I am delighted to be able to post this examination by three radical feminists, Delilah Smith, Penelope Riley and Jai Kalidasi. As the authors point out, most women in the world are mothers, and so feminists’ clarity on the conditions of motherhood could not be more vital. This analysis has been much needed, and hopefully will encourage further discussion on this prescribed state for women.
“Mother Privilege” is a theory formulated and defended with great energy by a few self-identified Radical Feminists. In short, they claim that mothers are rewarded with social and economic benefits for obeying patriarchy’s motherhood mandate. Mothers, in their view, are granted an unfair advantage in the competition for scarce resources—resources denied to non-mothers specifically because they are not mothers.
Because the notion of mother-privilege has engendered a virulent form of horizontal hostility within radical feminism, we address it here to lay this argument to rest. The work of liberating women and Earth from patriarchy is daunting enough without furious infighting that divides us when we so deeply need unity. Since a number of blog entries are posted around the internet promoting mother privilege theory, we have created this response as a blog-post as well. We hope it will save women the time and potential trauma of repeatedly explaining how mothers, contrary to being privileged, instead contend with forms of oppression specific to motherhood on top of their general oppression as females under patriarchy.
Here, we’ll provide a realistic view of the oppression faced by mothers. We’ll share working definitions of privilege and oppression, as well as discussing motherhood as a choice for women. We’ll unpack some of the assumptions made by proponents of mythological Mother Privilege, providing links to information about global mothering in a context of class analysis. We’ll show that the real issues of motherhood under patriarchy are about oppression, not about what some perceive–based on their personal observations– as individual benefits awarded only to mothers, at the expense of non-mothers. Finally, we’ll address how motherhood can be as much a feminist undertaking as anything women do, for themselves, their children and our societies.
What is privilege?
Privilege is a sociological concept that describes the way certain groups, or classes, of people benefit from the structural and material oppression of other groups or classes identified within a culture. To say privilege and oppression are ‘structural’ refers to the fact that they are built into a culture’s laws and economics as well as its social customs and norms. ‘Material oppression’ means that oppressed groups face structural obstacles to gaining the same access as the privileged to such things as education, wealth, health care, housing and sufficiently well-paid work as well as social status, personal independence and freedom from violence. Further, to grant privilege to some groups always entails the oppression of others. This is due, in essence, to giving the privileged more than a fair share of available social, legal and economic resources while actively denying quite a bit less than a fair share of those same resources to the oppressed. Men have male privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of women. White people have white privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of people of colour; these are just two primary examples among several other common privileged/oppressed class pairs under patriarchy.
But it’s important to remember that the foundation of patriarchy is that men as a class oppress women as a class, and this cuts across race, social class, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and all other kinds of groups. While some individual womyn may achieve as much as any man, all women must contend with some elements of oppression by a male-dominated culture. The wealthiest female CEO still has no access to truly safe, freely available birth control, for instance; she must still face health risks of birth control within a culture that expects women to bear those risks while allowing men to avoid birth control risks. She is still subject both to laws constraining her choices as a woman (abortion access, e.g.) and policies of the same sort (company policies prohibiting work-linked health insurance from paying for birth control). That is all about women’s oppression and the male privilege that can be received *only through women’s oppression. Becoming a mother does not change a women’s oppressed status under patriarchy; no amount of compliance with patriarchy’s institutions and expectations changes that.
So, to understand the privilege and oppression referred to in this discussion, we need to see first that concept of “mother privilege” is based on the notion that mothers—members of the single most oppressed class worldwide—benefit from the oppression of childless women. It’s based on a belief that patriarchal structures of law, economics and social custom—structures designed to oppress all women—actually provide benefits granted specifically to mothers themselves (somehow separately from their children), and only do so by denying the same benefits to non-mothers. Let’s examine this claim.
Is motherhood a choice? Implicit in the claim that motherhood confers privilege upon mothers is the idea that pregnancy, childbirth, and the rearing of children are endeavours freely embarked upon by women who seek to enjoy the supposed social and material benefits of motherhood. But is motherhood truly a choice? We need to examine this from two different yet intertwined perspectives: female biology and radical feminism.
Biologically speaking, women generally experience a powerful drive to bear children. While as humans we are capable of a degree of foresight and choice that most animals don’t apparently possess, we are still creatures with bodies having particular biological needs, drives, desires. And while we can’t compare the drive to have children with basic survival drives like breathing and eating—for which we would do anything, in order to go on living—still, we can’t underestimate the potency of women’s biological drive to have children. Women seem to know in our bones—even against much evidence of our own lives and all around us—that having a child makes possible forms of emotional bonding, pleasure and creative satisfaction as well as social belonging that are unique to mothering. All humans are biologically created to seek greatest pleasure and least pain; as a social species our pleasures and pain are only naturally (biologically, biochemically) linked greatly to social feedback as much as to personal experience.
