The Question of Difference
Within the feminism of the nineteenth century that culminated in women's gaining the vote and within the feminism that resurfaced in this century during the 1960s, two contrasting tendencies can be found. On the one hand, there is a tendency to minimize gender difference, with a stress on the degree to which males and females share traits and capacities. On the other hand, there is an emphasis on the need to give value to what is more characteristically female. These contrasting tendencies among feminists have been referred to by various terms. Catherine Stimpson, founding editor of Signs, the leading interdisciplinary feminist journal, has called the first tendency "minimalist" and the second tendency "maximalist". Minimalists minimize gender differences, and maximalists presumably maximize them. I prefer not to use these terms, however, because "maximalist" is misleading to the extent that it implies that the alternative to minimizing difference is to overplay, exaggerate, or celebrate difference. Obviously, in an overall sense men and women are basically similar; thus the differences between women and men are minimal. The term "maximalist" applied to those who speak of difference is likely to be used pejoratively to describe those who go "too far" in asserting difference. Of course, logically one might be able to go "too far" in minimizing difference, but as far as I know the minimalist-maximalist distinction has been used only by "minimalists."
Another contrast between these two tendencies is an emphasis on androgyny versus a woman-centered emphasis. Androgyny implies that combining the qualities usually assigned to one gender or
the other is good and desirable, whereas a woman-centered emphasis may declare "women are different and women are better" than men. This women-are-different approach served as the organizing principle of Hester Eisenstein's 1983 book, Contemporary Feminist Thought.
On another level is the distinction between individualism and its critique. Some feminists have focused on the right of all individuals to develop to their highest potential; others have claimed that this individualistic focus means only that women will become integrated as individuals into a man-made competitive society. These latter feminists would have us focus on a critique of this kind of society instead. The "individualists" focus on common human qualities and equal rights; the others criticize our competitive society and the male paradigm it represents.
I shall refer to the general distinction simply as that between a stress on similarity and a stress on difference. Similarity-versus-difference does not refer to the question of how different the genders are but rather to whether similarity or difference is emphasized in any given analysis. There are virtues and pitfalls on both sides of the tension and some feminists have shifted their emphases through time in response to changes in women's situation.
The dialectic between similarity and difference is reflected in the contrasting social policies of assimilation and differentiation. The two policies arose in recognizable modern form in response to "the woman question" posed by the advent of industrialization in the 1800s. One solution, the "rationalist" response, involved assimilating women and men, single and married, into industrial production, but this did not last. Instead, the ultimate solution, after much chaos, was the creation of a radical disjunction between home and work and the establishing of women in the former. This "romantic" response eventually won out and was embodied in the doctrine of the separate spheres. This was definitely a difference doctrine: middle-class married women were to hold sway over sweetness and light, intuition, morality, motherhood, and goodness, while men were to take on "the real world" of competition, wage labor, achievement, money-making, and providing.
Many feminist historians in the 1970s tended to view the doctrine of the separate spheres as an unmitigated evil that underlay a decline in women's status in the modern period, because it re-
moved women from any direct role in production. More recently, however, other historians have emphasized the extent to which married women in the nineteenth century used their hegemony over motherhood and morality as a basis for claiming the right to vote, at first locally and then nationally, and to obtain an education, at least through high school. Women also used their "difference" to effect changes in the public sphere relating to child and maternal health and welfare. These historians point out that even though farm wives contributed substantially to production, they were clearly subordinate to their husbands, who headed both the farm and the family, which constituted a single enterprise. The segregation of place of work from place of residence at least gave women some control over one area of life, which they then used as a basis for directly affecting arrangements in the public sphere. By the time women gained the vote in national elections in 1920, however, the emphasis was shifting toward similarity and assimilation.
Similarity, Inclusion, and Assimilation
The most widespread tendency among the women who identified themselves as feminists in the 1960s and early 1970s stressed women's similarity to men, not their differences. The emphasis was on women's rights and not on women's culture or women's difference. The increasing number of women working outside the home coincided with the feminist push for equal rights in employment. The arguments for these rights were squarely based on the grounds that women should be judged by the same criteria that men were supposed to be judged by. Now, although women are by no means paid equally to men, the typical married woman does work outside the home, and in that sense, women have been assimilated to the male-dominated world of jobs.
The younger and more radical feminists of the 1960s were concerned not so much with job assimilation as with sexual assimilation. The "sexual revolution" aimed to legitimate sexuality for women, and feminists stressed in their arguments the similarity between female sexuality and male sexuality. The emphasis was on the clitoris and orgasm and on women's need for sex and sexual freedom. This "revolution" carried much further the trends toward sexual emancipation in the middle class that had begun in the
1920s and virtually demolished the nineteenth-century dichotomy between asexual "good women" and sexual "bad women."
Unfortunately, this assimilation, which freed married women to work outside the home and to be sexual, has proved to be a mixed blessing. Although some women gained, many women are working at low-paying jobs in the public sphere while continuing to be responsible for home and family. Men are not increasing their participation in housework in response to women's working outside, and women are working two jobs instead of one. Women's sexual assimilation has also put pressure on women to be sexually available and may be related to an increase in rape and other kinds of unwanted sexual contact. Partially in response to these recognitions, many feminists who were stressing similarity earlier began to stress difference.
The feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the exception of lesbian separatists, tended to focus on women's exclusion from the rewards, challenges, power, freedom, and fun of the male-dominated world of work, politics, sexuality, and leisure. Liberals like Betty Friedan pointed out that housewives who are usually just as educated, competent, and energetic as their husbands cannot be expected to live vicariously through their husbands while imprisoned in a suburban wasteland. They needed jobs commensurate with their training. Alice Rossi's "immodest proposal" also emphasized the goal of letting women into the world of work on an equal footing with men. Socialist feminists explained women's problems as relating to the exclusion of women and their work (housework) from the public world of production and exchange. Shulamith Firestone, who constructed her own amalgam of socialist and radical feminism, saw equality explicitly as being attainable if we could but eliminate women's physical childbearing, thus making it possible for women to be fully assimilated into the world of work and sexuality.
