February
24th 2011
What I learned from blogging: authority, essentialism, and motherhood

Posted under: American history, childhood, Gender, Intersectionality, the body, women's history

Suzie at Echidne has a list up of the six things she’s learned from blogging–go check it out, and if you’re a blogger (or a blog commenter), add your thoughts in the comments over there or here below.  Tell us what you’ve learned!  (If you click on over to Echidne, you’ll learn all about Wiener Nougat.) 

I’ve learned a thing or two–most of which I’ve already shared in my recent articles at the Journal of Women’s History and Common-place.  One of the things we haven’t talked about here for quite a while is that motherhood or not-motherhood seems like a bigger deal online than it is in real life.  In the JWH article, “We’re All Cowgirls Now,” I wrote:

I don’t want to give the impression that intellectual authority is simply a gendered problem—our identities are much more complex because gender is just one item on the long list of characteristics that mark us in both the meat and virtual worlds. While playing Historiann, I am clear about my sex (female) and my sexuality (heterosexual, married to a man) in real life, but I’ve chosen to remain deliberately ambiguous as to whether or not I am a mother. For the most part, this is because I blog with my professional identity up front, not my personal life or reproductive history: in other words, I blog as Historiann, not Mommyann or Not-mommyann. I’m qualified to write about history and politics because of my training and expertise in American history, whereas I don’t think that motherhood alone (if it pertains to me) would qualify me to write about anything other than my personal experiences as a mother. As a good feminist historian, I don’t believe that there’s anything essential, unifying, or eternal about the experience of motherhood. But, this refusal to identify myself either as a mother or a nonmother has also raised questions of authority. This becomes apparent when commenters disagree with me [when I write about motherhood from my perspective as an American women's historian]—they sometimes assume that I’m not a mother, and therefore question my authority to write about issues pertaining to maternity. I had thought that essentialism went out of style in feminism more than twenty years ago—but the blogosphere makes it apparent that essentialism about maternity endures, even among women in the academy.

.       .      .       .      .       .      .       .      

As a feminist intellectual, this conversation made me wonder: who is a mother, anyway? Is it only women who give birth to their children? Is it only women who lactate and nurse successfully? (Do they have to breastfeed exclusively for six months to count?) Do women who adopted or had in vitro fertilization qualify? What about women who had Caesarian sections or used pain relief in childbirth instead of having a “natural” or home birth? What about women who use manufactured formula—on purpose!—and don’t even bother with nursing or pumping? What about women who gave a child up for adoption, or women whose children died—are they mothers still? What about queer families, with perhaps two mommies or two daddies, and perhaps no actual genetic connection to any or all of their children—where do they fit into this insistence that the lactating body stands for motherhood, and vice versa? And I also wondered: what did my virtual identity have to do with my somatic body, and whatever persons or fluids may have or may yet issue from it—or not?

Is this important information to you when I write about either historical or contemporary childhood or motherhood issues?  If so, why?  If so, why not?  Do some of you think I’m just being coy?  Do any of you care?  (FWIW, if any of you are interested in the article but don’t have access to a university library, let me know and I can send you a PDF.)

43 Comments »

43 Responses to “What I learned from blogging: authority, essentialism, and motherhood”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 24 Feb 2011 at 11:51 am #

    The biggest thing that I learned from blogging – and it took a LONG time and sometimes I still forget – is that life is too short to get stressed out about any sort of disagreements that arise in comment threads or across blogs, in large part because the lifespan of any such disagreements or antagonisms is generally at most 3 days. I think my impulse is often to want to Assert My Position Until All People Agree, which is stupid. Blogging taught me how stupid that is. So while there are times when I read things and want to fly off the handle over and over until people listen, I’ve become a lot less inclined to do that. (Not that I don’t have my moments, but I have a lot more moments these days where I decide, “You know what? I do not need to comment on this. I don’t really care that much.” And the thing is, the world doesn’t come to an end.)

    The second biggest thing that I learned is that I don’t have to read people’s blogs who piss me off, or I can just take a break from those blogs and, again, the world doesn’t come to an end.

    As for you and your womb, I can honestly say that I don’t care one way or the other :) It’s your party, H. I don’t honestly see how whether you’re a mother or not makes a whole heck of a lot of a difference to any of what you write here, though I will say that not saying one way or the other probably makes people see you as Not-a-Mother more frequently than they see you as a Mother, which is its own issue, as if motherhood is such a powerful and controlling feature of identity that anybody who is a mother would never DARE to write as anything but. I don’t think that male bloggers who choose not to put their parental status front and center are necessarily viewed as Not-Fathers. But maybe I’m wrong about that? I honestly don’t know.

