Being Poor

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The Motherhood Penalty — On Discrimination Against Mothers as Mothers

by Cheryl Seelhoff, first published in off our back, January 1, 2006.  Image is the work of Eric Drooker.

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. Continue reading


US Dept. of Agriculture to Woman Farmers: “A Loan? Why, You Women Can’t Run Farms, Honey.” Justice on the Horizon via Love v. Vilsack

Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/For the Capital Press

In October of 2001, nine of the approximately (at that time) 150,000 women farmers in the US filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination against women farmers in the administration of USDA farm loans.

Rosemary Love (center in the photo), who had grown up on a Montana farm and then became a rancher herself, had applied for a farm loan in Montana after a series of natural disasters during the economic recession of the 1980s.   Although male ranchers all around her were being given loans by the (all-male) FSA decision-makers, her applications were repeatedly denied.  When a loan was finally approved, it was with the imposition of the harshest of conditions, among them, that she must liquidate her ranching operations.  She was the only rancher upon whom such loan conditions were imposed.  She developed cancer, and during her treatment, she was hounded by USDA authorities about completing the liquidation.  At one point, 48 hours after she had undergone cancer surgery, an FSA supervisor visited her in the hospital demanding that she comply or agree to the filing of yet more government liens against her property. She could not run her farm, her animals were going without food as she lie ill, and finally, she sold her sheep and livestock to male ranchers in her area and declared bankruptcy.  She was left with nothing but her land. She went to work at a grocery store as a sales clerk. Continue reading

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