Thus, if mothering was simply a rational choice without a fierce element of biological imperative that expresses in us physically, psychologically and socially, then it scarcely seems possible that human population would be now so vast. There would be fewer failures of birth control—whether those be ‘operator errors’ (“I forgot to take my pill/renew my patch”) or of method failures (getting pregnant while on The Pill or patch as directed, or even years following a successful tubal ligation). But even while it is possible for individual women to successfully choose against having children, in fact women generally do experience a powerful drive toward mothering that is at least as biologically as culturally engendered. To claim for any reason that mothering is strictly a rational choice for women is to deny a central aspect of our reality as female animals—not just socially constructed beings existing in the intellectual, rational realm.
Secondly, it is those of our own sex that we are fighting for. It is our very biology as females, our reproductive capacity, on which men’s oppression of women rests— this defines our struggle as no other single issue does. And from the class analysis we call radical feminism, we know that the sociological and political concept of “choice” is a slippery beast, often used to rationalize the exploitation of women in porn and prostitution. It’s used as well to claim that personal choices in matters of sex and performance of femininity trump structural analysis of the ways in which women are coerced to conform to gendered expectations. Our socialization as girls and women under patriarchy makes problematic any claim of personal agency, failing to place women’s choices into the context of our structural oppression. In many communities, child marriage is still common, with young girls denied any opportunity for education or independence and forced into marriages with much older men. In war zones, rape is often deployed as a tool of domination, where men seek to demoralize other men, and rupture people’s sense of themselves as members of a distinct culture, through the violent abuse and impregnation of women by outsiders. Women who live in countries where they have less access to education and economic independence are more likely to have a greater number of children, and to have them at younger ages. Yet even among more affluent and well-educated women around the world, women face tremendous social pressure to have at least one child regardless of a heartfelt desire to do so; it’s what women do to ‘fulfill their female destiny’, to provide heirs to their husbands and grandchildren to their parents.
In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, one in four callers reported that they had experienced reproductive coercion, defined as threats or acts of violence by a male partner, including rape, pressure to become pregnant, and interference with birth control. This form of male violence in intimate relationships is rarely discussed, but can often lead to unplanned pregnancy for victims of male violence in the home. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40% of abused women reported that their pregnancy was unintended compared to 8% of non-abused women.
Further complicating this matter of choice, mothers are economically disadvantaged, with single mothers being the most disadvantaged, receiving 60 percent of the male wage. Men are not disadvantaged economically for being fathers.
- Why U.S. maternity leave policies still fail women and children
- The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus: A Child Helps Your Career, if You’re a Man
- One in four children from single-parent families live in poverty
We can see that solo mothers are significantly disadvantaged compared to solo fathers as well as non-mothers. Mothers face interruption to employment caused by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, as well as often caring for infants and toddlers. This, coupled with the already existing gender pay gap and other forms of work discrimination faced by mothers, means that both men and non-mothers are far likelier than mothers to earn enough to live, and likelier to receive promotions, pay raises and other work-related benefits than are mothers.
It is clear that for many women around the world, motherhood is not a choice. Even for those women who are not forced or coerced into pregnancy, the effects of female socialization problematize any claim that women who choose to become pregnant do so freely and with full agency. Cultural pressure, heteronormativity, and other factors may lead to the desirability or even inevitability of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood for many women. And women who desire children are generally unaware of and unprepared for the extreme disadvantages they will face as mothers, from economic instability and employment discrimination to state scrutiny and abusive legal and family court systems. In the context of patriarchy, it hardly matters whether or not most womyn *would choose to have children, as part of their natural creative and emotional birthright. The freest possible of choices to bear a child are still burdened with patriarchal mandates, taboos and institutional biases. The fact is that even apart from our biological urge to bear children, no woman is truly free to make fully rational and independent choices about children, under patriarchy.
Most women in the world are mothers
The fact is that most women are mothers. Not all women choose to become mothers, and even if they did choose to become mothers, they did not choose the oppression that comes with unpaid labour/drudgery in the home, greater risk of male violence, and little or no legal rights to the child that the woman gestated/birthed/breastfed and nurtured, and tried to protect from harm. Mothers did not choose to be paid less and to miss out on employment opportunities. Mothers did not choose to contend with legally mandated constraints upon their birthing choices, nor to experience birth trauma via obstetrical violence.
