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Rethinking Motherhood: Bryn Mawr, Feminism, and Being a Mother

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Rethinking Motherhood: Bryn Mawr, Feminism, andBeing a Mother


Upon lookingthrough the archives of the Bi-College News, two articles caught myattention.  One article discussesthe idea that Bryn Mawr women should not be stay-at-home-mothers, while anotherarticle questions the possibility of being a mother and have a career at thesame time.  These articles made methink about the role of motherhood in education, particularly at BrynMawr.  Our education trains us totake leading roles in the workplace and in society at large.  Is this training wasted if we becomemothers?  Can we balance the rolesand responsibilities of motherhood while still using our education to thefullest? These articles, and this class specifically, also made me think aboutthe role of motherhood in feminist thinking.  While it is almost impossible to come up with anall-encompassing definition of feminism, one characteristic that I haveidentified is the desire to give women – and indeed all minorities – equalrights that would allow them to break out the hierarchical societalstructure.  Is it possible for awoman to be a feminist and work for these goals while still being amother?  Most of the theorizingabout motherhood in this paper does not refer specifically to being astay-at-home mom; however, from reading about motherhood in general, we canstill learn how to reconcile motherhood with our education.  From reading various theories ofmotherhood, I have come to the conclusion that motherhood can further feministgoals, and that feminism can provide mothers with the power that they oftenlack.  Furthermore, a Bryn Mawreducation prepares us for motherhood by providing us with confidence, thinkingskills, and the ability to work to achieve power.

            In“Future Housewives of America,” Catherine Kuhlman writes that “I have heardeducated women [in the] classrooms proclaim that it is a waste for women tospend forty thousand dollars a year…only to become a mother and stay at homewith her children.”[i]  Kuhlman feels that Bryn Mawr studentsare not supportive of those women who desire to be stay-at-home mothers, sayingthat students do not value the work of motherhood; Kuhlman argues for theacceptance of such a choice.  In“Why Can’t Women Have Careers and Kids?” Alex Stratyner writes that “Mawrter’swant careers and children, but absolutely not at the same time.”[ii]  Stratyner explains that Bryn Mawrstudents believe that as mothers, they could not be successful in the workingworld, and that with careers, they would not have time for children.  This attitude surprises me, as it seemsthat a Bryn Mawr education emphasizes women’s ability to achieve their desires,whatever they may be.

            Inconsidering the role of motherhood at Bryn Mawr, I was extremely surprised tolearn that President Jane McAuliffe is the first president of Bryn Mawr who isalso a mother.  In Teaching toLearn, Learning to Teach: Medications on the Classroom, Anne Dalke, amother and a professor, writes that after some time teaching at Bryn Mawr,“[she] finally came out as a mother on campus.”[iii]  This statement and its language stoodout to me.  To “come out” suggeststhat someone has been in hiding. Dalke’s initial experience of motherhood at Bryn Mawr in the ‘80s wasone of repression, feeling that she needed to hide the fact that she was amother in order to “belong” in the academic world.  From my experiences at Bryn Mawr today, it seems as ifprofessors currently have a different attitude about motherhood.  Of my professors who have children,almost all of them discuss their children at some point during the class.  This willingness to discuss one’sfamily life suggests a more open attitude regarding working, education, andmotherhood.  However, it must beacknowledged that our professors are working mothers, and thus are using theireducations and being mothers at the sametime.

            In2006 Bryn Mawr held a series of discussions entitled “Rethinking Parenthood,”in which faculty discussed the meaning of parenthood on campus.  The very need for such a seriessuggests that perhaps Bryn Mawr’s views on working mothers has not changedmuch, after all, from Dalke’s earlier experiences.  In a brainstorming session for the President’s AdvisoryCommittee for Work-Family Balance, those present were asked for ideas aboutpossible policies involving work and family, as well as ideas about the issuesthe college faced.  Facultyquestioned Bryn Mawr’s climate in regard to parenthood, particularly noting thelack of awareness of working faculty and staff.  Thus, people are not aware that it is possible to be asuccessful working mother.  Someonecommented that a women’s college should be at the forefront of theseissues.  This comment suggests thata college that works for women’s rights should support the rights of women tobe mothers.  However, the commentcould also mean that as a women’s college, Bryn Mawr should make sure thatwomen succeed in their professional lives, regardless of their personallives.  Someone else said that theschool needed to compensate for the disadvantage of women choosing to havechildren.[iv]  This statement speaks to Kuhlman’s ideathat Bryn Mawr looks down upon those that choose to have children.  However, with both this comment and theprevious one, it must be noted that this discussion only refers to workingmothers, and does not reflect the college’s attitude on mothers who do notwork.

