Article by: Nicole Lariscy Griffith

Mother Writes: My Scholar, My Self

The title says it all. I am a literary and modern studies scholar who is also a mother. These two roles are often in conflict when I write an academic paper. I usually deny the part of me that is a mother in order to improve my efforts as a scholar. In this essay, however, I would like to examine what it might mean to write as a mother as well as a scholar. I am not a mother or a scholar but always both. In a way, the title is misleading because it implies that the mother part of me is my real self and the scholar in me is something beyond that. Adrienne Rich and Sara Ruddick have both posited that a mother thinks differently than a traditional scholar. I will try to examine, and perhaps render, the changes maternal thinking might effect in a scholarly text if I were not working so hard to split my two selves. My contribution to this thought is to testify as one walking the borderland between (and including) motherhood and scholarship.

To situate my thinking on the issue of maternal scholarly writing I need to first discuss my personal history, which embodies this conflicting combination. It is embarrassing for me to "admit" to my peers and to my readers that I am a mother and a graduate student. In the ethics of the academy it is transgressive to become a mother before one becomes a doctor. I have felt othered in academia because of my personal choices. The first thing I did to endanger my scholarly career was that I got married. The second was that I became a mother. I was informed by my academic mentors that as a wife and mother I would not be able to be a good scholar.

Despite these prophesies, I am still very interested in my career and, I hope, at least as good at it as most of my peers. When I heard that Jane Gallop would be teaching a course on the family (specifically "Family Photography"), I thought that at last I could participate in a classroom where I was not at best an outsider and at worst an imposter. Not only was the subject under critique a combination of mothering, feminism, and family, but the professor was one of the pioneering theorists in this sort of thinking and was herself a mother to two happy and precocious children (I have met them myself).

In this essay I have described my self as a combined personality. One of my selves learns, reads, and writes in a variety of graduate studies while my other personhood nurtures, feeds, protects, and teaches her child how to live. I at first identified this as a split, but this would fall into Descartes' separation of mind and body which maternal and feminist thinking and writing are working to erode. I am both a mother (a body) and a scholar (a mind) and I must include both in my definition of self while I also work to trouble these body/mind categories. Despite these cognitive efforts, though, it still feels like I have joined what others consider split.

When I began Gallops' course, I looked particularly forward to Sara Ruddick's book Maternal Thinking and Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born in which I hoped to find myself reconciled with, well, my self. Adrienne Rich proposes that there should be a new type of "thinking through the body" (283) and so goes a long way in defining what an alternative to masculine disembodied binaries might be. She is not talking specifically of a maternal sort of thinking, but a more general "feminine" thinking. Motherhood plays a very important role in Rich's text but she addresses all women, not just mothers, when she calls us to write through our bodies. Not all feminists are mothers, nor should they be; and so, while I will rely heavily on Rich for a definition of what maternal scholarship is, I do not want to confuse her call for feminine writing with my examination of maternal writing.

Sara Ruddick, on the other hand, devotes the first half of her book to a close analysis of what she terms "maternal thinking." It is in these pages that I find a concise definition of my thinking self as a mother. The binary between mind and body is already importantly broken by Ruddick when she concentrates on defining the work mothers do as another more complicated form of reason (70). Perhaps it would be useful to look at each of these women and their writing separately.

A Scholar Mother Calls All Women:

Adrienne Rich can indeed be said to be the mother (read originator) of scholarship on the effects motherhood has on thinking. In 1975 she published her theoretical work Of Woman Born. It is a close study of the experience of motherhood as it coincides with the politics of feminism. Rich uncovers the history of women's oppression, often based in their existence as mothers, which serves to keep them in the domesticated, private sphere and out of the intellectual, public world. (1)

In the end, Rich exhorts women (not just mothers) to take up new modes of scholarship and thinking.

What would this new writing be like? Many equate motherhood with unconditional love (read emotion instead of knowledge) and constant care. But Rich writes that "it can be dangerously simplistic to fix upon 'nurturance' as a special strength of women, which need only be released into the larger society to create a new human order" (283). I recently attended a conference on global conflict at which a student presented his paper on maternal politics which would incorporate this very idea of mothers as natural nurturers and peace makers. But this false description of mothers' natural peacefulness is not what Rich is calling for.

