Though yesterday I was of many words, today I am of few. I was onstage just minutes before delivering a Women’s History Month lecture called “The Truth about Motherhood and Feminism” when I looked briefly at my phone for emails. There I saw the announcement from the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) that a maternal studies icon had passed: “Sara Ruddick—philosopher, writer, peace activist, mothering theorist and legend, dies at 76.” (Here are two sites that MIRCI offered to learn more about Ruddick; one from a feminist philosophers blog and one from yesterday’s New York Times article.) When I got to the part in my lecture about how feminists have worked to reconceptualize our ideas about family and women’s “nature,” I had to fight to keep from tearing up because Ruddick’s contributions to rethinking these ideas have been so wholly significant to motherhood studies and to me; I really don’t know where we’d be without her. She took a core concept like “maternal instinct” and developed an entirely new way of thinking about and talking about mother knowledge and wit. Certainly it’s the case that mothers typically know what their children need and how to care for them, how to motivate them, how to anticipate their needs, how to help them, how to foster their preservation, their growth, and their social acceptability, to use Ruddick’s terms. But Ruddick didn’t buy that all that comes naturally to women. She didn’t buy that knowing all that comes from some internal, biological place—a place that might be likened to where our body’s automatic urge to blink or pursue a flight-or-fight response comes from. It comes, she said, from women’s engagement in the “discipline” of mothering—mindful, thought-full, investigative, observant learning, effort, and practices that are meticulously crafted through day-to-day interactions with children. Women learn to think about their children and respond to their children according to that knowledge, and this is not captured in the idea of “instinct.” So she developed the idea over time of “maternal thinking,” first in her 1980 article by the same name in the academic journal Feminist Studies, then in her full-length book Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Maternal thinking captures the work and effort, and the connected and engaged practice, of mothering that explains how mothers come to know what they know.
Anyone who can effectively upend as firmly entrenched and reductive an idea as “maternal instinct” is an icon, I say. And I’m not the only one.
The idea of maternal thinking helped us to figure out how women have different kinds and amounts of mother knowledge, allowed us to seriously grasp that men can be as capable of nurturing care of children as are women, and, importantly, provided a framework for giving women the credit they have more than earned for the training and disciplined practice they undergo as mothers and for the difficult and daily work that this implies. She also argued that the influence between mothers and children is not unilateral, transferring from the mother to the child, but that the influence is reciprocal. That the mother changes in interaction with the child, that the mother becomes a differently thinking, acting person through mothering. That the kind of thinking and acting that emerges from mother knowledge is antithetical to war and violence, and that therefore mothers have much to teach the broader social world about living in peace.
Sara Ruddick’s contribution to mothering and motherhood studies was extensive and went worlds beyond these ideas. For me, right now, I’d like to offer up a most impassioned and humble ‘thank you, Sara,’ for radically changing the way we think about motherwork, mother knowledge and wit, and the role of biology in it. You rocked our world.