Feminist Mothering . ANDREAO’REILLY ( ED .). Albany , NY : State University of New York Press , 2008 . 287 pp., $24.95 (paperback) ISBN: 9780791475584 .
In recent years, there has been a great public importance placed on motherhood. The values of security moms were debated by political pundits following 9/11, the number of books on how to be a good mother rose, groups for mothers proliferated, and, for perhaps the first time in U.S. history, motherhood was front and center during a presidential election. Suddenly there were three mothers—Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin—who held positions of power and who actively used their mother role for political advantage. Yet, despite this increased prominence of mothers, the emphasis has been almost solely on motherhood—a patriarchal institution that can be extremely oppressive to women. Although some of the books and discussions mentioned feminist ideals, almost none of them identified unequivocally as feminist. Thus, whereas the patriarchal control of mothers has been getting all the attention, emphasis on mothering—the female-centered and potentially empowering experiences of women who mother—has been minimal and, as such, the gap between mothers and feminism widened.
In an attempt to shift the focus from motherhood to mothering and from patriarchy to feminist envisioning, Andrea O’Reilly, one of the most prolific scholars on mothering today, offers her recently edited book, Feminist Mothering. In this volume, she takes on the daunting task of setting the foundations necessary for developing a theory of feminist mothering. Toward this end, the book is divided into four interrelated areas that redefine mothering from a feminist perspective: motherhood, family, child rearing, and activism. Within the stated context, each chapter is intended to provide a direct challenge to the patriarchal dictates of motherhood.
Overall, the book is a great start toward its expressed purpose of creating a central narrative and description of feminist mothering. It offers an incredibly wide array of diverse perspectives on mothering practices and provides a much-needed exploration of how such difficult topics as age, race, spirituality, class, consumerism, work status, and multiple oppressions affect the ways women mother. Shirley Hill's chapter on African American mothers is particularly strong because she provides a historical context to mothering that directly challenges the patriarchal status quo with regard to both mothers of color and mothers of privilege. She even gives a few suggestions for solutions to the mothering dilemmas that we have in the United States. Amber Kinser's chapter on mothering as relational consciousness is similarly thought provoking. She points out that, because feminism is not prescriptive, it is extremely difficult to know how to parent in a feminist fashion.
Unfortunately, although the book is an important first step in the evolution of feminist mothering literature, it does not quite live up to its stated promise. With no summary essay for each section or even a concluding chapter, the reader is left with a random collection of chapters and no cohesive narrative. I was quite disappointed that the question of what a general theory of feminist mothering would look like is not definitively addressed anywhere other than the introduction. The chapters on child rearing attempted to provide a description of applied feminist ideals, but, without a cohesive summary, they seemed somewhat disjointed and weak. Similarly, the section on maternal activism did not seem to have a strong direction or voice. The book was not helped by the fact that the quality of the chapters themselves is wildly uneven. For every excellent essay like Judith Stadtman Tucker's chapter on the mother's movement or Pegeen Reichert Powell's lovely analysis of the work balance, there is another chapter that seems relatively uninteresting and pointless. Thus, reading the book is like taking a ride on a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs.
However, despite its flaws, this is still a book well worth reading. Although the uneven nature of the chapters is a problem, it can also be a strength in that it potentially has something for everyone. Academics may be attracted more to the chapters based on research; others may be interested in what an analysis of a particular body of literature means for mothering behavior. Additionally, mothering is not a topic that has been explored with any kind of depth, and feminist mothering even less so. Many of us in the trenches of mothering long for a discussion of how to blend the two identities of mother and feminist and want a guide for how to make things better. Thus, while not perfect, this book does provide a starting point. If mothering is indeed the unfinished business of feminism, then this book offers a way to start achieving closure.