Matricentric Feminism

Hello! Today we’re going to talk all about the theory of matricentric feminism, which is a core element to the theme of this podcast. We’ll go over the definition of matricentric feminism, why it’s an important contribution to academia, public policy, and motherhood in general; I’ll trace the lineage, talk about why it’s important, and give you some of the pioneers and contemporary scholars of the movement. Let’s get started!
So what is matricentric feminism? Wait, let’s back up and make sure we’re on the same page - what is feminism?

Feminism is a socio-cultural, multifaceted movement that aims to examine and rectify the economic, social, and ideological inequalities among individuals based on gender. It also endeavors to reshape societal perceptions of sex and gender inclusively. Feminism is dynamic and continually evolves to encompass the diverse experiences of individuals across societies. Various feminist theories and perspectives already exist, reflecting different ideologies, identities, and lived realities. For example, we have advocates and scholars of Black feminism, eco-feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, transnational feminism, and more.
But traditionally, even though there might be different areas of focus for each theory, all of these feminisms advocate for women to attain equitable rights and liberties comparable to those enjoyed by men within patriarchal and capitalist frameworks while also uplifting and celebrating the contributions and lives of women themselves.

Okay, what is matricentric feminism?

Well, the term comes from the book of the same name, Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice written by Andrea O’Reilly in 2016. Now, I’ll get into Andrea in a little bit when we talk about the foremothers of this theory, but first, Matricentric Feminism is a theory that centers the experiences, perspectives, and voices of mothers within the overall feminist movement. It’s not meant to replace feminism, it’s a feminism that is mother-focused. Let me read from the back of the book, because this sums it up nicely. Quote “the book argues that the category of mother is distinct from the category of woman, and that many of the problems mothers face - social, economic, political, cultural, psychological, and so forth - are specific to women’s role and identity as mothers. Indeed, mothers are oppressed under patriarchy as women AND as mothers. Consequently, mothers need a feminism of their own, one that positions mothers’ concerns as the starting point for a theory and politic of empowerment. O’reilly terms this new mode of feminism, matricentric feminism.” end quote

I first heard this term a few years before I decided to go back to school to pursue my masters in motherhood studies, and I remember that full-body sensation of reading something that made me feel seen and understood. You know that feeling? When you read or hear something that speaks to you so personally and clearly it’s like they created it just for you. I’d been struggling with my identity after leaving my career as a workplace consultant to support my husband’s career and stay home with the kids. I’ve talked about this a bit on the podcast already, so I won’t go into it here, but at first I felt like I was letting feminism down, like I was undoing all the work of previous generations of women by choosing to stay home instead. And consciously, I knew that was not true, I myself had uttered the somewhat empty phrase of, “of course a woman should be able to choose whether to work or stay home with the kids,” but I unconsciously had a total chip on my shoulder about it. Secretly it was like, “sure a woman should be able to choose, but obviously she should choose to have a career, that’s what women have been fighting for for generations, right?” I always identified as a feminist, and that was really easy to do before I had kids and I was “leaning in” at the workplace and had my own source of income and got an education and had this whole empowered woman identity. But then when I left all that I found myself googling things like “can I be a feminist if I’m a stay at home mom? Is there a Feminist motherhood?”

And I felt this weird guilt too because I really ENJOYED spending time with my kids. I liked being able to pick up my 3 year old at noon after preschool instead of having to pay extra for her to be there all day. I liked volunteering to be a chaperone for field trips for my older kids. And I loved the fact that I didn’t have to wake up at 5:30 to get myself ready for work before the kids got up. My life, all our lives, were way easier and less stressful when I stopped working. I could run errands and do laundry and cook meals during the week which made our weekends less busy. And all of this felt like a betrayal to feminists, even though for women who ARE mothers, mothering is undeniably a significant dimension of their life. In fact, a 2022 Pew research study found that the vast majority of mothers (88%) say that being a parent is the most or one of the most important aspects of who they are as a person. So why weren’t feminists addressing this??

