Multiple Pressures on Women to Mother
For most people it seems odd to even ask why women mother, because in all known human societies women, not men, have been the primary caretakers of young children. Many factors coalesce to make women's mothering one of the most overdetermined phenomena in human societies. Simply that only women are biologically capable of bearing and nursing children would surely predispose both women and men to assume that early child care would and should be primarily in the hands of women. Hormonal changes during pregnancy and lactation may also make it easier for women to learn to mother infants. There are also the eliciting qualities of infants, who demand mothering of the person with whom they are in contact, and societies regularly organize production so that women are in contact with children the most. Although production has been organized in a variety of ways in different societies, the assumption has generally been made that women will mother. This is clearly true in our own society now, where men's outside earnings are markedly higher than women's.
Certainly too, women have been "expected" by men to mother; men have never assigned the job to themselves. Even in the early days of the kibbutz movement, which self-consciously sought to bring about gender equality and collectivized child care to this end, men were not assigned to early child care and did not take it on. Moreover, the negative sanctions for women's "failure" to mother have been heavy. Women who do not have children and women who abuse children are considered unnatural or sick. Thus women may nurture because of the negative responses they get for not doing so. Finally, beyond all these social factors creating what Judith Blake has called "coercive pronatalism," Chodorow argues that women are motivated to mother and that they get gratification out of the experience of mothering not just because of the way production is organized or because they are expected to or because they are capable of doing it but because they themselves, within themselves, want to. To list all these factors is not to say that the association of women with mothering cannot be changed, but it would be extraordinarily difficult to do so and in my view would not be necessary for women's emancipation. A more useful alter-
native would be to reassess women's mothering in a more positive light and, at the same time, to emphasize that "mothering" does not mean that all women should bear or care for children or that mothering need be central in the lives of the women who do.
Evaluating Biological Influences
Feminists, such as Alice Rossi, who maintain that women's mothering does not have to be a threat to women's equality, urge other feminists to recognize that there may be biological influences on women's mothering. Rossi argues quite correctly that equality is ultimately a political and moral decision that does not have to be based on some premise of identity between women and men to be realized. In her zeal to convince feminists and social scientists to admit biological factors into their analyses, Rossi at times seems to overstate her case and implies inevitable connections between hormones and behavior where none exist. I believe, however, that it is an error to call her a biological essentialist. Rossi is much too much of a sociologist to claim that biology determines social structure; rather, she claims that biological factors make some learning easier for one gender than the other and that this difference needs to be taken into account in any program of action, such as involving men more in child care.
Generally, feminists who see women's mothering as lying at the root of women's inequality have often been at great pains to deny any biological influences. Especially in the past, much feminist energy has gone into arguing against antifeminists who tried to justify the status quo by using biological arguments. Now feminists who are knowledgeable about biology have made more sophisticated critiques of biological determinism that do not totally deny the influence of biology and that spell out in detail the complex ways in which biological factors interact with individual life history and social structural factors. Overall, the more one knows about biology, the less one is likely to claim (or to fear) that biological factors constitute a categorical threat to change. It seems to me unnecessary for feminists to reject the possibility of biological influences on psychological gender differences. To do so renders biological influences more important and potentially devastating to feminist arguments than they need be. As a sociologist and a feminist, I am not
primarily concerned with understanding how biological influences operate, but I am concerned with the symbolic interpretation of biologically related facts. These are separate but related issues and need to be approached from both sides.
Other feminists who see women's mothering as oppressive have not so much denied biological factors as ignored them, pointing instead to social factors that lead to women's mothering and men's nonmothering. Marxist feminists usually consider these factors to be related to the organization of production. Some radical feminists who see women's mothering as especially oppressive have also ignored biology (except to say that it makes women's childbearing possible) and have argued that women are forced to mother by a variety of causes outside themselves. In this latter scenario, women are conceived of as beings who have been duped and coerced, ultimately by men, into taking on this unrewarding and frustrating role. These feminists argue that taking women's mothering for granted is an error and propose that women should refuse to mother.
Shulamith Firestone gives the biological fact of women's childbearing more than its due and ends up blaming women's physical childbearing directly and indirectly for women's oppression. She assumes that if women physically bear children they are by definition at a disadvantage; therefore, her "solution" is for women to no longer physically bear children. She advocates developing the technology whereby children could be created in test tubes, thereby saving women from an experience that she likens to "shitting a pumpkin" and that she sees as setting up women's oppression. Firestone seems to believe that one can prevent women from being child-rearers only by preventing them from being child-bearers. This connection, of course, is not inevitable. If one could justify a technology for eliminating women's childbearing, surely one could also justify disassociating women from child-rearing without needing to eliminate women's physical childbearing. Firestone ends up being a kind of technological determinist.