In contrast to the predominant tendencies toward assimilation, some radical feminists from the very beginning warned against assimilation to the male world and argued for varying degrees of separatism instead. Ti Grace Atkinson, a nonlesbian separatist, urged women to end their identification with all those heterosexual institutions, especially marriage, that give women a stake in the male world and oppress them at the same time. Although in a
sense these feminists were in fact stressing difference because they rejected males and a world that they believed males had constructed, they did not want to stress women's difference because they felt that this difference was created in oppression. To embrace women's "virtues" seemed dangerous because they were presumed to have developed in the context of oppression. From this stand-point then, both inclusion and difference are suspect. Women should not seek inclusion (except to destroy the oppressive male gender categories), and women should not stress difference (except to create a different person from oppressed women now).
The thrust for inclusion on an equal basis in the public world of work was complemented by research in psychology and sociology by feminist academians that focused on gender similarities rather than differences. When a psychological difference was found between women and men, there was a strong tendency to question the accuracy of the study or to attribute the difference to women's "socialization" (which presumably could be changed so as to eliminate the difference). Maccoby and Jacklin's Psychology of Sex Differences reported fewer differences than had usually been attributed to boys and girls; it is a compendium of scientific research documenting similarity. In sociology, Rosabeth Moss Kanter argued that any lack of competitive motivation on the part of women was a result of the dead-end nature of women's jobs. Her research suggests that if women were not excluded from the status ladders to which men have access, their orientation to occupational achievement would be identical to men's.
Ethnomethodologists Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna made a more radical argument that fits with similarity by questioning the fundamental assumption that there are two genders. They suggested that gender categories themselves may be arbitrary, or that the characteristics by which gender is "recognized" are arbitrary. By implication, then, assimilation could be effected by simply demolishing the differentiating categories.
These feminists stressed similarity out of an acute awareness that difference had almost always been used against women to imply women's inferiority or incapacity. If a woman admitted to difference from a man, she was immediately in danger of admitting to deficiency or agreeing to give up some possibility. Naomi Weisstein in a classic early article noted that presumably "scientific"
tests of characteristics or capacities (designed by men) always have right and wrong answers and that women always seemed to end up being wrong. Even women's presumed virtues were turned into failures, so best to emphasize women's similarities to, not their differences from, the dominant gender. Feminists had every reason to fear difference because difference was used to explain and justify women's secondary status. This fear continues, and, unfortunately, it continues to be justified. Jean Lipman-Blumen, a sociologist, shows how gender differences are used against women in sometimes quite contradictory "male control myths." In psychology, Rhoda K. Unger describes how women scientists for years have been disproving derogatory hypotheses concerning the way in which women differ from men, but as these hypotheses have been disproved and dropped, others have been substituted. Thus the emphasis on similarity, while empirically supported, has tended to have a defensive quality about it.
A related fear of feminists in the 1970s had to do with biology. Most feminists who stress similarity have been extremely leery of any biological perspective on gender differences. If the differences that are used to justify women's disadvantaged position could be shown to be related in any way to biological differences, then it was feared that perhaps they were immutable and women's disadvantage must inevitably continue. It is true that biology has been used and continues to be used to "explain" and justify the status quo. For example, Steven Goldberg argues that because of their "hormonally based" aggressiveness, men try harder and compete more aggressively and therefore win in competition with women. Since males' success is based on hormones, according to Goldberg, he concludes that nature has made male superiority inevitable. One might note that it is quite a conceptual leap from aggression to trying harder and to winning, but Goldberg's approach is characteristic of the simplistic nature of reductionist attempts to explain and enshrine male dominance by recourse to biology.
The stress on similarity was of course not simply negatively motivated by the recognition of the ways in which difference had been used against women. The similarity emphasis was mainly based on the profound truth that males and females are far more similar than different—biologically, psychologically, and even socially. Biologically, men and women have twenty-three chromo-
somes in common and only one chromosome that is different; both women and men have the same hormones, only in somewhat different proportions. Psychologically, men and women think, reason, possess the same gamut of emotions, and so forth. Most important, on the societal level, the predominant trend in modern society has been toward assimilation. Men and women go to the same schools, take the same IQ tests (tests that, incidentally, were designed to minimize gender difference), attend social functions together, are expected to marry and form a household together, and often have parents who at least believe in equal treatment. The high degree of assimilation in boys' and girls' school curricula made inequities stand out (boys took shop, girls took home economics, girls were cheerleaders, boys played sports). Now this unequal access has been seriously challenged and rectified to some extent.
Feminists in the 1970s helped the process of assimilation along considerably and (in spite of the current talk about backlash) changed the entire tone and level of public talk about women. One simply cannot say the sexist things nor make the sexist jokes that were commonly made by men in the 1960s. The jokes are still made, but not so publicly. Moreover, one cannot refuse to hire a woman on the grounds that she will "just get married and quit anyway." Perhaps of all the movements of the 1960s, feminism has had the most lasting impact. Women have been assimilated to a large extent into the occupational structure outside the home. This does not mean job discrimination has ended—far from it—but sexism has at least been defined and declared illegal and immoral. Women are human and women are individuals. These are the positive gains of minimizing difference.
Difference and the Challenge to a Male Paradigm
Although there can be no doubt that the stress on similarity is generally correct and is basic to attaining equality, it is also important to be clear about the hazard of not recognizing gender difference. The danger is that those who minimize difference or attempt to eliminate difference in order to gain admission to the public sphere may be unwittingly accepting and thereby implicitly affirming a masculine view of what constitutes value. This includes accepting a
masculine analysis of women's deficiencies and why these alleged deficiencies make women's exclusion and secondary status understandable or justifiable. Some emphasis on difference is essential to feminism if women are not to be swallowed up in masculinism. The difference emphasis says that women need to define themselves, to construct themselves, not in the image of men nor in the image of what men say they are but in an image they can call their own. This is not an easy task and simply affirming the extent to which male standards prevail will not do it. A case in point here is the pathbreaking work of Simone de Beauvoir. Even though she brilliantly analyzed the extent to which women are measured by male norms and standards of value, she nevertheless tended in her own life and work to valorize masculine perspectives.
