Even among ourselves we fear that not kneeling at the motherhood shrine will make us look weak and incompetent and unfeeling. We are afraid that if we speak the truth of our lives as mothers, we will find ourselves standing alone, the unnatural, scorned exception, that if we were to tell what agony motherhood has been for us, women of all political persuasions might fall upon us in rage, so invested are women in keeping the fathers' last guilty secret: that making motherhood horrific while brainwashing us to believe instead that it is beatific, they have effectively secured our minds and hearts, our cooperation. --Sonia Johnson, Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution
To the casual observer, it might appear as though motherhood struggles are indistinguishable from any other difficulties women face because they are women. Feminists have, after all, always confronted wage inequities, job discrimination, mistreatment of women by doctors and the medical establishment, injustices in the court system, exploitation of women as unpaid care providers for children, the elderly and the sick, and as caretakers of home and hearth, and the lack of social and economic support for older women who have spent all of their lives serving their families without being paid for it. All women have experienced these forms of discrimination or been directly affected by them in some way.
But mothers experience specific kinds of discrimination because they are mothers–discrimination those who have elected not to be mothers do not face. This discrimination and the subsequent inequality of mothers compared with those who are not mothers is largely invisible, hidden as it is beneath the motherhood mystique, the aura Western culture has created around the idea of motherhood. It goes unnamed and often unacknowledged by mothers, as well, fearful as each one is that she is the only one to struggle as she does, that other mothers know something she doesn’t, that to speak out might equal admitting she is a bad mother, suspect, better take a good look at her kids, maybe they are abused or neglected. And besides, mothers love their children, or if they don’t love them as they should, they know they are supposed to. They don’t want anyone–particularly their children–to suspect their capacity for maternal love is not what it ought to be. And they don’t want to be despised and feared the way mothers who are not good and loving are despised and feared under male supremacy. And so mothers are silent.
But in order for inequalities to be rectified, they must be elucidated, examined, analyzed, publicized, spoken. Throughout the past few decades, feminists have addressed every conceivable form of inequality among women: inequalities around race, class, age, size, looks, sexual orientation, disability. But a persistent and recalcitrant resistance to elucidating systemic and institutionalized inequalities specific to motherhood has remained. One reason may be that mothers appear to be reverenced and honored in American society. They appear to enjoy special status, even privilege, if privilege is assumed to flow automatically from declarations of love and devotion. In addition, feminists and progressives in general have often resisted acknowledging specific discrimination against mothers, reasoning that “not all women are mothers,” usually followed in short order by warnings about the regressiveness of biological essentialism and the importance of discouraging breeding.
Then, given the availability of birth control and abortion, discrimination against mothers passes unchallenged and unconfronted because it is understood to be part and parcel of the motherhood package mothers are said to have “chosen” when they became pregnant. There is generally little interest in unpacking the facts or realities of this supposed “choice.” In truth, mothers, asked whether they would choose to be mothers if they could choose again, more often than not, say they would not. So what might have been the quality of their initial “choice”? How informed, meaningful or free might it have been, given the regrets which followed? And even if they did choose to be mothers, how many women would have “chosen” to be discriminated against because they are mothers?
While it is true that not all women are mothers, it is also true that only women are mothers, and so whatever discrimination mothers may face must be, by definition, discrimination on the basis of sex, and as such, rightfully the concern of feminism. It is also true that over 80% of women are mothers, and as such, whatever discrimination mothers face far and away affects most women directly. I believe that motherhood discrimination affects not only mothers: I believe it affects all women, directly and indirectly, and as such it is rightfully the concern of feminists and all women.
I will focus on two kinds of evidence of discrimination against mothers because they have been the subject of recent research and because they confirm the existence of motherhood discrimination empirically, with the facts and figures male supremacy so values and prefers. There are many other evidences which mothers know through lived experience, evidences which tend to be dismissed or disregarded in a culture in which women still rarely occupy the subject position, a culture in which we are routinely silenced and not believed, not taken seriously. I am hopeful that one day a robust and unstoppable mother’s movement will force mothers’ stories into center stage, into the public arena, so insistently that they can no longer be ignored. Until then, I think it makes sense to look carefully at the empirical evidence we do have and to make good theory and good use of it in our lives as feminist activists.