            Inconsidering the role of motherhood in education, and specifically at Bryn Mawr,it is helpful to look at some of the college’s goals.  Bryn Mawr’s mission statement proclaims that the collegeaims “to provide a rigorous education and to encourage pursuit of knowledge andlife and work.”[v]  There can be no question that one ofthe college’s main goals, and a goal that it has achieved, is to prepare womento enter professional life and enact change.  This goal is best expressed in the mission statement throughthe idea that knowledge prepares students for “work.”  However, the mission statement also asserts that such aneducation will prepare students for “life.”  From this wording, we can infer that a Bryn Mawr educationwill not only prepare students for active lives in the public world, but alsoin whatever private endeavors they wish to pursue, including motherhood.  Thus, the fact of such a rigorouseducation does not and should not exclude the possibility and worthiness ofmotherhood, either working or not working. 

In furtherexplaining the college’s goals, the 2000-2001 Undergraduate College Catalogueemphasizes that a Bryn Mawr education provides students with a great degree ofindividual freedom.  It states that“this is the freedom that comes from an education that leads one out ofnarrowness and prejudices of one’s own experiences and toward a fuller awarenessof oneself and the world.  BrynMawr College is convinced that intellectual enrichment and discipline provide asound foundation for living.”[vi]  By widening students’ views of theworld and making them more aware and accepting of other experiences, it wouldbe expected that a Bryn Mawr education reinforces the idea that motherhood is avalid way of life.  This freedomalso speaks to what I believe to be a feminist idea of valuing everyone’sthinking.  However, this does notseem to be true for Kuhlman in her experience of intolerance towards the ideaof working mothers.  The fact thatour education will prepare us not just for academic or professional work butfor living, as well, means that even if we do not use our education to workafter college, our education will be helpful in motherhood and “life”, aswell.  Dalke emphasizes this idea,writing that in teaching English “[she is] teaching [her] students not onlyattentive reading and careful, clear writing but a kind of thoughtfulness theycan use to guide their lives.”[vii]  This thoughtfulness will be helpfulboth in the work world, and in the demanding world of motherhood.

            Intheorizing about motherhood, we must consider what exactly it means to be amother.  This task, I believe, canprove to be impossible, as motherhood most likely takes on different meaningsfor different women.  However, in“Maternal Thinking,” Sarah Ruddick attempts to identify specific motherly waysof thinking that can help us better understand the experience ofmotherhood.  Ruddick emphasizes thefact that maternal patterns of thinking arise out of specific maternalpractices, namely the practices of providing for the preservation, growth, andacceptability of one’s child.[viii]  Ruddick states that “the passions ofmaternity are so sudden, intense, and confusing that we ourselves often remainignorant of the perspective, the thoughtthat has developed from our mothering. Lacking pride, we have failed to deepen or to articulate that thought.”[ix]  To me, the idea of being aware of our specificpatterns of thought, how they effect us, and trying to articulate thesethoughts is “feminist,” as it involves being consciously aware of ourselves aswomen, and acknowledging the ways in which our thoughts affect us. 

Ruddick believesthat “out of maternal practices distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering,and valuing arise.  We think differently about what it means and what it takes to be ‘wonderful’, to be a person,to be real.”[x]  Ruddick believes that motherhoodchanges our idea of our self worth. I belief that Bryn Mawr also changes our ideas of self worth byproviding us with self confidence in our intellectual and extracurricularabilities.  Does Ruddick’sknowledge of maternal thinking, the idea that motherhood brings about new ways ofthinking and a new sense of self, change the thinking that has arisen from oureducation?  In my opinion, it doesnot have to be an either-or situation. The thinking that has resulted from our education and collegeexperiences shapes the people that we are, in a way that is not erasable bymotherhood, but rather will be added upon and (possibly) enriched bymotherhood. 

