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Is feminism in tension with becoming a mother or does it provide support in a hostile world? Studying two radical and influential women’s liberation groups formed in the New York City area in the 1960s, the social scientist M. Rivka Polatnick found that the answer depends a lot on what sort of feminism we’re talking about.

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The first group, New York Radical Women—where Polatnick was briefly a member—was mostly white and middle-class. The second, based in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, was made up largely of low-income black women.

Members of the core group at NYRW were single, child-free, and heterosexual. Cofounder Pam Allen said they had been deeply affected by the frustrations their own mothers faced in trying to fulfill the expected role of wife and mother in nuclear-family-oriented postwar white America. “We were left with a deep-seated fear that our lives would be destroyed, we’d be ruined, if we had kids,” she told Polatnick.

The group supported access to birth control and abortion. But they were also interested—at least theoretically— in developing new forms of childrearing that wouldn’t require women to sacrifice careers, sexual freedom, and personal development as full human beings. They advocated for men to take on more nurturing work, and also for socialized care. They even brought up the use of technology that might relieve women of the burden of biological motherhood. NYRW member Shulamith Firestone was at the radical end of this spectrum, envisioning a future of children “produced artificially” and raised collectively by large groups of adults. Child-rearing in this future would be “so diffused as to be practically eliminated.”

Like NYRW, the Mount Vernon-New Rochelle group focused on the dangers of involuntary motherhood and the need for women’s reproductive freedom. Indeed, it got its start as a Planned Parenthood-supported effort to improve teenagers’ access to birth control. But far from hoping to minimize women’s toil in caring for children, the group celebrated the nurturing work of both biological mothers and other women. Unlike NYRW, this group was made up mostly of mothers, and many of them were raising kids outside the nuclear family structure, often with support from female friends and family.

In contrast to Firestone’s hope for a technological replacement for childbearing, the Mount Vernon-New Rochelle organizers critiqued western, male culture’s disdain for “things having to do with the animal body,” and saw women’s ability to bear children as a source of strength.

They saw themselves as women who “put their children first” by organizing to fight for welfare benefits and better housing. When male-led radical black groups criticized birth control as a route to black genocide, they responded that black men should be more engaged in child-rearing, and that “having too many babies stops us from supporting our children, teaching them the truth.”

The trouble wasn’t being pushed into a mothering role, they argued, but being prevented from mothering in a self-chosen, positive way.


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Signs, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1996), pp. 679-706
The University of Chicago Press