What would it mean to acknowledge that motherhood is a political concept? Unlike other aspects of everyday life – exercise, say, or rest – motherhood is already visible, to a certain extent, as a political “issue”. In recent months, for example, there has been increasing coverage of the particular toll the pandemic is taking on mothers and primary caregivers, although much of this reporting tends to conflate the two categories, or group mothers as uniformly heterosexual: the opposite number to fathers, who aren’t pulling their weight. In terms of political representation – such as, in parliament – motherhood, as a lived experience for MPs, hovers toward the top of discourse around equality, from Andrea Leadsom’s now infamous comments during the 2016 Tory leadership election, that being a mother gave her a greater “stake” in the future of the country in comparison to Theresa May who has no children, to Stella Creasey’s campaign for her own maternity rights in the workplace.
The fight for fair employment practices for mothers is fundamentally political, and it’s true that the pandemic is entrenching existing inequalities at a terrifying speed: the legal advice service Pregnant then Screwed have experienced a tenfold increase in requests since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet this focus on discrete elements of maternal experience as isolated politicised moments falls short of what it would mean for motherhood to be understood as a political concept in its entirety: it still cleaves to a traditional understanding of the public and the private as entirely separate spheres, connected only via the experiences of individuals who happen to have children or become pregnant. It suggests that motherhood becomes political only at these moments of contact with civil society, and that the pandemic, in contracting all public life to the home, has temporarily dissolved the boundaries between the two.
The notion of the domestic sphere as separate from economic and political life is relatively new, one that began to take root firmly in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in tandem with industrialisation and alongside the useful notion of an idealised mother as “the angel in the house”. As feminist economists and literary theorists such as Drucilla K. Barker, Edith Kuiper and Susan Fraiman have pointed out, this was a false dichotomy: household management alone was a complex financial enterprise, often articulated in the language of political economy, and the delegation of care in middle- and upper-class households was a driving force in the reproduction of hierarchies of class and race.
Indeed, the construction and valorisation of the maternal ideal was ideologically central to the British Empire: as the historian Ruth Perry notes, motherhood was “a colonial form – the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad”. Mothers were a key cog in the machinery of the nation state, responsible for the production of good imperial citizens and entrenching political and economic boundaries at the level of the household, even as these limits trapped individual women themselves.
[See also: Underpaid, undervalued and overburdened: a history of working motherhood]
This wasn’t an ideology that receded with the Victorian era. After the Second World War, the widespread, state-endorsed encouragement of women to have children – what the poet and philosopher Denise Riley calls “pronatalism” in War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother – was both a response to the low birth rate that had been a concern since the 1930s and provided a practical rationale for keeping women in the home. Motherhood was once again positioned as a kind of national service, and if reproduction is considered to be both a woman’s duty and a substitute for professional work, then maternity literally becomes a kind of unpaid labour: a political state, but one without rights or recognition.
The domestic tasks that make up the “everyday” work of mothering can be understood politically through the concept of “social reproduction”: unpaid work that allows capitalist society to reproduce itself, including inequalities of gender, race and class. Crucial to an understanding of this labour is an acknowledgement of the ways in which it has historically been outsourced by mothers as much as performed by them: childcare, cleaning and cooking are all forms of work that still fall disproportionately on black and minority ethnic women. We might think of the image produced by the See Red Women’s Workshop, a feminist print collective active between 1974 and 1990, of a factory production line featuring scenes of care – ironing clothes, feeding an infant – with the slogan “Capitalism also depends upon domestic labour”. We might also think of Silvia Federici’s declaration in her 1975 manifesto Wages Against Housework that, “Every miscarriage is a workplace accident”.
The great trick of patriarchal capitalism has been the designation of certain kinds of work as inherent to maternity and the synthesisation of childbearing and purpose: this is what your body is for. Tick tock. Childcare, in this schema, is a private responsibility, supported by very little public provision. In her recent book Mothers, Jacqueline Rose describes this individualisation of care by drawing on the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s work on “the neoliberal intensification of mothering”, something particularly keenly illustrated by the eerily perfect – and, as Candice Brathwaite’s work has shown, overwhelmingly white – images transmitted from the world of Instagram mothering, the “mumfluencers”.
These pristine scenes embody, in their whiteness and their affluence, the contemporary persistence of the trope of the angel in the house, and in doing so help to erase the actual conditions of maternity. In the UK, black mothers are four times more likely than their white counterparts to die in childbirth; the same report found that mothers in the most economically deprived areas of the country were three times more likely to die than those in affluent areas. Maternal morbidity is determined by material circumstances: like other aspects of reproductive healthcare, it is a political phenomenon.
[See also: A lifetime of inequality: how black Britons face discrimination at every age]
The acknowledgement of the phenomenal labour of motherhood requires more than the annual Mothering Sunday marketing campaigns that frame unappreciated work as somehow inherent to maternal love, or Rishi Sunak’s recent breezy “thanks to mums”. It relies upon the recognition that motherhood is a cultural construction, the dismantling of which is a crucial weapon against gendered repression. The term “mother” has always been historically contingent: a label conferring a legal status and an ideal model of behaviour, and one that has historically been used to separate families on grounds of sexuality and race. Motherhood is not defined as a biological process or state: the work of mothering, the giving of care, is not determined by pregnancy and childbirth. These are aspects of motherhood – ways to get there – but not pre-conditions: not only do adoption and surrogacy also lead to motherhood, but pregnancy and gender identity do not necessarily map neatly onto each other.
In Britain, the hostile climate of transphobia has weaponised the factual assertion that the biological conception of a child is not inclusive of all experiences of motherhood (and vice versa), something illustrated by the recent controversy over the legislative use of the term “pregnant people” and “people with cervixes”. There is a crucial difference between the acceptance of motherhood as a political concept, and the politicisation of motherhood as a state. The former is an emancipatory tool; the latter reduces the mother to a weapon to be deployed in someone else’s argument. Transphobic policing of language has more in common with those who have historically fought against reproductive rights than with any feminist cause: the legacy of lines being drawn around the “right” kind of woman, the “right” kind of mother.
[See also: Mourning and melancholia: the psychological shadow-pandemic]
Mothering happens in comfortable homes and it happens in prisons, on picket lines, in hospitals, on public transport. It is profoundly political, and privacy is not always protection. In an article arguing for the practice of black mothering itself as an “act of resistance against intersecting inequalities”, Tracey Reynolds writes that motherhood in general is best understood not as any kind of natural state but as a whole suite of social constructions: relationships and activities “positioned and contextualised within social, historical and cultural frameworks”. To accept that maternity is a political concept is to understand it, finally, for what it is: a helpful unifying term, a vast category built on many different kinds of alliances. Within it, there is room for an infinite variety of relationships and identities; that’s where the work of life begins.
Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her book “Mother State”, a political history of motherhood, is forthcoming from Allen Lane.
This essay is the first in a series examining the often unacknowledged politics of different aspects of everyday life. Future instalments will cover leisure, rest, exercise and more.