Women Must Define Themselves, and Soon


Mary Harrington, "The Reactionary Feminist," has a really great new essay up on her substack. It follows on our discussion here of BrazenShe's essay on how it's time for women to figure out who women are. Harrington's essay is called "The Maiden, the Mother . . . and the Other One." Of course, that other one is the Crone, and we stand tall here at LatterDay Crone, upholding that important tradition! Harrington would prefer "Maiden, Mother, and Matriarch," and I agree that has a nicer, though somewhat less subversive, ring to it. Crones are a bit more, shall we say, dangerous.

Let's start with some of Harrington's prose first (I've abridged it somewhat, and any emphases are mine):

"It’s often claimed that feminism must be ‘intersectional’ because the alternative is a doctrine that pretends the specifics of only some women’s lives are some sort of Universal Female Condition when in fact they’re culturally specific. There’s a some justice to this: the struggles of impoverished Muslim women in sub-Saharan Africa self-evidently don’t have a great deal in common with those of wealthy East Coast liberal women, for example, even if they both have challenges that relate to being female. Similarly, I can’t really avoid writing mostly from a white, middle-class, English woman’s perspective, something that will doubtless come with blind spots I’m not aware of.

"But one of the blind spots I’ve noticed across even many of these ‘intersectional’ perspectives, as applied in the West, is that of time, and of relationships - especially the relationships that shape this triple archetype [of maiden, mother, and matriarch]. By framing women’s liberation as a matter of unpicking us from relationships, and sidelining the three archetypal stages of womanhood, we end up imposing a male-standard Hero’s Journey on women - where you set forth on your own, vanquish demons and dragons, and return with the prize - that for many [women] is not a comfortable fit with how life actually plays out.

"Liberal feminism centres the maiden, a character we all know well. She’s young, fertile and beautiful; she’s the one at the sharp end of #MeToo workplace difficulties, the one ascending the career ladder, the one wrestling with modern dating etiquette and trying to decide whether marriage is an outdated holdover of patriarchy. ‘Girl power’ tells her she can do anything, ‘sex positive’ feminism tells her she can [have sex with] anyone, and ‘girlboss’ feminism says she can rule everything.

"The mother will obviously take a different form in different cultures and times, but in a way the maiden doesn’t need to be, the mother is embedded in a web of relationships. You don’t become a mother except via a relationship (however fleeting) and by taking on the care of a dependent child. (Tucker shows in [the book] Mom Genes how many of the neurological changes associated with this caretaking also occur in adoptive moms, as well as - albeit more slowly - in males who adopt a caretaking role.) Being a mother is about the everyday grind, the work of keeping things ticking over. Being in charge of the routine that gives a toddler’s life a feeling of safety. The everyday warmth of making somewhere a home. Most mothers, through time and geography, also work in other ways, but the beating heart of it is relatedness. As you might expect, and as Tucker points out, the strongest predictor of depression for mothers is a lack of wider social support - in a word, the less related and more atomised a mother is, the more likely she is to be miserable.

"Pregnancy prepares you for that relatedness, slowly, as the weeks go by and you get more and more ungainly, your body overtaken by the work of creating a new person. By 40 weeks it feels as though your whole organism has been co-opted by the work of creating. Birth is a relief, but the feeling of being inhabited doesn’t go away - it just becomes the Mum Bluetooth: that indefinable hunch that your child needs you, and that’s right more often than not. I’m 42, and my mum still sometimes calls me moments after I’ve thought of her.

"Liberal feminism doesn’t have as much to say to the mother, who is often measured against the maiden and made to feel a failure on those terms. Her midriff is spreading thanks to a few emergency biscuits after sleep-deprived nights. Her boobs have nursed several kids and don’t bounce like they did. She maybe didn’t get her highlights done so recently, and there are small plastic toys in her once-glam handbag. Maybe she’s not really feeling the ambition either; the truth is, spreadsheets weren’t always so exciting, and the baby human you grew in your literal entrails still feels a little bit like part of your body and she needs you so you’re trying to find a balance. Aren’t you, already, mentally turning away from this frumpy nobody?

"Now see if you can picture the next Pokémon evolution of the Triple Goddess: the matriarch. She’s the hardest to imagine of all, because you rarely see her in the media. Women who reach matriarch age tend to be politely retired; think of what happened to Jenni Murray when she refused to pretend she believed humans can change sex. See if you can think of words for the matriarch that aren’t derogatory or condescending: ‘old biddy’ or ‘gossip’ or ‘hag’ or ‘old bag’, ‘old trout’ and so on.

