Viewpoint: Liberating Motherhood and the Need for a Maternal Feminism

Viewpoint: Liberating Motherhood and the Need for a Maternal Feminism

Vanessa Olorenshaw

Motherhood has been a minefield for feminism since the inception of the women’s movement. We have fought for reproductive freedom, we have pushed for economic equality, we have called for universal childcare and we have worked towards greater success in the ‘public sphere’.

However, we remain faced with one problem. There remain a sizeable proportion of mothers who actually want to care for their families. Not all mothers want to be liberated from mothering their children. Those who take time out of the workforce are penalised financially; and those who return to employment against their wishes face strain of a double shift.

We refuse to see that what mothers do in reproducing the human race and caring for vulnerable, dependent children is important and necessary work. Indeed, ‘dependence’ has become a dirty word, rather than acknowledged as an intrinsic part of the human condition (1). Having children is not a lifestyle choice akin to keeping lizards: it is socially imperative to produce and raise the next generation (2).

Women who are mothers are at higher risk of poverty. Mothers who care for their families may not have an income in their name: they remain – as highlighted by the women’s movement – at the financial mercy of a partner and thereby vulnerable. While the answer to this predicament has effectively been ‘get a job’, feminism has failed to answer what we are to do with about mothers if we are to ensure that they do not sacrifice economic autonomy or full citizenship when they care for their children. Childcare and ‘sharenting’ answers the question only for those families for whom that is preferred or suitable.

Feminism has moved towards a capitalist equality which has no room for women’s liberation. I discussed how the Women’s Equality Party has given every impression that it is the Women Employees Equality Party. When it comes to equality: some women are more equal than mothers. Every woman must now have a ‘job of one’s own’, not a room at home with the children. Sheryl Sandberg tells us to ‘lean in’ and lead – but when we push for more women at the top, we forget that this requires plenty at the bottom.

I have been an activist and writer in the field of mothers, politics and feminism and am a Friend of the organisation Mothers At Home Matter. Before the General Election 2015, I published a pamphlet entitled The Politics of Mothering. I was clear then, and I am clear now, that feminism and politics has failed mothers who want to care for their children. No political party spoke for a woman who wants to care for her children: the one-upmanship in the main parties about funded childcare, and the launching of the Labour Party’s manifesto in a children’s nursery, told mothers at home that they were effectively non-citizens, disenfranchised and disempowered. The ‘Family Test’ for civil servants failed to mention the word ‘mother’. Once. Feminism has to step up and address the injustices for women economically, socially and politically. Speaking on the women’s unwaged work panel (hosted by Mothers At Home Matter and featuring maternal feminist organisation All Mothers Work and academic Karem Roitman) at Feminism in London Conference, and at the GWS International Women’s Conference in 2015, I have been clear that feminism cannot embrace women unless we also embrace mothers: all mothers, in all our diversity.

The neoliberal project has squeezed families and forced women into low paid, low status and low security work which many would prefer to decline – if they had the opportunity. Those women who are at home with their children are penalised in the sacrifice of an income and the family purse is taxed disproportionately compared with families earning the same – but split into a dual income. An average family is around £3,000 worse off in tax. In short, the State penalises care and marginalises carers. As though feminism had never happened.

Kathleen Lynch, of University College Dublin, and other academics talk about affective labour and affective equality. She is clear that the ‘affective’ (as opposed to ‘political’, ‘economic’, or ‘socio-cultural’) is vital (3). Yet, the necessary work of family remains one of the most neglected areas of feminism and politics.

The debate about the pay gap has consistently failed to consider the income gap. The Wages for Housework Campaign has, since the 1970s, had the temerity to demand a living wage for carers. Feminism fears that it would institutionalise or ghettoise women into domesticity; Capitalism refuses to see what women do in the home and in raising families as ‘work’. And so, the demand and perspective of the campaign has faltered consistently, rejected by capitalist patriarchy. Of course it has.

However, the campaign for a Universal Basic Income is gaining momentum: perhaps the gender-neutral nature of a citizens’ income for all has lessened the objection that a wage for care will push women back to the home and housewifery. It reduces the resistance to ‘giving women money’. It certainly appeals to those who, to quote Kathi Weeks, see a Problem With Work (4).

Despite the success of suffragette and independent MP Eleanor Rathbone in securing the Family Allowance in 1946, with the rationale that no woman caring for children should be economically impoverished and financially beholden to a partner, the Coalition Government removed the universality of the payment in 2011. It had been a feminist success – it was a payment for the mother, not for the child. Gender-neutral language hid the fact that it was women who were losing a hard won payment – by then renamed in a sleight of hand as Child Benefit – to reduce their exploitation in their unwaged work and to ensure that no woman, no matter the income bracket of the wage earner, be economically isolated. It was a feminist failure that the assault on the payment was carried through.