The Pregnancy Police
A while back I watched an episode of “Cops” in which police were called to a home where a woman had been battered. After the batterer was handcuffed and arrested, the attention of the policemen turned to the victim, a bruised and bleeding young mother with a newborn baby less than two weeks old. I watched horrified as, instead of comforting the woman and offering her practical help, the police began to interrogate her because her apartment was in disarray and there was little food in the refrigerator. It didn’t seem to matter to them that there was plenty of baby formula on hand or that the baby was sleeping and appeared to be well-cared for; their focus was on the messy house and the empty cupboards. Bruised and through tears she explained that she’d returned to work within a week of the baby’s birth, that she would soon receive a paycheck, that she was taking good care of her baby and was a good mom. I cried myself as the baby was taken from her arms and placed in the patrol car.
I don’t know whether this episode of “Cops” was true, but I do know how popular that program and similar programs are and that they reflect the values and sensibilities of a watching public which increasingly relishes policing pregnant women and young mothers. Episodes like this one reflect the reality that over the past 20 years, women who are pregnant or who have newborn infants have, in ever-growing numbers, been wrongly and disproportionately accused, reported to authorities of various kinds, and penalized for being poor (which is characterized as “neglect”), for having abusive boyfriends (some of whom are the fathers of their infants), for using drugs and alcohol, or for failing to “obey doctors’ orders.” Sometimes these women have had their children permanently removed, even though there was no evidence that their actions or behaviors had caused harm to the fetus or child.
Women have, for similar “offenses,” also been charged under criminal child support statutes for child abuse, child neglect, contributing to the delinquency of minors, causing the dependency of a child, child endangerment, delivery of drugs to a minor, drug possession, assault with a deadly weapon, manslaughter, homicide and vehicular homicide, even though these cases are overwhelmingly brought under statutes never intended to be applied to situations involving the behaviors of pregnant women.
While many of these prosecutions involve allegations of illegal drug use, women also have been prosecuted for engaging in legal activity during their pregnancies. Not long ago a California woman was arrested because she ignored her doctor’s advice to get bed rest, to stay off her feet, to refrain from having sexual intercourse, to take medication to suppress labor, and to go immediately to the hospital if she experienced any bleeding. No law prohibited or required any of these activities. A law passed in Texas in 2004 made it a felony to smoke marijuana while pregnant, with a prison sentence of 2 to 20 years. In 2004 in Utah, a woman was imprisoned because she refused a c-section, and one of her twins was stillborn. (For a list of criminal prosecutions of pregnant women by state, see the National Advocates for Pregnant Women website, http://www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/articles/1992stat.htm.)
These prosecutions and lawsuits treat pregnant women differently from everyone else, and subject them to standards that apply to no one else, simply because they are pregnant. They infringe upon pregnant women’s constitutional rights to privacy, due process, and equal protection. Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy are not law enforcement or criminal justice issues, they are women’s health issues, and prosecuting pregnant women as criminals jeopardizes the health of both the mothers and babies.
More significantly, pitting fetuses and newborn babies against their mothers, treating them as separate and even adversarial entities, endangers reproductive rights for all women. Since 1973 dozens of states including Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky and Illinois have passed feticide and other laws establishing independent fetal rights, with some states declaring that the unborn (from fertilization) are full legal persons for purposes of the right to life–even though women continue, theoretically, to have the right to abortions.
The result of this trend towards fetal rights is not limited to the prosecution of pregnant women for such things as rejecting c-sections, though that would be bad enough. The ramifications extend both into the homes of battered mothers, who risk losing their children when they call for help; and to domestic violence shelters, where shelter workers must comply with laws protecting fetal rights and so must take various kinds of action against battered mothers seeking protection and shelter.
The results of fetal rights ideologies also extend into the relationships between women, evident in the ways women police, scrutinize, accuse, and criticize one another for what they eat, drink, or do while they are pregnant, for how well they do or do not take care of themselves, and for whether or not they plan to breastfeed, all the way through how well they mother for the rest of their lives. It is tragic and infuriating the way these policing interactions between women are mischaracterized, trivialized, even dismissed as “mommy wars,” “catfights,” or “women’s inhumanity to women” when the stakes are, in fact, very high and real in a society which increasingly controls, regulates and disciplines the bodies of mothers under the aegis of protecting the rights of the fetuses inside those women’s bodies.
It is also tragic and infuriating to see police and court enforcement of the orders of a patriarchal medical establishment which does not have a good record with respect to the treatment of pregnant, laboring, birthing and breastfeeding women. These are not in any way “mommy wars;” these are men’s wars, a continuation of the wars men have always waged over the bodies of women. It is only women’s own resistance to discrimination against, and policing of, women who are pregnant which will bring these wars to an end.