The shift in emphasis toward recognizing difference has emerged among feminists of all stripes and their academic counterparts. Betty Friedan, a representative of liberal feminism, in her book The Second Stage strongly affirms women's interest in the family or familial-type relationships that are not to be sacrificed to careerism but somehow combined with it. Friedan states that "we must admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture, tenderloving care." Socialist feminists are increasingly questioning whether feminism can ever be totally compatible with Marxism because of the latter's economism and masculinist perspective. Radical feminists have always stressed women's difference, focusing either on the existence and importance of female bonding or on males' sexual oppression of women. Mary Daly has been for a long time engaged explicitly in finding and creating a voice for women, even if the category "woman" must be renamed.
In more strictly academic circles, the difference trend is unmistakable. As early as 1977 Alice Rossi seemed to some to contradict her earlier "immodest proposal," which stresses similarity, by suggesting that women's mothering capacities and needs were greater than men's and were not being met as society is now constituted. The scholarly historical work on women's friendships begun by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and published in the first issue of Signs has continued and burgeoned, showing that women do bond, but in a way that is different from men, and also showing the extent to which twentieth-century women have been prevented from
bonding by the increasing privatization of the family. Jessie Bernard in The Female World describes the positive aspects of women from a female perspective, not a male perspective. Dorothy Smith in sociology and many others in various disciplines have suggested that women's somewhat different perspectives can inform scientific methodology and help eliminate the male bias that now characterizes science. There is also the work, which I will discuss in detail later, on women's mothering, which sees it as a basis for gender difference and to some extent as a cause of gender difference.
In psychology, the work of Carol Gilligan on the differences between the moral thinking of males and females has won great popularity both within and outside academic circles and has become a focal point for a reintroduction of a positive view of difference. According to Gilligan, women are more likely to think in terms of responsibility and interdependence, whereas men tend to see moral issues in terms of rights and noninterference in the rights of others. Gilligan defines women's approach to moral dilemmas in a way that women can identify with, and at the same time she argues convincingly that the approach more characteristic of females than males is by no means inferior.
Some difference feminists take the idea of difference much too far. Certainly it does a disservice to women and to the facts to posit an essential, unchanging, biologically given female "nature." Such "essentialism" is contradicted by historical and anthropological data on the diversity of human social arrangements and the diversity of cultural definitions of what women and men are and should be like. Most feminists who stress difference, however, do not consider "difference" to be all-encompassing and invariant. Although gender differences exist, they are not absolute or irreducible, rather, they are in large part socially constructed.
It is also dangerous to imply by difference that women are somehow inevitably associated with the private sphere, which often translates to "keeping out of things." In modern times at least, power resides in the public sphere. The difference focus within feminism would be of little use to feminists if the bases of male power in the public sphere remained undisturbed. Women's difference then would need to gain a voice in the public sphere to move women toward more equitable gender arrangements. In the long run, recognizing difference and then bonding on the basis of that
difference might allow women to become a positive force for social change that not only lets women into the public sphere but allows them to effect changes for women in the society as a whole, including changing the ideological separation between public and private.
Certainly the solution to women's inequality does not lie in emphasizing difference. For women to make progress, however, we must explore who we are and what we want to become on our own terms so far as possible. Thanks largely to the degree of assimilation women have achieved, we are in a better position to see our problem and to construct our own version of what women share and what women want. Although women's interests as women are cross-cut by class, race, and ethnic differences, all women have some things in common. Some claim women share only oppression, but I disagree. In the next section I suggest a way of thinking about oppressive and nonoppressive aspects of what women share.
Women and the Family
One of the most complex issues in thinking about similarity and difference has to do with women's relationship in the family. Feminists of the nineteenth century rarely questioned the value and importance of the family for women, even though they themselves may have chosen not to marry, but feminists of the 1970s saw the family as being highly problematic for women. Many feminists saw the role of wife and mother (usually spoken of in one breath) as that which was preventing women's inclusion in the public sphere, and more radical feminists saw it as the central locus of oppression. Now, as we have seen, some have reasserted women's desire for and need for relationships similar in some way to familial relationships. Is this reassertion of familial values to be taken as conservative backlash, or is it somehow related to women's reassertion of their right to difference?
In my view the question is unanswerable, or the answer must be "both," so long as we treat the concept of family, or more specifically the mother-wife role, as a single entity. Although in most societies biological mothers are expected to "legitimate" their offspring through marriage, both mother and wife are best viewed as social roles that are analytically separable from each other and from sexuality. By separating the concept of mother from the concept of
wife, it is possible to see that women are one thing when seen as wives and quite another when seen as mothers. The mother "role" involves caring for and nurturing dependents, while the wife "role," if unmitigated by other status-giving relationships, involves being dependent on and in varying degrees subordinate to the husband.
In this society, both men and women influenced by a more typically male perspective tend to assume that the main reason women need husbands to protect and support them economically is that they have children. Thus women's mothering is used to justify and explain as necessity women's being dependent on men in marriage. But this is not as inevitable as it may seem. As the anthropologist Karen Sacks has documented in detail, in the vast majority of societies women's childbearing and child-caring has not impeded their heavy involvement in the economic, political, and cultural activities of their societies. The degree of their dependence on men is not determined by women's mothering. The idea that childbearing is debilitating characterizes industrialized cultures, but not all cultures. Certainly the idea that the rearing of her own children could be a full-time occupation for an adult woman is very modern and without precedent, as far as I know, in earlier cultures. Childbearing is unquestionably a serious occupational hindrance for women in this society, but the cause is largely this society's social arrangements. Society could be arranged so that women's mothering would not create economic dependence. It would be difficult but not nearly as difficult as doing away with women's childbearing and child-caring.
The "sexual revolution" of the late 1960s fed into a tendency to see women's mothering capacities as impediments rather than as strengths. This seemed partially to be because the male paradigm defined motherhood as an impediment to sexuality and partially because motherhood was associated with wifehood and confinement to the nuclear family. Now there are a number of feminists who see women's mothering as an important part of who and what women are. These feminists do not romanticize women's mothering as a glorious privilege nor as a sacred "duty," but they recognize women's mothering as central to what difference there is between women and men and see it as one basis for women's self-esteem.
Beyond this, as we shall see in examining the process of socializing children, it is not women's mothering that creates the kinds of
differentiation between males and females that put women at a disadvantage, but rather certain aspects of male bonding and of male fathering. I will argue later that, in this society, fathers, not mothers, have been the focus of the type of differentiation between male and female children that can be debilitating for women. In speaking of the unequal status of "wives" relative to "husbands" and of the problematic aspects of male fathering for their female children, I do not leap to the conclusion that a woman would be better off rearing children without a husband. Although many women today are deliberately choosing to rear their children alone, this is unlikely to be a viable solution on a large scale if other institutional arrangements remain unchanged. My purpose in analytically separating mother from wife is to counter the tendency within feminism to blame women's mothering for women's problems. To do so is to buy into a "male paradigm."
Women as Mothers
Several feminists, coming from very different starting points, have depicted women's mothering positively. Mary O'Brien's concept of "reproductive consciousness," Sara Ruddick's "maternal thinking" and Adrienne Rich's "lesbian continuum," all contribute to an understanding of how women's mothering may serve as a basis for female solidarity and power.
O'Brien's Reproductive Consciousness
Mary O'Brien is a Marxist, who, significantly enough, began her career as a midwife and perhaps through this experience was led to focus on the importance of biological maternity to women's lives. O'Brien's project is to create a theory of reproduction to parallel Marx's theory of production. In so doing she hopes to correct the male bias of Marxism. For O'Brien, women's ability to bear children is the "true" basis of gender difference (not sexuality, as Freud would have it) and is the material ground for women's "reproductive consciousness" that is in opposition to men's consciousness— the maternal principle versus the potency principle. O'Brien sees women and their progeny as the central phenomenon in reproduction and men's ability to impregnate as distinctly secondary be-
cause it is alienated from the birth process itself. Paternity is thus not a natural relationship to a child but a social right to a child. In order to ameliorate the uncertainty of biological paternity, men have created the institutional forms of the social relations of reproduction that have privatized women's "maternal consciousness." In O'Brien's words, "The historical isolation of women from each other, the whole language of female internality and privacy, the exclusion of women from the creation of a political community: all of these have obscured the cultural cohesiveness of femininity and the universality of maternal consciousness." For O'Brien, "The opposition of public and private is to the social relations of reproduction what the opposition of economic classes is to the social relations of production."
O'Brien sees marriage as fundamentally a contract between men in which they acknowledge each other's right to the issue of specified women's bodies (p. 236). This is similar to the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss's concept of the "exchange of women by men," but Lévi-Strauss stressed male bonding, not women's mothering. Rights in women and their offspring is also a conception lying behind Karen Paige and Jeffery Paige's analysis of public rituals in prestate societies. In these ritual ceremonies, men are, according to these authors, essentially negotiating, affirming, testing, or establishing the legitimacy of their social claims in women and their offspring.
There are a number of points one might quarrel with in O'Brien's analysis. She sees at times, but fails to see at others, that biological facts are always interpreted through a cultural lens; for example, she errs (with Engels and many others) in thinking the discovery of "the facts" of the male role in reproduction is of crucial significance in human history. Actually, children may be claimed or rejected by men for any number of reasons; biological paternity is only one possibility. The biological fact of paternity is just another legitimation for men's social claims to a woman and her child—a legitimation that seems particularly compelling to modern minds since children are no longer "useful workers" in the way they once were. Children's usefulness now lies in representing the ego (or, for the sociobiologists, the genes) of the parent; hence, biological relatedness may seem especially crucial.
One may also quarrel with O'Brien's use of the public-private distinction. Women have played more public roles in other times
and places than they do now, and the public-private split itself has been less clear-cut in other societies. Overall, however, it seems sound from both a scientific and a feminist perspective to analyze reproduction using women's capacity to bear and nurse children as the central phenomenon that then necessitates social agreements concerning men's (and women's) rights in women and children. This focus makes particular sense in analyzing premodern societies, as Karen Paige and Jeffery Paige have done, and is an important counter to the more characteristically male view that birth is "the tie which mires women in nature and thus precludes them from historical praxis." This view epitomizes what O'Brien refers to throughout her book as "malestream thought."
According to O'Brien, "a widely based . . . women's movement cannot emerge from the devaluation of the intimate, humane, exasperating, agonizing and proud relations of women and children. The feminism of the pseudo man is passe." In the last analysis, women's weapon, says O'Brien, is not the withholding of sex but the withholding of maternity itself. This sentiment has been echoed by Harriet Holter, a social psychologist from Norway. In her lectures in the United States she recommends, only partially facetiously, that women stage a "birth strike" until more humane ways of child-rearing are devised—ways that do not penalize women with respect to jobs and access to the public sphere and ways that genuinely take into account the best interests of both mother and child. Women's connection with children, in other words, could be a basis for improving the lot of women and children, but as things stand now the male paradigm in contemporary society makes women's connection with children and motherhood into the explanation for women's lack of power. O'Brien is suggesting that women's mothering capacities could be a basis for women obtaining power.
The danger in O'Brien's work is that it could feed into compulsory pronatalist or antichoice arguments. Certainly just because many women and no men bear children does not mean that all women should bear children. To have a physical capacity does not make one duty-bound to use it. Neither should women's ability to bear children be used to justify placing the right to life of any fetus over the right of mothers to make their own judgments, which balance any number of maternal concerns about the quality of life in the future for themselves, for the unborn child, and for others.
