This part of our paper focuses on what feminists have to say about women’s autonomy, or lack of autonomy, in relation to their reproductive capacities and child-caring responsibilities. We begin by investigating the general feminist literature on women’s ability to make choices and the concept of autonomy. We then move on to analyse the work of feminists who highlight what they describe as the ‘natural’ capacity of women to be child bearers and rearers. In our interpretation, these feminists argue that the only way for women to have autonomy is to overcome and transcend this capacity. We then consider the work of feminists who celebrate the ‘natural’ capacity of women as child bearers and rearers as providing women with a sense of human connection. Finally, we analyse those who critique the institution of motherhood as a patriarchal, socially constructed institution. Our analysis throughout is on whether, and if so, how, the literature makes a distinction between women’s child-bearing and child-rearing capacities in the context of our ability to choose our own ways of life.
A primary theme in the feminist literature is analysis of the different spheres of public and private. Women are said to be generally assigned to the latter – the domestic sphere of the home – which requires analysis of women as wives and mothers in the family, rather than as autonomous persons in our own right. This work highlights the political nature of the division, the perceived shortcomings of political systems, particularly liberalism, which it is claimed create and rely upon it, and the impact it has on women’s lack of choices in ways of living their lives. These feminists critique the role motherhood plays in viewing women as somehow separate, meaning different or deviant, in comparison to ‘normal’ citizens, and they debate the meaning of, and role for, equality and an ethic of care in women’s lives.
Motherhood features prominently in each of these debates. An ideology of motherhood has played a part in women being seen as inferior to men, or at least as separate and distinct from them. This ideology of motherhood has an effect on women’s autonomy, so that we are often not viewed as persons in our own right, with choices to make about ways of being and living.