Jane Alpert, “Birth of Mother Right”
“Birth of Mother Right”
from “Mother Right: A new feminist theory” 
My first year underground was very hard. Expecting to die for the Revolution in a matter of months, I was unprepared to find myself not only alive but living a rather unadventurous and secluded existence less than a year after “disappearing.” I found it increasingly difficult to get along with the friends with whom I was still in touch, especially with the men who were becoming increasingly overbearing and critical of all my actions, as I was growing increasingly sensitive to their interference. Chafing at every restriction, hostile even to the one woman friend I really cared for, I finally decided to take off on my own, reasoning that it couldn’t get much worse. I started to travel and for a few months roamed, almost aimlessly, from one community to another across the country.
As I traveled. I slowly became aware that nothing was less relevant to the lives of most people in this country than the white left, with which I still identified myself. The leftist ( and rightist, for that matter) distinctions between working class and ruling class, hippies and straight people, youth and Establishment, all seemed increasingly absurd to me. They seemed to determine nothing of certainty about anyone’s attitude or political outlook. As I moved around, I could see more clearly than ever the oppression of black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Indian peoples. Yet at the same time I was learning concretely that women existed in well-defined subcultures within each white and Third World community. Finally, all my experiences kept reminding me of one fact of my own identity I was continually trying to forget: that I was a woman. Men, Third World and otherwise, young and old, hippie and straight, related to me as Woman, all my other interests or characteristics being, in their eyes, mere modifications of that one essential. Whether I was desired, rejected, abused, admired, ignored, treated with kindness or with hostility, it was basically because I was a female doing whatever it was I was doing. Women generally took their cue of how to relate to me from the way men related to me, or I to men. It occurred to me that this was no different from the way people I had known for years had related to me, but because we had known each other well I had been aware of the subtleties in our relationships to the point of being blind to the underlying structure. Of course I had heard feminists express these perceptions before, and had even asserted them myself occasionally, but I had never internalized them. I now began to think that if my politics were to be based on my own situation and not on someone else’s perception of reality, I would have to deal with the fact that the rest of the world thought of me as a woman first of all, before it even listened to what I had to say.
Together with these discoveries, I began to realize the astonishing impact the Women’s Movement has had all over the U.S. in just a few years. I could see women everywhere-white, black, brown, Indian-responding in their daily lives to the fact that some women somewhere had said, “Men oppress us.” I came to know Chicana women living in a barrio who were organizing, women’s health-care programs and women’s antirape squadrons to patrol their own neighborhood. A white woman, mother of three, from a poor Southern family and on welfare, talked to me with great eloquence about how she saw the courts, the police, the welfare system, and her ex-husband as all part of the same male-run system, which women needed to talk over and run for their own benefit. A woman I met who had been born into a wealthy and traditional Japanese family told me she was filing for divorce against a husband who physically and mentally abused her because she refused to go through life suffering from the same causes her mother and grandmother had before her. These women-all random examples-would not necessarily say or think that they were part of the Women’s Movement. But they demonstrated to me, among others, that the changing consciousness represented by the Women’s Movement has been more far-reaching than any public-opinion poll on Women’s Liberation would seem to show. As for the frequently heard opinion that Third World women support Third World liberation but not Women’s Liberation, I believe that this is true chiefly of a few women who are highly regarded by Third World male radicals and hence are considered newsworthy by the media. Among the majority of Third World women, it seems to me that the Women’s Movement is spreading and its ideas are having increasing effect, just as among white women.
The turning point of my personal rapprochement with feminism came when, a year after I’d left New York as a fugitive, I joined a women’s rap group composed of a half-dozen other women, of widely different economic backgrounds, ages, and family situations, brought together only by our common desire-or desperate need-to talk with other women about our lives. No one in the group knew who I was, or that I was wanted on a federal warrant. I know, though, that they all sensed my unspoken inner turmoil (if not the specific causes of it) and in response gave me more positive emotional and intellectual support than I could have imagined possible from a group of strangers. They sustained me through the crisis I underwent after Melville’s murder and the dramatic upheavals in my consciousness involved in the experience. Eventually, when a series of circumstances forced me to leave the area in which I’d come to know them, they gave me, as a group, the help and strength I needed to face yet another move into the unknown.