Instead she says:

I am really asking whether women cannot begin, at last, to think through the body, to connect what has been so cruelly disorganized-- our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense; our genius for close observation; our complicated, pain-enduring, multi-pleasured physicality. (284)

To think through the body would be to mend the Cartesian split, and to join the personal and concrete to the public and the abstract. We would be intellectually informed by the body's experiences rather than intellectually hindered by them. It would also necessarily be to embrace contradiction and multiplicity in our thinking. Rich asserts that any woman, virgin or mother or lesbian, housewife or public worker, experiences the contradictions of her body in various ways. She speaks of the influence of a woman's body on what she knows. And then Rich specifically addresses the scholar. She writes:

. . .the scholar writing denies at her peril the blood on the tampon; the welfare mother accepts at her peril the derogation of her intelligence. These are issues of survival, because the woman scholar and the welfare mother are both engaged in fighting for the mere right to exist. Both are 'marginal' people in a system founded on the traditional family and its perpetuation. (284)

What other choice does a scholar have but to ignore her menstruation while she works in the patriarchal office? We have, after all, spent decades proving that despite this very bleeding we can function normally (like men) in the workplace. For help evaluating this warning, I turn to Jane Gallop's essay "The Student Body" ( in Thinking Through the Body) in which she responds to Rich by noting the scholar's drive to organize thought.

Subtending our pedagogy and our research is. . . the drive to subordinate the disorderly body to man's categories. Menstrual blood cannot immediately be absorbed into [this order]. . . [it is] an embarrassment to the scholar who is trying to prove her ability to arrange into categories. Of course a woman can be a scholar too. . .. But the woman scholar must not mess up the categories which already exist. And so she denies, absorbs, and is absorbed. At her own peril. (53-54)

It is of course these categories which must be denied if the woman scholar (and the mother scholar) is to succeed in writing through her body. She must deny that her body is in conflict with reason, she must mess up the separation of mind and body, she must absorb her body's knowledge into her scholarly knowledge and write a combination of the two. She must take her motherhood out of the closet (of the home) and into the public sphere of scholarship. (2)

Rich describes these categories and their necessary dissolution when she says:

We have been perceived for too many centuries as pure Nature, exploited and raped like the earth and the solar system; small wonder if we now long to become Culture: pure spirit, mind. (285)

The split between the body and the mind for women implies the split between: the public and the private, culture and mindlessness, spirit and body, reason and hysteria, community and isolation, submission and control. To write through the female body is to erode these binaries, to create a multiplicity of thinking, and to act more in keeping with the body's own complexity.

We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence-- a new relationship to the universe. Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed. This is where we have to begin ( Rich 286).

A Scholar Becomes A Mother:

It is tempting to believe we must choose between reason and the body to work in scholarship, a dilemma Sara Ruddick testifies to in Maternal Thinking: "It was philosophy's Reason that abetted my desire to free myself from the fate of wife-and-mother with its messy, fleshly children and dull duties. . . there was always a danger that in an emotional, uncontrolled moment I might turn 'womanly'" (5). Ruddick dissolves the categories separating women's thinking from reason by claiming maternal thinking as a form of reason. For Ruddick, maternal thinking is one of many forms of rationality. It is exceptional among these forms, however, in that it incorporates feeling in its logic system. At base, the form of knowing which Ruddick names maternal thinking is: complex and not binary, particular and not abstract, affective and not merely cognitive, and informed by specific, embodied love.(3)

She writes:

Western philosophers-- the men I studied, the texts I taught-- often contrasted "rational" thinking with precisely the kinds of particularity, passionate attachments, and bodily engagement expressed in mothering. Two philosophers, Lorraine Code and Genevieve Lloyd, have recently put the point succinctly: 'The ideals of rationality. . . that have guided and inspired theorists of knowledge throughout the history of western philosophy have been constructed through excluding the attributed and experienced commonly associated with femaleness and underclass status: emotion, connection, practicality, sensitivity and idiosyncrasy.'(1)

Accordingly, scholarly or philosophical thinking is traditionally rational, general, emotionally remote, disembodied, insensitive, and normalized. In contrast, maternal thinking would be irrational, particular, passionate, embodied, emotional, connected, practical, sensitive, and idiosyncratic. This is redundant but I feel the need to make the oppositions perfectly clear. Rather than try to value the irrational, et al, aspects of mothering, Ruddick begins to counter these categories by stating that "Although maternal work is often entrenched in passion and. . .is provoked and tested by emotion, the idea of work puts the emphasis on what mothers attempt to do, not on what they feel" (xi).