  2. Northern Barbarian on 24 Feb 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Well, my current research project is on the history of childhood and I am happily childless, so I guess I’m biased, but it seems to me that direct participation in breeding is irrelevant to one’s ability to think and comment. We were all children once, and even those of us without our own have friends and relatives with children or who are children. I’ve never bought the idea that parenthood automatically confers some kind of wisdom; there are too many terrible parents out there! I think that your declaration of ambiguity is a lot of what makes people uncomfortable. We like having our boxes clearly defined.

  3. Matt_L on 24 Feb 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Historiann, I do not see what parental status has to do with research interests. The essential qualification is a knowledge of the relevant languages and research methods, not some biological event. For example, a scholar has to have some fluency with the language, but does not have to be a German to study German history.

    So far as I can tell, parenting simply qualifies you to share war-stories with other parents. Ideally a parent might attain some kind of wisdom relative to their experiences with their own children, but it doesn’t make them an expert on childhood.

  4. Perpetua on 24 Feb 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    I blog not, therefore I learn not.

    But, Dr. Crazy, I would hazard a guess regarding your last paragraph, especially in suggesting that male bloggers come under no flack for refusing to identify themselves as parents, and the presumed essentialism of “motherhood” to identity for female parents.

    I self-identify as a parent in discussions about parenting not because I think it’s essential, or conveys authority, but because my experience of mothering (gendered parenting) has changed and refined my feminism. I would never suggest that one has to be a mother in order to understand the politics of motherhood – it just happened to work that way for me. I didn’t think about most issues related to women’s bodies, status, and professional lives vis a vis mothering before I became one. And now I think about them deeply.

    One needn’t be a parent to talking about parenting just as one doesn’t have to be a woman to talk about feminism, or a person of color to talk about race, or queer to talk about gay rights. At the same time, experience isn’t nothing, IMO. It doesn’t trump, of course, or confer wisdom, and it absolutely shouldn’t *silence*, which sometimes occurs when the childfree speak out about parenting – but it can provide different kinds of perspectives for those who inhabit, whether by choice or not, certain culturally-constructed categories of being (queer, female, parent, person of color, etc).

    I like H’ann’s refusal to label herself (beyond the simple fact that her life is her own d*mn business), because it forces people to ask questions about essentialism, motherhood, and identity.

  5. Dr. Crazy on 24 Feb 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Thanks for the response, Perpetua. What you say makes sense to me. I suppose what I wonder is whether not identifying really does force people to ask questions about essentialism, though, if those who would essentialize motherhood just assume that no one who is a mother would make the choice not to identify as a mother. (I hope that makes sense – I’ve got strep throat and I feel like I’m not as clear as I’d otherwise be.) I guess what I’m wondering is whether it might be a more direct challenge to identify one way or the other and yet to refuse to write “as” that… if that’s even possible? Not that Historiann or anybody else has an obligation to do that… I’m just (fuzzily) thinking it through.

  6. othersideofthepond on 24 Feb 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Hey Historiann,

    I really like your refusal to label yourself mother or non-mother.

    It is extremely refreshing – and really quite inspiring – to see a professional historian, who could well be a mother, or might well not be, refuse to allow herself to be defined as such.

    You are rejecting both the stereotype of “Mom PhD” and that of the childless bluestocking, dedicated only to her work. NOT that there is anything wrong with either of those roles, but it is galling when women are pigeonholed exclusively into these two categories. This is absolutely the case at my place of work. Needless to say, there are no comparable categories for men. Funnily enough, their reproductive history does not have to define either their intellectual contribution or their professional persona.

    More power to your elbow, as they say where I’m from.

  7. Western Dave on 24 Feb 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Hey Historiann,
    I love that you don’t declare, and generally, the way you present issues is intellectual first and then solicit anecdotes from readers. It makes us feel included without having to rise to your level (compare another blog I love, 11D for the reverse dynamic). My experience is different because a) I’m a teacher first in a K-12 school and b) my parenting informs my teaching because interacting with parents is a huge part of my job (I have 10 advisees and meet with those parents twice a year face to face plus field numerous phone calls, emails, handshaking at their kids’ athletic events, plays, concerts, etc. for all my students and their parents). Plus my kids are in the school so I interact in with them both as an official voice and informally (depending on the parent and my relationship to them). Plus the fact that my 3 kids are such different learners pushed me to learn more about learning differences and how kids learn, which then informed my practice. But if I had a blog, I’d probably go the more personal route anyway, because of the lack of feminist, male, parent, bloggers writing about balancing work and family in the 21st century while trying to get ahead without exercising skin or sex privilege. I would estimate the readership of that blog to be < 1.