Biology influences women's mothering, as does the organization of production, and certainly men have exercised control over women's mothering and have at times foisted mothering onto women. But in my view women's own motivation also lies behind women's mothering. Although this desire is conditioned by other factors, it
is desire nevertheless. In saying this I put myself in danger of adding yet another voice to the pronatalist chorus. This is not my aim. I do not urge women to bear children, nor should women feel guilty about not mothering at all. My point is that many women do seem to want to mother in spite of mothering in this society having become an impediment to sexual love and full participation in the public sphere. Children no longer do work, they no longer bring status, they are economic and social liabilities, and mothers tend to be blamed if their children don't turn out right or don't fit in. Some feminists have made all these points and have concluded women's mothering is clearly a burden and that it should be eliminated.
But in spite of all of the disadvantages attached to mothering, women do want to mother, even in the modern era. That women choose to mother under modern circumstances can be taken as evidence of a desire to mother, ambivalent though it may be. Women who are voluntarily childless are more than made up for by women who were involuntarily childless but who now, because of better health and better medical knowledge, can and do have children. There is no evidence that we are moving toward a small class of child-rearers and a large class of "child-free" women. If feminists were to call for a "birth strike," in my view it should be not in order to end women's mothering but to end the penalties that this society exacts from women for mothering.
Chodorow on the Motive to Mother
The most sophisticated and sustained attempt to grapple seriously with the question of why women would want to mother is Nancy Chodorow's book on the subject, The Reproduction of Mothering. In order to explain the replication in each generation of women's motive to mother and the relative lack of this motive in men, Chodorow uses psychoanalytic theory, especially as interpreted by the object relations school. Chodorow compares her analysis of the reproduction of mothering within the nuclear family to Talcott Parsons's analysis of the relationship between middle-class family structure and children's achievement motivation, and to Max Horkheimer's analysis of the German authoritarian family and compliance motivation. Whereas these theorists were largely concerned with male motivation, Chodorow is concerned primarily
with the internalization of gender differentiation and especially the motivation of women.
Chodorow disagrees with social learning theorists who claim in effect that girls are made into mothers by parents who give them dolls instead of trucks and expect them to help with child care, by texts that depict women mainly as mothers, and by schools that teach girls home economics instead of shop. Although agreeing that reinforcement and modeling do play a part, Chodorow feels that only psychoanalysis that focuses on motivation more than behavior and more on early learning than late can explain so basic and pervasive a phenomenon as women's propensity to mother.
Chodorow's central idea is to link women's mothering to women's more relational personality. She argues that the feminine personality includes a fundamental tendency to define self in terms of relationship and that the masculine personality defines self in terms of denial of relationship. This meshes precisely with the conclusions from our research based on self-report described in Chapter 3. Rather than defining women as those who are lacking (according to Freud, the central fact about women was that they lack a penis and principles), Chodorow implies that it is men who lack. Women mother and are relational; men do not mother and are less relational. Chodorow offers an explanation.
Although some feminists argue that women are not more relational than men, it is much harder to argue that women do not mother more than men. Chodorow's closely connecting the two strengthens the argument for women's greater relational orientation by making it as universal as women's mothering. Clearly, there is some circularity here, because Chodorow proceeds to explain women's mothering by women's greater relational orientation. She seeks to avoid circularity, however, by positing a specific mechanism by which women's more relational personality is produced. According to Chodorow, gender-differentiated personalities are reproduced because mothers themselves experience, and hence, respond to girls differently from boys, even in earliest infancy. Although mothers have a sense of oneness and continuity with both genders, Chodorow contends that this sense of relatedness is stronger and lasts longer with daughters than with sons because of the mother's own female gender identity. The mother projects her own sense of self onto her female infants and tends to experience them as less
separate from herself. Chodorow also brings in a presumption of the mother's heterosexuality into her argument about why mothers bond more closely with their daughters than their sons. She argues that mothers respond to male infants as male "opposites" and begin to sexualize the relationship. These processes then serve to separate the son from her and to bind the daughter to her. Along with other psychoanalytically oriented writers, Chodorow tends to link heterosexuality with gender identity. I question this connection.
