Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Thought on What Happened, through my tears

I am reading What Happened against a backdrop of books I have been tearing through for my class next spring.

Specifically, right now, I am reading Cheryl Glenn's brilliant Rhetoric Retold which is a journey through rhetoric's history teasing out the influence of women from classical Greece through the Renaissance.

In grad school, I learned about Republican Motherhood, an idea put forth by feminist historian Linda Kerber, who argued that at the formation of our country, women could only be citizens through their mothering of future citizens.  So, women didn't get to have rights, but they needed to know about rights and they needed to possess the moral and intellectual qualities of people with rights so that they could teach their sons who would someday inherit the earth.  This idea helped women (upperclass white women) get educations because to raise future leaders, they had to know what they were talking about.  And it was this idea that women were only useful as mothers of men that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was rallying against in her brilliant speech "Solitude of Self," which put forth the radical idea that women were valuable people with souls and desires worthy of rights because they were PEOPLE in isolation, not just in relationship to men.

What I didn't know and what Glenn makes clear is that this same kind of idea governed the great Greek and Roman thinkers, too, who understood that educated women were better mothers, able to produce better classes of future men.  Women could be educated in the service of the children they'd raise, if , of course, they were raising the right kind of children.

Historians are quick to note that Republican Motherhood is a specific idea linked to a specific historical moment, but as a rhetorician, I have always understood that it left its stain on discourse.  If you think about it, it's an idea that still lingers in pop culture.

Republican Motherhood does a lot of important ideological work.  It romanticizes the backbreaking labor of mothering, putting it in the service of a greater good. It holds up some women's mothering as more useful than other women's by focusing on the product of love's labor, calling forth notions of who gets to be a citizen, who get resources, whose bodies matte, etc.  It makes motherhood central to women's worth; no matter what else a woman is, being a mother is still her most important job in a way that father is never a man's defining label.  It professionalizes motherhood in really interesting ways.  Motherhood becomes a vocation that requires skills.  Experts get to lead the discourse about mothering.  At the same time, shadow mothers are marginalized, not paid a living wage, etc because women who don't devote themselves to mothering are still traitors to their gender (and their race and class if these women are white and wealthy).  We can trace all of the ideologies that followed Republican Motherhood back to it-- scientific motherhood, intensive motherhood, etc-- in a Thomas Kuhn style paradigm revolution.

While you could argue MAYBE that the social imperative to reproduce has lessened a little, I think that women are still valued in relationship to/ in service to others more than we are valued as women qua women.

So, I am thinking about this as I read What Happened.  I am also thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, a pamphlet adapted from her TED talk about how we remake the world in a feminist way.  Hint: it involves the way raise our daughters and our sons.  And, of course, I am thinking about bell hook's Feminism Is for Everybody, which I will probably always be thinking about for the rest of my life because the way she explains patriarchy and feminist movement is so dispassionately passionate.

All of this is to explain why the part of the book that has made me cry the very hardest-- and, honestly, I cry every time I pick the darn thing up-- is Clinton's discussion of why she started wearing pants.  She said she had some issues being seated onstage as first lady and having up-the-skirt photography angles, which made her think of Nancy Drew who did her mot serious sleuthing in slacks in case she needed to climb into any dangerous places.

So here's Hillary Clinton, a woman who grew up in the same patriarchy we all did, who gathered these quotidian feminist breadcrumbs and turned them into the most spectacular life.  And then here's our entire misogynist culture telling her to go fuck herself when we should all-- men AND women-- be united shoulder to shoulder telling patriarchy to go fuck itself instead.

I think I am also crying for me because I am reaching the age when my last best hope for anything approaching a great life (great in a big sense, not great in a happy or satisfied sense because I am both of those things) is to have children who are brilliant, successful people.  And of course this is what I want-- it's what we all want, right?-- but I think that I live in the shadow of Republican Motherhood more than I thought I did.  We all do.  Even Hillary Clinton.

No matter how much we love our children and love being mothers, we have to give away some of ourselves to do it, have to make choices that men don't have to and probably never will have to because even the most feminist-minded man benefits from patriarchal structure in ways he probably doesn't like to think about.

Not only did I think about reading Nancy Drew when I was a little girl (and not picking up on the pants detail as significant but wondering how in the hell she survived being hit over the head with a gun every other book) and how cool it was that Hillary Clinton read those same stories, but I also thought about Audre Lorde.  Dismantling patriarchy with an understanding of the world born of Republican Motherhood and steeped in the kind of misogyny that's fluoride-like-- it's just in the water, man--is most assuredly a master's tool/master's house situation.

Here's to a world where our leaders don't have to waste years in the makeup chair and where our daughters don't have to mark their path to greatness with crumbs of resistance guiding the way.


  1. Proud to call you friend. This is an important post.

  2. FWIW - I'm sitting in my office, with my one 30-minute break between coaching appointments, and reading this made me cry: "It makes motherhood central to women's worth; no matter what else a woman is, being a mother is still her most important job." Because we are still a culture where women who don't have or raise children are ALWAYS ranked as "less worthy."

  3. Such good analysis. Thank you.

  4. Luckily, I have a great life with my brilliant, accomplished daughter! Thank you for this wonderful analysis.