New book revisits maternal thinking as a concept

Mothers think. That was a revolutionary concept at one time, and may still be in some quarters – myth shattering and at the same time obvious. For York women’s studies Professor Andrea O’Reilly, it was life changing and groundbreaking, and was delivered by Sara Ruddick through her 1989 book Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. It was a book O’Reilly couldn’t put down. She still has it and, although it’s a bit battered and stained with sand and water, she has read it over a dozen times.

It is this “aha” moment that O’Reilly talks about in her introduction to Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice (Demeter Press, 2009), along with the impact the concepts in Ruddick’s book had on her life and the discipline of women’s studies as a whole.

“For me, and I suspect for most mothers and scholars of motherhood, this is what made Maternal Thinking [Towards a Politics of Peace] so life-changing and groundbreaking,” writes O’Reilly in Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice, which she edited. Ruddick “theorized the obvious: mothers think.” O’Reilly calls it a “monumental text” and one of the most significant works in maternal scholarship and the new field of motherhood studies.

She can remember being excited and absorbed by passages from Ruddick’s book, such as: “The work of mothering demands that mothers think; out of this need for thoughtfulness, a distinctive discipline emerges.” Those were words that would stay with her. She circled the page number on which she read them twice and underlined the words. O’Reilly had three children under the age of six at the time and was working on her PhD. Ruddick’s words were affirming and validating.

“Ruddick’s concept of maternal practice and thinking, divested of biological nature, instinct and sentiment, is fore-grounded in what all mothers know: motherwork is inherently and profoundly an intellectual activity,” writes O’Reilly. “When mothers set out to fulfill the demands of mother-work, what Ruddick defines as protection, nurturance and training, they are engaged in maternal practice; this engagement, in turn, gives rise to a specific discipline of thought, a cluster of attitudes, beliefs, and values which Ruddick calls maternal thinking.”

Two decades later, O’Reilly continues to revere Ruddick and her work. Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice, a collection of 17 essays from diverse disciplines, everything from anthropology, sociology, literature and philosophy to education, women’s studies and psychology, is a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace.

Right: Andrea O’Reilly

O’Reilly sat down with Ruddick in her apartment for an almost two-hour-long conversation that continued long after the interview was over. They discussed what Ruddick’s head space was at the time of writing her book, what things have changed and what they agree and disagree on. Ruddick is very present in the new book through the conversation as well as its epilogue, which she wrote. The essays in the book revisit Ruddick’s work and examine the “pivotal insights” of the text.

The essays range from University of Michigan-Dearborn Professor Maureen Linker’s “Explaining the World: Philosophical Reflections on Feminism and Mothering” and California State University San Marcos Professor Linda Pershing’s “Cindy Sheehan: A Call to Maternal Activism in the Contemporary Peace Movement” to Assumption College, Worcester, Professor Regina Edmonds’ “Maternal Thinking Expanded: A Psychologist’s View” and O’Reilly’s “Feminist Mothering as Maternal Practice: Maternal Authority and Social Acceptability of Children”.

O’Reilly is founder and director of York’s Association for Research on Mothering. She is the author of Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart (SUNY Press, 2004) and Rocking the Cradle: Thoughts on Motherhood, Feminism and the Possibility of Empowered Mothering (Demeter Press, 2006). She is the editor of 14 collections, including with Elizabeth Podnieks Textual Mothers Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literatures (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2009) and is the editor of the forthcoming, first-ever encyclopedia on motherhood.

For more information, visit the Demeter Press Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer