Women as mothers – a natural phenomenon that must be overcome
Certain feminists have viewed women’s capacity for motherhood as a natural, biological phenomenon, but one that thereby prevents women from being capable of living a fully autonomous life. These feminists require that women overcome their ‘natural’ state to become free and autonomous.
In existential feminist theory, becoming a woman is a socially constructed condition. On this view, ‘woman’ is a creation, the ‘other’ to man: what women need to do, therefore, is to contest this construction, because it prevents us from living an autonomous and self-willed life, which is the ideal for everyone. Although it is acknowledged that a completely autonomous life is impossible, because as part of the human condition all persons are constrained by social and moral norms and bodily needs, individuals are still capable of constantly and deliberately taking responsibility for their obedience and disobedience to authority and to their bodies. To exercise what it is called ‘authentic’ choice, individuals must aim to transcend the social and the physical. For women, this means transcending female biology and instead entering into public life, engaging in our own projects and exploits. In such a presentation of becoming a woman, female biology is represented as conflicting with, and in opposition to, the ideal of the free autonomous subject reaching out to transcendence. Female biology and the female body drag this free autonomous subject back to a ‘merely natural’ existence: the female body is an intrinsic obstacle to transcendence and ‘authentic’ choice.
The achievement of autonomy for women thus comes by women actively choosing not to be immersed in their biology, including choosing not to become pregnant, not to have children and not to become mothers. What is proposed instead is a new order in which woman becomes part of the world of the active other; woman becomes like man in order to escape the debilitating and endlessly disempowering impact of femininity as the condition of otherness.
However, in this type of feminist work, no distinctions are explicitly made between pregnancy and motherhood. Both of these conditions need to be refused. This work can be interpreted as identifying the choices necessary for autonomy in the social world as it now exists, but different choices might be required if the experience of a female body was not culturally objectified by exposure to the male gaze as it is now. In other words, if the world we live in was different, perhaps it would not be necessary to transcend female biology in the way proposed.
Certain radical feminist thinkers, particularly in the early second wave, reach similar conclusions about transcending female biology. Perhaps the starkest example of this type of work can be seen in Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. In that analysis, the natural reproductive difference between the sexes is described as the first division of labour at the origins of class. It is a natural, biologically based imbalance of power between men and women. However, given that individuals are no longer ‘just’ animals, they can oppose nature; they can take control of it. Given this state of affairs, humanity can outgrow nature, leading to the abolition of ‘a discriminatory sex class system’ no longer justifiable on the grounds of its purported origins in nature.
On this view, women will never be free of the constrictions of nature unless human reproduction becomes artificial reproduction in which children would be born to both sexes equally or independently of the other. Any dependence between the child and the mother would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, ‘freeing’ women from their reproductive biology.
Again, no distinctions are made between the capacity to be a child bearer and a mother. Clear boundaries are drawn between child ‘production’ and subsequent development, but it is assumed that this can only happen if children are ‘produced’ separately from the natural reproductive and gestation process. It seems to be assumed that if women continued to be child bearers in the ‘natural’ way, we would be mothers simply by virtue of that.