    OTOH, I excel at Facebook statuses.

  8. Historiann on 24 Feb 2011 at 3:17 pm #

    Dr. Crazy writes: “[N]ot saying one way or the other probably makes people see you as Not-a-Mother more frequently than they see you as a Mother, which is its own issue, as if motherhood is such a powerful and controlling feature of identity that anybody who is a mother would never DARE to write as anything but.

    This is my experience. When people have made assumptions, it’s that I’m not a mother, not that I am a mother. I think it’s exactly because of what you say, Dr. Crazy, in that people assume that motherhood is so inextricable from a woman’s identity that it’s queer not to identify as a mother if one is a mother.

    Now, I will refrain from commenting and just read.

  9. truffula on 24 Feb 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    I’m not sure I can improve on anything already written here but maybe a different twist. While I don’t care one way or the other about which life experiences you have had (parenting, orientation, whatever), I do care that you have had them and that you have given them some thought.

    I think differently about life experiences now than I did twenty years ago and the difference is in part a result of how my analysis of past experiences informs the way I perceive new events today.I look backward on my own history in the same inverted way. Does that make sense? I imagine that this sort of recursive analysis is part of what propels historical scholarship forward.

  10. koshem bos on 24 Feb 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Today I learned about a potential connection between blogging and parenthood. It seems that one could do quite well without this knowledge. Parenthood is very simple; be yourself (there is nothing else you can do anyway). There is no school and no preparation for parents. Anecdotally, our kids are better parents than we were. They are also smarter, taller and better looking.

    Nobody reads my blog, so I use it to express myself freely, succinctly and only when I have a significant point. In other words, express your thoughts and not your hate, likes and complaints. Writing non fiction, and lately I think even fiction, briefly, should be done precisely and accurately. There is very little point stating the obvious; many others do it.

    I learned from reading blog a lot of facts I should have known since kindergarten. Most commenters are verbose morons, many are hateful and curse all the time. Never try to make a point different than the mob expects, you will have a thousand middle fingers at your face.

    By the way of the list, I’ll take may be 2 or 3 points.

  11. truffula on 24 Feb 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    who is a mother, anyway?

    Today my sophomores and I diverted away from topic and toward earthquake hazards, not so much because of recent events in New Zealand, but because we have been talking about the cultural dimensions of environmental vulnerability. Economic risks are different from mortality risks and both are related to infrastructure. I felt compelled to add some instruction on what to do (and what not to do) in the event of an earthquake here. Whatever you do, do not run outside and stand on the sidewalk, I told them. The building facing will hit you as it falls. I must have repeated this three times. Parenting.

  12. Bardiac on 24 Feb 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    I enjoy and am informed by your blog a lot. I admit that I rather enjoy not knowing your parenting status, and equally enjoy seeing how much that sometimes seems to bother people.

    I think I’ve learned that I need to think more carefully about what I write sometimes, and have a thick skin at other times.

    Dr. C’s comments about not reading some blogs is true for me, too. I just don’t bother with things that irritate me or don’t interest me.

  13. Comrade PhysioProf on 24 Feb 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    Vis a vis your blogging, I don’t really give a crappe whether you have children or not and don’t wonder about it. However, if you *were* to write about your experiences as a parent or non-parent, I’m sure I’d find it entertaining and informative.

  14. undine on 24 Feb 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    We just visit you for the cowgirl pictures, Historiann.

    Seriously, what I’d like to echo from the previous comments is that your womb-status, which I think someone upthread called it, is your own business. You write in interesting ways about interesting things; what else could we ask?

    And here I’ll go out on a limb: anybody who demands that a blogger reveal X or Y, or write about certain things in a certain way, can just click on the magic mouse button and presto!–the browser goes to a different page. Blogs are not like articles or student papers that you have to read. They’re voluntary exercises for writers and readers.

    That’s why I laugh rather than getting annoyed at all the stupid “blog rules” that people post. I can read them and laugh, or I can click away. Voluntary, that’s the ticket.

  15. undine on 24 Feb 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    To clarify: “blog rules” that state “this is what a blog is/should do/must do, and if you don’t do things my way, you’re doing it wrong,” not “blog rules” as in “play nice if you want to comment on my blog.”