I know Ruddick is right to stress the strength of mind necessary to do a mother's job because I have often thought so myself. Nonetheless, she notes that mothering was considered by a national study to be one of the least skilled jobs there is. As Ruddick makes clear, though, that this is a grave misnomer and must be corrected. But I am also uneasy with taking the emphasis off what mother's feel. I am afraid that, in that move, lies a reinscription of the suspicion of emotions at home as well as in the work place. If pushed, it could render emotionality in maternity as well as in scholarly writing (working as a mother) even more suspect . This shouldn't be true if we have overcome the Cartesian split, but it is my fear and experience that we have not.

But, while she seeks to shift the emphasis of mother's work from their emotive capacity to their ability to reason, Ruddick does not leave emotion out of her definition of maternal thinking. In fact Ruddick, who begins the book professing her love affair with reason, criticizes it for its lack of emotionality, particularity, and the personal. Ever loyal to her first love, though, Ruddick hopes to rewrite the social script in which reason operates as enemy to maternal thinking.

Yet however rebellious I felt, I did not doubt, and I do not now, that as destructive as Western ideals of Reason may be, the capacity to reason is a human good. I know what a pleasure it is to learn, experiment, imagine, discover, design, and invent. . .would it be possible to reverse this judgement, finding fault not in women but in the ideals? Or, more daringly, [are] there alternative ideals of reason that might derive from women's work and experiences, ideals more appropriate to responsibility and love? (8-9)

Ruddick is not at odds with reason but with reason's use. What other types of reason might incorporate love and responsibility, each of which are personal, particular, and in some ways emotional states? After detailing a mother's daily life, Ruddick can identify the types of thinking she does as a "reflective assessment of feeling [which] is a defining rational activity of mothers. . ..Rather than separate reason from feeling, mothering makes reflective feeling one of the most difficult attainments of reason" (70).

Ruddick does not oppose reason but relishes it; in so doing she claims that maternal thinking represents a superior form of reasoning. Instead of trying to defend maternal thinking by saying that irrationality is good (as other women have tried to say), Ruddick makes maternal thinking into a complex rationality superior to some others. She makes a similar move when she examines particularity and concreteness, which are often opposed to abstract and general thinking as more simple and less cerebral. On the contrary, according to Ruddick, "To look and then speak concretely is to relish complexity, to tolerate ambiguity, to multiply options rather than accepting the terms of a problem" (93). Instead of formulating the work mother's do as primarily mindless toil, Ruddick has explained mothers work as high thought (as opposed to low, common, simple, easy). As a professor of philosophy, Ruddick has rewritten motherhood in unhysterical, sensible terms. She has turned a career heretofore considered by the work world to require little mental effort into one which mandates critical thinking, complex inquiry, and careful balancing. Unlike other modes of reason, maternal thinking does not leave out the individual, emotional body.

To understand her child, a mother needs to assume the existence of a partly conscious, continuous mind. This mind is not a substance separate from the body and interacting with it. The mental expresses itself physically; the physical is mentally interpreted. Nor is the mind separate from feeling (91).

This inscription of the life of the mind with in the body is a response to Rich's call for thinking and writing through the female body which differs from Gallop's because Ruddick is writing of and through the mother's body and the mother's thinking instead of the the scholar's body/mind.

For Ruddick, to think in specific, concrete terms is also a moral way to think since, "to abstract is to simplify complexity, in particular to reduce the manifold issues of moral life into dichotomous choices" (95). As a mother, one must look at all the gradations of morality. Here we can see Ruddick moving toward her goal of using maternal thinking in the war against war, the battle for peace. She says that a mother's vantage point cannot render the binaries necessary for military thinking and to think in concrete terms is to render oneself less able to say they are bad, we are good; they are wrong, we are right. The complexity of maternal thinking mandates that the vague "they" and "we" become particular individuals. Ruddick devotes the second part of her book to theorizing the impact maternal thinking could have on world conflict.

Becoming a Scholar Mother:

After reading Ruddick's work I find myself intent on taking it in a different direction. Instead of concentrating on maternal thinking in the military arena, I would like to locate its possible impact on scholarship. There are two questions which arise out of this change. How might my writing change if I utilized the particularity, multiplicity, love, and emotionality inherent in Ruddick's definition of maternal thinking? Is there a definition of maternal thinking which is not so closely linked with reason? I think there can't be. Not when one is an academic, as Ruddick and I are. After all, there have to be rules.

