(M)otherhood and Interdependent Liberation

At her keynote address at the Fourth National NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) Convention, July 17, 1982, which took place at Humboldt State University in California, Angela Davis began her speech discussing Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman of Alabama, in the Black Belt. They worked to assist African Americans to get registered to vote. Because of this, they were charged with voter fraud and in January, 1982 were sentenced to four and five years by a White jury, completing the circle of a system designed to restrict African American participation in elections (Davis 1982, 5). 

For Angela Davis’s complete 1982 NWSA speech, see here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004176

Angela Y. Davis demonstrates in her classic text, Women, Race, and Class, that the types of instances of the oppression of civil rights are manifestations of trends. They are trends that were seeded with slavery, on to the rejection of Reconstruction, into Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights, from housing and banking restrictions to equal accessibility in public domains. The American women’s struggle for bodily autonomy, particularly African American women, also followed this trend. The expectation of forced motherhood violently imposed on those women in the bondage of slavery continued the with the struggle for easy access to birth control into the late 20th century and, as can be seen by any citizen with honest motivations, continues as a diligent witness to crimes against humanity in the 21st century. “Voluntary motherhood,” Angela Davis writes in her discussion of nineteenth-century feminists, “was considered audacious, outrageous, and outlandish by those who insisted that wives had no right to refuse to satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges” (1983, 202). “Voluntary motherhood” challenged men’s possessive domination over women’s bodies and sought to redress historic impositions where men refused responsibility towards a conduct of moral order. The same refusal of a moral code of conduct imposed limitations of movement and political identification on Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman which continues today in the southern states with racist partisan gerrymandering. 

There is a comparison to be made between the liberty of movement within political activism and participation and the control over women’s bodies. (M)otherhood has often been the first source of restrictive conquest by the oppressor historically and sociologically. Steps to liberate women’s bodies from the grip of men works to both free women from bondage as well as liberate civil society from dominating oppressive conjunctions of dialects of tribal institutions designed to be a violence that preserves lawmaking. “Free womb” laws in Brazil and Cuba centered on (m)otherhood with the intention of a perceived pragmatic social progress for eventual abolition. Former slaves were able to take families and slavemasters to court to claim guardianship of their own children still in the bondage of ownership to others as historian Camillia Cowling elaborates in detail in her article, “‘As a slave woman and as a mother’: women and the abolition of slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro” (2011). With these first instances of mother’s reunited with their children, social order moves closer to a nurturing entity and away from structural oppression. These bonds still can point the way out of institutionalized inequality through societal and policy shifts that prioritize the family. 

We can learn from former trends which direction is needed as well as have within ourselves the ability to envision what peacemakers (opposed to lawmakers) practice as liberating sanctity. Scholar Stephanie Li, in her book, Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women, also conceives of the resistance of motherhood as a location of permanent future gains, writing, “[b]y understanding female resistance within a context that appreciates the enslaved woman’s complex social network, we may begin to conceptualize a form of freedom that works through and within relationships. I term this approach “intra-independence” as it emphasizes the power to choose the preservation of certain relationships over conditions of individual autonomy” (2010, 24). Personal, spiritual, physical, and psychological autonomy brings rest and restoration to communities with histories and lived realities of engineered dominance. Social appraisal, or rather, the arithmetic and science of oppression, has been meted out with deliberate intention. Comparatively, our longing for a way out can be equally strategic. Liberation begins with mothers. Sanctified liberation begins with mother’s autonomy. When we move the direction that attends to those needs and elevates the personal liberties and constructions of “intra-independence” than the violence of lawmaking will give way to the prosperity of peacemaking. 

Cowling, Camillia. “ ‘As a Slave woman and as a mother’: Women and the abolition of slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro.” Social History, 36:3, 294-311.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.

Davis, Angela Y. “Women, Race, and Class: An Activists Perspective.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol 10, no 4 (Winter 1982), 5-9. 

Li, Stephanie. Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women. New York: Suny Press, 2010.