Sunday, January 27, 2008

Feminism and Motherhood

Examining Feminist Notions of Equality Through the Lens of Motherhood

As a student of gender studies in college, the idea of gender equality seemed very obvious in terms of theory. Men and women are equal in all things. In practice, I considered this statement as one that would easily govern why men and women should have equal pay, equal right, and equal opportunity under the law.

In the dictionary, the word equal is defined as: " as great as; the same as." This basic definition of what makes two things equal is at the core of how many of us understand gender equality.
I accepted this idea readily until I became a mother.

Unavoidably, we all understand that men and women are different biologically. But I believed that this biological difference would not prevent women from being equal to men. I also had some vague idea about how parenting could be equally shared between two partners despite the basic physical differences that could be present when one parent gives birth or is breastfeeding. I didn't have much idea of the specific details of how the workload of parenting would be "equally" distributed, but I was fairly certain that it was possible with two willing parents.

As a Women's Studies major in college, I recall discussing ways in which social structures have historically reinforced gender inequality. I do not recall ever discussing how our belief in the universal sameness of equality is betrayed by the inexorable certainty of our biology.

Because I was the person who was pregnant and is able to breastfeed, the differences between my husband and are in terms of our parenting workload are immediately different. This difference does not resemble the parenting equality I theoretically envisioned. I am not angry about this, but I was surprised by it. My husband did as much as a man could in those early days after we brought Molly home, but since I was breastfeeding I was the one who HAD to get up and feed her every 2 1/2 hours. My husband might have felt like I spent more quality time with Molly as a result, but in those early days I was so tired I didn't feel like I had any quality time anywhere.

If I was more committed to making sure everything was more equal formula feeding would have afforded more of an equal division of parenting labor. But breastfeeding is best, and all parents want to do what is best for their child. But take note that this decision will affect women more than their husbands. I'm not sure how parenting equality plays out in same sex couples, where this innate biological difference is not present.

Ideologically my understanding of gender equality before being a mother is overly simplistic. How can we redefine equality in terms of gender? Do we need too? Men and women are different, sometimes to the extent that our journey through life will not always be able to be the same. The problem seems to me to be that we continue to emphasize that within the gender differences, everyone accepts that to be a man is the superior experience. Are we aspiring to have gender equality that is rooted in the idea that we have the right to have experiences that are the same as a man's? How can we erase the hierarchy without trying to erase the reality of gender difference?

1 comment:

Grendel's Mom said...

I see your point, and as you say, there has been a lot of feminist work on this point recently.

But, where I'd differ is on the point of biological certainty, a view of sexual difference that would make it impossible to imagine equality between the sexes as a political reality.

Focusing on the irreducibility of biological gender difference tends to obscure the broader range of differences among women. What about women who, for whatever reason, cannot breastfeed or cannot become pregnant? Why/how does gender difference become the the predominant rubric under which we imagine difference and equality? What about men who lactate or who choose to feed their babies with an SNS? The very predominance of gender dichotomies in the discussion suggests just how much social construction is at stake in any invocation of irreducible biological sexual difference.

True, there are differences between men and women, but there are differences among men and women as well. We need paradigms that are capable of accounting for these ranges of possibilities without necessarily turning them into hierarchical dichotomies. You may feed the baby every two hours and have gone through labor, but those characteristics cannot be imagined as THE defining characteristics of motherhood; I think that this is akin the point you make in your first post.