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Mothers as Feminists

You don’t have to choose just one.

Traditional definitions of motherhood include a host of housekeeping activities that seem to leave time for nothing else. Then there is feminism, which advocates women receiving education and excelling in the workplace: two activities which also require massive amounts of time and effort. One might ask, is it possible to reconcile being both a mother and a feminist? Jarica Watts (Professor of English) explores this idea in her December 7th, 2021, BYU Humanities Center Colloquium.

Watts had to answer this question for herself when she became pregnant during her PhD program. Throughout her pregnancy, she wrestled with how she would fulfil her responsibilities as a mother while still pursuing her love of literature. Her fears came to a head at two o’clock on the morning of her qualifying exam for her PhD program when her water unexpectedly broke. The exam couldn’t be delayed, and the baby certainly wasn’t waiting, so she steadied herself to address both at the same time. Her professors came to the hospital to administer the exam—which Watts took while she was in labor. Watts gave birth as the exam was being graded a few rooms down. She ended up with both a passing grade and a healthy baby girl.

As she held her daughter, she thought about the implications of having been able to have a child and get her PhD. It seemed miraculous. Watts was also delighted to realize that her daughter, who was born earlier than her due date, shared a birthday with Virginia Woolf, the prominent feminist writer. That shared birthdate led Watts to ponder the connections between Woolf and motherhood, which resulted in her continued study of the subject.

Unlike Watts, Woolf was never a mother. Her husband and her psychiatrist determined that having children would be detrimental to her mental state. Nevertheless, Woolf examined motherhood from a distance, which resulted in novels such as A Room of One’s Own, Jacob’s Room, Orlando, and The Waves. Each novel contains complex narratives about the connection mothers have with feminism.

Watts uses these texts to study mothers as feminists, having realized that it has always been possible for women to be both. She suggests a new term, matricentric feminism: a feminism for those who engage in the act of mothering. Today Watts continues her study by collecting additional literary examples in support of her argument that mothers can be feminists.