The process of the consciousness raising group, for me and for the other women involved, was one in which we began to be able to define ourselves as individuals and as women. Some of us had previously conceived of ourselves as exceptional women, some of us thought being female necessarily meant being passive and dependent, but it soon became clear that we had come to the group each in a private panic of no longer knowing who we were. What we discovered in each other was the pulse of a culture and a consciousness which was common to us as women. We discovered it as something that had always been there, but that we had not previously recognized or felt able to trust. Trusting it-or gaining confidence in our thoughts, feelings, resentments, desires, and intuitions as attributes that we shared as a people and which were therefore valid-became the basis of beginning to trust ourselves as individuals.
I believe that the struggle to define oneself for oneself ultimately takes place in a realm of the mind in which one is always alone and unsupported. For some women the existence of a women’s group or even a Women’s Movement has not been a necessary precondition of that struggle. Individual women of genius-artists, scientists, philosophers, activists, and visionaries-have left us written and other evidence to prove that throughout the history of patriarchy some women have found it possible to call upon their inner powers to create and achieve and succeed. For each of these women, many others who were unable to leave us records have managed to define their individuality and assert themselves in the face of enormous male hostility. And yet the evidence we have proves ultimately only that no matter how many obstacles are in the way, a few women will possess the ability, determination, and special privilege to overcome them.
In considering social change it is of much more significance that today’s Women’s Movement has encouraged thousands of women who would never have done so before to discover and develop their unique talents, and to stand up against male prerogatives and values with originality and courage. Moreover, as increasing numbers of women are turning to art, science, and other creative efforts, a truly female-that is, a feminist culture is beginning to take shape. It seems little short of miraculous that with so little in the way of facilities-still very few research grants, little access to the best laboratories, to substantial publishing contracts, and the like-our own culture has nevertheless managed to take root and flourish.
Feminist newspapers, literary magazines, cooperative child-care centers, anthropology collectives, legal clinics, poetry workshops, self-help medical clinics, counseling services, music groups, and graphics collectives are a few of the newborn alternative institutions providing the access for women whose values and vision are unacceptable to the patriarchy, or who choose not to pay the artistic and emotional price exacted by men in exchange for a share of male privilege.
Even more significantly, the products of these alternative institutions (and of the individual women involved with them or working on their own) is qualitatively different from the products of men and male institutions. For instance, a feminist all-women’s rock band sounds different from a male rock band or from an all-women’s rock band trying to reproduce male music; they are not only singing different lyrics but the melodies and harmonies and rhythms are different. Feminist anthropologists are approaching their subject from a different perspective and with different assumptions than male anthropologists, or women anthropologists in the past who had only male-defined standards and methods at their disposal. Feminist teachers are creating a different style of classroom situation with their women students. Feminist lawyers are helping their clients to use the law to help themselves. All of us are not engaged in such activities but many of us share in the changing consciousness that these women are expressing publicly. And in light of the accomplishments already generated from this changing consciousness, I think we need to take another look not only at the old male-supremacist assumptions about women’s “nature” but also at some of the assertions of the Women’s Movement so far. Just what is the powerful source of this consciousness?