  16. Nicole on 25 Feb 2011 at 4:58 am #

    I honestly had not given any thought to your parenting status. I guess, go me, then.

    Our blog is very heavily about home, family, balance (sorry! I know some folks don’t like the idea of balance), food, fiction, and whatever comes across our minds. It is not so much about what we actually do for work because our blog is a hobby and we get enough work at work. Our today’s post is even asking about when to have a second kid (shameless plug).

    Let’s see, other things. I like being a parent and, right or wrong, it does define who I am to some extent. Sometimes I forget I am one at work because it is irrelevant, sometimes it infuses what I do (like when I turn the number 8 I’ve just written on the whiteboard into a snowman and make the students laugh). Also the tricks the daycare folks use on preschoolers work very well with undergraduates.

    I’m not crazy about non-parents telling me how to parent my children, especially if they don’t have the research in hand. But I’m also not crazy about parents telling me to parent my children in their specific Western cultural ways (I read Our Babies, Ourselves and know there are many ways to parent that work out just fine… interestingly I have no idea of whether or not the author has kids, but she does great research). I’m more likely to accept “tips” from people who have had actual experience with children, whether it be their own or in a different setting. Non-parents who dole out advice in my experience tend to be much more certain that they’re right and inflexible that there is only one way of doing things. That’s probably a selection effect as most non-parents are not going to dole out parenting advice at me because it isn’t culturally acceptable. I do hold the fact that Alphie Kohn has no kids against him, but he also doesn’t bring any empirical evidence for his crackpot pronouncements.

  17. Kathie on 25 Feb 2011 at 8:53 am #

    While I agree that, in principle, the motherhood-or-not status of any historian or other scholar is not relevant, my own experience was a bit different. When I did my research in Africa, my toddler daughter was with me, and went to the local day care. I went to check it out, observed what was going on, and went on to write a scholarly article about the history of childcare in that country (one of the first published pieces to come out of my dissertation research). It was clearly relevant to my larger research project on working women, but one that I definitely experienced in a particular way because my child was involved. I like to think that I would have investigated childcare policy in any case, but I do think it had a higher priority in my research because I was dealing with it myself on a daily basis; certainly I observed and participated in the provision of childcare, which would not have happened if I had been childless.

  18. Tom on 25 Feb 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I’m quite torn in this discussion: on the one hand, I am inclined to agree with Historiann that my ability to think about or understand a man or a woman or a parent (or a text by a man, woman, or parent) is probably very little influenced by my own participation in those categories, unless I assume or believe that I have a great deal more detailed and specific self-knowledge than I think I probably do.

    Yet I feel I understand Holbein’s The Ambassadors, or the effect of the stained glass in Ste. Chappelle, differently for having had the bodily experience of being in the physical presence of these artifacts. Indeed, I have such a hard time convincing myself that those bodily experiences don’t matter, that I am partially inclined to the larger view: bodily experience is likely to matter.

    It’s a conundrum.

  19. Dr. Crazy on 25 Feb 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Tom, perhaps a solution to the conundrum that you note is that bodily experience does matter, but it becomes a problem when that experience becomes definitional (for lack of a better word). In other words, my experience of Joyce’s Ulysses surely has been influenced by having gone to Dublin and having had lunch in Davy Byrne’s pub, but having done so doesn’t at all “define” my reading of the text. If people assumed that it did, or that I had special authority to critique the novel because I had, and if they discounted other experiences that might actually have a greater influence on my critique because I had, then that would be essentializing and, ultimately, devalue my experiences as a subject *beyond* the fact that I’ve been to Dublin.

    I think the difficulty with identifying as a mother may be something like what I describe above, that such self-identification is often taken as definitional. One can’t identify as a mother and speak about the ways in which that experience shapes one without that taking precedence over all other experiences, experiences which may in fact be more central to the issue at hand.

    If that is the case, then the question becomes how to get out of that trap. One answer may be not to self-identify one way or the other, and through that ambiguity to interrogate the ways in which that definitional status is deployed.

  20. Historiann on 25 Feb 2011 at 10:42 am #

    Tom, Kathie, and Nicole: the above excerpt may make it sound like I’m making a stronger argument that “it doesn’t matter” than I am in that article, which is really just w/r/t the blog. I like Kathie’s example of how having a young child opened her eyes to childcare issues in her scholarship, and Tom’s example of Ste. Chappelle.

