Feminism and Parenting

Vivienne, you and I agree on most points, but I cannot agree with what you say about the attitude to mothers who do not work outside the home and the role Germaine Greer played. I was hesitant to write this as I respect your opinions, but I was quieter as a young woman and I thought then it would be sufficient just to do and not to talk about it. I was completely wrong so I at least I should speak out now.

I am slightly younger than Germaine Greer but had finished my Arts/Law degrees some time before she wrote her wonderful book,The Female Eunuch. I agree that she has always been quite abrasive in her speech but you have no idea how necessary that was to make any headway in those times.

Many of you  born after the 1970s find it hard to conceptualize how radical we had to be then.

In past times, even in my grandmother’s heyday early last century, women could do a great deal. She was a teacher. She was  delighted to cast a vote in 1900, for Federation, just after women were given the vote. She continued teaching after marrying my grandfather, also a teacher. There were many and varied ways children were cared for in those days, partly depending on class and circumstances

Changes occurred in the 1920s and 1930s and these have been put down sometimes to the depression or sometimes to the Wars. Also widely spoken about then was the newish notion of a maternal instinct. This was a well publicized phenomena and it served to help protect men’s rights to be considered for jobs before women. It was then legislated or regulated that married women could not work in some professions, for example teaching. My own mother had to give up teaching when she married in 1938. Others that I knew in the 1960s still had to give up various jobs because they married. I changed the course of my future work for similar reasons in the early 70s. The emphasis on intimate nuclear families was by that stage well and truly in place.

I think that we all agree that everyone has the complete right to structure their own lives in the way it suits them including exercising a choice to stay out of work and look after children, however, far from feeling that the women who choose to stay at home have been the subject of criticism, I have felt the reverse. A strong view held by many that a maternal instinct should be translated into a lifetime dedication to one’s children has made it difficult for those of us who worked.

Because of the effect of this view, on woman primarily, I mourn the death of the ambition that had me and my ilk trying lead the way back into paid work and also into professions such as the law which then were quite male dominated.

I mourn on behalf of my own mother who, metaphorically, stormed the citadels of Universities and made them easily accessible to women now days. Although she could not hold a job after 1938 she, like many of her friends, did a great deal of voluntary work, teaching English as a second language to New Australians on the Snowy and working for the Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air in Broken Hill for example. She used to expect us to begin to prepare the dinner if she was not home before us!

I gave birth to five children so cannot be accused of being anti motherhood.  I loved looking after my children. I found having them a joy. I did not find it terribly hard work although juggling with paid work took effort. I love helping out with my grandchildren now and have been doing just that these last two days.

But I disagree that looking after one’s children can become an “alternative profession” rather than just what one does whilst one is living, as it has been for time immemorial. Many feminist historians and psychologists note that the rise of this “myth of the maternal instinct” came into being at about the time that the first elementary notions of contraception were developed and went some way to keeping women occupied within the home and thus less able to engage with other people who included males who were not their husbands.

Few who have had a baby need convincing that the surge of the oxytocin at the time of birth and breast feeding engenders a very powerful feeling in the mother. But few can argue with the objective evidence that it can be also quite powerful in fathers (or even grandmothers!) who hold and love a child. It is also a powerful impetus when strangers act to save a child or when soldiers sacrifice themselves to save their comrades.  It operated the old system of wet nurses and nannies and during the looking after of children in tribal situations. It can be found in many other animal species. It is a strong component of the empathic reaction. Can we distinguish these examples in their nature or makeup from our “maternal instinct”?

Staying home to look after children is not the equivalent of a profession as you suggest. It  is an unconditional duty, a privilege and a joy to look after one’s own children. It is not like paid work at all. We demean both parenthood and professional work to equate them. And a child deserves better than to have to be one woman’s professional work of art or her raison d’être.

We women must still work for equality in a professional sense, but if we demand equality we must also acknowledge men’s undoubted equality and rights in the important area of child rearing and stop pretending there is some mystical power that women have. 


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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