To go back to Jane Gallop's class, we asked her if, in her own writing, she had any rules for including the personal in her theoretical writing. She said that the personal could only be used as a supplement to the theory, and only if it rendered the theory more clearly. This is why, in the end of her essay on herself and her son as the objects of her boyfriend's camera entitled "Observations of a Mother," Gallop must break her own rule when she wants to show us her daughter. She says:

In drafting this essay, I have experienced the split between mother and critic most acutely when choosing which photographs to write about. In the hope of creating a text that would be valued professionally, I have made my pictorial choices based on theoretical and writerly demands. But. . . I haven't shown you my daughter. . . How could I explain to her that I sacrificed her for compositional unity? (83-4)

Gallop's conflict is made more acute by recalling her declaration at the beginning of the essay that "I have contracted here not as a reader of Barthes, not as a professor of theory, but as a photographed mother" (69). In the end her resolve to write as a mother wins out when she, in fact, shows us "her Ruby" (84) but her difficulty is emblematic of the battles one undergoes when trying to suppress either one's scholarly self or one's motherly self. Professionalism, theoretical unity, and composition combine reluctantly with the personal passions, loyalties, and prides of our motherly lives.

As a mother in graduate school, my life is a strange combination of the scholar writing and the welfare mother each of which Rich describes as marginalized individuals fighting for the right to survive. As I have said, it goes against professional ideals to be married and a mother before I am secure in my career. So after reading, relishing, and indeed idolizing Rich, Ruddick, and Gallop, I must ask myself a few difficult questions. Where do I fit in here? Why did I get married? Why didn't I have an abortion like a better feminist would have? Is it because I am not driven to succeed in the work place, in the world beyond my home? Is it because, like Rich in her early motherhood, I just didn't know any better? These are the personal philosophical questions which color my readings of these feminist, motherist, academic texts.

To answer these questions as concisely as I can, I have to tell you that I have always been driven to succeed in this man's world. Moreover, I have never felt that I wouldn't. I didn't have to burn my bra in the nineties because a path had already been cleared for me by my feminist predecessors. Unlike many women, I have never had reason to believe that I had to choose between family and career. I have never seen my life as a choice between being a wife/mother and a scholar/student. In most ways, I did not have to compromise my gender identity for my professional identity. Nonetheless, it has been hard to make myself understood by feminist scholars who are confused, and perhaps threatened, by my traditional choices.

But I know academic scholarship is still governed by masculine ideals, despite the glorious disruption of the canon in recent years. If I have cut my hair or suppressed the urge to chat about my baby, it has been to be more like the scholars I admire and less like the housewives my cousins have become. Yet, I am reminded (and comforted) by Ruddick when she says that "some of the most brilliant women of our time are still trying to think from somewhere outside their female bodies-- hence they are still merely reproducing old forms of intellection" (Ruddick 284). I would venture to say that many of my peers fit this description. And this is the danger that I am so aware of. Have we as women in scholarship, now that we are here in numbers, actually effected change in the forms of thought? Could incorporating Ruddick's maternal thinking, like the many feminists writings that now exist, make any mark on scholarship? What would the advantages be and what would the new rules be?

How do we write through the body in maternal thinking? To write my own body would be to write a conundrum. I am young yet, only 24. My skin is soft, freckled, and pale. But I am no longer lithe. As a full time student and mother, I rarely have time or energy for bodily pleasure whether sexual, athletic, or artistic. I do enjoy the tender caresses of a toddler who enjoys refuge in my bosom and I also have a rare evening alone with my husband. A ballet dancer in my youth, my post-pregnant belly is still sagging and scarred. My breasts sit heavily on my chest. My fingers, so nimble on the key board, ache for hours after I have stopped writing. Because of joint problems, my wrists sometimes swell like marbles under my skin. It is simpler to forget this body and to dwell in this cultured, well-manicured, stringently-maintained mind of mine. It is both easier and safer to learn and follow the old rules than to make up new ones.

To practice maternal thinking in my writing would be to include non-linear, personal, and particular emotions and ways of knowing. It would be to speak of what I know and have experienced since I have become the mother to a son who adores me, thinks I am the all-powerful center of his world, and who looks to me for comfort, security, and an explanation of life itself. To combine this experience with scholarly pursuits for new knowledge, close understanding of existing forms, ordered explanation of ideas and thoughts, is to combine what will not easily be connected. Scholarship has long been the domain of strictly cerebral, disembodied, affectless logic. Ruddick quotes Jane Lazarre's description of communication between mothers in The Mother Knot:

We learned always to expect sentences to have two parts, the second seeming to contradict the first, the unity lying only in our growing ability to tolerate ambivalence-- for that is what motherly love is. (Ruddick 68)

Can we as scholars tolerate such ambivalence? I am not sure we can. It would necessarily be clear ambivalence, not ambiguity, and the various parts would have to coincide in some meaningful way.