    Of course experiences matter–perhaps embodied experiences even moreso than others. I know that my experience of having a female body has been critical to my development as a feminist and as a scholar. However, perhaps because I write about premodern history (like many of you), I reserve the right to have ideas and opinions about stuff I have never experienced myself.

    Thanks to everyone who has left a comment. I really wasn’t fishing for compliments, but I’ll take ‘em! You’re all very kind.

  21. Historiann on 25 Feb 2011 at 10:43 am #

    While I was composing the comment above, Dr. Crazy came in with a very useful intervention. I agree with her completely: the fact that motherhood status is so overdeterminative of women’s identities and lives is why I have and will continue to prefer to sidestep it altogether.

  22. Nicole on 25 Feb 2011 at 10:53 am #

    “Economist” and “mother” are so diametrically opposed in so many ways, that perhaps it’s better for folks to meld the two in their minds when trying to place me. So long as they only attribute the positive points of both.

  23. Ruth on 25 Feb 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Amen to this, Historiann:

    However, perhaps because I write about premodern history (like many of you), I reserve the right to have ideas and opinions about stuff I have never experienced myself.

    Yep. When I have the discussion about how situatedness affects us as historians, I say that I am sure my understanding of the European Middle Ages would be different were I a Christian, but that even if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t be a medieval one.

    I did have a well-meaning senior colleague suggest to me once that because my scholarship is feminist, I should put on my CV for my tenure dossier that I was married and had a child, so people wouldn’t think I was a lesbian. My response was that if anyone read my scholarship and thought I was a lesbian, I would be really pleased, because it would mean that I hadn’t let heterosexist assumptions creep in.

  24. Janice on 25 Feb 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    So you’re coming to my session at the Big Berks, this year, aren’t you? I’m going to deal with “other” mothering (such as step-mothers, foster mothers and mothers-in-law) in early modern England. There’s the interesting conflict between the idea of “mothering” as a natural, essentialist element of women and the concept that a stepmother or non-birth mother was some sort of hideous monster, out to destroy the stepchildren. These conflicts are there in literary sources as well as more mundane materials like the criminal trial records I’ve been investigating.

    I’ve blogged about my own parenting, so people know I’m a mother, myself. Eh! What brought me to an interest in this topic wasn’t my own experience, it was running across early modern texts that hit me in the face with historically distinct ideas about mothering and women’s natures. I expect the same comes when you write about early modern women as mothers, caregivers and the like: it’s the historical material, not the self!

  25. Historiann on 25 Feb 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Absolutely, Janice–bring on the Monstrous Mothers! I can’t wait–it’s a fantastic subject. (It surely makes my panel look pretty dull, anyway.)

    Love Ruth’s idea of (not) being a “medieval Christian” today. What, I wonder, would that be like? How could one ever find a priest or a parish to guide one’s essential medieval beliefs?

  26. Dremrigsby on 25 Feb 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Historianne, I love your blog, and have read it and lurked for at least two years. Amusingly, I began to read it as a way of staying in touch with academia while on maternity leave.

    Personal information on professional blogs serves a rhetorical purpose. I smiled for days at your, “And so, dear readers, I married him” post, which was just such a brilliant use of rhetoric.

    I will admit, though, that it occasionally sticks in my craw that you call attention to the ambiguous nature of your parental status. But, I do not feel like it is ever ok to berate you in the comments about it (one may well ask what the h-e- double toothpicks I am doing now, but bear with me for one minute). What is difficult for me in general is the way women academics are often expected to hide or ignore their family lives and just act like “everyone else” (i.e. the dudes).

    I do not think that you are enacting this tendency of academic women in your blog. It just sometimes it feels the same when I read it. That, though, is my tough nuggies. You are a brilliant writer who does not shy from writing powerfully. And that is the appeal of your writing.
    I look forward to reading more.

  27. Another weekend of links: And challenge updates « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured on 26 Feb 2011 at 1:30 am #

    [...] incredibly interesting post by historiann about whether or not female academic bloggers should mention their parental status, [...]

  28. Leslie on 26 Feb 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Is this important information to you when I write about either historical or contemporary childhood or motherhood issues? If so, why? If so, why not? Do some of you think I’m just being coy? Do any of you care?

    I have occasionally wondered why you make it a potential issue by bringing it up at all….but even as I write the sentence, I know the answer: in the way these things go, most would assume that your inclination, as a woman historian, to write about contemporary childhood and motherhood issues would come from the personal experience of motherhood, however one defines it, and that is indeed a feminist issue.