After all, when jobs are being lost to automation; when wealth is accumulating in the 1%; when the workplace increasingly encroaches on family life; and when women remain at higher risk of poverty because they have cared for their families, feminism has to start to ask itself: are we ever going to find creative ways to protect, support and empower women beyond simply pushing for paid employment? We must start to recover some of the intellectual and creative verve of the original women’s movement: we have to return to discussing redistribution of wealth and the fair organisation of labour. The fact is, many mothers remain trapped by the market either as workers or as unwaged carers. We need to find ways to value care, to support carers, and put money into the pockets of those who sustain and nourish the human race. Mothers.

There has been significant academic work undertaken in the field of motherhood since Adrienne Rich reminded us that we are all Of Woman Born (5). Andrea O’Reilly and the Motherhood Institute for Research and Community Involvement and Demeter Press are addressing motherhood through the feminist lens. Maternal Theory (6), as an introduction to the wealth of literature about motherhood, is a good start.

However, mainstream politics and feminism continues to apply the new gender contract: whereas once our place was mandated to be at home, it is now firmly in the workplace. There is no flexibility. No recognition of the diversity in mothers’ wishes, skills, inclinations or needs, or the validity of mothers taking a short or longer period of time out of continuous workplace participation in order to do the important work of care.

One of the significant barriers to valuing care is the fact that dominant strands of feminism have become what Nancy Fraser describes as the handmaidens of capitalism. We talk about the boardroom, not the birthing room. We talk about the feminization of poverty without stopping to acknowledge that a significant reason women face poverty is because we, still, refuse to put money in their hands to reflect the valuable work they do. The unwaged work of children and home.

In my book Liberating Motherhood – Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, I argue for feminism to mobilise with mothers. When mothering is on our terms, it is a liberating motherhood. Yet, we need to liberate motherhood from patriarchal neoliberal capitalist constraints so that mothers can finally enjoy economic autonomy and self-determination.

(1) Fineman, Martha Albertson. The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies. New York: Routledge. 1995.
(2) Folbre, Nancy. The Invisible Heart, Economics and Family Values. New York: The New Press, 2001.
(3) Lynch, Kathleen et al. Affective Equality. Love, Care and Justice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009.
(4) Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work – Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. London: Duke University Press, 2011.
(5) Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution. London: Virago, 1977.
(6) O’Reilly, Andrea, ed. Maternal Theory, Essential Readings. Bradford: Demeter Press. 2007.


Vanessa Olorenshaw is a mother of two young children. She is a friend of the organisation Mothers at Home Matter and was a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party UK. She is the author of The Politics of Mothering, a political pamphlet. Her book Liberating Motherhood – Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, will be published later in 2016 by WomancraftPublishing. She tweets on @VOlorenshaw and blogs here.

Image credit: Flickr



21 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 02, 2016



  2. Avatar
    March 04, 2016

    A fantastic article, so needed – thank you.


  3. Avatar
    March 04, 2016

    I find it terrible how much insistence there is to detach children from their mothers and mothers from their children as early as possible and the pressure women face constantly to work outside of the home (work at home is taken for granted), even when it doesn’t make sense financially – not to mention when it does! There always seems to be a way to keep women down, nicely penned up, at home or at work, as long as they don’t get a free choice in the matter and as long as they’re financially dependent, one way or another.
    As a full-time mother of one who has to justify her choice at every corner, I hugely appreciated your article.


    • Avatar
      August 18, 2016

      You summarized the capitalist mentality pretty well. Thumps up.


  4. Avatar
    March 04, 2016

    Yay…..blessed am I to have found work/passion that I love, but ever more I love being at home and being mum. Currently I work only part time but my shifts are 8hrs in a hospital, that’s 9hours out the house!!! Which means I’m Not there before school or after, that’s too long for my family ….
    In truth my daughters ideal is that I pick her up from school with flour in my hair and cookies in the oven!!! (of course all people/situations are different, this is just one!)
    Juggling the balance!


  5. Avatar
    March 08, 2016

    The main issue is this: who is to pay for mothers being at home raising their children? There is an automatic assumption here that men should – but why in this age of feminism should we expect that? Would women be equally happy for the assumption to be that if fathers want to stay at home then mothers should happily and uncomplainingly support them entirely and maybe for life (as is frequently the UK’s Law Court’s expectation of divorced men of former stay-at-home ex wives) This to me, speaking as a feminist of 4 children and a full-time working parent, is clearly premised on the unfair assumption that women can continue to occupy and exploit the position of being a dependent of men when it suits them, which is sexist discrimination in reverse. Or do we expect the State to support stay-at-home mothers? This simply shifts the same patriarchal role of provider onto the State. If women want children, as I very much did, then maybe we have to take equal responsibility for their upkeep. We do no favours to feminism or our daughters by expecting otherwise.


