McClintock’s Motherhood

I’m fascinated by McClintock’s discussion of the trope of motherhood in her chapter on Nationalism, Gender, and Race. Particularly, I’m curious to explore her suggestion that “Motherhood is less the universal and biological quintessence of womanhood than it is a social category under constant contest” (381). McClintock details the use of motherhood as a nationally uniting impulse for politically-invested activists in such a way to hint at strategic essentialism without necessarily succumbing to the pitfalls of reterritorialization that lurk within that practice (though I’m somewhat suspicious about this possibility). Albertina Sisulu’s quote “A mother is a mother, black or white. Stand up and be counted with other women” seems to conflate motherhood and womanhood wholesale, the advantage of this being the mollification of potential racial friction between black and white women (381).

There’s something potentially troubling about the use of motherhood as the rallying point of women. While it has the potential to bind women together across racial lines, it does seem to stratify in more subtle, no less harmful ways. Motherhood may not account for the particularly young, the particularly old, the widowed, differently-abled, trans-, or women who’ve experienced sexual violence to the point where they’re no longer capable of having children. I understand that motherhood is represented here as an abstracted ideal, but for women who do not possess the capacity for motherhood, or moreover, do not want to be a mother, foisting revolutionary motherhood on them seems to enact a degree of ideological violence, intentional or not. In this way, it’s not so dissimilar from the particular strain of paternalism Babamukuru embodies in Nervous Conditions, where the material gifts and degrees of freedom he grants women in his household at first seem altruistic and well-intentioned, but only further the patriarchal stiltedness that so vexes and suffocates Tambu.

Upholding motherhood as chief signifier of womanhood, then, veers dangerously close to re-enacting the same sort of violence it was originally meant to circumvent. The line of flight drawn away from racial tension has led to a different sort of denigration (now the women who are not capable of being mothers are at the bottom of the pecking order), and as a result, women are still susceptible to violence and desparagement. I do understand, of course, that motherhood in this historic moment is largely abstracted to mean “the capacity to beget or create or contribute,” but even symbolic motherhood has the potential to violently press upon women who do not possess the means of becoming a biological mother.

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