollstonecraft to the suffragettes, from Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan to Kate Millet and Shulamith Firestone—who bequeathed us with the wonderful expression that having a baby is like “shitting a pumpkin”—to our own glorious Germaine Greer, feminists have held widely divergent opinions and have all had an ability to speak truth to power. However, this discourse followed rules that seem all but forgotten in today’s online culture wars.
When an icon of second-wave feminism like Germaine Greer is deplatformed because she doesn’t hold the correct opinion on something, we know that free thought and free speech are in serious danger.
We used to have a variety of feminisms. I was taught the academic taxonomy in my first year women’s studies class. We learnt that there were liberal feminists, socialist feminists, radical feminists, eco-feminists and black feminists (who also called themselves womanists) and, later, there was a curious category of feminist who didn’t believe in categories: the postmodern feminist. There were fruitful discussions and provocative ideas, debates and arguments across these schools of thought, embedded as they were in the intellectual and political histories of liberalism, socialism, civil rights and more.
But now that internal diversity is gone. This is partly a result of the destruction of women’s studies in the university—the different schools of feminist thought are no longer represented and taught—and partly due to a new ideological uniformity and conformity. Women’s studies became gender studies—and then gender was deconstructed out of existence.
The postmodernist deconstruction of gender—the post-Judith Butler world in which feminism, at least in the academy, was no longer about women but rather about gender and, above all, gender fluidity—came together with the modernist, small “l” liberal-progressive feminist agenda of rights and equality, which was fundamentally geared towards liberating women from the domestic sphere, through participation in paid work. These intellectual developments dovetailed with economic ones, such as the rise of neoliberalism, which didn’t just invite women into paid work but virtually compelled them. Women’s employment was crucial if the middle and working classes wanted to maintain their standard of living. In the current era of austerity, even single mothers are forced into paid work, turning many of them into working poor. As Joan Williams points out in her recent book on class, many working class families view women’s paid work as a burden that has been imposed upon them, infringing upon and undermining family life, rather than a harbinger of liberation.
The current confluence of ideas, then, involves the combination of postmodernist and modernist tropes. The legitimate—but inadequate—feminist desire to liberate women from the confines of domesticity dovetailed with the postmodern critique deconstructing the category of women. Together, these two ideologies blew the late second-wave focus on motherhood out of the water.
So, from its high point in the late 70s and early 80s—when feminist scholars integrated the insights of the second wave to produce a prodigious efflorescence of writing on motherhood, including Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, Nancy Friday’s My Mother/My Self, Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot and Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking—we have shifted to a curious silence.
What happened to this burgeoning of academic feminist work on motherhood?
Judith Butler happened. After Butler, it became problematic to talk about women—so we spent all our time deconstructing women and exposing women’s sins. We could describe feminists as bigots, we could attack ourselves and others for false universalizing or essentialism—a period defined by what Carole Pateman called “essentialist hunting.” But we could not develop a feminist theory of women—especially of mothers—after postmodernism. Talking about women’s experiences in general became taboo. There was an obsessive and often disingenuous focus on marginality—disingenuous because the same white, middle-class women as always were doing most of the talking, and because marginality cannot be the end goal of a liberation movement. This has resulted in a truly absurd situation: focusing on women has become an essentialist taboo within women’s studies.
In the flagship feminist journal Signs, Samira Kawash elegantly sums up the situation:
by the late 1990s … “difference feminism” had been eclipsed and was no longer a serious topic of discussion in feminist graduate programs or in the academic feminist press. The deconstruction of “woman” and the poststructuralist accounts of gender and power left motherhood to the side, an embarrassing theoretical relic of an earlier naïve view of the essential woman and her shadow, the essential mother.
Two things get us into trouble when we try to talk about motherhood. First, the current culture wars, informed by two decades of postmodernism in the academy, have made it difficult to claim our reproductive biology as distinctively female without being critiqued as essentialist or, more recently, transphobic. Second, the older, classically liberal feminist agenda to grant rights to women as abstract, sexless individuals has, for the most part, suggested that women should transcend our roles in the home as wives and mothers.
Feminism has always been more comfortable separating mothers and children than developing a politics of care and connection, a feminist politics of motherhood.
