A few weekends ago, I went to Michigan Ave. to walk around as I normally do. While I was at Water Tower Place, I saw a mother with 4 young daughters. They were walking in front of me headed to the main area of the mall. The picture of this mother and her daughters was interesting, and I couldn’t help but note a few things. ALL the young girls had toy carriages full of small babies. This was odd coupled with the fact that just earlier, I saw another set of young girls with their mother with the same toy carriage full of babies (I don’t know if this is/was a new toy to emerge this year). I was particularly attuned to the comments of one of the mothers: “take care of your babies; this will be good practice for later!”
In one of my classes, Wesley and the 19th Century, we continued discussion on the struggles faced by women seeking ordination in the early Methodist movement(s). The professor raised the observation that many women in this time period sought male clergy for a husband–that it was indeed an “honor” to be considered the wife of a minister–to support his ministry–even though for a long time women would be denied the public leadership afforded to male clergy. Yet, the consensus at the turn of the 19th century was that the role of wife was the best suited identity a woman could possess.
A few things—
The issue that I’ve always raised is one of self-agency and self-naming. The beautiful Audre Lorde said it best: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” As I consider what I observed in the mall that day and as I consider the information from the lecture, I find myself wondering how women are learning to and/or choosing to define themselves and their identities: is it via their own consciousness–their own sense of agency or is it rather from heternormative perspectives on motherhood/marriage?
What I saw with the young girls seems to be an indicator of female socialization into heternormative notions of motherhood. Consider the mother’s comments linking the play of the young girls to preparation for their future (i.e. “it’ll be practice for later”). This has several implications. First, it makes the girls’ childhood recreation a type of training ground for motherhood; in this sense, the girls were being “bred” into mothers. Secondly, and perhaps what I’m most afraid of, comments such as these ingrained into young girls minds over time, imply that motherhood (and being a wife) is the height of what it means to be woman. In a word, breeding children within the confines of a marriage is the essence–the zenith of womanhood.
This is partly why I was also troubled by the comments from the lecture in class; there was (is) an ingrained social trend that suggested that women are best suited for motherhood and thus, being confined to the role of “wife”–a formless entity only rationally conceived when united with another greater entity–the male. This is troublesome because there are still traces of this ideology that permeate social and relational structures in most contemporary societies. I do not want to diminish those who seek to be or who are wives or mothers. My problem is the limiting of female possibilities and capacities to domesticated roles (which more often than not are confined to the private sphere).
Is being a wife or a mother REALLY the best that women can hope for? No. Is being a wife or a mother a bad thing? No; but it certainly isn’t the only life option. It isn’t the only way women can assert or develop self-agency or identity. There seem to be some parallels here with Victor Anderson’s critique of “ontological blackness.” He suggests that there are many dimensions and possibilities of Black life–of Black capacity. Therefore, to have an understanding (self-identity) of Blackness, viewed solely in terms of oppression and discrimination, is too limiting and alienating.
Using a similar thought process here, I’d say that limited understandings of the capacities and possibilities of female personhood would be alienating as well as do NOT give full justice to wonderful gifts and creative powers that women possess beyond those associated with males. (motherhood/marriage).
Is motherhood/marriage the height of life for women? No. It is but one among so many others. What these other options are and how they are to be determined is solely up to women.