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Reflections on Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking
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Reflections on Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking

Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace remains a strange work in terms of genre some twenty years after its initial publication. In some ways it could be classified as part of an outlaw genre, not belonging to the genre of academic philosophical writing or to autobiography or to political theory. It isn't really a mixture of all these either so much as representing a collision course of various strands of thinking that insist on putting pressure on one another. It could be said with justification that the theoretical parts seem somewhat contradictory, and indeed, Alison Bailey wrote something like that some years ago, pointing to the unhappy relation between the two theoretical principles of the text. While the first half elaborates an idea of motherhood drawn from practicalist view—the practicalist conception of truth—the second derives a politics from feminist standpoint theory. The two principles reflect the title of the book. Its difficulty, however, lies in the colon. There is no obvious conjunction that could substitute for that colon, but the second clause in no way elaborates the first.

The first section of the book in some ways invites us to use its findings and speculation to justify that colon. Ruddick writes of her "love affair" with Reason, which remains a true love outside the temporal and spatial context of the family unit. Once children appeared, the affair was substituted for the raising of children, and the woman's role as mother thus got legitimated even as the affair became less passionate and its flaws were revealed. Less volatile than Reason, the legitimate mother dwelt on her practices of "preservative love," "fostering growth," and "training" into some degree of social conformity, or at least comfort. Some have criticized Ruddick for her middle-class, American, urban, liberal, secular, and white version of the practices of motherhood, though frankly it is unclear to me that practically speaking these are the tenets of American, white . . . motherhood, anymore than it is black, brown, Asian, or queer. In other words, the practices of motherhood from which Ruddick derives her theory seem less ethnocentric than illusory [End Page 302] components of the practice that in many ways limit the practice of motherhood and understand reproduction as centrally repetitive rather than a relation of alterity. No less love is in evidence with either, but the framework Ruddick adopts is one of legitimacy over passion, and normative training rather than resistant flowering. The practicalist conception of truth allows her to develop a model of maternal thinking that is not bound by the body or essentialist. However, it replaces the body with an idea of motherhood built through a language of legitimacy.

All the more surprising, then, that the politics emerging from maternal thinking be understood as resistant, or at least the basis of a call to resistance. If Ruddick acknowledges and to some extent eschews the stereotype of bellicose and active male and peaceful and docile female, she nonetheless employs feminist standpoint theory to legitimate a peace politics that draws on the practice of maternal thinking. She sees peace politics as resistant to the masculinist and as specifically feminist. Ruddick anticipates critics who may call her naive because the very tenets of maternal practice seem apt for nationalist and xenophobic preservation. But she does not enter into adequate discussion of the violence it often takes to maintain perpetual peace. The word "feminist" is invoked to show how the practices of mothers (rather than empirical distinctions between them) make it important to maintain a "sturdy suspicion" of violence even in moments of peace.

The experience of being an academic mother married to an academic father in many ways is written as the yoke of that colon—what yokes the two parts of the title together is a story of a broken affair (with Reason) and attentive reproductive maintenance of the nonmilitaristic future (with kind husband). Feeling as if one glances at the dynamic of a couple at the moment a baby arrives, the hope for the future of the family unit becomes also (classically) the hope for the future. Ruddick's examples range...