For centuries feminists have asserted that the essential difference between men and women does not lie in biology but rather in the roles that patriarchal societies ( men ) have required each sex to play. The motivation for this assertion is obvious: women’s biology has always been used to justify women’s oppression. As patriarchal reasoning went, since “God” or “nature” or “evolution” had made woman the bearer and nurser of the species, it logically followed that she should stay home with the children and perform as a matter of more-or-less ordained duty all the domestic chores involved in keeping and feeding a household. When women work outside the home, we have the most menial and lowest-paid tasks to perform, chiefly because any labor a woman performs outside the home is thought to be temporary and inessential to her, no matter how she herself might be inclined to regard it. Naturally, then, the first healthy impulse of feminism is to deny that simply because women have breasts and uteruses we are better suited to wash dishes, scrub floors, or change diapers. As newly roused feminists, we retorted to evidence that women might be intrinsically better suited to perform some roles than others by pointing out that men have been forcing these roles on us for at least five thousand years. After such time, conditioning and habit are so strong that they appear to be intrinsic and innate.
However, a flaw in this feminist argument has persisted: it contradicts our felt experience of the biological difference between the sexes as one of immense significance To begin with, it seems obvious that biology alone would, in primitive societies, have dictated different roles and different powers as appropriate to each sex. And biological scientists have indeed assumed, for the most part, that the physical passivity of the female mammal during intercourse and the demands of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing clearly indicate a role of women as biologically determined, and inferior. In response to this, Shulamith Firestone, with the publication of The Dialectic of Sex in 1970, articulated the definitive feminist antithesis to this idea by denouncing biology as reactionary. Agreeing that biology had necessarily been an all-powerful determinant of social roles in the past, Firestone went on to argue that the advances of technology made this tyranny potentially obsolete. Women are still enslaved to their bodies not because of biology but because the patriarchy will not permit the use of technology to interfere with men’s power over women. However, in Firestone’s view, the dialectic of history, in which the sexual relationship underlies all other power relationships, indicates that A feminist revolution is inevitable. This revolution will put technology to work to literally free women from biology-from pregnancy, childbirth, and the rest thereby eliminating the last difference of any importance between the sexes and ultimately causing the sexual difference itself to wither away, in the course of evolution, together with all forms of oppression.
I think that Firestone is visionary in perceiving the sexual relationship as the basis of all power relationships, and in predicting that feminist revolution will therefore result in the end of all oppression. However, the evidence of feminist culture, which has accumulated largely since the publication of her epochal book, suggests that her analysis of the role of biology was deficient and that a third possibility – which is indeed a new synthesis of the previous views – may well be correct. The unique consciousness or sensibility of women, the particular attributes that set feminist art apart, and a compelling line of research now being pursued lay feminist anthropologists all point to the idea that female biology is the basis of women’s powers. Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution.
The root of this idea lies perhaps in buried history. It has increasingly been acknowledged that the most ancient societies worshiped a female diety or deities, and that menstruation, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and all other phenomena associated with female biology were surrounded with taboos. Furthermore, a number of these ancient societies were matrilineal: property and social identity were inherited through the mother rather than the father. Whether women had any secular power in these societies is a subject of dispute, and most archaeologists and anthropologists have felt that women didn’t have any power except over a few religious rites. But most archaeologists and anthropologists have been men, whose imaginations could not quite grasp a society in which women held real power, even a pretechnological society. (For example, the section on “Amazons” in the authoritative Oxford Classical Dictionary spends all of one sentence dismissing the notion the Amazon tribes ever existed–though these tribes were acknowledged by nearly every ancient historian who wrote about preclassical times.) Feminists in many branches of science and historical research have been reexamining the evidence for the existence of ancient gynocracies, or women-ruled societies. Among the more visionary and Iyrically persuasive (if somewhat factually problematic) of these recent studies is The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis. Davis hypothesizes that patriarchal society began only after barbarian male tribes violently overthrew the ancient, peaceful, and relatively advanced gynocracies, in which women were not only worshiped but were actually temporal rulers. These ancient gynocracies may have existed throughout Asia, northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Mediterranean area and persisted as late as 2,000 B.C. in some areas, such as Crete. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Davis may be proved correct in the near future, and her thesis has been stated in a more tentative style than hers by several other highly respected scientists.