What about emotion? How does affect "work" in scholarship? Of course it is always there. A student scholar must worry if the professor will approve of the work, if she will find it valuable. A professor must hope that her work will be well received by her peers. In a maternally written text should we bring this anxiety to the surface? What then is the limit? Where does meaningful affect become excess? In keeping with Gallop's rule, it should serve to clarify the theory being worked through.

My essay has been an attempt to write in the way that maternal thinking would have me write, or rather, in the way that I want to write. It is specific in that it comes out of the experience of a class taught at UWM by Professor Jane Gallop. It is personal, because I have included stories about myself and my position as a writer and mother. It is emotional, because I am trying to build a place for women like me to write ourselves and rewrite scholarship. But it is also rational, I have ordered the paragraphs so that they make a coherent argument. A beginning, middle, and end are evident. I have tried to correct my mechanical errors.

But the entire project is a response to Rich's call: from the beginning I have thought about my body and my maternal self and how these might change my scholarly writing.

Have I been successful? What are the rules-- specifications-- standards-- guidelines? Do the women I have quoted actually mean what I have said they mean? Have I changed the form at all? Have I written a good essay? These are the emotional, rational, and personal questions I will leave you to ponder.

Post script: The Scholarly Mother and Her Family

Since this essay is intended to fulfill an assignment on the family, I am motivated to ask what this posturing, critiquing, and querying might have to do with the family itself. The reading I have done on feminism in this class as well as my personal experience has led me to believe that I am at a crucial juncture in the history of the family. Of course, many mothers work professionally. I am not such a pioneer here. But most of us work with a feeling of guilt. What does it mean for our pre-schoolers to be in daycare and not with us during the day? Parenting magazines assure us that they are not harmed; but there is a silent, insidious pressure which makes us ask if we are doing our children a disservice by not performing the traditional role of motherhood and staying at home. In contrast, Ruddick says

Fathers, historically, are meant to provide material support for child care and to defend mothers and their children from external threat. They are supposed to represent the 'world'-- its language, culture, work, and rule-- and to be the arbiters of the child's acceptability in the world they represent . . . their authority is not earned by care and indeed undermines the maternal authority that is so earned. (35)

By this analysis, working mothers (especially mother scholars) put themselves in the position of representing the world when they leave the home; they are in an entirely new relationship to the family. Instead of being responsible "only" for a child's physical and emotional well-being (which we know does not end when we enter the work place) mothers who are also scholars can influence (the father's) language, culture, work, and rule, as well as our children's knowledge of it. It is nothing less than reinventing the traditional family which, according to Rich, the mother scholar inherently challenges. A mother scholar can give her children a whole new perspective on the world and even offer her daughter a place in it. How much more can be accomplished if mother scholars concentrate on motherhood and family (despite their sentimental baggage) in their scholarship? This combination (the opposite of a split) can in fact strengthen and enrich the family while it complicates, tests, and develops scholarship.


Gallop, Jane. Thinking Through The Body. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

----------------, Dick Blau. "Observations of a Mother." The Familial Gaze. Ed. Marianne Hirsh.

Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Notes (to return to your place in the text, hit the "back" button on your browser.

1. Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body elucidates this separation as it is developed by Rich : "Of Woman Born not only speaks the secret of maternal anger but treats that anger as a surface eruption of an even darker, deeper violence that systematically constitutes motherhood as a patriarchal institution. The mind-body split makes the mother into an inhuman monster by dividing the human realm of culture, history, and politics from the realm of love and the body where the mother carries, bears, and tends to her children" (2).

2. Rich speaks of Sandra Pollock who noted that "lesbian's working in the women's movement were often 'closet mothers'"(xxxi). I appropriate this term for my use because in my experience scholars working in academia are similarly ambivalent and protective of their status as mothers.

3. Ruddick expounds on a mother's love for her children when she says it mandates three responses; "these three demands-- for preservation, growth, and social acceptability-- constitute maternal work; to be a mother is to be committed to meeting these demands by works of preservative love, nurturance, and training" (17).

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