Virginia Held – Judson Memorial 10.29.2011

I am often reminded of how transformational Sally’s early paper on maternal thinking was (Ruddick, 1980). For many of us, it led to thinking entirely differently about activities like bringing up children, and then about what we ought to be doing in all sorts of contexts.

Sally and I exchanged views quite often in those days, as later, as we gradually tried to integrate our experience as mothers into our thinking lives. It was a slow process.

As I tried to describe it, before this I did not imagine that what I did as a mother was in any way relevant to what I tried to do as a philosopher, or even as a thinking being, and I think I was somewhat typical in this respect. The culture as so far developed, and philosophy, when they paid any attention to mothering at all, assimilated it to the sphere of ‘nature,’ with human mothers supposedly bringing up children by instinct, or “naturally.” That was certainly not how it felt, but until Sally articulated a better view, we had no idea of its philosophical relevance.

I had tried the year before to apply principles of equality to the question of why women were expected to do all or most of the childcare and housework. That paper appeared in a collection dealing with issues of the family of which Bill was one of the editors, which impressed me greatly. My discussion now seems to me very primitive and unsatisfactory, but the hostility it elicited from many male philosophers who heard that paper was an indication of how little the situation I was challenging was being questioned.

Sally meanwhile was applying Habermas’ idea that thinking grows out of practice to the activity of mothering. The way she described the standards of this practice, and the “preservative love” involved, was eye-opening. Like the best of philosophy, she was showing us something we had been looking at every day but not seeing, as, in the early days of this wave of feminism the gender domination that was all around us suddenly became visible. After Sally’s discussion, thinking about mothering and care gradually changed the way many of us think about the whole of morality, including issues of politics, economics, law, and society, as it did the issues of war and peace about which Sally was so especially concerned (Ruddick, 1989).

Remarkably, this one paper of hers changed almost everything.


Ruddick, Sara. 1980. “Maternal Thinking,” Feminist Studies 6: 342-67.

Ruddick, Sara. 1989. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press.