The feminist conception of these societies is that there was no such sharp division as now exists between home life and societal life. Industry was carried out in the home, travel was limited, and the life of the society centered around the life in the home, in which women were the decision-makers. Therefore women held power not only in the home but also in the tribe or clan at large. They decided not only family matters, but when to plant and harvest, when to go to war and make peace, questions of marriage and property, and all important disputes within the clan. Religion was so intrinsic a part of daily life that it was impossible for women to be at once worshiped in prayers and treated as inferiors in social relations. Instead, it could be argued, the very reason behind the enshrining of the female creative principle was the perception by women of the divine in their own image. Some of the extant literature which survived to a much later period seems to bear this theory out. For example, the Earth Goddess Demeter of the ancient Greeks is portrayed even in relatively late’ Homeric oral poetry as a maternal figure with a special relationship to women and children, yet with enormous powers over men as well. By contrast, the stern, autocratic, blood-lusting, and supermasculine deity of the Old Testament is much more appropriate to a patriarchal society. The women this Jehovah curses as whores and heathens are perhaps the very matriarchal queens whose powers the invading masculinist forces needed to stamp out for their own purposes.
Whether or not the matriarchies existed and whether or not the question is even capable of proof, to raise the issue of the interconnection between female biology and religious and secular power is in itself of enormous importance. It seems to me that the power of the new feminist culture, the powers which were attributed to the ancient matriarchies (considered either as historical fact or as mythic archetypes ), and the inner power with which many women are beginning to feel in touch and which is the soul of feminist art, may all arise from the same source. That source is none other than female biology: the capacity to bear and nurture children. It is conceivable that the intrinsic biological connection between mother and embryo or mother and infant gives rise to those psychological qualities which have always been linked with women, both in ancient lore and modern behavioral science. Motherhood must be understood here as a potential which is imprinted in the genes of every woman; as such it makes no difference to this analysis of femaleness whether a woman ever has borne, or ever will bear, a child.
Biology alone is in no way an adequate explanation of what it is to be female. Women have been exploited in our society for at least five thousand years and female powers have been correspondingly frustrated and weakened. The effects of powerlessness on us are nowhere more obvious than in contemporary motherhood. In the patriarchy, we do not rise to a position of special esteem and authority when we have children. On the contrary, we are denied even the few options for meaningful participation in society that are available to us as childless women. We react to this powerlessness in a myriad of negative ways, ranging from overpossessiveness of our children (as in the hyper-tense Jewish-mother stereotype) to utter self-abnegation (as in the Madonna image) to child-murder (as in the myth of Medea). But feminist culture is based on what is best and strongest in women, and as we begin to define ourselves as women, the qualities coming to the fore are the same ones a mother projects in the best kind of nurturing relationship, to a child: empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended, inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally. If matriarchy means a society in which these are qualities all human beings admire and strive to embody, a society in which the paradigm for all social relationships is the relationship of a healthy and secure mother to her child, then matriarchy means nothing less than the end of oppression.
Interestingly enough, the materialist analysis brings us to the conclusions similar to the ones I have just set forth from an idealist standpoint. In the Marxist dialectical-materialist view of history, the vanguard of the ”revolutionary class” is that group which is not only greatly exploited by the class in power but which is also performing labor which is essential to the functioning of society. The ruling class is thereby forced to respond to demands which it puts forth in the name of the oppressed. A third requirement is that the class be potentially collective; each member should not be severely isolated from every other. In classical Marxism, the “revolutionary vanguard” is composed of the ”industrial proletariat” who must sell their labor to the capitalists in order to eat, whose labor is essential to industry and therefore to society, and whose work process is socialized. No revolution founded on Marxist principles has adhered to the classic pattern: in Russia the proletariat was a tiny minority with no influence at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and Mao had to rewrite both Marx and Lenin to suit Chinese conditions, defining the peasantry as the “vanguard” in that context. The industrial proletariat in the U.S. today is a larger group than in either prerevolutionary Russia or prerevolutionary China, but is not, by and large, an exploited one. Through unions they have acquired a significant share of power, and their right-wing, views did not spring from “false class consciousness” but rather from a hard-nosed sense of their own self-interest. Taken alone, Third World male industrial workers are much less privileged, and women in industry are the most exploited of all of these in respect to both wages and working conditions; but these very divisions of the “proletariat” show the obstacles to its solidarity more pointedly than anything else. However, if, with Firestone, we transfer our focus from economics to sex, that is, from production to reproduction, the Marxist terminology itself begins to make more sense. For there is very clearly a large group of women who by reason both of exploitation and importance to the society perfectly answer the requirements of the vanguard, and who are increasingly closely in touch with one another. These women are, of course, mothers.
