Women who have internalized patriarchy, in order to secure their status and lives –perhaps as an obligation– have to have children. Women who have internalized patriarchy not only cannot think of another role other than maternity, but also accept the subordinate position which comes with the naturalization of maternity, and voluntarily sacrifice themselves to this role.

I want a woman  who will write that the food is cooked, the laundry is dried, and the baby is born as she waits for the food to cook, laundry to dry, and the baby to be born, to come into this world. I also wish her to hold it together while doing all these things. Additionally, I wish that she takes good care of the baby. I want her to build a house out of boredom and keep it up. Someday this would happen.”

Didem Madak

This piece tries to tell those who are addressed by global call on the occasion of Mother’s Day –keeping in mind the size of the economic market behind this call and maternity– that the established ideas about maternity do not mean maternity. It claims that maternity is a constructed structure that has been removed from naturalness; in short, it endeavors to argue that maternity is not what it seems. Hence, this text points at the discursive field of patriarchal institutions of maternity.

Since the female body is not situated outside of fertility within patriarchy, which expands its promises with technological developments and keeps women and men under pressure, the issues that arise from this situation result in losses for the society as a whole. Maternity in the patriarchal system which exalts fertility is a discursive field to which different meanings that change over time are attributed. Elisabeth Badinter offers two definitions for maternity; the first one pertains to the zygote remaining intact as it transforms into a fetus and the period of pregnancy, and the second addresses the ensuing process which involves childcare, compassion, and education. Diana Gittins, on the other hand, also offers two definitions of maternity, and she talks about the continuation of maternity as a social phenomenon with the termination of the biologically based maternity with childbirth. This situation leads us to the conclusion that maternity is a social process which differs from society to society and culture to culture; and it is described as “instinctive, intuitive, cultural, economic, political, social, historical” myths within the framework of patterns defined by society. These myths strengthen the discursive fiction of maternity and show the limited space occupied by biologically based maternity in discourse. The fact that women can bear children and give birth makes them seem closer to nature than men. The body-mind dichotomy, which dates back to Ancient Greece and is sharpened with the Enlightenment, associates light, mind, knowledge, creativity with man and darkness, emotions, body, and nature with women.[1]

As the meanings attributed to maternity can change with social differences, pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, breastfeeding, and childcare are also patterns that can change. As a matter of fact, Mary Douglas, offers us some examples examined by anthropologists who approach pregnancy, fertility, and the unborn child in the context of “dirty and dangerous”: “Among the Nyakyusa a similar belief is recorded. A pregnant woman is thought to reduce the quantity of grain she approaches, because the fetus in her is voracious and can snatch it. She must not speak to people who are reaping or brewing without first making a ritual gesture of goodwill to cancel the danger. They speak of the fetus ‘with jaws agape’ snatching food and explain it by the inevitability of the ‘seed within’ fighting the ‘sees without’. The child in the belly… is like a witch; it will damage food like witchcraft; beer is spoiled and tastes nasty, food does not grow, the smith’s iron is not easily worked, the milk is not good. Even the father is endangered at war or in the hunt by his wife’s pregnancy.”

The meanings attributed to maternity varied with respect to different social norms and historical processes. Prior to the industrial revolution, women’s love of children was considered a sin, and the high mortality rates during childbirth and pregnancy resulted in not wanting to have children and the presence and acceptance of wetnurses instead of breastfeeding. While many children meant more labor force before the industrial revolution, after the industrial revolution, we can say the same for factories. Thus, maternity gained meanings according to the position of the child. During this process, with the “new maternity” of the 18th century, which Badinter defines as the period of a great break, the understanding pertaining to maternal love, hygiene, and care has changed. This process which dates back to the feeding bottles used in ancient Egypt and culminated in today’s assisted reproductive technologies and in vitro (outside the body) fertilization, lead to the introduction of new adjectives such as “good, altruistic, heroic, successful” alongside contrary ones to the different meanings attributed to maternity. Women re-constructed the subjectivity of maternity –which they actually inherited from previous generations– in the experience, knowledge, and discourse which they found themselves in culture and society. With this approach, from everyday practices to the theoretical frameworks and fields of discourse, women’s positions of maternity and related femininity are structured. However, since this construction does not take place independently of the patriarchal heritage, the discourse, “a woman who gives birth is a woman” is reiterated. Maternity, as the result of mutually felt and lived experiences that begin with childbirth, is defined as the occupation and profession that a woman is obliged to undertake within patriarchy.