Ruddick's Maternal Thinking
While O'Brien stresses women's greater biological closeness to reproduction and men's separation from it, Ruddick's work moves us further away from women's physical childbearing to women's thinking as child-rearers. Starting from the philosophical position that social practice gives rise to thought, Ruddick considers how maternal practices in response to the demands of children for "preservation, growth and social acceptability" give rise to distinctive ways of "conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing." According to Ruddick this maternal thinking, informed by feminism, can become important in reorienting public policy. Ruddick fully understands that mothers are not necessarily all wonderful, or even good, but out of maternal practices, mothers do come to develop conceptions of what a good mother is and beyond this a stance toward life itself. It is these conceptions and values that Ruddick describes.
According to Ruddick, maternal thought differs from instrumentalism and scientism because in "preserving fragile life" it stresses "holding" over "acquiring." Maternal thinking involves the practice of "humility" in response to a recognition of both limits and unpredictability; it also involves "a resilient good humor" or "cheerfulness" in the face of the ongoingness of life and the necessity to go on. In a male-dominant society these capacities may be downgraded, but such virtues require considerable control and discipline. Mothers not only preserve, they also seek to foster growth; maternal thought expects change and expects to change with change. Finally, mothers seek to make the child acceptable to others, and it is here that the child's growth may be stunted. That is, mothers transmit to their children to varying degrees the values of the dominant culture, a male-dominant culture in which women are subordinate to men. Because of mothers' tendency to make their children acceptable to society, maternal thought needs to be transformed by feminist consciousness.
Drawing on the work of Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, neither of whom were biological mothers, Ruddick summarizes the content of maternal thinking with the concept of "attentive love" (p. 86). The capacity for attentive love—the capacity to ask "what are you going through?"—constitutes the foundation of maternal thought as well as a basis for subverting the strong pressures to go
against children's needs in order to ensure their acceptability in a male-dominant society. "Attention and love again and again undermine a mother's inauthentic obedience as she perceives and endorses a child's experience though society finds it intolerable" (p. 86). Thus Ruddick separates the idea of making the child acceptable to a male-dominant society from authentic maternal thinking, which would tend to support the child against the system.
Although she offers equal parenting by father and mother as an ultimate goal, Ruddick warns us that "we must not forget that so long as a mother is not effective publicly and self-respecting privately, male presence can be harmful as well as beneficial. It does a woman no good to have the power of the Symbolic Father brought right into the nursery, often despite the deep affectionate egalitarianism of an individual man" (p. 90). Rather than touting equal parenting, which after all can apply only to some parents, Ruddick argues that "we must work to bring a transformed maternal thought into the public realm, to make the preservation and growth of all children a work of public conscience and legislation" (p. 90). Beyond this, "the self-conscious inclusion of maternal thought in the dominant culture will be of great intellectual and moral benefit" (p. 88).
Ruddick carries this further in a later article, "Pacifying the Forces: Drafting Women in the Interests of Peace." In this work she relates maternal thinking to the idea of "preservative love" defined as "caring for or treasuring of creatures whose well-being is at risk." This kind of caring is at odds with military destruction, and indeed "the theory of conflict that maternal thinkers develop bears remarkable similarity to that of pacifists" (p. 482). Ruddick wrestles with the question of whether peaceable women might transform the unpeaceable military while reaping some of the power and benefits offered by military service. She concludes that pacifist goals in the public sphere might best be realized not by recruiting women into the military but by recruiting women into peace movements.
Ruddick's work is a model of sensitivity to the issues raised for feminists by the opposing tendencies of similarity and difference. Overall, her position is that maternal thinking has something positive to offer and may indeed save us from destruction, yet her final words warn us that associating women with peacefulness risks reinforcing gender stereotypes.
There is a danger for women in embracing maternal thinking if it means feeling that we must take care of everybody else in the world besides ourselves. O'Brien and Ruddick could be interpreted as calling upon women to mother not only children but also everybody on earth and the earth itself. Surely there is danger here of women becoming careworn with caretaking, while men continue to be cared for. Many women feel overburdened with caretaking already, especially poor women.
But this danger is why maternal thinking as women's "difference" must be thought of simultaneously with similarity and assimilation. The similarity stance and the push for inclusion in the public world has helped women to understand that it is legitimate to care for themselves and not "sacrifice" themselves for others. Ideally, women's caring is not an expression of sacrifice, not a giving up of self, but a recognition of interdependence and an expansion of self. The similarity stance also is an important antidote to the idea that maternal thinking is the only kind of thinking women can or should do. To say that women think more maternally than men does not imply that this exhausts the possibilities for women. Maternal thinking is only a tendency that has not been sufficiently valued.
The similarity stance also reminds us that maternal thinking is not something that only women can do. Most men, however, will probably need more training to be able to think maternally. Now many men seem only to value maternal thinking when women do it, and for men's benefit. The next step is for men to prove that they value maternal thinking by learning to do it themselves. This process of inducting men into the maternal virtues took hold in the nineteenth century when husbands were enjoined to listen to their wives and to allow themselves to become civilized by them. The process is still going on, and it is gaining ground.
Some have argued that maternal thinking will keep women mired in the status quo. I believe that this view can be held only by those who do not understand the extent to which maternal thinking has been distorted, submerged, and subverted by its embedment in the isolated, privatized, and male-headed nuclear family. Both O'Brien and Ruddick are well aware of this embedment but do not sufficiently isolate the structures that cause women's oppression. Neither do they stress how women's caretaking of each other might be the ultimate basis of bonding between women.
Rich's Lesbian Continuum
In 1976 Adrienne Rich described from both a personal and a scholarly standpoint the positive power of women's mothering in Of Woman Born. In writing this, she was ahead of the trend toward an emphasis on difference, but she was scientifically legitimating and making more popular a body of feminist thought that had appeared earlier. Carefully distinguishing between motherhood as an institution under patriarchy and motherhood as a relationship between a woman and her children, she draws on archeological, anthropological, historical, and other types of evidence to show the power that has been attributed to women's mothering in reality and in fantasy in other eras and even in the present. This power, however, has always tended to be undermined and controlled by patriarchal institutions.