    Dremrigsby, I’m fortunate to be in an academic environment where everyone from the dean on down is supportive of faculty and staff with young families (and older families; my colleagues’ “little kids” from my first years here are starting college soon). They get it. And even if they didn’t, I don’t think I’d change my behavior.

    Historically speaking, in my field, which is a creative one, what few women there were frequently either stopped work completely once they had children, or put their entire creative selves on hold until the kid were grown. I’ve talked to some of these women, and taught them, as they struggle to restart after 20 or 25 years away. As an undergraduate, one of my professors once remarked that perhaps a reason there were so few women in the field was that women got the same sense of fulfillment (not a strong enough word) from having kids, so that once one had kids, it was no longer necessary to create.

    So if I were to blog, while I would hesitate to make it a personal blog about motherhood, out of respect for my kids’ privacy, it would be very important, from a feminist perspective, to be clear about my status as a mother.

  29. Historiann on 26 Feb 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Dremrigsby–thanks so much for your comment. (You really ARE a close reader, aren’t you? I’m flattered beyond belief!)

    I think you nail down the paradox exactly: if women disclose their parental status it can be overdeterminative of how they’re read, but if we don’t then we appear to be buckling to an alien system of values, so why shouldn’t we just put it all out there?

    In short, I think you’re right, but I have not found a way out of this bind myself. I guess I see my own slipperiness as way of being an ally to both mothers and non-mothers, because both groups of women have legitimate beefs about the way they are treated by the academy.

    And if you’re a regular reader, then you know that Historiann wants to be everyone’s friend and ally, and she wants everyone to get along and hold hands and sing! (This is a character flaw, I realize, and one not compatible with blogging in many ways.)

  30. Cordelia V on 26 Feb 2011 at 10:49 am #

    I’ll take a risk here and disagree with most of your commenters (and with you, Historiann) and admit that I find your refusal to discuss your motherhood (or childfree status) somewhat coy, and hence a little annoying. But it’s YOUR blog, and I do understand your arguments for refusing to identify yourself as either a mother/not mother.

    But I disagree with your reasoning. I do think that whether one has raised children or not makes a difference in one’s point of view and what you bring to the table in discussions online and offline (the other questions you list as litmus tests are red herrings, from my point of view, and almost rhetorical straw men).

    I agree that all experiences of motherhood (or being childfree) are culturally-determined, but they are nonetheless real experiences that profoundly shape our mentalities and choices. To say that whether one has children (or not) is irrelevant to questions of authority or position seems disingenuous to me, in some debates and contexts.

    You write that:

    “I’m qualified to write about history and politics because of my training and expertise in American history, whereas I don’t think that motherhood alone (if it pertains to me) would qualify me to write about anything other than my personal experiences as a mother.”

    And yet, on your blog and in other debates I’ve seen in the academic blogosphere, posters and commenters range far past the boundaries of things they have professional training and publications in. They (and you) post about issues that they know from the inside, as faculty members and scholars. They are speaking from experience, and not because they wrote their disserations on differing outcomes in tenure processes for men vs. women.

    In so many debates here and elsewhere, academics draw on their (always culturally mediated) experiences as well as their professional training to support arguments about a variety of issues related to our work in academia. Why not in discussions of childrearing and motherhood?

    To deny the relevance of information about whether one has (or does not have) children in such a discussion is (to me) like someone who participates in a debate over faculty governance, but refuses to identify whether he/she is a graduate student, faculty member, or full-time administrator.

    All of those are equally valid positions from which to debate these issues, of course, but one’s position and experiences will influence how and where you enter the discussion, and I think that most people would be comfortable with acknowledging what role they are speaking from in such discussions.

    Why not in discussions related to childrearing, especially when these issues intersect with our professional lives?

  31. Ruth on 26 Feb 2011 at 11:57 am #

    There’s a huge difference between saying that being a parent changes one’s perspective on things, not just on parenting (I don’t want to claim this for everyone, but I don’t know anyone for whom it isn’t true), and saying that it gives one authority to speak on the topic that people who aren’t parents don’t have. Similarly, there are many other experiences I have not had (for example, being poor, serving in the military) that I have no doubt drastically affect the way you look at the world, but that doesn’t mean someone who has experienced them has more authority to speak in a scholarly way about the way people in past societies experienced them. I understood Historiann as making a big deal about not identifying one way or the other in order to make that point.