Sexist ideologies define and offer maternity to the society as the only status for women. The fact that childbirth depends on the anatomy of women, as argued by Ferhunde Özbay, is the first reason given for the differentiation between gender roles and the inequality between the sexes. Thus, Özbay claims that the status of a woman cannot be considered independent of fertility. Deniz Kandiyoti, on the other hand, argues that in the Middle East, China, India, and East Asia, women enter into male-headed households via early marriage, and are subordinated once more on account of the sex of their own children and age hierarchy. She suggests that having a son means gaining seniority and a change of status within the family and adds that the occupation of this relatively strong position by women ensures the internalization of this order and reproduction of patriarchy. “If a woman cannot give birth to a child, this is deemed her fault. Giving birth to a child –preferably a male one– is so important that a woman can wear the white headscarf (Kofi) which is a symbol of her status only after becoming a mother. Women who do not give birth, despite their success in other work, always feel as a second-class person.”

Maternity instinct or care work

Maternity as a practice of ways of thinking peculiar to being a mother involves a series of work such as protection, raising and educating children. Although these works are not specific to women, they are articulated as if they require specific emotions and instincts. However, the learned discourses of maternity which are constructed to represent patriarchal existence articulate these works as if women have ready-made instructions in their hands. “Mothers, in addition to being ‘self-sacrificing’ mothers, are obliged to be both the first teachers and therapists of the children as well as homemakers.” In cases where there is no mother, then these works are listed under the category of “works that should be undertaken” by the female members of the family or the society. And women, believing that maternity is instinctual, act accordingly. Simone de Beauvoir, who initiated the maternity discussions during the intermission between the first and the second waves of feminism and who also played an active role in linking these two waves, states that it is because the biological structure of women are geared towards the reproduction of the human species, their “bodily destiny” is complemented with maternity, and the roles associated with maternity are seen as the natural duty of women. However, she argues that there is no “maternal instinct” that can be applied to the human species. In order to make her point that maternity is not instinctual she gives the examples of women who have to go to a physician to learn whether or not they are pregnant and who have figured out that they are pregnant from the bodily signs that emerge in later stages of pregnancy. Elisabeth Badinter also does not accept the concept of “maternal instinct” and asserts that maternity is a learned and acquired behavior. Regarding maternity in terms of an instinct amounts to accepting maternity that is assigned to women.

According to Badinter, maternal instinct emerges as a result of a cognitive revolution that took place during the last quarter of the 18th century. “While women were assigned the duty of being a mother first and foremost, a legend which managed to preserve its vitality two centuries after was created: maternal instinct…” Maternal love or natural instinct as a new concept precludes the discussion of all the difficulties and the problems that maternity in reality causes. It also prevents the realities of women during periods of pregnancy, childbirth, or child raising from being visible. According to Coward, the maternal instinct “prevents us from understanding the real appeal, satisfaction, and traps of maternity and from assessing whether the fantasized satisfaction actually corresponds to reality. It makes it difficult for us to be honest about the difficulties and problems we may encounter. If everything can be explained in terms of a maternal instinct, then would not all the problems we encounter as mothers be our fault?”

