The Puzzling Case of Maternal Feminism
Have you ever had one of those moments that left you utterly speechless?
Rarely has that ever happened to me. That’s not surprising since my childhood nickname was “mouth” (I had many thoughts and opinions to offer my parents from an early age; I am not sure they thought I was as brilliant as I thought I was!). I have to tell you that the experience of being shocked into silence is quite unnerving.
In the fall of 2015, I spoke at the World Congress of Families meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. One afternoon of the conference, I swung by the exhibit area and came across an organization called Big Ocean. The tagline on the banner behind the booth read “Women for Faith, Family, Motherhood.” My interest was immediately sparked.
When I picked up one of the promotional flyers, the mission statement of the organization caught my eye:
“Our mission is to unite and empower women throughout the world to stand for faith, family, and motherhood. We call the movement Maternal Feminism.”
Women that are supportive of faith, families, and motherhood. Check, sign me up! But, whoa, wait a minute!?? Did you say maternal feminism?? When that phrase registered in my mind, that is when I was rendered speechless.
A polite, college-age, young woman who was manning the booth walked over to tell me about Big Ocean, and I am afraid I scared her a bit. I was still reeling from the idea of “maternal feminism” and had trouble responding to her questions.
Once I recovered, I asked, “Why call your movement maternal feminism?” She said something along the lines of being for women and for motherhood.
Hmm… “Yes, but why call it feminism?” I pressed.
She said because they are pro-women.
In this young women’s mind, being for women meant being a feminist. I stayed and spoke with her and another lady at the booth for a few more minutes trying to understand their perspective, but it was clear we had very different understandings of the word “feminist” and “feminism.”
Since returning from the conference, I did a little more digging into Big Ocean. It is an interfaith organization that was founded in 2014 by Carolina Allen, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in order to give a voice to the power of mothers. Members of the group attended the United Nations in New York to defend motherhood and promote the importance of families. In an interview Allen stated, “I consider myself a maternal feminist, and that means I am expanding my sphere of influence starting from myself to my home, my community and then reaching the world.”
Everything these ladies were saying about the importance of mothers was music to my ears. In our day and age, families are under attack. Motherhood is disparaged. We need more people advocating the importance of mothers and families. However, to do so under the banner of feminism is simply foolish.
Feminism is not pro-motherhood. Now, I am sure there are feminists who are pro-motherhood, but the second wave of this movement was sparked by anti-motherhood and anti-marriage rhetoric. The message at the heart of this movement was that marriages and families held women back.
In the early 1960s, the journalist Betty Friedan became convinced that women were frustrated and unfulfilled in their roles as wives and mothers. In fact, these roles were likened to prisons. In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique (a book that essentially launched the second wave of feminism in America), Friedan proclaimed, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’”
Later in the book, Friedan claimed that being a stay-at-home mother is eventually dehumanizing and likened it to a German concentration camp:
“All this seems terribly remote from the easy life of the American suburban housewife. But is her house in reality a comfortable concentration camp? Have not women who live in the image of the feminine mystique trapped themselves within the narrow walls of their homes? They have learned to ‘adjust’ to their biological role. They have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things. The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding. American women are not, of course, being readied for mass extermination, but they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.”
In 1969 a leaflet titled “Do You Know the Facts about Marriage?” was produced by second wave feminists to hand out at a protest at the New York Marriage License Bureau. It ended with this statement: “We can’t destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage. We must free ourselves. And marriage is the place to begin.”
Feminism cannot be divorced from the sentiments above. Betty Friedan’s worldview is intrinsically linked to the feminist movement. And this is why the idea of “maternal feminism” is so puzzling to me. At the heart of the feminist movement is a decidedly anti-motherhood message.
We must reject the notion that to be “pro-women” means you are a feminist. I am pro-women, pro-families, and pro-motherhood because the Bible is all of these things. And, despite what some people like the organizers of Big Ocean may believe, the feminist movement has advocated things that have actually harmed women. My friends, you can be for women and motherhood without linking yourself to the feminist movement that has a long history of demeaning motherhood.
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 78.
 Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 425.
 “Do You Know the Facts about Marriage?” in We Are the People: Voices from the Other Side of American History, ed. Nathaniel May, Clint Willis, and James W. Loewen (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003), 185.