Mothers and Motherhood

(CGS 104)

Prof. Rebecca Jo Plant

Fall 2006

Tuesdays, 5-7:50 p.m. in HSS 1315

Course description

This course examines motherhood and maternal experiences from a wide range of interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives. We will explore cultural and political meanings attributed to the maternal role, and how motherhood has shaped women’s identities as workers, citizens and individuals. We will also examine differing attitudes and practices towards the biological aspects of motherhood, including childbirth and breastfeeding, and how new reproductive technologies have impacted women in various parts of the world. The course reading encompasses works by historians, economists, philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists, as well as a novelist and a sociobiologist.

Contacting Prof. Plant

Phone: 534-8920
Office hours: W 10am-noon, HSS 6016

Required reading

Heather Paxson, Making Mothers Modern: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986

Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood, London: Heinemann, 1994 (orig. 1979)

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005

Articles and chapters included in course packet: Although all of the material in the course packet is on electronic reserves, I strongly urge you to purchase a course packet from University Readers. You will need to bring printed copies of the readings to class every week.

Course requirements

Policy regarding late papers: I will accept late papers without penalty only if an  extension is requested by email at least seven days in advance of the due date. Otherwise, a letter grade will be deducted for each day beyond the due date.    

Academic integrity: Please review the “Instructors’ Responsibility” and “Students’ Responsibility” sections of the University’s Policy on Integrity of Scholarship.

Weekly schedule

Week 1, September 26: Why study motherhood?

I. Maternal bodies

Week 2, October 3: The history of childbirth

For most of human history, childbirth occurred within a female-controlled domain. But in the 19th century, male doctors in Europe and North America began to attend birthing women, and in the 20th century, an increasing number of women gave birth in hospitals. By the end of the 1940s, about half of all births in the US occurred in hospitals; by 1955, the number had risen to a full 95 percent. Medical historians wrote triumphal accounts describing how modern obstetrics had vanquished the age-old scourge of maternal suffering and mortality. Yet almost immediately, a counter-reaction to the medicalization of childbirth set in. Many women who gave birth while heavily sedated, with no control over the process, found the experience to be de-humanizing, even traumatic. Turning to alternative obstetricians like Grantly Dick-Read and Ferdinand Lamaze, they called for a return to a more “natural” approach. Was it inevitable that childbirth would come to be viewed as an event that required extensive medical intervention, and one that should occur within a hospital setting? What drove the medicalization of childbirth, and the reactions against it? And how has the reduction of suffering and death so long associated with childbirth affected how people think about motherhood more broadly?

Week 3, October 10: New reproductive technologies

Paper #1 due in class

In 1970, the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone predicted that developments in medical science would liberate women by freeing them from the twin burdens of biological reproduction and motherhood, which she identified as the root of women’s oppression. Instead, some thirty years later, new reproductive and medical technologies are being widely used to assist women who desperately want to bear children. The past few decades have witnessed the emergence of a dizzying array of new techniques to assist reproduction, as well as technologies that can reveal detailed information about the fetus. Now a woman can give birth to a child that is genetically unrelated to her, or conversely, become the mother of a genetically related child without going through pregnancy and childbirth. Although reproductive technologies have improved the lives of many, they have also impacted women in detrimental ways. How have diverse groups of women responded to new reproductive and medical technologies, and what do their responses reveal about their society’s cultural values and beliefs? What types of ethical and legal issues do new reproductive technologies raise? And to what extent have scientific and medical developments challenged traditional conceptions of motherhood?

Week 4, October 17: The politics of breastfeeding

The question of how infants should be fed is a highly politicized and emotionally-charged issue. The health benefits of breastfeeding are now incontrovertible, especially in poor countries, where drinking water is often contaminated. So why do large percentages of mothers still use formula, either exclusively or as a supplement? Breastfeeding advocates argue that multinational corporations employ unethical strategies to market infant formula, in violation of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes (adopted in 1980). Yet feminists have often seemed reluctant to join public health advocates, and instead have questioned the motives and tactics of those who call for prolonged, exclusive breastfeeding. Should feminists be at the forefront of this issue, calling for changes in business practices, societal attitudes and the structure of the workplace, so that mothers’ rights to breastfeed are supported and protected? Or should feminists oppose public health officials’ attempts to promote breastfeeding as an essential, risk-reducing behavior, akin to wearing a seat belt, and insist upon women’s right to self-determination and bodily autonomy?

II. The subjective experience of motherhood

Week 5, October 24: Maternal instincts and mother love

Is there such a thing as “maternal instinct”? To what extent are human infants instinctually drawn to their own biological mothers over other caregivers? These questions have driven numerous scientific studies and led to highly contentious debates in the media. The stakes are high, for society’s answers to these questions have far-reaching implications for how mothers and fathers define their life aspirations and structure their daily routines. In the 1970s, feminists argued that “attachment” theories, which claimed that infants need an ever-loving and ever-present mother in order to thrive, reflected the researchers’ own biases and served to justify prevailing gender norms. Scholars like the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes cast further doubt on such theories by showing how maternal attitudes and behavior differed widely according to cultural and economic conditions. Yet more recently, the sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy has argued that we should not attempt to deny the biological and evolutionary roots of maternal behavior. How does our evolutionary inheritance influence the behavior of infants and mothers? And what would it mean to construct a social order designed to satisfy both the biological and emotional needs of mothers and their babies?