There is no indirect relationship between women’s biological structures, organs and the concept of maternity which determines women’s social and cultural status. The reason behind this judgement lies in the argument that each and every woman needs to be a mother. Likewise, against the arguments that each and every woman needs a child, on account of her maternal instinct, radical feminists argue that “one is not born a mother, but becomes one”. The attitude of women, who are not born as mothers, towards children depends on their situation in society and how they approach maternity.[2]

The concept of maternal instinct has a natural ring to it, and if, drawing on this concept, it is asserted that every woman would want to be a mother, having children for women remains within the framework of naturalness. However, women who define maternity in terms of instinct, act as if they hold the property rights of their children. Women who own property exist beyond this naturalness as women who “own”. This dilemma posits women as masses who do not desire to remain on the other side of the maternity discourse and who proliferate this discourse. While having a child is a legitimate and natural right and desire, it is not an area suitable for discussion since it is a necessity for the continuation of the human species. On the other hand, distinguishing the act of having a child from this kind of legitimacy and articulating one’s relation to children in terms of “property” relations render the property owner open to criticism. Considering the discourses and practices of motherhood, whereas the social response to maternity is founded within the framework of sacredness is an effective point for articulating the relationship of women to their children in terms of possession, the scope of this perspective is determined within the patriarchal system. Thus, women who don’t/cannot give birth, even if they display “behaviors worthy of respect” such as goodness, altruism, and helpfulness, they will not be regarded as such.

In our society, the child provides the power and influence of the parents and other family members. Children carry the meanings of consolidation of cultural identity, a continuation of the lineage, and thus, families see their children as an insurance for the future. “The child is at the center of life” and the child which is a property is located at the center since it is seen as the guarantor of the future, the continuation of the lineage, and the provider of status for the parent.

In lieu of conclusion…

When we speak of a patriarchal system, we also mean a social system in which the sexuality and fertility of women are also controlled, and this system primarily protects men’s interests. Tayfun Atay defines masculinity as follows: “masculinity, as the sex, is a collection of practices that determine how men think, hear, and act in social life, and it includes the roles and attitudes expected from a man just because he is a man. However, unlike the practice of femininity, masculinity is institutionalized a practice of power.”

In the words of Fatmagül Berktay, masculinity as a practice of power, “concretizes the deep-seated fear of men who have constrained women to their reproductive function on account of their biology and ‘nature'”. Berktay articulates this fear as “the fear of damage and destruction that will inflict damage on male domination as women  succeed in transcending the place and borders that are allocated to them and in breaking free of the male domination!” Infertility, an adjective that is ascribed to women, emerges precisely at this point, with the fear of losing power.

Women who have internalized patriarchy, in order to secure their status and lives –perhaps as an obligation– have to have children. Women who have internalized patriarchy not only cannot think of another role other than maternity, but also accept the subordinate position which comes with the naturalization of maternity, and voluntarily sacrifice themselves to this role.


Atay, Tayfun, Çin İşi Japon İşi Cinsiyet ve Cinsellik Üzerine Antropolojik Değiniler, İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul, 2012

Badinter, Elisabeth,  Mother Love: Myth and Reality, Motherhood in Modern History, Macmillan, 1st edition 1981

Beauvoir, Simone de, Le Deuxième Sexe, Gallimard, 1943 (The Second Sex, trans. Howard M. Parshley, Jonathan Cape Publishing, 1953)

Berktay, Fatmagül, Kadın Olmak/ Yaşamak/ Yazmak, Pencere Yayınları, İstanbul, 1998

Coward, Rosalind: Our Treacherous Hearts, Faber&Faber, 1993

Gittins, Diana, The Family in Question, Palgrave, 1993

Kandiyoti, Deniz, Cariyeler Bacılar Yurttaşlar, trans. Aksu Bora, Feyziye Sayılan, Şirin Tekeli,

Hüseyin Tapınç, Ferhunde Özbay, Metis Yayınları, İstanbul, 2007

Özbay, Ferhunde, Kadının Statüsü ve Doğurganlık, Türkiye’de Kadın Olgusu, haz. Necla Arat, Say Yayınları, İstanbul, 1995

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] Fatmagül Berktay, Tek Tanrılı Dinler Karşısında Kadın: Hristiyanlık’ta ve İslamiyet’te Kadının Statüsüne Karşılaştırmalı Bir Yaklaşım, Metis Yayınları, 2000, p. 129-147

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, Kadın “İkinci Cins” Evlilik Çağı, trans. Bertan Onaran, Payel Yayınları, İstanbul, 1993, p. 145.


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