    • Avatar
      April 11, 2016

      Being in paid work or being in unpaid, invisible work is all equally work. The paid worker is as dependent on the invisible worker as the latter is dependent on the former. Dependency (and equally giving ‘support’) is part of the human condition and comes in many forms, and is not all about exchange of money. We depend on each other for the common good and especially for survival and for the youngest in society as they navigate the world growing up. The assumption is not that men should be supporting the mother of the children, but that somehow the earning adult is not also receiving equal support of equal value – practical, emotional, holistic….for survival and happiness/wellbeing in life. The fruits of labour in its various forms should be shared as equally as possible and especially so that no-one is left behind or mistakingly assumed to be undeserving just because they don’t add £ signs to the way GDP, in its current form, is calculated. Prosperity is possible without GDP dependent growth. Adults raising and caring for children are already taking equal responsibility for their upkeep in various ways – whether it’s two adults in paid work and care or whether those different kinds of tasks are shared out differently (with people specialising more in one than another…) according to preferences and unique circumstances as things evolve throughout our individual life paths/family life cycle.


      • Avatar
        September 11, 2016

        So Marie, if not the (usually male) partner in the paid workforce, do you think the state should pay for social reproduction, by paying primary carers (of children) some sort of wage?


    • Avatar
      October 21, 2016

      In response to: “who is to pay for mothers being at home raising their children? There is an automatic assumption here that men should” I would say actually YES men should.

      Why? Because we can’t pretend that men do 50% of the work involved in bringing a child into this world and caring for them. They can’t get pregnant and they also can’t breastfeed, through no fault of their own. In most cases women end up being the primary caregiver (and very often that is ON TOP of a full-time job) – this is just EXPECTED from women.

      I’m a full-time working mother who entirely dedicated my early and mid-twenties to my education and career. I came from a working class background and now earn a six-figure salary. I arrived at motherhood already exhausted from my professional life. When I was pregnant me and my husband both worked but who had to struggle with achieving the same level of productivity at work as before whilst coping with that first trimester exhaustion, awful “morning” sickness and managing to get to all those prenatal appointments? ME! After my child was born who still had to do a full day’s work after being up half the night breastfeeding my child or comforting him through sickness or teething? ME! Who was the person that spent all my available breaks at work pumping breastmilk or bringing my son to doctor’s appointments? ME! Who felt the pressure to get my body immediately back to how it was after birth (thank god I didn’t end up with any debilitating or life-long injuries or trauma from giving birth as so many women do because we’re also expected to either bounce back or just shut up about those too) and who needed extra time in the morning that I didn’t have to put on some makeup and do something with my hair lest I not look “professional”. And who was lauded for being such a great father for playing with his child in the evenings and changing diapers? My husband.

      I thought it was fair that my husband and I split everything 50/50 before we had a child, and it was, precisely up to the moment that I got pregnant. We can’t pretend that raising a child, especially during the preschool years doesn’t involve any extra work. Before I had a child I spent 9 hours a day 5 days a week working. Now I’m a working mother I work 24/7, I do the morning shift, the day shift, the night shift and the weekend shift. I have no guaranteed rest periods: if my son is sick in the middle of the night I can’t turn around to him and say “oh sorry I don’t work these hours”. If I am sick I don’t get a day off from motherhood – when you are a mother there is no such thing as sick leave. And I don’t mean to sound bitter because honestly motherhood is the single most fulfilling and important thing I have ever done in my life. I am just resentful because what I do as a mother is INVISIBLE. To my employer it is an annoyance and calls into question my abilities and competence. To my husband and wider society it’s just a given, if I didn’t do it I would be a neglectful mother, and especially since I “chose” to be a “working mother”, a “career woman” I have to work extra hard not to be seen as neglectful.

      And I’m not suggesting here that being a stay-at-home-mom is any easier that being a working mom – it’s the same difference: 24/7 work.

      And the same guilt too. You are either guilty of leaving your child to strangers in daycare or guilty of being lazy and selfish for staying at home and being “dependent of men when it suits them” as you said.

      You said that “If women want children, as I very much did, then maybe we have to take equal responsibility for their upkeep”. I agree but we have to look at what is really equal. Both parents need to “step up” to look after a child. If that means for women that we assume a new 24/7 role but for men it means changing some diapers and “helping out” with night feeds/housework etc. then I’m sorry but that’s not equal. And if it means in the case of divorce that women are expected to add sole-parent and sole-breadwinner to their already 24/7 role, that’s also not equal.


