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Mothers and Others: Reproduction, Representation and the Body Politic

by Ginetta Candelario and Naomi Miller


Mothers and Others: Reproduction, Representation and the Body Politic

We are a very lively and engaged group almost entirely comprised of social scientists (Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, Area Studies), and humanists (Literary Studies, Medieval Studies, Art History, Women’s Studies, Religion), though thanks to Virginia Hayssen (Biological Sciences) all three divisions are represented in the Project.  Indeed, Ginny was the first of the Faculty Fellows to start our collective conversation off with her very informative presentation on biology and "the biological" as a conceptual apparatus that is routinely misunderstood and therefore misused by those of us seeking to make sense of the relationship between human physiology and human behavior in human reproductive patterns and practices.  Ginetta Candelario '90 (Sociology, Latin American & Latin@ Studies and Study of Women & Gender) followed with a presentation on how liberal feminist equality paradigms have become dominant in legal discourses and decision-making within family law precisely by discounting the incommensurability between gestational mothers and biological fathers' biological investments in reproductive labor, all mothers' on-going disproportionately larger investments in childrearing, and father’s rights claims based on equality.

Student Fellows Laura Malecky '13 (Study of Women & Gender) and Rebecca Raymond-Kolker '13 (Latin American & Latin@ Studies) opened the conversation about "Others" who mother.  Laura asked us to consider Queer interventions into "the chain of care" paradigm of transnational care work undertaken by third world men and women, while Becca engaged with the questions raised in Chicana lesbian feminist Cherri Moraga's memoir of Queer biological motherhood, Waiting in the Wings.  We appeared to switch gears rather dramatically when the following week we were joined by Renaissance scholar Gary Waller (SUNY Purchase) who presented on "Renaissance/Divine Motherhood: Male Fantasies in the Annunciation Story."  In fact, however, Professor Waller offered an important cultural genealogy of historically powerful ideologies of motherhood driven by Judeo-Christian men's desire to control and contain the power of women's dispositive biological role in the reproduction of humanity.  In turn, Naomi Miller (English Language & Literature and Study of Women & Gender) focused on early modern English "mother’s advice books" that illustrate how Renaissance mothers subverted contemporary patriarchal notions of motherhood by publicly claiming maternal authority to advise their sons on both domestic and public affairs.

With these opening frameworks in hand, the Fellows traveled to New York during October Break to visit the Museum of Motherhood, where we were joined by Public Policy scholar Jocelyn Elise Crowley (Rutgers University).  Crowley spoke to us about the rise and role of the U.S. Father's Rights Movement in divorced fathers' repertoires for coping with the women's liberation movement's success in pursuing state-based child support standards and enforcement.  She concluded that while the movement's political aims and policy agendas are harmful to mothers and the children they care for, the organizations and groups offer important support for divorced fathers to reduce conflict with their children's mothers and encourage them to develop child-centered parenting skills.  Back on campus, Marsha Pruett (Psychology and School for Social Work) elaborated further on the role of fathers with her presentation on the state of the experimental psychology research on the roles of mothers and fathers in infant's secure attachment and child development.  Meanwhile, Graduate Student Fellow Eiko Strader (UMASS-Amherst, Sociology) gave us an important comparative overview of international data on "the motherhood wage penalty" and how state policies impact maternal poverty, with a focus on Japan.

Led by Daphne Lamothe (Afro-American Studies, English Language & Literature and Study of Women & Gender), we moved next from the international to the diasporic as we reflected upon how mother as trope and the motherland figure in novels authored by "Afro-Americans" broadly conceived to include U.S., Anglo/French/Hispanic Caribbean, and Afro-Latino writers.  Continuing in the literary vein but shifting genres, student Fellow Jena Andres '13 examined representations of motherhood in the poetry of three contemporary American women writers: Rita Dove, Louise Gluck and Alicia Ostriker.  Novels and poetry gave way to memoir when we hosted writer and activist Amie Klempnauer Miller, author of She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood.  Miller, who joined us on the eve of the Presidential Election, spoke to the Project Fellows about the experience of both undertaking and writing about lesbian motherhood, and to the Smith Community about the next day"s critical vote in Minnesota on Amendment 1, which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman.  The Amendment was defeated.

Our next foray was into the visual representation of Mothers and Others.  Student Fellow Camille Kulig '13 (Art History) exposed us to the development of feminist art that self-consciously takes maternity and the maternal body as its subject, particularly the ground-breaking work of Jenny Saville.  We then took a mini-field trip to the Smith College Museum of Art where Staff Fellow Henriette Kets di Vries, Cunningham Center Manager at the Museum, showed us the Center's Käthe Kollwitz prints featuring wartime mothers. We turned our gazes next to the crossroads between the political and embodied experience of pregnancy, labor and postpartum syndrome.  Co-founder of the Prison Birth Project and Student Fellow Marianne Bullock AC (American Studies) spoke to us about the experiences of women who give birth and mother in prison, while Community Fellow Elizabeth Freidman (Motherwoman, Inc.) spoke to us about research and policy on postpartum syndrome.

The woman who literally wrote the book on Mothers and Others, physical anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (University of California, Davis), enlightened us further on the history and evolution of primate motherhood and mothers, helpfully introducing us to the concept of alloparenting.  As Hrdy further explained in her public talk, primate (including human) mothers are motivated to inspire others to cooperate in the work of infant and childcare because mother-infant interdependence necessarily extracts a high cost on women's bodies and lives. Moving more fully to the social contexts of motherhood, the following week acclaimed sociologist of marriage and the family, Stephanie Coontz (Evergreen State College), spoke with us about the history of motherhood in the United States, and gave another standing room only talk on "The Impact of Feminism on Marriage and Family Life, 1963-2003."

Faculty Fellow Vera Shevzov (Religion) considered the Russian government's turn to pro-natalist policies through visual and discursive reiterations of the Virgin Mary as eternally sacred mother; along the way she gave us very useful insight into the recent controversy raised by the feminist punk rock band, Pussy Riot's arrest and trial for sacrilegious spectacle.  Ambreen Hai (English Language & Literature and Study of Women & Gender) picked up on the theme of the schism and tensions between state policies, cultural norms, and sanctioned public discourses of maternal care work as labors of love that elide the actual labor of servants who care for other people's children.

We closed the semester with presentations on the gaps between stereotypes and popular narratives of mothers of color, and their actual experiences. Faculty Fellow Miliann Kang (UMASS-Amherst, Sociology) presented on the controversy raised by the broad gap between the Asian "Tiger Mother" stereotype and the actual motherhood experience of Asian American women, while cultural anthropologist Riché Barns (Afro-American Studies) presented her work on the experiences of professional African American women who assume full-time parenting roles while working to sustain professional identities and partial ties to the labor market.

All in all, it has been a dynamically diverse yet surprisingly coherent and synergetic series of conversations, debates and explorations.

 

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