Taking all this into account, we see that while certain mothers may enjoy a veneer of respectability and/or cultural approval under patriarchal rule, such crumbs are tenuous and easily lost, or may not exist at all for some women (for example, depending upon geographical and cultural location, through gynaecological fistula resulting from childbirth, the birth of children who are disabled and/or female, rape, divorce, adultery, loss of familial socioeconomic status, etc.). Mothers who have children under circumstances that fall outside of culturally-defined acceptability—unwed mothers, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, etc.—may never enjoy these crumbs at all.
Some Western feminists seem myopic when it comes to understanding compulsory or coerced motherhood under patriarchy. The UN World Fertility Report 2012 lists stats on fertility rates (number of children per mother). Page six of the report states: “A number of high-fertility countries in the earlier period maintained very high levels of fertility (5.1 children per woman or more) through the 2000s and almost all were in Africa, including Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.”
These countries are also some of the most economically disadvantaged in the world. Clearly being a mother does not have any inherent privilege. The reality is quite the opposite in fact, as we will expand upon in the next section.
In terms of the relative number of childfree women in the world, the statistics range from low levels such as 1.8% in Angola to relatively higher levels of women who remain childfree in their mid- to late-forties (14.4% in Australia, 16% in Ireland, and around 20% in the US). Most of the world’s women, however, live in countries where more than 90% of women are mothers by this age. 
In spite of the harsh realities of motherhood worldwide, mother-privilege theorists describe 90% or more of the world’s women as privileged by their motherhood, while denying women’s collective stories of oppression across all realms of their lives. They are also falling into the patriarchal trap of mother-blaming. In fact it is men who are to blame for women’s lack of resources (whether they are mothers or not), it is male rule that constrains our rights and freedoms. It is patriarchy which constructs femininity as an inferior but highly enforced role, and makes motherhood a compulsory part of femininity. But because father rule is so entrenched and supported by our judicial system and associated organisations, women are essentially powerless to oppose this; some instead blame the easy victim, the mother. If we were living in a matriarchy, we wouldn’t be arguing over whether mothers are privileged over childfree women. All women would be valued, and supported in their choices regarding motherhood. But currently we live in patriarchy, where women do not enjoy privilege based upon our reproductive status—where no woman is privileged by her sex, mother or not.
The fact that men, and the women who support male rule, entice women into a subordinate role with lies, and by shaming those who don’t comply, belies the idea that there is any real status conferred upon the women essentially held captive to motherhood. This is a pattern across society, as evidenced by the institution of marriage, with the sexual slavery industry being on the other end of the spectrum. But even sexual slavery is glamourised through porn culture, cast as a necessary class of women who help maintain the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and prevent the possibility of women as fully realised, independent human beings.
Men must control female reproduction in order for patriarchy to continue. In order to be able to have any power, women must be given control over our reproductive rights, and that includes our rights as mothers.
- United Nations. The World’s Women 2010: Trends and Statistics
- Mothers by the Numbers: Info about mothers from the Census Bureau
The Big Picture
Below is a table showing statistics on fertility and violence against women in nine countries. The countries were selected for completeness of data available on a national level. It is important to note that violence against women is often underreported, and though all statistics were compiled by the UN, they came from different sources, including the WHO, the CDC, the DHS, and national statistics and surveys, making direct comparisons difficult. We are looking for general trends.
|country||Percentage of childless women age 45-49*||Percentage of women with three or more children, age 45-49*||Lifetime physical or sexual violence (IPV**)||Lifetime physical or sexual violence (any perpetrator)|
*Stats for USA are for ages 40-44, as stats for ages 45-49 were unavailable
**IPV = intimate partner violence
Sources: all stats compiled by UN
The graph below compares lifetime incidence of IPV among women with the percentage of childfree women in these nine countries. Note the trend line: the fewer childless women in a given country, the greater the likelihood that a woman will be the victim of intimate partner violence.