In addition tothese changes in thinking, Ruddick argues that “central to our experience ofmothers and our mothering is a poignant conjunction of power andpowerlessness.”[xi]  What Ruddick (and others) believe to bethe powerlessness of mothers profoundly effects their experiences in the worldand views of motherhood.  Ruddickbelieves that the main characteristic of the powerlessness of mothers is whatshe calls inauthenticity.  Shewrites that “maternal thought embodies inauthenticity by taking on the valuesof the dominant culture”,[xii]abandoning one’s personal values in exchange for those “of the families thesubcultures to which they belong and of the men with whom they are allied.”[xiii]  Bryn Mawr trains us to overcome thepowerlessness of women in society by providing us with the skills and educationthat we need to be successful in society and to stand up for our own beliefsand values.  Perhaps women fearthat motherhood could undue this training and make us powerless onceagain.  More likely, it seems, BrynMawr gives us the skills and confidence that we need to overcome thispowerlessness.  Further, studentswho have acquired a basis of feminism can more easily learn to identify andcombat this powerlessness and inauthenticity. 

            Inthe introduction to Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, JoyceTrebilcot states that many women do not want to become mothers because theybelieve that it reinforces certain societal hierarchies, such as thepatriarchal hierarchy against which feminists fight so hard.[xiv]  In The Price of Motherhood, AnneCrittenden echoes these views, writing that feminists worry that if womenbecome increasingly interested in motherhood, women “will drift back intodomestic subservience.”[xv]   Both Treblicot and Crittendenexpress the view that motherhood can be seen as working against feminismbecause it adds to what some see as the already-powerless position of women.  In relation to this claim, Ruddickstates that “feminist accounts of power relations and their cost call intoquestion the worthiness of maternal work….”[xvi]  A feminist account of power relationswould say that the existing social hierarchy devalues the position of women insociety, and that maternal work does not strive to undue this hierarchy.  Kuhlman makes a similar observation,writing that students at Bryn Mawr believe that the scale of motherhood is toosmall to enact the change in which Bryn Mawr believes.[xvii] In a school were we are trained toacknowledge, and then overcome the powerlessness of women, the result is often,as both Kuhlman and Ruddick note, that motherhood is devalued.

            Whilemotherhood can reinforce and heighten the powerlessness that women often feelin a patriarchal society, it can also bring women great power.  Ruddick views maternal power asfiguring prominently in her paper, writing, “I consider my attempt to expressand respect maternal thought one contribution to an ongoing, shared, feministproject: the construction of an image of maternal power which benign, accurate,sturdy, and sane.”[xviii]  Here, Ruddick suggests that one of thegoals of feminism is to invest women, including mothers, with power.  Some of the maternal power about whichRuddick speaks deals with personal feelings of power.  For example, mothers feel power because they can bear andnurse children.  Ruddick furtherwrites that “in addition to a sense of reproductive power, many mothers earlydevelop a sense of maternal competence, a sense that they are able to protect and foster the growth of theirchildren.”[xix]  Inherent in this statement is the factthat so often, women are made to feel like they lack competence and abilitybecause of their lack of power in society.  With regards to Ruddick’s comment, however, we need to becautious.  While I do believe thatmotherhood can give women feelings of power by making them feel more competent,I also believe that it should be a goal of feminism to explore other ways inwhich women can feel competent, and not stop at the idea of motherhood.  We can also think about this statementin the context of our Bryn Mawr education.  One of the goals of a Bryn Mawr education is to make womenfeel more competence and give them belief in their ability.  Motherhood can enhance – not erase -these feelings of competence, and already having these feelings of competentcan provide us with firmer ground on which to become mothers.           