    I do think it’s important (for me) to identify as a parent for some of the reasons Dremrigsby identifies. The desktop background on my computer is a family photo, heterosexual couple, two kids and dogs, in part because I want my students to see it when I’m loading my powerpoint; it’s a way of making a statement that women can be parents and still be feminists and professionals. I don’t do this consciously with colleagues, because I don’t feel it’s really necessary–I like to think we’re large enough that we can be family-friendly with things like scheduling and committee work without putting an extra burden on the child-free–but there are certainly circumstances when I think it’s important to identify as a parent. My scholarly work isn’t one of those circumstances.

    Anecdote alert: I was once at a social event where there was a very senior male colleague and a recently hired female colleague. By way of making conversation he asked her “Do you have a family?” I thought her response was absolutely perfect: “Why yes, I grew up in a family.”

  32. Historiann on 26 Feb 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Cordelia V and Leslie, you both make good points. I wouldn’t dream of making a blanket pronouncement about what other bloggers should or should not do–just that this is what’s comfortable for me for a number of reasons.

    I’m not sure about this, though: “To deny the relevance of information about whether one has (or does not have) children in such a discussion is (to me) like someone who participates in a debate over faculty governance, but refuses to identify whether he/she is a graduate student, faculty member, or full-time administrator.”

    I suppose one could participate in those debates about faculty governance without identifying one’s position, but doesn’t that very identification make it easy for others to dismiss one’s comments as self-interested, if not self-centered and selfish? For example, a reader of this blog likes to make patronizing comments about some of my ideas about the contemporary university because I have no experience in administration and he thinks that impeaches my viewpoint as hopelessly clueless if not actively stupid. So, it seems like readers/commenters can dismiss opinions and viewpoints whether or not we think we understand a writer’s personal or professional life experiences.

    I don’t have any straightforward answers to these questions–I just have my own style and reasons for keeping some things private.

  33. Leslie on 26 Feb 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Historiann, if I’ve learned one thing in my years in academia it’s that there are people who will always find a reason to dismiss the opinions and comments of others. Or the qualifications. Probably the most tiresome part of the job. Heard recently of a colleague dismissing advice I’d given to a student on the grounds that I “lack experience.” I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years, so it was both ludicrous and exasperating.

  34. Historiann on 26 Feb 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    I guess you’re right, Leslie! If one doesn’t like the opinion being expressed, one can always find a way to dismiss it or challenge it.

  35. Cordelia V on 26 Feb 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Leslie, I think you misread me. You wrote that “There’s a huge difference between saying that being a parent changes one’s perspective on things, not just on parenting (I don’t want to claim this for everyone, but I don’t know anyone for whom it isn’t true), and saying that it gives one authority to speak on the topic that people who aren’t parents don’t have. ”

    I wasn’t asserting that having raised children gave one *sole* “authority” to speak on the topic. It gives you *one* sort of authority: the authority of personal experience. That is exactly, precisely the sort of “authority” that Historiann and most other academics I read stand on when they post about a variety of issues that affect academics and students—they are not drawing on their own dissertations or publications, mean to say. They claim expertise based on lived experience. And so do I.

    But experience raising children isn’t the only sort of experience or authority that exists on this subject (or for any topic). There is authority grounded in professional training and published research, which some academics do have on almost any topic we can name, including motherhood.

    And there is the experience and point of view of being childfree. I have a colleague who has thought seriously about this topic (she is gladly childfree) and even published (in non-scholarly venues) on it. She speaks from her own personal experience and observations, and has her own “authority” on this topic: the viewpoint of someone who stands outside this transformative life process.

    Outsiders often are able to perceive things and contribute points of view that people caught up in the process (or subculture of motherhood, if you will) might well miss. They can perceive things that might have been normalized for those who are “inside,” and might pick up on aspects of the process that are culturally-mediated that I might have missed. They have their own “authority,” from my perspective.

    The last project I published on was a history of a group of women (from another culture) where I was definitely an outsider (as most historians are, vis-a-vis their topics). My experience (and that of the women from inside the group who read my book) was that being an outsider gave me a different and useful perspective: some of them commented that I had noticed and discussed the origins of practices that they had normalized and naturalized. I think that childfree people can have the same useful perspective, vis-a-vis mothers in our culture.

    Sorry to be so verbose! But to sum it up: I think that everyone–whether a parent or not–has his or her own sort of “authority” on this and on a variety of topics, but the type of authority must always be mediated by personal experience. It makes sense to me to own that experience and authority in debates, just as we would usually own other aspects of our identities (gender, race, educational status, etc.). Why should we shroud only our parental standing in online debates?