As a matricentric feminist—a term coined by Andrea O’Reilly—this is clear to me. It was necessary to prize apart the categories of woman and mother, which—for most of human history, in most cultures—were one and the same. Women in the West fought hard to gain their freedom as individuals with legally recognized and socially sanctioned property in the person: an awkwardly legalistic phrase that forms the bedrock of the rights of every western woman (although it remains an academically disputed category).
This prying apart of the category of woman from those of wife and mother was not only an integral dimension of the feminist project—it was arguably the most fundamental part of that project. It involved gaining control over our bodies and their sexual use, our fertility, our properties, estates and income and—ultimately—over our preferences and desires, with a view to contributing to the social order. We take this for granted today, but the recognition of women as sovereign individuals was a massive historical achievement, for which we should thank our foremothers. It was a very recent—and remains a fragile—development, which is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying. We understand, even if unconsciously, how contingent and vulnerable our individual rights are. Look at Alabama, where egregious laws undermining women’s abortion rights—and thus their bodily autonomy—have been enacted recently.
Until we can say no to motherhood—and to marriage and sexual union—we cannot say yes to it. We had to insist on civil autonomy—in property in the person—before we could properly choose motherhood.
But this feminist emphasis leaves us with a conundrum: how do we articulate a feminist politics of motherhood? If women have rightly fought hard against enforced motherhood under patriarchy—and the fight is not over—what comes next?
This is a difficult question, given the ongoing structural constraints and inequities of motherhood.
As I argue in my new book, motherhood is a critical turning point in the loss of equality for women: career trajectories, income, leisure, even sleep all decline after motherhood, and, for most women, never regains their former upward trajectories, but, at best, plateau or, more typically, decline. The pay gap is an especially pronounced example of this. Because of the unpaid family work they undertake, women have much lower superannuation balances on average than men, and older divorced women, who have prioritized care of husbands and children over paid work, are especially at risk of poverty. Indeed, older divorced women are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia. In my book, I argue that women are granted a normative freedom as individuals, but this freedom has a shelf life bounded by first-time motherhood.
As I’ve written in more detail elsewhere, while women are free as individuals in modern western societies, they are constrained as mothers—and these two phenomena are related. Motherhood marks a turning point and leaves women vulnerable to poverty if they are not married or partnered—a fact that casts a long shadow over the paradigm of consent hegemonic in the West. We are not free to be in something if we are not free to leave it. I call this arrangement the new sexual contract. Women used to be passed from father to husband, to honor and obey, and there were no other socially permissible roles—spinster aunts and widows notwithstanding. Now, we enjoy legal equality and civil rights, but we also experience a pronounced inequality that primarily takes root after motherhood—and which, in large part, explains declining fertility across the West.
In my view, we need a basic income—a small but livable income paid to every mother, in recognition of the valuable work she performs for society. The single parent family is one of the fastest growing family structures across the western world and women head 80–90% of these families. Because of the sexual contract, these families are unjustly vulnerable to poverty.
We need economic redistribution to support women who are mothers, especially single mothers.
At the level of feminist theory and practice, we need a maternal or matricentric feminism that recognizes the value of maternal care and fights for women’s rights to be with their children. Liberation cannot be attained through the neoliberal path of paid work alone—and mothers are rarely able to meet ideal worker norms anyway. The neoliberal choice should be supported, but a long-hours work culture, premised on the twentieth century norm of the male breadwinner, who had a wife at home—’er indoors—who took care of all the unpaid work, is not the answer for all women (even if it is for some with interesting, well-paid jobs). We need to connect a feminist politics of autonomy with an ethic of care. Twenty years ago, in The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer asserted that we need to make “dignified motherhood a feminist priority.” She was right.
In addition to finding ways for women to have greater autonomy and equality in the workplace and in the public sphere, feminism needs to find room for and value women’s mothering. We need to support women’s desire to be with their children, to mother in situ not in absentia. This calls for much more profound change to the social order. This is not about women being like men—the abstract individuals of the social contract—but women exercising their reproductive capacities, should they so choose, without paying an unjust price for it. We need to connect equality with difference and autonomy with care.
That is how we will resolve Wollstonecraft’s dilemma.
This is an edited and abridged version of a lecture delivered for the La Trobe University Ideas and Society series on the topic “Feminism, Yes. But What Kind of Feminism?”