Woman can alsogain power from motherhood by putting their experiences as a mother in a largercontext.  For several authors, thepower of mothers involves explicitly linking motherhood with feminism.  While Treblicot notes that many women donot want to become mothers due to their fear that it would reinforce socialhierarchies, she also notes that “some women are concerned to reconceivemothering, to create new concepts of reproducing and nurturing that will betterexpress their own values, including their commitments to the transmission offeminism from one generation to the next and to the production and reproductionof women’s cultures.”[xx]  Treblicot defines feminism as “theprocess of conceiving women-identified forms of life;”[xxi]motherhood can be considered an example a women-identified form of life, andthus as an example of this kind of feminism.  Motherhood is a way for women to pass on traditions offeminism, to reclaim women’s identities, and to take pride in being awoman.  Ruddick strengthens heraforementioned liking of motherhood with feminism by writing that “feministconsciousness will first transform inauthentic obedience into wariness,uncertain reflection, at time, anguished confusion,” and that in order formothers to transmit their own values to their children, “maternal thought willhave to be transformed by feminist consciousness.”[xxii]  For Ruddick, a feminist consciousnessis an awareness of the position of women in the social hierarchy, and a desireto change this position. 

            Usinga feminist consciousness, women can utilize their status as mothers andmaternal thought to bring about larger change.  Ruddick asserts that “when mothers insist upon the inclusionof their values and experiences in the public world into which children enter,when they determine what makes their children acceptable, the work of growth andpreservation will acquire new gaiety and joyfulness.”[xxiii]  By fighting against the aforementionedinauthenticity and asserting their own values, as Bryn Mawr teaches us to do,mothers become more powerful, and consequently receive more joy from their rolesas mothers. 

Ruddick furtherargues that mothers must bring maternal thinking into the public sphere “tomake the preservation and growth of all children a work of public conscienceand legislation,” and stresses that “all feminists mush join in articulating atheory of justice shaped by and incorporating maternal thinking.”[xxiv]  This statement introduces a newdefinition of feminism, the idea that feminism should work for justice; whilesome might say that a feminist justice only includes women, after the work donein this class, I would argue that feminism should strive for justice for allwho have been excluded by societal hierarchies.  According to Ruddick’s thinking, motherhood, and the powerwomen derive from it, can help women bring about larger feminist goals.  In “Parenting and Property,” JanetFarrel Smith echoes Ruddick’s ideas. She writes that maternal values, such as concern for individuals andfamilies, interdependence, and individuality can “from the basis of anothersocial order.”[xxv]  This new social order would be one inwhich mothers are powerful and appreciated, and children are properly caredfor.

Bryn Mawrencourages this feminist idea of justice, as the college strives to “encouragestudents to be responsible citizens who provide service to and leadership foran increasingly interdependent world.”[xxvi]  It might be believed that motherhoodcould lessen from one’s desire, or ability, to be an instigator of change inthe larger community, therefore taking away from Bryn Mawr’s mission.  However, according to Ruddick’sargument, motherhood heightens this commitment to social change.  It is through a combination of feministconsciousness – a desire to achieve justice for all – and motherhood thatRuddick believes women can be bearers of social change.  Bryn Mawr prepares us for this power,and teaches us how to work for this justice.  Thus, as Bryn Mawr mothers, we will be better prepared forthe power which comes from motherhood, whether we are working or staying athome with our children.

None of theauthors mentioned above specifically mention the idea of being a stay-at-home,and thus do not directly address Kuhlman’s question.  However, in The Price of Motherhood, Ann Crittendendiscusses possible reasons why women are not encouraged to stay at home withtheir children.  Like Kuhlman, shetoo notices a shift away from motherhood in educational institutions, writingthat “young women today are urged to finish school, find a job, acquire skills,develop seniority, get tenure, make partner, work endless hours, and putchildren off until the very last minute.”[xxvii]  Behind this statement and the messagesthat women receive is the idea that only this professional work is the workthat matters, as Crittenden that being a stay at home mother is “often equatedwith ‘doing nothing.’”[xxviii]  People believe that our education onlyprepares us for professional work, and not for the work of motherhood.

Crittenden alsofocuses on the economic difficulties of being a stay at home mother, and theidea that these economic factors are part of the reason why such a path is notencouraged.  She says that “theidea that time spent with ones child is time wasted is embedded in traditionaleconomic thinking.”[xxix]  She writes that women who are stay-at-home mothers are providing free labor, and that both women and their familieslose income because the mother is caring for her children.[xxx]  The economic strain of choosing to stayat home with children is another reason why mothers want to work.  However, these economic concerns do notseem to be what is behind Kuhlman’s observations; it seems the Bryn Mawrstudents are more concerned with the meaning and value of motherhood than withits economic consequences. 

