The core of women’s oppression in patriarchal societies is not maternity, or motherhood, but maternalism; that is to say, the imposition of maternity as women’s primordial and inescapable destiny and the central axis around which they should organize their lives and distribute their time. In the maternal ideology dominant in El Salvador, the imposed hegemonic maternity is constructed out of the religious figure of Mary of Nazareth.
The core of women’s oppression in patriarchal societies is not maternity, or motherhood, but maternalism; that is to say, the imposition of maternity as women’s primordial and inescapable destiny and the central axis around which they should organize their lives and distribute their time. Because of this, feminism’s struggle for women’s autonomy, empowerment and citizenship does not imply a battle against maternity, but rather one against maternalism.
Any analysis of maternity must come from a double perspective. Firstly, maternity must be considered a biological function, linked to the function of procreation, pregnancy and birth. Secondly, maternity must also be considered as a social practice that concerns all the activities having to do with the daily act of childcare, which can be undertaken by the biological mother or by other persons (men or women) who are able to provide care to boys and girls.
Taken this way, maternity is experienced by women in accordance with vastly different biological, psychosocial, environmental and economic conditions. The experience of maternity by a woman who is a domestic worker cannot be compared to that of the woman who engages her as a nanny to take care of her children. Nor can the maternity of a heterosexual woman be compared to the maternity of a lesbian woman. And even less so can the maternal experience of a woman who has become pregnant as a result of rape be compared to that of a woman who planned her maternity as a part of her life’s path. The diversity of these maternal experiences is rejected under maternalism.
Maternalism is an ideology of domination that is imposed upon women in patriarchal societies as an obligatory pattern molding their lives. By patriarchal societies, it is meant societies where there is a system of power relationships that is structured around the idea of the superiority of the masculine over the feminine, and where women are meant to serve and please men.
The maternal ideology is an abstraction of the diversity of women’s life experiences and the differences that exist between women (class, race, sexual orientation, age) that ends up “maternalizing” women, thereby circumscribing the essence and feminine identity of maternity, as if the biological functions and social practices of maternity were the ultimate criterion in determining if a woman is a “real woman.” Maternalizing women also means that women’s behaviour in the family, the community, economics, politics, and religion, will be assessed in terms of values, attitudes and practices that are culturally associated with maternity: caring for others, kindness, sacrifice, selflessness, submission, etc.
Furthermore, maternal ideology imposes a hegemonic model of maternity upon women inspired by a religious cosmo-vision that venerates women in their role as mothers who devote their lives to the function of caring for and ensuring the well-being of others. For example, in the maternal ideology dominant in El Salvador, the imposed hegemonic maternity is constructed out of the religious figure of Mary of Nazareth.
Following this archetype, Salvadoran women are expected to be the equal of Mary of Nazareth, becoming mothers at an early age, and assuming an attitude of conformance with and acceptance of their pregnancy, even if it was not planned or was the result of rape. This is based on the fact that this model of maternity (that of Mary of Nazareth) has its reference in a submissive adolescent who unquestioningly accepts God’s imposed pregnancy in order to save the world of its sins.
Also according to this model, Salvadoran women are expected to be able to give birth under extreme conditions and high risk, and faced with such adversity, be able to maintain the physical strength and emotional capacity to protect the lives of their newborns even before taking care of themselves. Accordingly, Salvadoran women, during childbirth and the postpartum period, are expected to follow the example of Mary of Nazareth, who after delivering in a stable under unhealthy conditions, had the necessary serenity and physical strength to save her son from King Herod’s massacre, and unhesitatingly undertook a long and tortuous journey from Palestine to Egypt four days after delivery, with all that trip’s inherent risks of maternal mortality.
This hegemonic maternity would explain why in El Salvador, the society and the State tolerate such high rates of teen pregnancy, which in 2012 were reflected in a daily rate of 69 childbirths by girls and teens from 10 to 17 years of age, — according to the report State of the World’s Population 2013 by the UN Population Fund — pregnancies which were largely the product of sexual violence and rape. If Mary of Nazareth was a good teen mother, why can’t a 10-year-old Salvadoran girl be one, too?
An analysis of hegemonic maternity could also explain why so many male and female judges condemn Salvadoran women who have delivered outside of hospitals and seen their children die during birth, due to an obstetric emergency or premature delivery, and at the time rendered unable to either physically and/or emotionally attend to their babies, and charge them with aggravated homicide. In many of these condemning judgements, one can read how the male and female judges recriminate these women for not having followed “their maternal instinct” and, based in this supposed instinct, failed to compose themselves and protect the life of the newborn before saving their own. At best, it is thought that there has been no more difficult out-of-hospital birth than that of Mary of Nazareth, and yet, she was able to care for her child.
With this maternal ideology and hegemonic model of maternity, families, schools, churches, the State and other socializing entities, dedicate their greatest efforts to instructing girls in the maternal ideology so that they can develop their maternal affections from an early age while at the same time encouraging them to pattern their lives taking into account the moment they will become mothers. These efforts are accompanied by a system of moral and/or social sanctions, and/or sanctions against women who do not fulfill their manifest destiny to be mothers. This system of sanctions oscillates between private and public criticism of women over the age of 30 who are not mothers, to the point of imprisoning women who decide to deliberately end their pregnancies.
For its part, the State in this type of society designs its public policies with a maternalist focus that seeks to impose or reinforce a feminine identity linked to maternity. In El Salvador, for example, the City of Women project, which constitutes the “jewel in the crown” of social policies for women, has a maternal figure (mother and child) for its logo, a clear signal to Salvadoran women that they are considered first and foremost as mothers, and their rights are to be found as a function of when they assume, sooner or later, their role as good mothers. Another similar example is the recent naming of the maternity hospital the National Women’s Hospital, a designation defining both the focus and sector of women to be served by the public policies of the Salvadoran State.
This maternalism continues to be today the principal factor determining the low levels of women’s economic autonomy. For example in El Salvador, according to the 2011 Multiple Purpose Home Survey, women’s participation in the Economically Active Population (Población Económicamente Activa, PEA) was only 47 percent, in contrast to men’s 80 percent participation. In the case of women, the main reason for unemployment and/or not developing an income-generating activity was maternity and its associated, unpaid labour that should be performed “for the love” of their families. Because of this, according to data from ECLAC’s 2010 observation group on gender equality, almost 50 percent of rural women in 2008 and 34 percent urban women above the age of 15 who are not in school do not have any income of their own.
In conclusion, the reality of women’s maternity is complex and diverse: not all women aspire to be mothers; many women become mothers unwillingly, and for many women, maternity, far from being a form of personal realization, is really a mechanism of oppression, enslavement, and personal impoverishment.
If we desire to dismantle the system of patriarchal power and promote equal rights between men and women, we must begin by dismantling the maternalism that permeates all of society’s discourse and spheres, including education and politics. This, of course, presupposes a criticism of maternal logic and the emergence of anti-hegemonic models of maternity, that not only recognize diverse forms of maternity, but also women’s right to decide not to be mothers.
Julia Evelyn Martínez is a professor of economics at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA) in El Salvador.
Danica Jorden is a translator of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and other languages.