  6. Avatar
    March 14, 2016

    What a truly wonderful and vastly important article. Mothers are the foundations of society and with weak foundations any building falls. If we start supporting mothers wether or not they choose to work, the world will change positively as we know it. Thank you Vanessa Olorenshaw x


  7. Avatar
    March 22, 2016

    Well said. I’m with my newly delivered daughter at the moment and we’ve been having just this conversation. She has a high powered job at the UN but is loving being with her baby. The great job she’s doing with her daughter is hugely important socially. I’ve always believed this. Solidarity to all mums. (I’m a late qualified Prof, and mother of four grownup children, and now grandma of three little ones)


  8. Avatar
    August 18, 2016

    Unpaid work is slavery – simple.


  9. Avatar
    August 19, 2016

    This is an excellent and much needed article. We need to reclaim our territory. I am aghast at how easily so many women have rolled over and left strangers to do much of the care and nurture of their children. The intimate care relationship of those early years are the foundation for our children’s long term well being. What do you think it must be like for the child to have multiple strangers attend to its toilet needs? Ensuring that mothers are supported socially and financially ensures that we retain a vast and important body of knowledge within the community and avoid the cult of the experts. I find it disturbing to listen to pregnant mothers planning to leave their babies even before they are born. So many won’t even know what they have missed out on. With its own challenges and opportunities for growth and the development of many important skills I consider motherhood a post graduate qualification. Neighbor-hoods and healthy communities for children to grow in are established by mothers and their young children. Older children benefit from having that collective mothering presence in their lives too. Its awful for the children to be left day after day with a room full of other little ones who also would if they could, certainly choose to be with their mothers. They talk about ‘mummy guilt’ I think that it’s actually maternal instincts and the race has relied on those for its very existence. Being bribed, coerced, embarrassed and humiliated into leaving your children when you don’t want to certainly is not liberation.


  10. Avatar
    August 21, 2016

    Such an interesting article and so much that I have always felt but never put into so many words. I look forward to reading your book. My mother was a widow who always worked full time but I chose to stay home and raise four children and was very happy to be able to make that choice.
    Government policy to get women back to work by paying a proportion of childcare costs has
    made big business out of preschool childcare. Somebody has to look after children if both parents work, so they must out-source their children’s care to others who may well keep them clean, fed and entertained but who must not love them. And what children thrive on
    is love. And best of all is a mothers love – take a look at the animal kingdom.


  11. Avatar
    September 13, 2016

    Thanks for your article, certainly a conversation that needs to happen. I think it’s unfortunate, however, to frame such a debate as a failure of feminism. Any attempt to achieve GENDER EQUALITY requires improved childcare, adequate and universal paid parental leave, family friendly workplaces, good aged care, services for the disabled, the ill and more; all of these movements have been championed by the women’s movement and feminists.

    I see this as a new high water mark for the women’s movement rather than an attack of it. A movement which calls for institutional change across the board; placing the family at the centre of our economic and social system rather than at the edge. I think it’s the framing of these issues that needs to be articulated and championed.

    A restructuring along these lines is good for men, women and children. The able bodied need to be responsible for care not just women. Motherhood is the patriarchal structuring of CARE an institution that needs to be overturned.

    PS: great to see Martha Fineman being referenced here. She has certainly had an influence over my thinking and I’m sure she would call herself a feminist.


  12. Avatar
    September 26, 2016

    Thank you for such a timely and thoughtful article. There is so much going on here –
    – the fact that childcare has become, under capitalism, just one of the many ways in which people help keep the system going through unpaid or low paid work;
    -the idea that the mother is the best and only carer a child should have, an idea that I would dispute. My son has been raised variously by me at home, his Dad at home and carers in day cares, all of whom he adored: they were not strangers!;
    – the general panic about childcare – and children and youth – in general, which has expressed itself in a dispute between “working” women and “stay and home mums” about who is doing the better job, which leaves most mothers feeling like they are doing something wrong;
    – the way in which, under a capitalist system, value is measured in money, and therefore any work done without a wage is seen as somehow “lesser”.
    My personal take on this is based on two observations. The first is systematic: that as women under patriarchy, we are always “not normal”, normal being defined as male. Thus the biological fact that we bear children is simply not a priority, and any discussion of maternity leave, childcare etc is always an afterthought. The second is historical: that the post war women who founded modern feminism, looked at what the men were doing and said “we want that!” No surprise given their circumstances, but the result has been a feminism that failed to priortise the feminine and the domestic precisely because that is what they longed to leave. We have achieved great things and my life is the better for it, but we lost something along the way. I always thought feminism was about equality and choice. Somehow, the right to be where the men were/are – a must for an equitable society – has resulted in a diminishment of the domestic sphere.