“Learning to be daughters includes learning to expect and respect maternal thinking” Maternal Thinking, p. 39
In the past few months I have lost two Sara’s in my life, one is the most central to my very existence, my beautiful 92-year old mother. This loss is most recent and raw. The other is a Sara that entered into my life sometime in the early 1980’s when I read an article she wrote in a collection she had edited with Pamela Daniels called Working It Out.
My own mother, Sara, or Sala as she was called, was not an intellectual. I never saw her sit down and read much—in fact I rarely saw her sit down. She was all activity, always doing and making. But my mother was, as one person put it, “wise about life.” I learned more from her than from any book I’ve read, but that I read and I studied was in large measure due to her labor, her sacrifices, and her force in my life.
The other Sara, or Sally as we all knew her, was a vital intellectual influence –not quite another mother (she was not that much my senior)—but an intellectual older sister. When I read Sally’s contribution in Working it Out, “A Work of One’s Own” I felt a deep kinship. I felt as if someone had peeked through a pinhole into my heart and mind and laid it out on paper. Sally’s early “love affair with reason” as she called it in Maternal Thinking, her love of Spinoza, her self-doubts and self-alienation as a woman in engaging with philosophy—doubts and alienation that grew more profound as she entered the professional stage of her life and as she simultaneously became a mother—all tracked my own development. In “A Work of One’s Own” she spoke of her writing block—again this was a problem I faced—and how that block dissolved once she became pregnant with her first child. I could scarcely believe I was reading words written by another, for this strange correlation, was similar to what I had experienced—and yet it seemed too odd to believe that there really could be a causal relationship. I realized that both of us were struggling, as I supposed many other women who entered the profession were, with the woman that we did not want to deny in ourselves, and the philosopher in us who was not supposed to feel what a woman does. If we were to be philosophers we could not be women. Were we women, we could not be philosophers. That unfulfilled woman part, which felt so suppressed, warred with the intellectual and told us no we mustn’t write or we will become a man. Could it be that confirming the woman part through motherhood freed up the intellectual—and so allowing the barrier to writing to fall?
That “woman part” was for me the identification with my own mother. The intellectual part was for me my identification with my father. And maybe it was so with Sally as well. While I then went forth and stayed far away from anything maternal in my writing, working on the philosophical and linguistic puzzles of metaphor, Sally’s work took her further and further away from the academic philosophy she had studied in graduate school. She had the incredible foresight to enter into a new dialectic between the maternal and thought. While I compartmentalized, she fashioned an entirely different synthesis. She saw in the maternal activity the enterprise of reason and thought. She understood maternal activity not as an accumulation of tasks, or a tie to immanence as Simone de Beauvoir would have it, but as a practice which generates its own standards for truth, it own rules for moral conduct and thought, and its own set of virtues. Understood not as instinctive, “natural” behavior, but as a distinctively human practice with goals tied to the biological realities and demands of a growing human being, the idea of mothering as requiring thought distinctive to the practice seems obvious—which, of course, it was not. As striking as this insight is, Sally took it one step further still. While denying the idea that women are inherently peaceful, Sally squeezed the drop of truth out of that old bromide. It was not that women were peaceful, but rather the practice in which they were so often engaged, mothering, has within it resources that can be useful for forging a peace politics. To mother is “to choose life.” To engage in war is “to choose death.” There is a profound incommensurability, even if mothers sometimes do not choose life and war is sometimes the only clear way to achieve values that affirm life.
When I heard Sally give her paper, “Maternal Thinking” at an early SWIP meeting in Princeton, I was astonished. I had been teaching a course I insisted on called “Women and Philosophy” instead of “Feminist Philosophy” because although it seemed clear to me that philosophy could be used to clarify many of the issues that feminists were concerned with, I did not see how this could be “feminist philosophy.” Feminists were simply using the same philosophy as did non-feminists, but they were applying it to feminist ends. But in Maternal Thinking I heard the stirrings of something else: it was using the experiences, expectations and values that were largely confined to women within the traditional sexual division of labor to remake philosophy. This was something I could call feminist philosophy. It simultaneously brought me back to the work of mothering I too was engaged in. Additionaly, it caused me to reflect on the mother I had and the mother I had internalized. How could my mothering inform my philosophizing? What had my mother taught me that I could use to enrich my philosophical thought? Maybe that sexual division of parental labor I had held to was misconstrued?
The woman who forced me to rethink what the work of mothering was had, on the surface, little in common with my own mother. My mother, Sala, was a Polish Jew who went through the Second World War and survived the Nazi Labor and Extermination Camps. Sally was American, a Protestant who never personally experienced war, but who spent her life struggling against militarism. Sala’s education ended at what we might call middle school and she was then apprenticed to a fine dressmaking establishment. Sally received a PhD from Harvard in philosophy. Yet Sala valued education with a passion and Sally had a real respect for the labor of hands as well as minds. Both women exhibited all the “soft” virtues of kindness, cheerfulness, graciousness, but both were fierce—fierce in their loves, fierce in their sense of self-respect, fiercely courageous and fierce exponents of the importance of care.
There is a toughness, strength and ferocity in Sally’s writings that belies the constructions people seem to want to put on it. They say, oh what claptrap sentimentalism to say that mothers always love and protect their children, promote their growth, give them all the tools they need to succeed in society. Mothers routinely abandon, neglect, abuse, and misuse their children. Mothers are not peaceful. Look at how much damage they do to their children and how militarist many women are. But these detractors simply have not read Sally’s work. There is nothing sentimental in a work that conceives of mothering as “a struggle against violence.” One chapter in Maternal Thinking begins with a sympathetic account of a mother who envisions murdering her children. Sally has no use for the images of the mother as the sacrificial lamb.
My own mother recounted to me the story of a woman whose daughter I knew who, in running from the Nazi’s with a baby in her arms decided to kill her child so that she, at least, had a chance to escape. I was horrorified and declared that I could never do such a thing. My mother’s response was “Don’t judge. You never know what you might do in such a situation.” Her was my kindhearted mother condoning a mother’s murder of her own child. She understood something of a mother’s love, but she also knew what it was to survive in unspeakably terrible situations.
The steely core, the clearsighted perception, the unyielding reasoning of Sally’s work and governing my mother’s life are in the service of the value, practice and virtue of care.
Care is what connects the spirits of Sala and Sally. Care was at the center of Sala’s being. She survived the camps not by turning away from caring for others, but by making that her principle concern. When she saw a woman in need, who was suffering from the ardors of working in the munitions factories, she lied to the SS officers saying that she needed an extra pair of hands and that so and so was an expert seamstress, when she knew that she would have to teach her the basics of sewing. Sala injected the value of care into my marrow.
But it was Sally who taught me how to THINK about care. She showed us all the way to express care as a moral value, a moral practice, a moral engagement whose implications went even beyond the vitally important care of intimates. Yet it was the warmth of spirit, along with the high intelligence, that made her work compelling. Even as she thought about care, you felt that she cared about care.
A friend of mine said of my mother that she was a maternal force to be reckoned with. Sally’s force of intellect made maternal care a force to be reckoned with—even for philosophers—when she put forward the idea of maternal thinking. Sally gave us permission as philosophers to reach into the maternal within us and to draw upon its strength to inform, to reform and to transform our philosophy; and not to stop there. But to use it help create a world save for our children.
The two Sara’s shaped me as a person and as a philosopher. I shall miss them terribly.