To support her argument empirically, Chodorow relies largely on clinical accounts of pathological mothers who presumably manifest normal tendencies in exaggerated form. Because more cases are reported of pathological mothers who deny separateness to their daughters and refuse to allow them to individuate than are reported of mothers who do the same with sons, Chodorow concludes that all mothers tend to deny separateness to their daughters more than to their sons. Furthermore, she finds that, even though clinicians may not point it out, the cases involving sons indicate that the mother reacts to the son as a sexual other rather than as an extension of herself.
Thus, Chodorow feels that it is women's differential feelings for and treatment of infants that cause females to have greater feelings of primary identification and primary love, to maintain less clear boundaries between self and other, to experience themselves in relationship to others, and to be more concerned with relational issues than are men. Although she also argues that it is easier for the boy to differentiate himself from the mother because he sooner or later recognizes his anatomical difference from the mother, Chodorow's emphasis is on the mother's own attitude and her own response to physical difference, not on the child's response. Chodorow does not take a strong version of the merging-with-the-mother position discussed in the last chapter. Her analysis is considerably more parsimonious in this respect than Benjamin's or Keller's.
According to Chodorow, girls' tendencies to be attached to their mother do not basically change in the oedipal period, when sexual preference is thought to be established. Even as girls turn to the father (for aid in the process of differentiating self from mother) and finally become, as Chodorow puts it, "genitally heterosexual," they do not give up their primary attachment to the mother. Chodorow agrees with Freud's contention that girls retain their involvement
with both parents, whereas boys escape more completely from the mother by identifying with the father.
Assessing Chodorow's Analysis
It is not clear why Chodorow feels she has to assume that the mother is heterosexual for her account to make sense. Bringing heterosexuality into a discussion of early gender formation may well be an unexamined legacy from psychoanalytic theory itself. Could one not just as well contend that mothers bond more closely with their daughters because they are also female and will also be capable of bearing children? Simply that the mother knows that the son cannot bear children could be sufficient to make her feel less close to him. By introducing heterosexuality into the argument, does Chodorow imply that lesbians are not gender-identified as females and thus would not feel a oneness with a female child? This certainly does not seem to be the case with lesbian feminists. Or is she saying that lesbians would be sexually attracted to their daughters and hence because of this would not bond closely with them? Chodorow admits to hedging of the issue of the mother's sexual orientation. If she had spelled out the implications of her assumptions about the mother's heterosexuality, she might have seen the degree to which psychoanalysis does confound gender and sexual orientation in ways that may be far more persuasive to males than to females. In my view, females are less likely to relate gender to heterosexuality than males. Certainly more and more theorists, including Chodorow, argue that gender identity and sexual orientations are not one and the same, but Chodorow in her own analysis does not focus directly on how they might and might not be related.
Even in her more recent writings, Chodorow still insists that the mechanism that produces a more relational orientation in females than males is that mothers bind their daughters to them more closely than sons, that mothers perhaps unconsciously identify more with their daughters than their sons. This view sometimes seems to blame individual mothers by implying that mothers somehow do not allow their daughters to individuate or that mothers impede their daughters' individuation. Chodorow's description of women as less individuated than men obscures the distinction I
have tried to maintain between relationality and dependency. Her description implies that mothers' treatment of daughters makes them both more dependent and more relational than males. I believe that both genders seek growth and move away from a relationship of dependency. In this movement toward greater autonomy the girl retains her relational tie to the mother while decreasing her dependency. The relational orientation that the girl gets from her mother should not be confused with the dependency on males that she may adopt first in relation to the father. Fathers may serve as a lever to help boys and girls extricate themselves from infantile dependency, but, as I will argue later, they do so at the price of encouraging dependency on themselves in their daughters.
Is a specific mechanism for explaining women's relational propensities, such as the close-bindingness of the mother, really necessary? In spite of the problem of circularity, it may be better from an empirical and theoretical standpoint to maintain simply that women's more relational orientation is transmitted through women's mothering. The specific mechanism Chodorow posits may be only one of many factors, all of which contribute to this outcome. The other specific factor that she brings in, the mother's heterosexuality, may be important for psychoanalytic theorists, but it seems unnecessary.