One of the most important ways that control is maintained over women under patriarchy is through the control of women’s reproductive capacity. Child marriage and forced marriage, rape, abusive reproductive coercion, and prevention of access to contraception and abortion are all methods men use to control women’s reproduction, and so, our lives. Maternal mortality is one of the largest killers of women worldwide: each year, half a million women die as a result of a pregnancy, and another 50 million women will suffer long-term disability or illness as a direct result of pregnancy or childbirth (Seager 2009). As Shulamith Firestone pointed out in The Dialectic of Sex, the basic facts of human reproduction leave women dependent upon males for survival, and the reproductive differences between the sexes are the basis of male exploitation of women as a class. As such, the claim that women who acquiesce to male demands for children, whether through “choice” or through coercion or force, gain privilege from this acquiescence can be compared to a claim that wage laborers gain privilege through capitulation to the oppressive control of capitalists. In other words, it’s patently absurd. Women with children face discrimination in employment, economic hardship, a greater risk of male violence, a greater risk of scrutiny and criminalization by the state, abusive legal and family court systems, loss of personhood and essential human rights during pregnancy, and many other barriers and hardships that are specific to mothers under the patriarchy.
This makes it clear that the lip service paid to motherhood in patriarchal culture is akin to the glorification of rugged individualism under neoliberalism; it is a simply a trick designed to elicit complacence from oppressed groups and obscure the source of oppression. Rather than lifting impoverished people up, the myth of meritocracy ensures the continuation of their exploitation, and similarly, the glorification of the idea of motherhood does not benefit mothers but rather lulls them into complacence and acceptance of their oppression. The rhetorical value given to motherhood is belied by the lack of material value awarded for the unpaid work of motherhood, without which the entire system would collapse. The occasional Hallmark card or adulatory fluff piece awarded to mothers is nothing more than a sleight of hand, intended to distract our attention from the oppressive reality under which mothers live and labour.
Motherhood as Capitulation?
Finally, some mother-privilege theorists claim that choosing motherhood is capitulation to patriarchy, a surrender of feminist values. A ‘real feminist’, the theory goes, will forgo motherhood—in resistance to patriarchy, and to have more energy available for other women and for the work of dismantling patriarchy.
First, this notion overlooks the fact that patriarchy underlies the entirety of our lives—our work, telecommunications, hospitals, industries, education… it all springs from patriarchy and is built to support its continuance. Resisting patriarchy by forgoing motherhood is not more or less significant than withdrawing from other aspects of patriarchal life, in resistance; none of the possibilities, however, have much political significance. There is certainly some value in acts of personal resistance; refusal to perform mandated femininity (potentially including childfree status) is the walking of our talk that reaches others, potentially inspiring consciousness-raising in people around us. Still—it is only by people acting in concert that political energy is generated and can lead to the political power necessary to make structural changes.
Second, it presumes we can resist patriarchy by denying one of the fundamental elements of our female existence— and should do so in martyrdom to the feminist cause—which are propositions rather more anti-woman than anti-patriarchy. Doubtless, motherhood was appropriated by patriarchy and re-constructed as form of slavery, but our female capacity to create life exists outside of patriarchy. We feminists needn’t deny ourselves the creative female work and love of mothering. We can resist patriarchy through our mothering, the same as feminists involved in all other ordinary aspects of patriarchy resist through their work, play, communication/relationships, etc. Feminist mothers bring the same consciousness to being mothers, and raising children, as any feminist brings to her chosen endeavors and relationships within the overall context of patriarchy. Indeed, feminist mothers are in a unique position to help change culture by passing on feminist consciousness to our children. We definitely don’t claim that mothers are powerful enough to counteract the entirety of patriarchy—the ‘village’ has enormous influence on children—but still, our feminist consciousness does help shape our children’s awareness and future lives. To suggest otherwise is to come dangerously close to affirming the patriarchal notion that motherhood renders women too emotional to think straight or maintain her integrity and values without guidance from outside authorities. Is this what the mother-theorists would have us believe—and that they are the authorities women should obey?
We think not. We have shown here the mistaken assumptions made by mother-privilege theorists, with the evidence of the special oppression faced by women once they become mothers. The small acts of approval shown to new mothers—baby showers!—are not the same thing as privilege because they don’t come at the expense of non-mothers and they don’t appreciably improve mothers’ lives on the whole. The social programs available to mothers are provided (in decreasing amount all the time now) on behalf of children, not for the mothers themselves—who, if they lost their children by natural or legal causes, would be no more eligible than non-mothers for those programs though they be mothers still. We have demonstrated that it’s not motherhood itself that earns even the small signifiers of approval from patriarchy, those go only to those mothers who meet the requirements of age, race, socio-economic and marital status—and only so long as those mothers go on meeting those requirements, which is rarely within mothers’ control. As radical feminism has known for quite some time now—which the mother-privilege theorists seem to have forgotten—motherhood is not a privileged position under patriarchy; it is the very foundation of women’s oppression.
 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Fertility Report 2012 (United Nations publication).