Feminism Friday: bell hooks on parenting and feminism

I’m reading bell hooks’ Feminist Theory; From Margin to Center. Coincidentally, I started reading Chapter Ten, “Revolutionary Parenting”, just after reading this thread at Feministe, “Sacrifice, Parenting, and Feminism“, particularly bfp’s comments (21-24, 41-42).

It also serves as an important privilege check, and a reminder that the recent work of white feminist mothers isn’t anything new; bell hooks was doing this back in 1984, as no doubt were those before her.

Chapter 10: Revolutionary Parenting

During the early stages of contemporary women’s liberation movement, feminist analyses of motherhood reflected the race and class biases of participants. Some white, middle-class, college-educated women argued that motherhood was a serious obstacle to women’s liberation, a trap confining women to the home, keeping them tied to cleaning,cooking, and child care. Others simply identified motherhood and child-rearing as the locus of women’s oppression. Had black women voiced their views on motherhood, it would not have been named a serious obstacle to our freedom as women. Racism, lack of jobs, lack of skills or education, and a number of other issues would have been at the top of the list — but not motherhood. Black women would not have said motherhood prevented us from entering the world of paid work because we have always worked. From slavery to the present day, black women in the U.S. have worked outside the home, in the fields, in the factories, in the laundries, in the homes of others. That work gave meager financial compensation and often interfered with or prevented effective parenting. Historically, black women have identified work in the context of family as humanizing labor, work that affirms their identity as women, as human beings showing love and care, the very gestures of humanity white supremacist ideology claimed black people were incapable of expressing. In contrast to labor done in a caring environment inside the home, labor outside the home was most often seen as stressful, degrading, and dehumanizing.

These views of motherhood and work outside the home contrasted sharply with those expressed by white women’s liberationists. Many black women were saying, “We want to have more time to share with family, we want to leave the world of alienated work.” Many white women’s liberationists were saying, “We are tired of the isolation of the home, tired of relating only to children and husband, tired of being emotionally and economically dependent; we want to be liberated to enter the world of work.” (These voices were not those of working-class white women who were, like black women workers, tired of alienated labor.)

Categories: gender & feminism, work and family

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2 replies

  1. I find it fascinating how MRAs and other anti-feminists always forget how working-class women have always worked outside the home and how working-class men have generally been more egalitarian parents as well – because when Mum has to get to her shifts on time just like Dad, then Dad has to pick up the caring responsibilities when Mum is out of the house. They keep on framing the gendered division of labour in the middle-class suburban nuclear family as a natural ev-pysch progression from hunter-gatherer society, when the distinct nuclear family is not even an industrial-revolution phenomenon – it’s a motor-vehicles-caused-suburbia phenomenon. Prior to affordable mass-produced motor cars even societies that traditionally featured single-family households were part of communities that included parents, cousins and siblings in close proximity – it was the motor-car and suburbia that changed all that.
    So, I would argue that it’s not actually motherhood per se that white middle-class feminists find alienating, although I think this is a distinction that isn’t made clearly enough often enough (and perhaps one that simply isn’t consciously realised often enough). It’s the dehumanising isolation of the consumerist nuclear family that middle-class feminists find alienating, and it is the critique of suburban nuclear families that the status quo finds so threatening, because if people chose to live in more extended co-parenting groups that shared resources such as washing machines and kitchen appliances we’d be far less valuable as consumers.
    Of course it’s right to point out that middle-class feminists fall into the trap of ignoring how profoundly unnatural qualities of the retreat into suburbia, because we are as liable to fall for the comforts of consumerism as anybody else. Accumulating stuff can be very satisfying. But let’s not forget that having lots of stuff is an ancient marker of social status and thus highly valued by the kyriarchy. By setting up society so that more households are large enough and separate enough to display their accumulations of stuff to each other, the kyriarchy motivates us to behave in ways that are profoundly antagonistic to deep-seated human emotional needs, and the needs that are pushed to the bottom of the pile are always those of women, children and especially those women and children of colour.

  2. This was so timely, am thinking so much about black politics and feminism and then tigtog I just loved your summation of the motherhood/suburbia experience!!

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