With regards toworking mothers, Crittenden forces us to acknowledge a rather grim reality,saying that “the fact is that no generation of American women has yet been ableto achieve what most college-educated women have said they wanted for more than100 years: a meaningful career and a chance to raise children of their own.”[xxxi]  As Bryn Mawr’s parenting forum madeclear, it is difficult to have a successful career and still be a dedicatedparent, echoing Stratyner’s observations of Bryn Mawr students.  For example, mothers often work in careersfor which they have not been trained, or cannot work at the highest level jobswith the highest paying salaries, due to their responsibilities asmothers.  A survey of adult babyboomers found that women without children were twice as successful as thosewith children.[xxxii]  Thus, by becoming mothers, women losepower in the professional world. Consequently, women feel that they have to choose between career andchildren, and as Kuhlman found out, many people, especially at schools such asBryn Mawr, choose careers. Crittenden’s discussion of mothers in the workplace seems to haveslightly mixed messages.  On theone hand, Crittenden criticizes the fact that being a stay-at-home mother isdevalued, while at the same time she seems to suggest that women often stay athome because they are forced out of the workplace.

            Foras long as I can remember, I have wanted to be mother.  Recently, my desire for motherhood hascombined with my desire for professional goals and the desire to work forsocietal change.  I, like othershave Bryn Mawr, have thought about the feasibility of “having it all”, of beingable to fulfill my duties as a mother and spend time with my children, whilealso achieving professional success and satisfaction.  Coming to Bryn Mawr has highlighted these concerns, as I amnow more then ever more keenly aware of the large amount of pressure to use ourBryn Mawr education to be successful in the world.  Through studying theories about motherhood, as well asthrough reflecting on Bryn Mawr as an institution, I have come to see thatbeing successful in the world does not mean that I cannot be a mother.  Whether I choose to be a stay-at-homemother, or a working mother, my Bryn Mawr education and knowledge of feminismwill prove invaluable.  It willhelp me in working against the powerlessness that mothers face in society, andwill allow me to harness the power of motherhood to bring about change on apersonal scale, or on a larger scale.  

[i] Kuhlman

[ii] Stratyner

[iii] Dalke 30

[iv] /local/scisoc/committee.html


[vi] Dalke 3

[vii] Dalke 23

[viii] Ruddick359

[ix] Ruddick 342

[x] Ruddick 359

[xi] Ruddick 343

[xii] Ruddick354

[xiii] Ruddick354-55

[xiv] Trebilcot1

[xv] Crittenden9

[xvi] Ruddick355

[xvii] Kuhlman

[xviii] Ruddick345

[xix] Ruddick343, 344

[xx] Trebilcot 1

[xxi] Treblicot3

[xxii] Ruddick356

[xxiii] Ruddick357

[xxiv] Ruddick361

[xxv] Smith 209


[xxvii]Crittenden 29

[xxviii]Crittenden 2

[xxix]Crittenden 4

[xxx] Crittenden5, 9

[xxxi]Crittenden 33-34

[xxxii]Crittenden 28, 32


Works Cited

"Bryn Mawr College MissionStatement." Bryn Mawr College. 2008. Bryn Mawr College. 18 Dec 2008<>.


Crittenden,Anne. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World isStill the Least Valued. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.


Dalke, Anne. Teachingto Learn, Learning to Teach: Meditations on the Classroom. New York: PeterLang Publishing, 2002.


Dalke, Anne."Brainstorming with the President's Advisory Committee for Work-Family Issues."Bryn Mawr College Center for Science in Society. 07 March 2006. BrynMawr College. 12 December 2008</local/scisoc/committee.html>


Kuhlman,Catherine. “Future Housewives of America.” The Bi-College News. 8December 2004, Opinion.


Ruddick, Sara.“Maternal Thinking.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 6, No.2 (1980): 342-367


Stratyner,Alex. “Why Can’t Women Have Careers and Kids?” The Bi-College News. 22April 2008, Opinion.


Treblicot,Joyce. Introduction. Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory. JoyceTreblicot, ed. New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.