What is Maternal Feminism?


At the Women’s Worlds conference in Ottawa, Canada, all kinds of feminists from all parts of the world were represented. While the overall feminist movement aims to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities for women, there are many specific groups of women who face different challenges or have to deal with different issues. This includes aboriginal women, women with disabilities, trans women, lesbian or bi-sexual women, women of color, low income women and more.

One of the sessions at Women’s Worlds focused on maternal feminism, looking specifically at the challenges and issues facing mothers in our society.  The session was chaired by Dr. Andrea O’Reilly, a professor in the School of Women’s Studies at York University. Dr. O’Reilly is also the founder of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement and the author and editor of several books, including most recently 21st Century Motherhood Movement.

When asked why we need a feminism specifically for mothers, Dr. O’Reilly said there are two key reasons. First, the gender straightjackets that we ask our children to wear are damaging to them. Second, we need to give up selfless mothering and instead look towards a society where everyone mothers, not just women. Men should mother and the community at large should mother too.

Feminist mothering, according to Dr. O’Reilly, needs to focus on the things that patriarchal motherhood denies women. Specifically, feminist mothers needs to focus on the the five A’s:

  • Agency: Having control over their own lives.
  • Authority: The ability to be the author of your own life and to determine your own path.
  • Authenticity: The right to be truthful, to talk about the difficult parts of mothering and to mother according to our own beliefs rather than according to mainstream society’s expectations.
  • Autonomy: Being able to hold into ourselves, rather than sacrificing ourselves and giving up our own lives to be a good mother.
  • Advocacy: Being advocates for each other and for ourselves.

In addition to the presentation and discussion by Dr. O’Reilly, there were also several presentations by other women on their own feminist mothering experiences and research. Erella Shadmi from the Haifa Feminist Center in Israel spoke about the reluctance to accept motherhood as a source of power within the feminist movement. She explained that feminist analysis seems to be entrapped in the patriarchal box because they see the family as a nuclear family in the private sphere, whereas the self-realization and empowerment that feminist women seek are individual and achieved in the public sphere (e.g. business). Issues related to motherhood are “private” and not part of the broader feminist movement. As a result, feminism has not succeeded in resolving the problems in which mothers are trapped.

The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement hosts several conferences each year and also publishes a journal and a wide range of books on feminist mothering via Demeter Press. It holds a key position in advancing research and supporting activism related to feminist mothering in the global community.

When you look at feminism, have you considered the specific needs and challenges of mothers within your view of the goals of the feminist movement?

Related stories:

Women and Leadership in Politics and Business

Are Women and Girls Groomed to Choose Oppression?

US Advocate for Incarcerated Mothers Prevented From Entering Canada


Photo credit: codepinkhq on flickr


Danii P
Past Member about a year ago


Courtney Belyea
Past Member 7 years ago

I found my true beauty when I realized I do not need to spend paychecks on beauty products because I need no paint, for I am already a beautiful picture.

K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Bernadette P.
berny p7 years ago

Forget about labels...just do what is right!

Danuta W.
Danuta W7 years ago

interesting article

Claire M.
Claire M7 years ago

Pregnancy and motherhood are often used to chain and dominate women. The natural instincts most women have toward their children makes for an excellent control device, because its torture not to be able to comfort and protect the child. Of course motherhood needs feminism. No one should be able to torment mothers and children as a means of control.

monica r.
monica r7 years ago

It takes a village, right? But I have a mom. One mom. I will never call or consider anyone but her my mother, because nobody else is.

I teach, so in a real sense I help raise other people's kids. I would not presume to supplant or take for myself part of the honor due to their mothers. Regardless what I do for them, I'm not that. Mentor, trusted adult, maybe; but nobody takes mom's place.

This is just backlash for the feminist meme of needing to pretend to be a man to validate yourself. I don't feel that need, so I don't see the point here. There aren't that many women pilots, for example, but I have flown a plane is a skirt and pumps. The shoes didn't impede my control of the rudder pedals, and the airplane didn't give a damn that I wasn't wearing pants, or about what's between my legs. I never felt the need to be "un-girly" to do traditionally male jobs. I LIKE wearing skirts, why should I apologize?

What sucks for feminism are your Dominionist "barefoot and pregnant" (aka "quiver full") female politicians (Palin, Bachmann). Women who hate other women, but spin it to sound like they support this mommy thing will set women back at least a century. Hell, the tea baggers are telling women not to vote, right? Hear that whirring sound? It's a thousand suffragettes spinning in their graves.

Hilary E.
Hilary E7 years ago

I feel like there's a lot of confusion surrounding this article. This isn't about saying that everyone literally has to be a mother...what it's saying is that feminism has gone in the direction that a lot of feminists look down their noses at women who choose to "just me a wife and mother". That too is a choice and it's just as vital and noble. This article is saying we need more feminism...literally...in society. We have to stop looking at feminism as such a politically charged word and think about the actual meaning...pertaining to being woman, the female essence. Women are not the same as men and the problem with modern feminists is that they are trying to be men with vaginas. We are not. We are certainly equal in intelligence and potential but we have very defined and important differences that need to be balanced for society to every truly thrive in a healthy, responsible way. In the same way that women and feminine natured people in general should still nurture the warrior with in them, the masculine minded need to nurture their mothering instinct, yin to yang, black to white, etc....

J C Bro
J C Brou7 years ago

Thanks for this article, which is much needed to focus the leaders along with the rank and file about the future of women.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

True equality for all is having choices, and to be albe to make them without interference. It also means being treated fairly no matter your race, color, ethnicity, age, or gender in all dealings with the world.