200 years later, and we’re still making the same case

Cross posted

The excellent Blue Milk has posted a quote from Andrea O’Reilly, in which Professor Reilly questions the nature of our arguments around improving the status and practice of motherhood.

While I do believe that empowered mothers are more effective mothers and that anti-sexist childrearing and maternal activism are worthwhile aims, I still wonder and worry why the rhetoric of rationalization has become the strategy of choice among feminist activists and scholars today and why our campaigns for social change centre on children, and not ourselves as mothers. Why can we not simply demand that motherhood be made better for mothers themselves?

Click through to read the whole quote.

Professor O’Reilly acknowledges that as a matter of rhetorical strategy, it may be a good idea to emphasise that making things better for mothers will make things better for children. But why, she asks, can we not just make things better for mothers, for their own sake?

It’s a good question, but one that can be discussed over at Blue Milk’s place. I want to tell you about the resonance I heard in Professor O’Reilly’s writing. It’s a resonance with Mary Wollstonecraft. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, Wollstonecraft argues that men and women are of the same kind, that although there may be differences between them, they are differences of degree, not kind, and that if that is the case, then women have a right to be educated, just as much as men do. That is, she argues for women’s right to education on the basis of principle.

But she also argues:

Do passive indolent women make the best wives? Confining our discussion to the present moment of existence, let us see how such weak creatures perform their part? Do the women who, by the attainment of a few superficial accomplishments, have strengthened the prevailing prejudice, merely contribute to the happiness of their husbands? Do they display their charms merely to amuse them? And have women, who have early imbibed notions of passive obedience, sufficient character to manage a family or educate children?

But these littlenesses would not degrade their character, if women were led to respect themselves, if political and moral subjects were opened to them; and, I will venture to affirm, that this is the only way to make them properly attentive to their domestic duties.

But it is vain to expect the present race of weak mothers either to take that reasonable care of a child’s body, which is necessary to lay the foundation of a good constitution, supposing that it do not suffer for the sins of its fathers;b or, to manage its temper so judiciously that the child will not have, as it grows up, to throw off all that its mother, its first instructor, directly or indirectly taught; and unless the mind have uncommon vigour, womanish follies will stick to the character throughout life. The weakness of the mother will be visited on the children!

In public schools women, to guard against the errors of ignorance, should be taught the elements of anatomy and medicine, not only to enable them to take proper care of their own health, but to make them rational nurses of their infants, parents, and husbands;

Besides, by the exercise of their bodies and minds women would acquire that mental activity so necessary in the maternal character, united with the fortitude that distinguishes steadiness of conduct from the obstinate perverseness of weakness.

Arguments from pragmatism have a long history in feminist thinking.

Yes, I know that patriarchy harms men too, and that in slowly, slowly, knocking away the patriarchal structures that oppress women, we create a better world for everyone. But as Andrea O’Reilly says, and as Wollstonecraft argues in other places, wouldn’t it be good for women to be educated, for women’s work to be valued, just because women deserve it, for themselves.

About these ads

6 responses to “200 years later, and we’re still making the same case

  1. Thanks for the link.

    I love the quote you’ve matched O’Reilly’s to here.

  2. Mary Wollstonecraft is right.

  3. So clear. I’ve left a comment at Blue Milk too.

  4. Thanks for the post. I hadn’t really thought of the possibility of arguing for the improvement of women’s lot without having to rationalise it as being good for the children, or the husbands, or whatever. I suppose it must be to make it a palatable idea for men.

  5. Then there’s the related, more recent idea of “to make aid to developing countries we should give aid / education to women, because it’s been shown it’s more likely to be spent on / benefit children and families”. Still framed as giving something to women so that they can better care for others. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, of course, but women are still seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.