Anyway after all my googling and checking books out of the library and listening to podcasts, when I finally discovered the work of O’Reilly and other motherhood studies scholars, it was like “ahhhhhh” the angels sang to me. THIS is what I was looking for. As O’Reilly writes in the introduction to the book, “motherhood, it could be said, is the unfinished business of feminism…a mother-centered feminism is needed because mothers - arguably more so than women in general - remain disempowered despite forty years of feminism.” end quote

Here was someone acknowledging that yes, feminism has left mothers behind. That women over the last 100 years have made significant strides in education, science, politics, employment, writing, and so many other areas, but motherhood, as an identity, doesn’t look a heck of a lot different from the last few generations. And in fact, it’s arguably MORE difficult to be a mother today; today’s mothers spend more time with their children than mothers did in the 1960s, and we’re worrying about them a lot more. Parents today feel more pressure to constantly teach and interact with their children, and we’re emotionally engaging with our children more, more verbal affirmations, outward displays of affection and honest conversations about hard topics. Parents also spend more time worrying about their children’s mental health, parents of color worry more about violence, we’re all worrying more about the economy and environmental concerns. So yeah, feminism helped women make incredible strides, but for mothers, our job just got harder.

Here’s another example from the book of the difference between feminism and motherhood, quote “A review of recent scholarship on mothers and paid employment revealed that although women have made significant gains over the last three decades, mothers have not. Indeed, today the pay gap between mothers and nonmothers under thirty-five is larger than the wage gap between young men and women.” end quote. So when we’re talking about the gender wage gap, where women still earn less than men, it’s not actually GENDER, or at least it’s not solely gender, that determines the wage gap, it’s whether or not a woman is a mother that determines how much less she earns.

So it’s high time we had a feminism that is mother-centered. But of course, matricentric feminism is a new and emergent feminism, it’s not something that’s been around for hundreds of years. So when we’re asked to define it, to say “THIS is matricentric feminism,” there’s still ambiguity out there.

Here again is O’Reilly from the book, this is a long but helpful quote, “below i gesture towards a possible definition by listing what I see as the central and governing principles and aims of matricentric feminism:

Asserts that the topic of mothers, mothering, and motherhood is deserving of serious and sustained scholarly inquiry
Regards mothering as work that is important and valuable to society but emphasize that the essential task of mothering is not, and should not be, the sole responsibility and duty of mothers
Contests, challenges, and counters the patriarchy oppressive institution of motherhood and seeks to imagine and implement a maternal identity and practice that is empowering to mothers
Seeks to correct the child centredness that defines much of the scholarship and activism on motherhood and seeks to develop research and activism front eh experience and the perspective of mothers
Commits to social change and social justice, and regards mothering as a socially engaged enterprise and a site of power, wherein mothers can and do create social change though childrearing and activism
Understands mothering and motherhood to be culturally determined and variable, and is committed to exploring the diversity of maternal experience across race, class, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age, and geographical location and
Endeavors to establish maternal theory and motherhood studies as autonomous, independent, and legitimate scholarly disciplines.

End quote

So there we have it! That’s more or less what matricentric feminism is in theory. How about in practice? What does it mean to be a matricentric feminist, both as a scholar and as a mother?

Well, having a mother-centered lens on things like from policy advocacy to grassroots organizing and cultural production helps serve as a guiding principle in shaping the future of the world to benefit mothers and children. In policy advocacy, matricentric feminism helps create legislation and initiatives that support mothers and caregivers, things like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and workplace accommodations for nursing mothers, all of which challenge the entrenched "motherhood penalty" in the workforce. Matricentric feminists highlight the systemic barriers and discrimination faced by mothers in employment and strive to create more equitable and inclusive workplaces.

Moreover, matricentric feminism challenges traditional patriarchal norms by redefining notions of success and fulfillment for women. Instead of measuring success solely through professional achievements or financial status, matricentric feminism values the diverse contributions and experiences of women, including caregiving and nurturing roles. By centering the importance of motherhood and caregiving within the feminist movement, matricentric feminists advocate for a more holistic understanding of women's identities and aspirations. This perspective fosters a shift towards a society that values and supports the diverse roles and contributions of women, beyond narrow patriarchal definitions of success.

And this brings up something that might be a little sticky for those of us who study and write about motherhood, which is how do we handle the gendered and biological aspects of motherhood? Motherhood has been used as an institution to limit women’s roles in society, and has served to undervalue their caregiving and labor as a whole. When I write about uplifting mothers and centering the mothering experience, I don’t want to inadvertently create a limiting role for women by over idealizing motherhood. On the other hand, mothering HAS been undervalued, and it’s time we recognize it as an empowering activity, one that shapes the future of society and also offers personal fulfillment and joy for mothers.