Week 6, October 31: Maternal self-sacrifice and expectations

In 1979, the Nigerian-born Emecheta Buchi published The Joys of Motherhood, a novel that focuses on Nnu Ego, a woman whose life is defined largely by her maternal role. Set in Lagos, the story unfolds from the 1930s through the 1950s, an era during which Nigeria witnessed profound political and cultural changes. Buchi illuminates how colonialism and globalization undermined the traditional ideals of motherhood that had held sway in Ibu society. Although Nnu Ego struggles tirelessly to provide opportunities for her sons, as adults they defy cultural expectations by failing to provide for her. While the novel shows how large-scale political and historical processes can transform intimate, familial life, it also raises universal and timeless questions about what mothers can rightly expect from their children, and what children owe to their mothers. 

 A useful study guide

An interview with Emechta Buchi

III. Politics of motherhood

Week 7, November 7: Maternalist politics 

“Maternalism” refers to an ideology and a type of politics in which women mobilize for social change based on their status as mothers. In the late nineteenth century, maternalist reformers in Europe and North America began to argue that, because mothers have a special interest in protecting and preserving human life, motherhood is potentially a powerful political force, capable of uniting women of diverse backgrounds. Maternalist movements subsequently appeared in a wide array of settings and have assumed various forms, ranging from the Plaza de Mayo mothers of Buenos Aires, who protested the “disappearance” of their children under the military dictatorship, to the American “moms” who marched on Washington in 2000 demanding stricter gun control legislation. Although such movements have often proven remarkably effective, many feminist critics are wary of maternalism as an organizing principle. They fear that it reinforces the tendency to conflate “women” and “mothers” and restricts women to claiming power as the nurturers of children, not as individuals in their own right. Moreover, they point to numerous cases in which right-wing groups or governments have adopted maternalist rhetoric to promote profoundly anti-feminist policies. What are the benefits and the pitfalls of maternalist politics? Under what conditions have women employed maternalist strategies to good effect, and under what conditions has maternalism proven to be a kind of ideological straightjacket?      

Week 8, November 14: Pronatalism, population control and state power

Since the emergence of modern nation states, governments have measured population growth and decline, and politicians and commentators have often interpreted such statistics as a reflection of national strength or weakness. This notion of population as an appropriate issue for governmental concern and intervention has led to myriad attempts to either encourage or limit births through policies that have almost invariably targeted women. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many European states sought to boost fertility rates by defining childbearing and motherhood as a woman’s civic duty, enacting welfare policies to support mothers and children, and restricting access to birth control and abortion. Such pronatalist policies, however, were typically limited to “desirable” mothers and indeed often went hand-in-hand with eugenical measures aimed at restricting births among minorities, the poor, the disabled or other groups deemed “undesirable.” In the second half of the twentieth century, concerns about over-population led governments in nations like India and China to adopt heavy-handed policies designed to lower fertility rates—policies that often clashed with deeply held cultural beliefs. How have policies designed to encourage or restrict births affected women in various historical and cultural settings, and how have women responded to them? How have such measures reflected or undermined pre-existing familial practices and maternal ideals? 

View either “La Operación,” dir. Ana Maria Garcia, 1982 (40 min.) or “Something Like a War,” dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1991 (52 min.)

IV. Maternal conundrums in the contemporary US

Week 9, November 21: Transnational mothers and international adoptions

The forces of globalization are usually discussed in economic terms, but they have also propelled important trends that have deeply affected personal lives and familial relationships. In the US and wealthy European nations, couples hoping to adopt often turn to the developing world, traveling great distances to bring home infants—infants who are relinquished for reasons that rarely receive close scrutiny in developed nations. At the same time, the widening gap between poor and rich nations has helped to generate a global market of caregivers. Today, even well educated women from the developing world can often earn more money working abroad as nannies than they could in their home countries. But the decision to travel abroad to become a better provider for their children means forsaking a more traditionally “maternal” role, and the emotional costs of doing so are high. How has transnational migration affected families in both the developing and the developed world? How do adoptive parents conceptualize their parental role, and what relationship do they see their children having to their countries of birth? How do ‘transnational mothers’ define their maternal obligations, and how do they cope with the challenges of trying to maintain ties with their own children at great distance, while nurturing the children of others?

The Adoption Project

Week 10, November 28: The costs and the value of mothering

Paper #2 due in class (assignment will be distributed in class)

Although both poor and middle-class women are affected by the US’s weak social welfare system, they are affected in very different ways. Mothers with professional jobs often desire longer maternity leaves, more flexible schedules and well compensated part-time work. Because these options are generally lacking, a significant number drop out of the work force temporarily, despite severe consequences for their career trajectories and earning potential. In contrast, poor mothers do not have the option of relying on a husband or partner to meet all of their economic needs. They struggle to support themselves and their children in a post-welfare world, while often contending with failing schools and unsafe neighborhoods. Yet even though poor women objectively face far greater difficulties in rearing children, they express comparatively little ambivalence about taking on the obligations of motherhood. Whereas well-educated and affluent women are likely to postpone childbearing until their 30s or even 40s and rarely give birth outside of marriage, poor women are far more likely to have children at younger ages and often “put motherhood before marriage.” Why does class play such a major role in shaping women’s reproductive decisions and attitudes toward motherhood? What are the “costs” of mothering for different classes of women—what do women give up in order to become mothers? And what do they receive in return? 

An interview with Ann Crittenden 

Final examination, according to UCSD schedule