Rich had three boys, and her observations support my view that mothers qua mothers do not respond to their children so much in terms of their gender as in terms of their being young children. Indeed, according to Rich, in loving their sons as human beings, mothers give sons their humanity even as they recognize that later on these sons will have to make choices between this humanity and the inhumane aspects of "the male group" (p. 209). Rich also maintains that it is not overweening mother love but rather the radical repression of dependency and humanity characterizing the male role that causes men to be emotionally dependent on women.
Although she had no daughters, Rich finds the mother-daughter relationship, in spite of its ambivalences and guilts, a basis for a vision of women's togetherness and strength. Even though most daughters in some ways feel that their mothers failed them, daughters nevertheless need their mothers in order to touch their own strength as women. This need becomes "the germ of our desire to create a world in which strong mothers and strong daughters will be a matter of course" (p. 225). Although many others have chronicled mother-daughter ambivalence and the role mothers have played in stifling sexuality, Rich calls on us to separate the mother-daughter relationship from the mother's response to a male-dominant world and to focus on the simple primal cathexis between mother and daughter. In Of Woman Born, she says, "before sisterhood, there was the knowledge, transitory, fragmented, perhaps, but original and crucial—of mother-and-daughterhood" (p. 225).
In 1980, Rich wrote her highly influential article "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." This article is not a celebration of motherhood but rather of lesbianism and the life-giving powers of sexual expression. In this work, Rich shifts her image of what might form the basis for women's solidarity from the image of the mother to the image of the lesbian. On the face of it, this may seem very strange indeed if only because concretely there are far more mother-identified women in the world than lesbian-identified women. Moreover, lesbians, as Rich herself notes, have been dealt with by heterosexual feminists as either invisible or deviant. When we look at what Rich means by lesbian identity, or by a lesbian continuum, however, we are brought back again to maternal imagery, but to a maternal imagery that has been taken out of its embedment in a system of marital and sexual relations with men. In describing the lesbian continuum, she puts maternalism, sensuality, and caring together:
If we consider the possibility that all women—from the infant suckling her mother's breast, to the grown woman experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child, perhaps recalling her mother's milk-smell in her own; to two women . . . who share a laboratory; to the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women—exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.
From this Rich goes on to show the continuity between identification experiences with each other that all women have had and the various resistances women, both individually and collectively, have put up against male tyranny throughout the ages.
By using the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, Rich attempts to help heterosexual feminists see the extent to which heterosexuality itself is an institution and an ideology that oppresses women. Far from being a mere choice or lifestyle, heterosexual relations as they are currently structured and have been structured historically constitute "a beachhead of male dominance" (p. 633).
Most heterosexual feminists, because of the emphasis in this society on sex and sexuality, have tended to take women's heterosexuality for granted to an even greater extent than they have women's mothering. Because of most people's unquestioning ac-
ceptance of heterosexuality, Rich has an uphill battle to convince women that it is the mechanism by which women are oppressed. She argues that each one of the various types of male power reflecting gender inequality outlined by the anthropologist Kathleen Gough are in fact ways of enforcing heterosexuality. These types include "the power of men to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them, to command or exploit their labor, to control their produce, to control or rob them of their children, to use them as objects in male transactions, to confine them physically" (pp. 638–39). Rich argues that "the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple 'gender inequality,' nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere 'taboos against homosexuality,' but the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" (p. 647). Rich draws on Kathleen Barry and Catharine MacKinnon for many of her concrete examples of the uses and abuses of women by men. Both authors attempt to widen the oppressive implications of heterosexuality by showing the degree to which sex objectification is built into almost all male-female relationships. Making oneself pleasingly subordinate to males permeates most heterosexual interactions wherever they take place.
If one thinks of lesbianism and heterosexuality in their narrowest, clinical sense, it becomes easy to dismiss Rich's argument as saying that all women have to do to end male dominance is start sleeping with women instead of men. If one takes Rich's argument more abstractly, however, one can see that she is concerned less with heterosexuality as a sexual proclivity than as a set of institutionalized practices governing the relations between men and women that are damaging to women and that prevail far beyond strictly sexual activities. The idea of compulsory heterosexuality then locates women's oppression in heterosexual institutions that have controlled and coopted women and their children. In turn, the image of the lesbian, at its most abstract, can stand for womenidentified women, women who bond with women, against these institutionalized practices based on the assumption of heterosexuality. Rich invites women to see "the lesbian" in themselves even though they may sleep with men.
Although the idea of a lesbian continuum may make sense in this society, the idea is less meaningful on a cross-cultural basis. All
known societies have a concept of marriage as a fundamental element in social structure, but heterosexuality as an orientation may be overlaid by any number of other considerations. This culture's emphasis on sexual orientation is related to marriage nowadays being based on personal, subjective feelings and preference; hence, sexual feelings become especially relevant. Although sexual intercourse is a universal symbol of marriage, the institution of marriage could exist even within a society that was not heterosexist or homophobic. In other words, we live in a society that has made sexuality and sexual orientation of great importance to personal relationships, and marriage is increasingly seen as such a personal relationship. The lesbian continuum implies that heterosexuality is the enemy, when in fact male dominance in heterosexual relations is the enemy. Heterosexual relations have embodied male dominance, but I do not believe that this connection is inevitable or absolute.
Many lesbian and radical feminists disagree with this position because they see heterosexual relations as unequal by definition. For example, Jill Johnston in Lesbian Nation notes with some sarcasm that it is difficult to conceive of an equal sexual relationship between two people when one is the biological aggressor. It is, she points out, the man who retains the prime organ of invasion. But just because the penis and sexual intercourse has been symbolized as invasion does not mean it must continue to be. Intercourse could mean destroying the penis in a vaginal vortex, or it could mean mutual pleasuring. The meaning of intercourse does not inhere in the act but in the mind. Ti Grace Atkinson argues that equal heterosexual relations are a contradiction in terms: how can one have equality between master and slave? But, again, the master-slave relationship is not inherent in men and women or in sexual intercourse but is socially constructed and symbolized.