Here’s a quote from the Matricentric Feminist book that is helpful, quote, “this book works from one particular assumption: mothering matters, and it is central to the lives of women who are mothers. In saying this, I am not suggesting that mothering is ALL that matters, or that it matters the MOST; rather I am suggesting that any understanding of mothers’ lives is incomplete without a consideration of how becoming and being a mother shapes a woman’s sense of self and how she sees the world.” end quote

So touches on something I think about all the time, and something that the board at IAMAS discusses frequently, which is how to handle essentialism when we are writing and talking about motherhood. Biological essentialism is the belief that inherent biological traits define and determine individuals' roles, behaviors, and capabilities within society. In the context of motherhood studies and matricentric feminism, it's crucial to acknowledge that there are essentialist assumptions about motherhood, because these assumptions create a lot of the norms and expectations in mothering. Beliefs like the idealization of motherhood as the most important thing a woman can do or the highest purpose for women, that motherhood is natural and completely instinctual for women, that women are destined to become mothers because biology is destiny. A lot of this is wrapped up in religion too, that God’s divine plan for all women is to become mothers. These stereotypes can really limit women’s agency in making choices about their own life, it’s how we have public policy that assumes women will leave careers when they become mothers because of course that’s what they’ll do.

Anyway, by recognizing and questioning biological essentialism, scholars within matricentric feminism can challenge this notion that biology is destiny, and instead we can advocate instead for a more nuanced understanding of motherhood that encompasses diverse experiences, identities, and choices. And this in turn allows for a more inclusive and empowering approach to motherhood studies, one that celebrates the complexities of maternal experiences while also advocating for social, economic, and political change to support all mothers.

So if you’ve made it this far in the podcast and you’re interested in learning more, let me tell you about some of the pioneers of matricentric feminism and scholars and activists who have furthered this important theory.

There have been many people whose works laid the foundation for a mother-centered feminism. So I’m not going to try and trace a lineage here, but I want to just call out some contributors whose writings challenged traditional feminist narratives and centered the experiences of mothers in their analyses. Some of these scholars and activists aren’t specifically focused on motherhood, but their work mentions or affects mothers and these are the people I have found personally to be very influential in my own understanding of motherhood and or feminism.

Adrienne Rich, an influential American poet, essayist, and feminist, was a prominent voice in the feminist movement of the 20th century. Born in 1929, Rich's literary career spanned several decades, during which she produced a vast body of work that explored themes of identity, power, and social justice. Rich's contributions to feminist discourse included her biting exploration of motherhood within the context of patriarchal societies. In fact, as Rich wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1982, “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”

In her essays and poetry, Rich challenged traditional notions of motherhood, advocating for a more complex and inclusive understanding of maternal experiences. She critiqued the ways in which motherhood had been idealized and restricted by societal expectations, arguing for the recognition of the diverse roles and struggles faced by mothers. Rich's work around motherhood shed light on the intersectionality of gender, class, and race, highlighting the ways in which these factors shape women's experiences of mothering. Her most famous work in this subject is the 1976 book “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution” This was another “aha!” book for me when I first read it and is easily one of my top books I recommend about this subject.

Additionally, Rich wrote at length on the topic of white feminism and intersectionality within the feminist movement. She dedicated several chapters of her book Blood, Bread, and Poetry to the subject of racism. Adrienne Rich died in 2012.

Next up is Sara Ruddick, born in 1935 who wrote the book Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace in 1989. Ruddick is best known for her analysis of the practices of thinking that emerge from the care of children. She argued that mothering is a conscious activity that calls for choices, daily decisions and a continuing, alert reflectiveness. In Maternal Thinking, Ruddick put forth that mothering involves a unique form of moral and cognitive reasoning characterized by empathy, nurturance, and a commitment to peace-building. Her work challenged traditional philosophical frameworks that marginalized the significance of motherhood, advocating for its recognition as a vital ethical and political practice. Her contribution to matricentric feminism has been quoted as this: "Along with Adrienne Rich, Ruddick was probably the most important philosophical thinker to address the issue of mothering and motherhood since second-wave feminism.” Ruddick died in 2011.

