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Mothers and Others: Reproduction, Representation, and the Body Politic

 

ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Ginetta Candelario
Sociology, Latin American Studies

Naomi Miller
English Language & Literature


ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Ginetta Candelario
Ginetta Candelario
Sociology, Latin American Studies
Naomi Miller
Naomi Miller
English Language & Literature
 

PROJECT DESCRIPTION:

The biological exercise of motherhood relies on the female body and its ability and/or willingness to turn itself over to the tasks of gestation and birth, and to the post-partum sustenance of infants through lactation. It is a reproductive process that human societies have conferred with powerful meanings—even when the subjects are other mammals, such as rodents and primates that predominate in natural science studies of maternity. Motherhood includes the symbolic construction of maternity as a virtual archetype of natural beauty in its pure state. But the functions of motherhood in human societies are neither purely "natural" nor purely a thing of beauty. While motherhood can be deeply satisfying, it often comes at a high biological and personal cost, from the temporary stress upon the physiological system to permanent physical or psychological damage. Moreover, the labor of those we have come to call "mothers" extends well beyond biological caring for offspring. In the case of humans, this care can extend into adulthood and even encompass eldercare. Biological processes and costs are never purely or simply the product of "nature," but of history, society, and culture.

By taking an interdisciplinary approach to maternity, this project will juxtapose representations of actual and mythic mothers in different mediums, in different societies, and in different historical periods to contextualize the cultural undercurrents that produce both commonalities and differences. We expect to consider the symbolic meanings, as well as the practices and the institutions that have come to be associated with mothering, from the biological birth-giving process to the care of children, from infancy into adulthood. We might ask, for example what forms of signification have come to be inscribed in maternity, and to what extent are they based on relations of power and inequality? The word "parenting" implies gender-neutral caregiving. However, the biology of parenthood is inherently unequal. Does the language of gender neutrality serve to elide structures of inequality? If biological mothers give themselves over to the "making" of children in ways that the other parent has not, is gender neutrality a reasonable framework to employ in law and society? Should the physical and psychological costs of biological labor be somehow translated into social or economic value? If so, how might such values be assessed? To what extent does the labor of motherhood, along with the social imperatives and pressures to accept the role of mother, shape the trajectory of women’s lives, now and in the past, both here and elsewhere? In what ways have the dispositions, attitudes and work of various historical figures, writers, or artists been influenced by their role as mothers, or their refusal to accept such a role?

This project will investigate the spectrum of maternal roles and responsibilities, and the perceptions and outcomes of them. While it will encompass actual biological mothers, its explorations will also extend to a much wider range of mother figures and caregivers, and the complex issues associated with them. While the specific questions and issues explored will be determined by the interests of the participants, the project will identify and examine fundamental intellectual questions related to motherhood, its various forms, its functions in different societies, cultures, and times, and the functions it has served in various discourses, systems (e.g., biological, social, political, cultural), actions and interactions.

The wealth of questions raised by the issues of motherhood will be considered from a truly broad range of perspectives, thereby reflecting both positive and negative constructions of the caregiver. Bringing together different perspectives from a diverse cross-section of disciplines promises to provide a provocative series of discussions and a thorough and multifaceted investigation of this rich topic. We heartily welcome colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines and department to participate.

 

 

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