Women in HerStory

“A Brief Tribute to Motherhood Icon, Sara Ruddick” by *Dr Mama, Amber Kinser

Though yesterday I was of many words, today I am of few.  I was onstage just minutes before delivering a Women’s

Sara Ruddick

History Month lecture called “The Truth about Motherhood and Feminism” when I looked briefly at my phone for emails.  There I saw the announcement from the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) that a maternal studies icon had passed:  “Sara Ruddick—philosopher, writer, peace activist, mothering theorist and legend, dies at 76.”  (Here are two sites that MIRCI offered to learn more about Ruddick; one from a feminist philosophers blog and one from yesterday’s New York Times article.)  When I got to the part in my lecture about how feminists have worked to reconceptualize our ideas about family and women’s “nature,” I had to fight to keep from tearing up because Ruddick’s contributions to rethinking these ideas have been so wholly significant to motherhood studies and to me; I really don’t know where we’d be without her.  She took a core concept like “maternal instinct” and developed an entirely new way of thinking about and talking about mother knowledge and wit.  Certainly it’s the case that mothers typically know what their children need and how to care for them, how to motivate them, how to anticipate their needs, how to help them, how to foster their preservation, their growth, and their social acceptability, to use Ruddick’s terms. But Ruddick didn’t buy that all that comes naturally to women.  She didn’t buy that knowing all that comes from some internal, biological place—a place that might be likened to where our body’s automatic urge to blink or pursue a flight-or-fight response comes from.  It comes, she said, from women’s engagement in the “discipline” of mothering—mindful, thought-full, investigative, observant learning, effort, and practices that are meticulously crafted through day-to-day interactions with children. Women learn to think about their children and respond to their children according to that knowledge, and this is not captured in the idea of “instinct.”   So she developed the idea over time of “maternal thinking,” first in her 1980 article by the same name in the academic journal Feminist Studies, then in her full-length book Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Maternal thinking captures the work and effort, and the connected and engaged practice, of mothering that explains how mothers come to know what they know.

Anyone who can effectively upend as firmly entrenched and reductive an idea as “maternal instinct” is an icon, I say.  And I’m not the only one.

The idea of maternal thinking helped us to figure out how women have different kinds and amounts of mother knowledge, allowed us to seriously grasp that men can be as capable of nurturing care of children as are women, and, importantly, provided a framework for giving women the credit they have more than earned for the training and disciplined practice they undergo as mothers and for the difficult and daily work that this implies.  She also argued that the influence between mothers and children is not unilateral, transferring from the mother to the child, but that the influence is reciprocal.  That the mother changes in interaction with the child, that the mother becomes a differently thinking, acting person through mothering.  That the kind of thinking and acting that emerges from mother knowledge is antithetical to war and violence, and that therefore mothers have much to teach the broader social world about living in peace.

Sara Ruddick’s contribution to mothering and motherhood studies was extensive and went worlds beyond these ideas.  For me, right now, I’d like to offer up a most impassioned and humble ‘thank you, Sara,’ for radically changing the way we think about motherwork, mother knowledge and wit, and the role of biology in it.  You rocked our world.

BIO:  Dr. Mama (Amber Kinser) is a writer, feminist mother, professor, and speaker who lives in Tennessee.  Follow her on Twitter @DrMamaWit, check her out on Facebook, and see her webpage.

Kinser writes for the MamaBlogger365 series each Thursday at the Museum Of Motherhood, Mamapalooza and Mamazina Magazine.


About M. Joy Rose

Woman, Mother, Human, Rocker, Educator, Activist Director; Museum of Motherhood President and Founder; MaMaPaLooZa Inc. a company by Women, Promoting (M)others for social, cultural and economic benefit. Dedicated to a more educated, more peaceful, more musical planet.


4 thoughts on ““A Brief Tribute to Motherhood Icon, Sara Ruddick” by *Dr Mama, Amber Kinser

  1. What a great blog post! I have been telling others about her since you mentioned this yesterday during your lecture and letting people know that someone other than Elizabeth Taylor passed yesterday, although she did great things too, Sara Ruddick is not a name that I had often heard before reading your book and has made great contributions to the maternal thinking world. Great lecture yesterday! Keep on blogging!


    Posted by Molly Ford | March 24, 2011, 18:32
  2. Thanks Molly! So much to say about Ruddick and I feel like I know so little, finally, about the extent of her impact. I almost didn’t write the tribute becase of that. But I decided I had to say SOMEthing to pay homage. BTW, I’ll be bringing the lecture to ETSU, as it turns out. Wednesday, April 6th 3:30-5, in Rogers-Stout Hall room 102. You’ll have seen it twice so I don’t expect you’ll be there, but some of the folks yo told about Ruddick might be interested.

    Posted by Amber Kinser | March 24, 2011, 19:04
  3. Dear Dr. Mama,

    What a brilliant remembrance of Sara Ruddick. I want to read more. I will order the book you mentioned and Google away until it arrives. Thank you for highlighting her work. I’d love to hear your lecture! Sincerely, Suzi

    Posted by suzi banks baum | March 25, 2011, 16:15
  4. Suzi, Thanks for your post. Yes, I’d highly recommend taking in some Ruddick. When you do, contact me if I can clarify anything. About the lecture. I am planning to post a recording of it in April. For a few more days, you can access a recording of the live stream of the lecture on my website at http://www.amberkinser.com. Because it’s a recording of a streamed video, it’s not as clear as the one we’ll be posting next month, but it’s up there now for viewing. Would love to know your thoughts (or anyone else’s who reads this and sees the lecture).

    Posted by Dr. Mama | March 26, 2011, 13:19

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