Julie Stephens Talks Postmaternal Thinking

Feminist Conversations is a regular series here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Julie Stephens, author of Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory and CareJulie Stephens, about the book and the concept of postmaternalism.

1. What inspired you to write Confronting Postmaternal Thinking?

Initially, I was inspired by re-reading Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, almost twenty years after its publication. I was struck by the contrast between the wonderful promise of Ruddick’s notion of maternal thinking as a different way of seeing, knowing, and acting in the world that fostered non-violence and peace, and the reality, twenty years later, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the dominance of social policies that were cruel to those most vulnerable.

I originally intended to look at how the concept of maternal thinking had been sustained and developed over the twenty years since the book’s publication. What I found in my research, however, was not just an absence of maternal thinking in the public domain but the active presence of something else, a widespread cultural unease about the values associated with the maternal (nurture, care, and protection) and also with dependency in any form. Instead, there seemed to have been a steady move toward a privatization of maternal ideals. The dimensions of the maternal that have a social and political significance were disavowed in the public sphere and highly conflicted in the private. Sara Ruddick saw maternal thinking as engaging in a collective, political act, yet today, in stark contrast, it has become almost ‘politically impossible’ to make public claims on the basis of motherhood.

My book attempts to trace (and confront) this development that I argue has a broad social resonance in a range of liberal democracies and has profound implications for policy around dependency and care.

2. Tell our readers a little bit about the concept of postmaternalism.

The concept comes from the social policy literature, particularly the pioneering work done by Ann Orloff on the gendered implications of the welfare restructuring of the 1990s onwards. She describes as postmaternal the move away from the political support for women’s caregiving in their role as mothers, to that support being limited only to economically “active” adults. The programs around “welfare-to-work” in the U.S. and U.K., and to some extent Australia, are but one example of this policy shift. According to Orloff, there has been a “farewell to maternalism” in formerly “gendered” policy regimes. This is a process where women’s claims as mothers have lost their political authority. According to this perspective, it is possible for women to make claims as workers or citizens, but illegitimate now to make political claims as mothers. Like many second-wave feminists I do not wish to defend the old conservative gender roles of women confined to homemaking. However, today we have gone to the opposite extreme and risk seeing women solely as workers, thus losing maternal qualities that cannot be reduced to gender-neutral work, or the right to participate in the public domain.

In my book, I attempt to take the term postmaternalism beyond the policy arena and apply it to a trend in the wider culture, namely a prevailing cultural unease with what the maternal represents. I trace this cultural unease through an investigation of memoir, oral history recollections, feminist theory, mothering advocacy sites, web-based magazines, and popular discourse.

3. You talk about what you call cultural forgetting. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The idea of memory as a cultural rather than an individual faculty is debated in the voluminous literature on memory. Memory and forgetting are seen to constitute each other, and are each essential to the other’s existence. A more familiar notion is that of “historical amnesia,” However, it implies that forgetting is a passive process of loss, or being duped by false memories of the past. In my view, the term “cultural forgetting” is a better concept because it implies an active negotiation between personal and political, public and private memory and the social contexts in which memory-making takes place.

According to Paul Connerton, cultural forgetting is a collective and patterned process where new, shared memories and “shared silences” are culturally produced. In this view, forgetting can be an active abandonment of memories that are unsuited to changed relations of power. The changed relations of power I discuss are associated with the rise of neo-liberal economic and social policies. If the only identity given legitimacy and value in this social context is that of the autonomous, self-sufficient, economically active individual, then it is easy to allow human dependency and vulnerability to slip from view. This is the form of cultural forgetting my book aims to address, and in particular changed meanings of nurture and care and the “maternal.”

4. In the book, you state that we seem to have forgotten the nurturing feminist. Do you think that media depictions of feminists have focused on the portrayal of feminists as neglectful in regards to the family?

Yes, I do agree that in the popular media, feminism is often pitted as in opposition to motherhood. In Australia, we have a female Prime Minister who, in Parliament at the end of 2012, very vigorously accused the media and the opposition Liberal Party of sexism and misogyny. The fact that her language was unapologetically feminist has led to many tabloid accusations that she is trying to start a gender war in this country. However, her comments, and the power of her delivery, unwittingly tapped into a popular idea of feminists as un-maternal, childless, strident, ruthless career women.

In contrast to this familiar depiction, there are branches of feminism that are explicitly maternalist or based around an ethic of care. What I found was that “nurturing” and protective character of the early women’s movement (take the first women’s shelters, for example) have been overshadowed or forgotten. So too, decidedly anti-careerist feminist struggles to create a better world have been eclipsed by the image of the career-obsessed feminist, who purportedly views children as an impediment to a successful working life.

5. You write that we often engage in the assumption that dependency on others is unnatural and abnormal. Does this influence how we view motherhood and caring?

Cultural understandings and definitions of dependency are crucial to how we view mothers who are caring for young babies, or the frail elderly, or children, and all of the above who may be outside the paid workforce. I was struck when reading about this history of the term, that in pre-industrial times, independence was viewed with suspicion as almost a deviant disorder because everyone at that time was seen to be dependent on someone else for their status, shelter, protection, and livelihood. This was defined as natural. Now that autonomy and self-sufficiency have become a sign of normality, dependency itself is stigmatized and psychologized as some kind of “failure of will” and moral weakness.

If these are the social meanings of dependency, then care-related activities are represented as being a burden (and often experienced as burdensome) and dependency is somehow seen as, and felt to be, shameful. For those able to “stand on their own feet,” there is often an invisible system of mostly female labor, propping them up. This is why feminist care ethicists, and I include myself here, think of independence and autonomy as a fiction or ideology. An important form of memory work would be to remember our own human vulnerability and move away from the terms “dependence” and “independence” and acknowledge human interdependence. If men and women championed a co-operative ethic of care, this would be far more challenging to neglectful and destructive capitalist market relations than the currently compatible, and easily accommodated, ideal of individualism so prized in the media and workplace.

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