In the beginning of her book, Chodorow argues at some length that biological factors, such as differences in hormonal balance between males and females, are neither necessary nor sufficient to explain women's mothering. She argues specifically against Alice Rossi, who points out that women are hormonally predisposed (this is not the same as saying inevitably disposed ) to mother. To deny biological factors affecting gender is out of line with mainstream psychoanalytic thought, and as Janet Sayers points out, psychoanalytically oriented researchers have argued that the biological processes of pregnancy often "serve to revive in women their feelings about their relationships with their own mothers, feelings which subsequently link up with the way they relate to their own children." Chodorow could have used such arguments to back up her case that a mothers relationship with her daughter is the crucial variable in reproducing gender-differentiated personalities, but she did not.
Since the publication of her book, Chodorow has changed her mind a bit regarding biology; she now says that she has been con-
vinced by Rossi that she and other feminists "must be open to the investigation of biological variables and that those who argued or implied that such investigation is illegitimate were wrong." She goes on to say, however, that so far, it has not been shown that biology itself produces a personality type that wants to mother. I agree; biology never acts alone.
I believe that one reason for Chodorows overly energetic rejection of biological factors had to do with her earlier arguments that linked male misogyny to women's mothering. In 1978, she, along with most feminists, especially nonbiologists, tended to equate "biological" with "immutable" and felt that if one were to seek change, one had to deny biology. Her own account suggests, however, that women's mothering may be just as immutable for psychocultural reasons as it might have been thought to be for biological ones. Even if one has eliminated biology, it becomes difficult to argue for change, because of the universality of women's mothering. Chodorow has been accused of not being historically specific, but her answer is that women's mothering is not historically specific. It is universal in the sense that women, not men, have always been primarily responsible for the care of young children in all societies. Although the organization of parenting, and even the concept of parenting, including the role offathers, has undergone innumerable historical changes and has been greatly affected by economic and political arrangements, women's mothering has stayed the same in a fundamental way.
Most of Chodorow's book, The Reproduction of Mothering, is devoted to just this: how women's mothering is reproduced. Toward the end of her book, however, Chodorow shifts her argument from how women's mothering orientations are developed and turns to the question of gender inequality. At this point she returns to her argument in earlier works (discussed in Chapter 4), having to do with men's tendency to free themselves from making a female identification by devaluing women and overvaluing what men do. This then becomes the reason she recommends a change in mothering arrangements. Chodorow also makes the argument that women's mothering is related to male dominance because it tends to perpetuate women's association with the domestic sphere and men's association with the public sphere, which in turn gives males greater authority.
I am not convinced that women's mothering in itself associates
women with the domestic sphere. In hunting and gathering societies, women with children traveled widely and were not dependent on their husbands for food. What association there was between women and domesticity in these societies had more to do with women as wives (keepers of their husband's hearth) than with women as mothers. Chodorow, however, seems to picture the public-domestic distinction as a direct result of women's more relational orientation.
Chodorow depicts the public and domestic spheres as operating hierarchically; therefore, she comes close at times to collapsing the categories of gender differentiation and male domination. She states, however, that "kinship rules organize claims of men on domestic units and men dominate kinship." This formulation leaves room for arguing, as I do, that it is not women's mothering but marriage that places women, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, in domestic units. Chodorow does not say this, however, perhaps because she cannot quite bring herself to separate women's mothering from heterosexual marriage. If one does make this separation, it becomes clearer that marriage, not mothering per se, puts women in the domestic sphere—at least in modern Western cultures.
In my view the contribution of Chodorow's book does not lie in her last-minute reliance on male mothering as a "solution" to male dominance, but in her sustained development of an argument about gender differentiation in the preoedipal period. Chodorow's focus on this period coincides with my interest in separating the maternal from the heterosexual aspects of being a woman. Her analysis reinforces an emphasis on the maternal aspects, even though she seems to need to assume the mother s heterosexuality. Although Chodorow at times seems to blame mothers for making daughters dependent on them, her work begins to move toward a more positive view of women's relationality and women's mothering. Chodorow's analysis is, in this sense, woman-centered and contributes to the development of a more positive view of women as mothers, as opposed to an image of women as essentially appendages of men.
Moreover, I do not believe that Chodorow's suggestion that mothers tie girls more closely to them than boys should mean that mothers by their own actions create gender difference. Rather, the greater insight here is that the mother-daughter relationship forms
a basis for positive female bonding. For sons, breaking away from the mother forms the basis for male bonding. In the remainder of this chapter I will take this argument further and broaden it to include more than a narrowly psychoanalytic perspective. I will show also how associations among male peers are the developmental precursors of male dominance and indirectly of males' sex objectification of women.