"The matriarch’s priorities and orientation are different; she might be caring for aged parents or grand-children, but her time is mostly her own. Her children have grown up. She’s often reflective, might start a new career or volunteer. The matriarch is often the backbone of local communities. She organises things, tracks social relationships, keeps events ticking over, and keeps a beady eye on the young.

"Liberal feminism, again measuring women on the yardstick of the maiden, very little to say to this matriarch, except to try and recoup her for ‘sexiness’ or mutter (fearfully) about the way she’s invisible in the media. But at the same time, it’s busy disappearing her . . .

"This is a perspective that sees women peaking in mid-twenties or at a pinch early thirties, when we’re still hot and career-driven and maybe unencumbered, and it’s all about sex-positivity and girl-bossing. This maiden rejects the idea of letting time flow on: she bridles at any suggestion that motherhood is full of pleasures, or that the passing bloom of youth and beauty is a fact of life and biology, rather than a cruel injustice perpetrated by sexism.

"This is understandable, perhaps, in a world that so elevates the male-standard Hero’s Journey and so disregards other types of heroism. And it’s only as a maiden, unburdened by the commitments of a dependent child, that you can fully pursue a do-or-die [Male] Hero’s Journey. There are plenty of fantasy-fiction novels now with female heroines, but have you ever read one in which this heroine is a mother? I haven’t. This is not a coincidence, but it’s one that is carefully downplayed by the maiden-centric world of liberal feminism.

"And so it’s understandable that some of us cling (as I did, for a long time) to the maiden-hood in which a [Male] Hero’s Journey is possible. The most poignant image I associate with this is a moment in Sex and the City, where one of the characters (I forget who) sees an ex-boyfriend she misses, walking away from her, and hurries toward him calling his name. He turns - and he’s carrying a baby in a sling. In that moment her maiden hope of rekindling love is dashed by the fact that this man has already made a mother of someone else.

"It’s of course absolutely not the case that women cease to be women if we don’t have babies. There have always been women who are infertile, or who choose childlessness. The Triple Goddess is not the only female archetype. (Had I been born in the Middle Ages, where women faced a straight choice between a life of the mind in a convent, or having loads of babies, I’d probably have opted for the convent.)

"But stepping aside from the [Male] Hero’s Journey only looks like a failure if you measure Mother and Matriarch by the yardstick of Maiden. They may appear less sexy, less independent, less career-focused. But they’re powerful in other ways. And when 80% of UK women will have at least one child, the Triple Goddess in truth describes a majority of women - and yet is rarely spoken of, at least by liberal feminism, save in the first of her aspects, the maiden.

"A trillion trillion tiny acts of heroism are performed every day by mothers and matriarchs. We all know this, but it’s become unspeakable: acknowledging it is somehow an act of sexism. Instead they’re treated as a set of inconveniences or at best opt-in categories, that place women at a disadvantage relative to men. I think there’s a more positive story to tell, about a distinctively Female Hero’s Journey. We need to invite the mother and the matriarch back into the conversation."

That just hits the nail on the head, doesn't it? Our female heroism--the heroism that comes to us because we are female--is tied up with the heroism of mothering and grandmothering. But we have no philosophers who start from relatedness, because almost all of our most influential philosophers are men who never have and never will give birth. Men's journey is to prove to themselves their life has meaning in the absence of being able to give birth--women's journey is to prove to themselves their life has meaning in the presence of being able to give birth. Modern feminism seems to have done a good job of persuading women that there is no deep, even transcendent, meaning in motherhood and grandmotherhood. What a cop-out.

The feminist project has to develop a philosophy, including a political philosophy, that starts with relatedness and embodiment. All too often our philosophical traditions start with a lone individual (think male), even sometimes a lone reasoning brain. But that is not how anyone starts! Every single one of us starts body-to-body with one woman, connected by a massive bodily organ (placenta/cord) whose sole purpose is to make embodied relatedness possible. Harrington points out the fetal micro-chimerism that takes place during pregnancy, resulting in cells from the fetus staying in the mother's body forever, and cells from the mother staying in the child's body forever. This, this! must be the foundation of a philosophy that makes sense of life for women and for all who women bear.

Yes, as you can see, that is my new project . . . the articulation of such a philosophy. My first order of business is to find female philosophers who center maternity . . . Certainly Sarah Ruddick, but modern philosophy written by females seems to flee motherhood, not center it. Suggestions are very welcome!