Monique Wittig wants to do away with the term woman entirely because for her woman means a relationship of servitude to a man. I believe we lose too much by doing away with woman, which has connotations of strength. In my terms, what Wittig is saying is that woman has become the same as wife, and this is true. The lesbian insight is that the heterosexual couple is male-dominated and is expected to be male-dominated in spite of the egalitarian gloss we give to the idea of marriage. Wittig suggests we use the term lesbian to mean "not being in the service of a dominant male." Per-
haps what needs to be done away with instead is the term wife, not in the sense of heterosexual partner, but in the sense of underling.
Women as Wives
O'Brien, Ruddick, and Rich all distinctly separate maternal orientations and concerns from their context in a male-dominant society. Rich makes this separation central in her thinking and explicitly suggests that heterosexual institutions, not motherhood, lie at the root of women's oppression. The basic contribution all three have made is to offer a counter to those who do not make such a separation and who in one way or another end up saying that to dispense with male dominance we must dispense with women's mothering. Jeffner Allen, for example, who takes the strongest stance against motherhood in Trebilcot's anthology on mothering, defines a mother as "she who produces for the sake of men." She explicitly states that she is talking about a woman in patriarchy. Thus she says, "If woman, in patriarchy, is she who exists as the womb and wife of man, every woman is by definition a mother" (p. 315) and "motherhood is men's appropriation of women's bodies as a resource to reproduce patriarchy" (p. 317).
It is clear that Allen is aware of the patriarchal control of mothering, but she goes on to argue for the elimination of mothering. What Allen ends up showing she is against is "male sexuality," which "appropriates women's biological possibility in order to reproduce itself" (p. 318), and beyond literal mothering, men also appropriate all of women's "work" for the purpose of regenerating men (p. 325). Allen might find much to agree with in Rich, but she cannot envision mothering or sexuality outside of patriarchy.
On quite another level, some males, including small boys, come to extol motherhood for women precisely because of its male-dominated context. For example, Letty Pogrebin, in exposing the hidden agenda of "sex roles," describes the stereotypes of children: "Boys are Better. Girls are Meant to be Mothers." But are we to take this explanation to mean that being a mother is by definition inferior? As Pogrebin continues her analysis, it becomes clear that there is nothing bad about being a mother per se, but rather that mothers are wives of men. She goes on to discuss "Big Daddy being in charge of the family" and exercising power outside the
family: "Girls must be trained to admire and depend upon the men who exercise power and to believe themselves unworthy of controlling their own or others' destinies" (p. 41). Females are "to stay out of the action themselves" in public arenas and
are themselves to be the incentives that motivate males to strive for power, the sexual and ornamental rewards that the male controls and sometimes marries. . . . As a wife, 'his woman' farther rewards him with offspring (she 'gave' him a son) to carry on his name. . . . For this gender arrangement to come into being, girls must learn to see themselves as sexual entities after puberty and be motivated to be mothers after marriage. Only when she is under male control (married) can a woman be exalted in motherhood and her child be officially recognized.
From these quotes it should be clear that Pogrebin's analysis of the statement, "Boys are Better. Girls are Meant to be Mothers," does not really show that women's mothering accounts for boys being better; rather it shows that being a mother means being a wife to a husband who is seen as, defined as, and expected to be "better" than she.
In different ways both Jeffner Allen and Letty Pogrebin, two very different types of feminists, equate women's mothering with women's lesser status. On another level, however, they both clearly understand that men's control over women's mothering is the problem. The virtue of O'Brien, Ruddick, and Rich is to envision the possibilities for women's mothering outside a male-dominated context.
Feminists who do not separate motherhood from its male-dominated context are likely to interpret a positive evaluation of motherhood as conservative. For example, historian Mary Ryan interprets the "difference" emphasis and the more positive view of women taken by some feminists recently as "timidity" and as seeking the revival of "femininity" and family feeling. Certainly, this could hardly be said of O'Brien, Ruddick, or Rich. They are not conservatives and do not recommend a revival of anything. Moreover, the mothers they depict are hardly timid. The alternative is not to go back to the 1950s, or to any other period for that matter, but rather to become more sensitive to the positive possibilities of women's mothering and to the negative implications of women's mothering
in a male-dominant context. None of the authors I have discussed, however, have made a direct comparison between the status of wife and the status of mother.
Wives as "The Lesser" Cross-Culturally
O'Brien, Ruddick, and Rich affirm the idea that mothers qua mothers are neither weak, dependent, nor powerless. None claim that women are powerful as wives, but they do not explicitly make the comparison between mother and wife. Indeed, I know of no work that depicts the wife role as a strong role in itself. Wives may gain power through their husbands, wives may powerfully influence their husbands and through them influence the world, but there is always the underlying assumption that the term wife implies husband, and wife is the subordinate term in the relationship. A wife through other connections (such as the family she was born into) may have more power than her husband, but if we focus on only the husband-wife relationship, the wife is the lesser.
Among the various kinship roles that adult women play crossculturally, the role of wife often tends to be least powerful. Although marriage may set up the possibility of other important roles for women—sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and of course mother and grandmother—within the husband-wife relationship, the symbolism of wife is as subordinate to husband. This may be seen in relatively egalitarian societies such as the !Kung, a band society that forages in the Kalahari Desert. Although there is some question about how egalitarian the !Kung are, the greatest gender inequality that exists seems to be associated with the husband's domination of the wife, particularly in the first years of marriage. Among the not-so-egalitarian African Yoruba, women gain some power through their trading activities, yet, as wives, they must feign ignorance and obedience in approaching their husbands and they must kneel to serve them.