The Motherhood Penalty
A landmark study by Cornell University published in 2005 has confirmed what mothers have known for years: Mothers are less likely to be hired than are women without children and are paid lower starting salaries than similarly qualified fathers or women without children. The authors of the study created 300 pairs of fictitious cover letters and resumes and used them to apply for advertised midlevel marketing positions. One “applicant” said she was relocating with her family and mentioned a school board position, the other “applicant” said she was relocating without making mention of family. The applicant who did not make mention of family was twice as likely to be hired by the test subjects. Additionally, the gap in starting pay offered between mothers and childless women averaged an astounding $11,000. The more children a mother was described as having, the lower the salary the test subjects said they would offer.
The study also found:
* Mothers were judged to be significantly less competent and were held to harsher performance and punctuality standards than women without children.
* Mothers were allowed significantly fewer times of being late to work.
* Mothers needed a significantly higher score on the management exam than did mothers without children in order to be considered hirable.
* Mothers were rated as significantly less promotable and were less likely to be recommended for management.
* 84% of nonmothers were recommended for hire, as opposed to 47% of the mothers.
* Conversely, fathers were rated as more committed to their jobs than nonfathers, were allowed more times of being late to work than nonfathers, and were offered higher salaries.
* Mothers account for most of the wage gap between men and women.
The study concluded as follows:
Given the strength of the [motherhood penalty interaction effect] across a diverse set of measures and the experimental control of applicant quality, we conclude that giving evidence of being a mother leads to discrimination against mothers. Being a father did not lead to similar disadvantages for men, and at times, actually led to advantages …
One unexpected finding was that childless women were advantaged over childless men on several measures including being seen as more competent and being more likely to be recommended for hire…. Survey analyses have found a motherhood penalty across a wide range of occupations and jobs …
Writing for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Denise Venable (2002) (says) “When women behave in the workplace as men do, the wage gap between them is small…. However, since most men and women have children at some point in their lives, the most illustrative … comparison is not the comparison of childless men to childless women but the comparison of men with children to women with children … when women ‘behave as men do,’ giving evidence of being a parent, they were discriminated against while their male counterparts were often advantaged by their parental status” … That parental status disadvantaged only female applicants is strong evidence of discrimination.
Shelley J. Correll and Stephen Benard, Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?, Cornell University, January 25, 2005.
The ongoing oppression of, and discrimination against, mothers is informed and perpetuated by the backlash against feminism, by male-centered liberalism, and, paradoxically, by feminism’s interest in pursuing women’s “equality” in the workforce without acknowledging discrimination against mothers. Equal treatment of those who are unequal is still inequality. Conservatives and the Religious Right extol the virtues of home and hearth, decry feminism, and blame working and single mothers for the breakdown of the family, for problems in the schools, for the alienation and delinquency of the young, and for a host of other ills. Liberalism defines equality as sameness, measures women’s equality against a male standard, and women measure up only so long as they do not appear to be mothers.
To the degree that women in the workforce appear apparently unencumbered by concerns about children and family, to that degree they enjoy the same success men enjoy, in that men are presumed to have wives at home devoted to their children and family so that they do not have to be. To the degree that women are forthright about the fact that they are parents, to that degree they are penalized in the workforce, because women are not presumed to have a partner at home supporting them and caring for their children and home.
Faced with the condemnations and judgments of conservatives and the Right, discrimination in the workforce, and the policing not only by law enforcement agencies but by the medical establishment and friends and peers, mothers suffer as mothers. They suffer in the world of work, unable to get jobs for which they are qualified, paid less than they are worth, and denied promotions. They are policed, regulated, and disciplined from the time they learn they have conceived. They continue to bear more than their fair share of the household and parenting tasks, working the so-called “second shift,” a phenomena which has not really changed since the Second Wave.
Given that this is so, it is no wonder that the “opt-out” revolution continues apace, with women becoming stay-at-home-mothers when it is feasible for them. I believe the growth in attendance at fundamentalist churches since the ’80s is a direct response to the increasing discrimination against mothers. In those churches, women hear what they do not hear anywhere else–that being a good mother is possible if they just follow the church’s prescribed path–and they receive what they do not receive anywhere else: support and community with mothers and protection against the societal intimidation and policing reserved for mothers so long as they conform to church standards.
In the meantime, too often, discrimination against mothers flies under the feminist radar. In fact, the future of all women is inextricably tied to the future of mothers. Until mothers are free, women will not be free.
– Copyright 2012 Cheryl Seelhoff, All Rights Reserved