Bell hooks is another important figure in the development of matricentric feminism, although this wasn’t the main focus of her work. bell hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, was a renowned feminist theorist, cultural critic, and author whose work has profoundly influenced feminist discourse, including discussions on motherhood. Throughout her prolific career, hooks has explored the intersections of race, gender, class, and power dynamics, challenging dominant paradigms and advocating for social justice. In her writings on motherhood, such as "All About Love: New Visions" and "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center," hooks delves into the complexities of mothering within patriarchal and capitalist systems. She critiqued traditional notions of motherhood as inherently nurturing and selfless, arguing that such ideals often mask the systemic inequalities and injustices faced by marginalized mothers, particularly Black women. In her writings, hooks explored how mothering is influenced by broader social structures and oppressive systems, including racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. She highlighted the importance of centering the experiences and voices of marginalized mothers, whose struggles and resilience are often overlooked in mainstream discourses on motherhood. Additionally, hooks emphasized the need for a collective approach to parenting and caregiving, challenging the notion that these responsibilities should solely fall on mothers. She advocated for community-based models of support and care that prioritize mutual aid and solidarity. She died only a few years ago, in December of 2021.

Next I want to talk about Riane Eisler, whose book The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future is another incredibly influential book in my life. Riane Eisler is a visionary social scientist, author, and activist, and is renowned for her groundbreaking work on the concepts of dominator and partnership societies, and the profound implications of these frameworks for women and mothers. Eisler was born in 1931, and she’s still alive, in fact I was recently at a dissertation defense where she was on the committee and she’s still sharp. Eisler's book "The Chalice and the Blade" introduced the idea that human societies can be categorized into two primary models: dominator, characterized by hierarchies, violence, and oppression, and partnership, characterized by equality, cooperation, and mutual respect. In her following works, such as "The Power of Partnership" and "Sacred Pleasure," Eisler explores how these societal models impact women's roles and experiences, often in relation to motherhood. She argues that dominator societies perpetuate a rigid gender hierarchy that devalues caregiving and maternal labor, while partnership societies offer greater opportunities for women's empowerment and flourishing. Eisler's insights have profound implications for reimagining motherhood within a framework of social justice and gender equality, advocating for policies and practices that support mothers' rights, autonomy, and well-being within partnership-oriented communities.

I discovered Silvia Federici a few years ago when I read the essay “Wages for Housework” online and I was immediately intrigued. Silvia Federici, born in 1942 and still writing, is an Italian-American scholar, activist, and feminist theorist, and is renowned for her pioneering work on the issue of women's unpaid labor in the home and its broader implications for social, economic, and gender justice. Her most influential book for me is "Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation" which examines the historical roots of capitalism and the role of women's unpaid reproductive labor in the development of capitalist economies. In her analysis, Federici highlights how women's reproductive labor, including caregiving, domestic work, and child-rearing, has been systematically devalued and exploited within patriarchal and capitalist systems. She argues that recognizing and elevating the significance of this unpaid labor is essential for challenging gender inequality, economic exploitation, and social injustice. Federici's scholarship has inspired a resurgence of feminist activism and organizing around issues of reproductive rights, care work, and labor rights, advocating for policies and practices that value and support women's unpaid labor in the home.

And finally, we come to Dr. Andrea O'Reilly, a pioneering scholar, and activist, who is widely recognized for her groundbreaking contributions to the fields of matricentric feminism and motherhood studies, which have had a profound impact on our understanding of motherhood in both academic theory and practice. As the founder of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI), O'Reilly has been instrumental in elevating the voices and experiences of mothers within feminist discourse. Through her influential writings, including "Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice" and "Motherhood: Power and Oppression," O'Reilly has articulated the concept of matricentric feminism, which centers motherhood as a site of resistance and empowerment. Her work has challenged traditional patriarchal narratives surrounding motherhood, advocating for a more inclusive and holistic understanding of maternal experiences that acknowledges the diversity of women's lives. In addition to her scholarly endeavors, O'Reilly's activism and community engagement have helped foster a vibrant network of scholars, activists, and mothers dedicated to advancing the rights and recognition of mothers in academia and society at large.

So there you have it! These women are some of the women who have profoundly influenced me personally, and the concept of matricentric feminism and motherhood studies overall.

Okay, let’s start to wrap this up. In conclusion, this episode explores matricentric feminism’s definition, significance, and application in various contexts. Matricentric feminism represents a crucial contribution to feminist discourse by centering the experiences of mothers within the feminist movement. By advocating for policies that support mothers and caregivers, challenging the "motherhood penalty" in the workforce, and redefining notions of success and fulfillment for women, matricentric feminism offers a transformative framework for understanding and addressing the complexities of motherhood in contemporary society. Through the pioneering work of many scholars and activists, matricentric feminism has reshaped academic theory and influenced the practice of mothering, paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future and advocating for the rights, recognition, and empowerment of mothers in all aspects of society.

Matricentric Feminism
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