Women as mothers – a natural phenomenon that must be celebrated
Other theorists present very different views of women as mothers. While the distinction between women and men continues to be based on our reproductive capacities, instead of this being negatively viewed as a hindrance to women’s ability to live freely, it is instead seen as something to celebrate.
In what has been called the ‘unofficial story’ of legal theory, as presented by cultural feminism, women are connected to others materially and existentially, in particular at four stages throughout our lives: menstruation; heterosexual penetrative sexual intercourse; pregnancy; and breast feeding.
What is valued in the ‘official story’ of legal theory, however, is an autonomous individual who is separate from others, left alone to exercise voluntary choices in as many spheres as possible through the satisfaction of subjective desires and preferences. Even if maximisation of self-welfare as the motivation for actions is true of men, however, and some suggest that it is not, cultural feminism questions whether it is true for women. Moreover, cultural feminism is often less concerned to question the traditional masculine story of the isolated self than it is to revalue, in the public and the private spheres, the feminine relational self. On this account, because of the sense of connection felt by women, women’s lives are not autonomous, they are ‘profoundly relational’: women cannot be autonomous separate individuals in a way which may be true of men. Because of this, the legal system and legal language fail women: they fail to represent or even comprehend women’s sense of connection, fear of separation, fear of lack of intimacy, experiences and what we view as harms.
Feminist analysis in this vein appears to make no distinction between the non-pregnant woman, the pregnant woman, the woman who gives birth, and the carer of the child. Women’s moral voice is described as one of (potential) responsibility, duty and care for others, because our material circumstances involve responsibility, duty and care for those who are first physically attached, then physically dependent and then emotionally interdependent.
Often, in these feminist arguments, the mother-child relationship is presented as the essential human relationship; the family as constructed in patriarchy ruins this fundamental ‘natural’ human unit. Proposals can then be made to abolish the patriarchal institution of motherhood, not motherhood itself, thus releasing what is described as ‘the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination and conscious intelligence as any other difficult but freely chosen work’. Until then, however, so-called ‘choices’ facing women trying to be autonomous in a society which insists that we are destined primarily for reproduction, a choice presented as a mutually exclusive either/or between motherhood or individuation, motherhood or creativity, motherhood or freedom, are criticised. On this feminist view, women’s autonomy is strengthened through free exercise of their sexual and procreative choice, including choosing to become a mother, in conjunction with their claim to personhood. Women feel and are more autonomous through their own freedom to exercise their own choices in relation to maternity and motherhood; they are not to be used as a womb or a body part but to speak for themselves, in their own right. In many ways, this view is similar to that presented by the next body of theorists we identify in the feminist literature: those feminists who see the structure of motherhood as patriarchal but remain more ambivalent as to the potential creativity and natural fulfilment that a more ‘authentic’ experience of motherhood can entail.