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Feminism as Practice: Valuing a Feminist Motherline in the Age of Neoliberalism

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming collection of scholarly feminist essays mixed with personal stories, Mother of Invention from Demeter Press. For your chance to win a free copy of the book enter here. 

Introduction: The Age of Innovation

In our current neoliberal age, innovation provides the guiding mantra. We are constantly looking toward the future, hoping to find the next best thing defined by what is guaranteed to ensure “value.” And yet our definition of “value” has changed drastically, with the language of social value increasingly being replaced by the economic determinism of market value. In this age of innovation defined by short-term thinking and future prospects, the value of the past is lost. It is precisely for this reason that a discussion of feminist motherlines is becoming increasingly essential. The stories of our mothers and grandmothers, and the intergenerational knowledge that is passed down from them, cannot be quantified in market value terms. And, more importantly, these stories weave the fabric of our very social core.

My Mother’s Stories

My mother grew up as the youngest child in a family of seven on a farm in the southern part of Holland. At the age of 12, she was sent to an all-girls boarding school that was run by nuns. At the age of 17, she went to an all-girls college to become a Montessori teacher. She then decided to travel by herself to Canada and teach kindergarten, and here she met my father. At the age of 24, she worked with my dad to build their own log home in Calgary because no bank would give them a mortgage. And at the age of 28, with two small children, she worked night shifts to make enough money so my dad could start his own piano tuning business that she would go on to manage for the next 30 years. When I listen to my mother’s stories, her words cannot be relegated to a particular feminist theoretical framework. In fact, when we sat down for an informal interview and I asked her whether she considered herself a feminist while living in Holland during the 1960s, presumably during the heyday of feminism’s Second-Wave, “nope” was her response. Then upon further consideration she laughed and said, “They called them dolle Minas. They were the ones that would burn the bras, feel the freedom […] the birth control pill came out, it was about love and no war. But I wasn’t part of that. We would see it on TV. Especially in Amsterdam” (Informal interview with Maria Vandenbeld, June 13, 2012).

Feminisms

From my mom’s perspective, feminism was something that had nothing to do with her; it was a theoretical paradigm that bore no relevance in her daily life. And yet, when I listen to her stories, and when I think about everything she has taught me throughout my life—particularly when I had my daughter—I know that my mother’s influence has been pivotal in my understanding of what it means to be “feminist”, and these are the very same things that I now teach my  daughter. The values of equality and freedom, that everyone is equally important, that being honest, sharing and being kind are the most essential qualities, but also the ability to recognize when injustice or inequality must be acknowledged and the capacity to be both kind and strong at once—these are the values that have been passed, and will continue to be passed, down my motherline. And when thinking about our motherlines, it is equally important to recognize how knowledge transfers in multiple directions. My mother now actively identifies as a feminist and laughs about how she didn’t think feminism had any relevance for her in the past making a discussion of feminisms so important. And I am constantly amazed and enriched by my six-year-old daughter’s understanding of the world and realize daily how much I have to learn from her.

During our discussions, my mom said that she always felt like an outsider in Canada, and that the mothers here were far more lenient with their children than what she was accustomed to. The 1970s were, after all, the age of the “free-range” child in North America. And I, too, often feel like I stand outside of contemporary normative mothering discourses. In our current hyper-competitive neoliberal age, while “freedom” remains highly prized, “equality” does not, and nor do the values of sharing or being kind. Rather, within an individualistic winners-take-all mentality, kindness can often be equated with weakness. As such there is an uneasy juxtaposition between recognizing where one’s own value systems emerge and appreciating their historicity, and acknowledging how these value systems, rather than being purely individual, are inspired by larger socioeconomic circumstances and dominant ideologies.

A discussion of feminisms enables the recognition of the multiplicity of feminist voices while also acknowledging the possibility for collectivity. While we are all part of larger societal discourses, we are also unique individuals with particular stories to tell. My mom might have been part of a larger second-wave feminist temporality, but her story is unique. And while she did not identify as a “feminist” until recently, her mothering has been the best example of feminist practice that I can think of. I will always be grateful for the values that my mom has taught me, and I hope I will be able to continue my feminist motherline by instilling similar values in my own daughter.

 For your chance to win a free copy of the book enter here.