Mothers live by their labor yet generally without standardized wages. If they have husbands who earn good money and are generous, they are amply supplied – but only so long as they can keep their husbands. Otherwise, they have little or nothing outside the necessities and whatever they do have goes to their children first. The only mothers who do earn a standard wage for the labor of child-rearing are those on welfare, and that pay is barely enough to sustain life. The job is without guarantees or security of any kind. Its workday is twenty-four hours, workweek seven days, no vacations, no holidays. Total dedication to the job is expected, and yet a woman who works “only” in the home is regarded, with some contempt, as an unemployed housewife. Women with children are the women who most frequently suffer from fatigue, headaches, listlessness, depression, insomnia, digestive disorders, loss of energy, nervous tension, and other illnesses common to women. If the women who work in factories were all replaced by men, it would represent some economic cost to industry but no alteration in the power structure or the basic assumptions of society concerning sex and class roles. The labor of these same women in the home, however-and of all women who work at child-rearing, whether of their own children, adopted children, or someone else’s children, for wages cannot be replaced on a mass scale without cataclysmic changes in the social structure.
Mothers are a distinctly defined group. Nevertheless, their interests as a group are in no way opposed to the interests of women as a whole, but are rather intimately linked with these. For motherhood itself is only the concrete expression of that potential which defines all women. Accordingly, the domestic situation of women underlies the way we are treated on the job market. But the point of Mother Right is to reshape the family according to the perceptions of women, and to reshape society in the image of this new matriarchal family. Because motherhood cuts across economic class, race, and sexual preference, a society in which women were powerful by virtue of being mothers would not be divided along any of these lines. Nor would any new division between women, such as between mothers and childless women, arise, because the root of female consciousness are, I believe, one and the same.
Returning to my personal experience again, my self-interest in changing society is bound up with that of women who have children much more deeply than it is, for example, with women demanding equal pay for equal work, despite the fact that I am single, childless, and must work to support myself. If I had to sum up in a few words what I feel to be my own oppression in this society, I would say, “The enormous economic, social, and psychological obstacles against bearing and raising children of my own.” While my situation as a fugitive seems to all but eliminate any hope that I might raise a child of my own, even these unusual circumstances are only slightly more handicapping than those any other woman faces when contemplating motherhood without marriage, or at least a stable relationship to a man. These obstacles and the tools to overcome them are beginning to be studied and developed by many different women, notably by lesbians who have or want to have children. The oppression suffered by women whose sexual preference is for other women is peculiar to patriarchy, it seems to me, and would be eliminated as soon as women cease to be pawns in male power games. If Mother Right were the informing principle of society, it would make no difference whether a woman lived with men or women, let alone with whom she slept. A woman would be powerful and respected simply as a woman, and particularly esteemed as a mother, regardless of whom she lived with. For far from being in a position to exploit a woman because she chose to live and/or sleep with other women, a man would consider himself fortunate if a woman only chose to live and/or sleep with him.
The conditions of life in the patriarchy are such that the overwhelming majority of women in the foreseeable future will continue to marry and to raise children and to regard that role as the central one in their lives. The majority includes millions of women who also have jobs outside their homes. The Women’s Movement is their movement not only because they are the majority, but because feminist consciousness springs directly from the role they play in society. Many segments of the Women’s Movement are now beginning to explicitly recognize this truth and to act upon it. NOW [the National Organization for Women] is making a major push to speak to the needs of housewives by agitating for an end to discrimination against married women by banks, insurance companies, and credit unions. Radical feminists are demanding less that women leave men, and suggesting that it might be more effective in building a revolutionary base if women instead move to become the heads of their families. Outside the consciously political segments of the Women’s Movement, housewives are beginning to unite and to agitate for their common interests, starting with lower food prices. More mothers are expressing their dissatisfaction and talking about their problems while not necessarily seeing these as related to the Women’s Movement; more women within the Movement are beginning to experience their feelings as mothers as feelings which are integral to their identities as women.
Demands relating to jobs, professional opportunities, and electoral representation will continue to be important, partly because the unequal treatment of women in these areas makes people aware of women’s overall inferior status, and partly because increasing numbers of women want and need to support themselves with jobs outside the home. But the Women’s Movement must, and will, begin to focus on those demands which relate concretely to women’s role in child-rearing. These more radical-feminist demands include: wages for all women engaged in child-rearing; paid holidays and vacations; collective childcare centers controlled by mothers with the participation of all members of the community, including fathers, older children, and childless adults; laboratories and research facilities to be turned over to feminist scientists so that research into contraception, fertility, pregnancy, and birth can be conducted in women’s interests; hospital and outpatient facilities related to women’s health to be run and staffed by women; self-help clinics, financed by the government but under community control, artificial insemination, sterilization procedures, facilities for extrauterine birth, and related technology to made widely available. Technology is a powerful tool which will free us to bear and raise our children in our own way at our own time. It must be turned over to women now, in order to prevent its becoming an even more powerful weapon against us and indeed against all life.
It is the uprising of women which will presage the end of oppression, but this uprising must be based on more than opposition to oppression and the definition of Woman as Other. It must be an affirmation of the power of female consciousness, of the Mother. The change which it will embody can perhaps be better imagined as primarily spiritual and religious, rather than economic and social, though they will include and embody the latter. Thus a more apt analogy that the Cuban or Chinese revolutions might be the Reformation or the Christian revolution, or perhaps the revolution made by the patriarchy itself when the ancient gynocracies were invaded. I use these analogies because of each of these cases the economic and political changes were enormous, but they followed rather than preceded sweeping changes in human consciousness. The ripples spread through the institutions from the masses of people, rather than the other way around.
These were not, and never will be, gentle ripples. Thc oppressor is equipped with the tools of mechanized violence as never before; we are only beginning to reclaim the ancient rage that will defeat his evil. Feminism is teaching us, again, the healing power of anger trained on the true enemies of ourselves and our children, and our anger will supply us the resources we will need against the Man’s weapons. Yet, from another point of view, we may remind ourselves that the violence of this cataclysm is no more nor less than the outward sign of a struggle of the human spirit. It seems very significant to me that simultaneously with the contemporary rise of feminism, there is a great rise of interest in psychic and spiritual phenomena. Because the Women’s Movement gets lumped with the left in many people’s minds, it is mistakenly regarded as narrowly “political.” Yet feminism concerns more shall political power, essential as that is. It is closely tied to theories of awakening consciousness, of creation and rebirth, and of the essential oneness of the universe-teachings which lie at the heart of all Goddess-worshiping religions.
We are on the threshold of what all the ancient wisdoms, many of them handed down from matriarchal times, teach is a new age of consciousness and simultaneously on what seems scientifically to be a threshold in the evolution of the species, as the genetic code is broken and life produced in the laboratory. Could it not be that just at the moment masculinity has brought us to the brink of nuclear destruction or ecological suicide, women are beginning to rise in response to the Mother’s call to save Her planet and create instead the next stage of evolution? Can our revolution mean anything else than the reversion of social and economic control to Her representatives among Womankind, and the resumption of Her worship on the face of the Earth? Do we dare demand less?