In many societies, if a woman is expected either to exercise power or to symbolize power in her own right, she cannot hold the status of wife, because wife vis-à-vis husband implies low status. Although the word queen in English most often denotes the wife of a king, it may also refer to a woman who rules in her own right. When queen refers to a woman who rules, however, the husband
of this woman is not called a king but is a prince or a prince consort. This prevents the ruler from being a "wife" by rendering her spouse a prince (son) consort rather than a husband.
In the last analysis, then, it is not women's being mothers but their being wives that is connected to their secondary status to a greater or lesser degree (depending on any number of kinship or political arrangements) in all cultures. Through marriage mothers become wives, and this basic element of kinship systems places males in control of women. Yet marriage in all cultures is also often mandatory or made strongly preferable to other alternatives. The solution for individual women is ordinarily to choose marriage, but the structure of marriage has undergirded women's inequality as wives.
Wives in the United States
Rich is perhaps more correct than even she knows about the degree to which marriage as a heterosexual institution par excellence reinforces male superiority in our own society. The point is not so much that marriage in this society allows a male to beat or rape his wife, though this is true and deplorable, but rather that marriage itself is predicated upon inequality. The good marriage is seen as one in which the husband is superior to the wife in age, height, strength, judgment, earning capacity, and public status. If the husband is not all of these, then we say that his masculinity is threatened and that she is not "feminine." Female superiority as a wife in virtually all respects runs counter to the implicit rule that adult heterosexual relationships are to be male-dominated.
This view of marriage can be seen most clearly in the middle class in the United States precisely because other kinds of kinship relationships, obligations, and claims have been minimized. The marriage relationship tends to be the core adult solidary relationship and as such makes the very definition of "woman" become that of "wife." The name of the game for a middle-class woman has been to find a man who is better than she and to gain a livelihood and status through him. Until recently in the middle class it was considered extremely important that a woman be married to become a mother. Beyond this, being a mother has been subordinated to being a wife in that children have been viewed as the romantic
fulfillment of the couple (having his baby); the couples relationship takes precedence over the children and the children are not allowed to interfere with it.
Among working-class black women, being a mother has not been as closely connected to being a wife as it has been among middle-class white women. The reason for this in part is that black males are often in no economic position to provide, and therefore the status of wife carries no economic survival benefits for the black mother. Black women, because of their lesser dependence on a husband's financial support, seem more likely to hold their own mothers in higher esteem than white women hold their mothers. Many middle-class white mothers were so financially and psychologically dependent on men that they defined men and marriage to their daughters as not necessarily good but their "only hope."
But as marriages become less stable and as more and more women work outside the home, the inequality of heterosexual interaction continues. So long as women are thought of and think of themselves primarily as attractive facilitators of men's enterprises, as real wives or office wives, there is little hope for equality. The male language itself has made women into cute appendages in roles where they are potentially equal. Women finally got the national vote more readily by being suffragettes rather than suffragists, they joined men as coeds rather than as students, and upon marriage joined the JC-ettes as wives of businessmen. And now, at least in terms of pay, women hold "jobettes." These disabilities are related to women's status as wives or potential wives, not as mothers.
The symbolism of wife is apparently well understood in the United States today. In an article for Working Woman, Kathleen Fury reacts to the New York Times report of a poll showing that only 6 percent of their respondents checked "being a wife" as one of the two or three most enjoyable things about being a female—well behind both career and motherhood. Fury suggests that women still very much want an equalitarian relationship of friend, lover, and life companion (the equalitarian marriage); being a wife, however, suggests inequality, taking a back seat, economic dependence, being a provider of personal service, and loss of self.
The rising rate of births to unmarried women forces us to reconsider women's mothering and to see it as an important separate component in women's lives. As women examine what is best for them and their children, husbands are no longer automatically seen as the solution. Indeed, in many circumstances, most notably when they are jobless, husbands may be more of a problem than a solution.
Wendy Luttrell, writing in the Socialist Review, describes working-class women's attitudes toward mothering as very positive. They do not see themselves as burdened by children and place great value on the mothering experience. Luttrell comments, "As these women talked about the need for ending sexist job classifications so they could survive in the world 'without the backing of a man,' they also talked of expanding their dreams and expectations for themselves and their children."
We do not yet know what the new evolving feminist paradigm will look like, but in my view it will embody an increasingly positive evaluation of women's "maternal thinking." This positive evaluation will not be coupled with pronatalist policies, the banning of abortions, nor a retreat into the home. Rather, maternalism will cease to be defined as the cause of women's oppression (it is too bad you have to stay at home with the kids and be dependent on your husband) but will instead become definitive of values that need to be realized in the public sphere and within heterosexual relationships.
More crucially, to the extent that a female paradigm can gain a power base, the inequality that prevails in cross-gender relationships, not women's childbearing capacity in itself, will increasingly be seen as the cause of women's oppression.
In this chapter I have argued that feminism as an ideology is not to be identified with either an argument for women's similarity or for their difference from men. Both these perspectives have always been present within feminism. The similarity perspective lies behind a push for the inclusion of women in the public sphere on the basis of their similarity to men. The difference perspective has reminded us that women are not men and that what men "are" is not necessarily desirable. Often the difference perspective has implied
that women's traditional association with the family (which has now become private and sharply separated from the public sphere) cannot be all bad: I contend that in speaking of difference, we must analytically separate women's situation in the nuclear family into its two main aspects: wife and mother. Women become one thing when viewed as wives and quite another when viewed as mothers. Male dominance characterizes the heterosexual husband-wife relationship and its extensions in other male-female interactions. This husband-wife relationship, though potentially egalitarian, lies behind women's secondary status within the family at present and adversely affects women economically and politically by making women dependent on men.
In the next chapter I will discuss women's "difference" as it might be seen by women and how it has been interpreted from a male perspective as dependence and inadequacy. The difference women see is more connected to maternal thinking; the difference men see is more related to a perception of women as wives.