    I understand that discussing one’s childrearing in the academic workplace might well be ill-advised. But online, there is much less risk, which helps to explain why you see it so much more often in online discussions, perhaps.

  36. Historiann on 26 Feb 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Cordelia–I think it was Ruth who made the comment you quoted at the top of your latest comment, not Leslie.

    This is a good point: “Outsiders often are able to perceive things and contribute points of view that people caught up in the process (or subculture of motherhood, if you will) might well miss. They can perceive things that might have been normalized for those who are “inside,” and might pick up on aspects of the process that are culturally-mediated that I might have missed. They have their own “authority,” from my perspective.”

    You also write, “I understand that discussing one’s childrearing in the academic workplace might well be ill-advised. But online, there is much less risk, which helps to explain why you see it so much more often in online discussions, perhaps.”

    The problem is that people say things (and make accusations about writing in bad faith, etc.) online that they wouldn’t dare say face-to-face. (At least, this is not my experience among academic feminists anyway–the nasty face-to-face exchanges I’ve seen or witnessed were not among academic feminist women!)

    I think the blog format is largely responsible for why some of the conversations about motherhood got quite heated a few years ago. When everyone retreats into their experience of motherhood (or breastfeeding for example, as the case may be), the conversation can get pretty nasty and pretty personal (“women who say they can’t breastfeed just aren’t trying hard enough,” “I’d like to read something from a childless person that doesn’t feel like an attack,” etc.)

  37. Cordelia V on 26 Feb 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    Yup, you’re right: it was Ruth I was quoting. I am active in online communities that use a very different platform, and the comment threading here is formatted in ways that I’m still getting used to.

    “When everyone retreats into their experience of motherhood (or breastfeeding for example, as the case may be), the conversation can get pretty nasty and pretty personal (“women who say they can’t breastfeed just aren’t trying hard enough,” “I’d like to read something from a childless person that doesn’t feel like an attack,” etc.)

    Ah. How ridiculous. I have breast-fed and raised children and had extensive (and sometimes oppositional) discussions with childfree people, but God save me from ever making such whiny, silly statements.

    They should put on their big-girl pants and suck it up. But hyper-sensitive, passive aggressive comments can come in any discussion; Leslie was pretty much making the same point, upthread. It’s not a reason to distance yourself from the authority that comes from your own lived experience and vantage point (whether insider or outsider, as the case may be). Eh.

  38. Z on 27 Feb 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    @Historiann, well you’re not anonymous so if you blogged about your kids, if you had any, it could make them uncomfortable.

    I’d never thought about it, does she or doesn’t she, but upon reflection it’s more likely you have them. Married at 23 or so to someone now well employed, both now around 40 or so … you could well have found time to have kids, and many would have. Also, you refer to your husband but also to your family sometimes, so you could have kids.

    But I favor the coyness about it, the desire not to have a persona who is feverishly “balancing work and family.” Also, in most places I spend time, it is so normal to have kids that people, even women, don’t let their parent identity overtake their professional one the way it seems to do so much in the US.

    I don’t see the not mentioning of kids as a way of blending in with men – they talk about kids – I see it as maintaining an autonomous identity and also leaving your kids some kind of breathing space.

    For kids, not having every fiber of their mother’s being wrapped up in the idea that she is their mother, is so important.

  39. Z on 27 Feb 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    @Historiann, well you’re not anonymous so if you blogged about your kids, if you had any, it could make them uncomfortable.

    I’d never thought about it, does she or doesn’t she, but upon reflection it’s more likely you have them. Married at 23 or so to someone now well employed, both now around 40 or so … you could well have found time to have kids, and many would have. Also, you refer to your husband but also to your family sometimes, so you could have kids.

    But I favor the coyness about it, the desire not to have a persona who is feverishly “balancing work and family.” Also, in most places I spend time, it is so normal to have kids that people, even women, don’t let their parent identity overtake their professional one the way it seems to do so much in the US.

    I don’t see the not mentioning of kids as a way of blending in with men – they talk about kids – I see it as maintaining an autonomous identity and also leaving your kids some kind of breathing space.

    For kids, not having every fiber of their mother’s being wrapped up in the idea that she is their mother, is so important.

    *

    [On breast feeding -- what about all those wet nurses back in the day? I thought there were all sorts of women who couldn't nurse for various reasons, didn't have milk, were doing something else ... ?]

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