Notes on The Neutered Mother, or Toward a Queer Socialist Matriarchy
9 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2018
Date Written: 2018
This tribute to Martha Fineman focuses on her pathbreaking 1995 book, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies. Reading it from the perspective of queer theory, I first consider its unqualified demand for the abolition of marriage, and then turn to its commitment to refocusing family law on the figure of the Mother—a predecessor of the vulnerable subject, a theoretical construct that has come to dominate Fineman’s more recent work. The most obvious way to read The Neutered Mother as a contribution to queer theory is to focus on its unequivocal and unqualified call for the abolition of marriage—a cause once embraced by queer politics, albeit in the last millennium. Envisioning a world without marriage, Fineman calls for the state to provide support to all caretakers who are looking after intimates, whoever those intimates may be (lovers, ex-lovers, children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors, or anyone else)—a vision we might characterize as a kind of “queer socialism.” Unlike more state-centered twentieth-century socialisms, it does not make the state directly responsible for those who cannot take care of themselves. Rather, it recognizes a value in allowing intimates—various kinds of alternative “families”—to carry out this care while giving them the right to claim support from the state. While Fineman’s utopian vision suggests that even a single woman can constitute a family on her own, the paradigmatic single woman in The Neutered Mother is in fact a single woman with a child: a mother. This makes sense insofar as Fineman wants us to focus on the economic, social, cultural, and political conditions that structure relations of dependency. Yet Fineman’s figure of the Mother—with a capital “M”—is not simply one particular instance illustrating a more universal phenomenon of dependence. Rather, the Mother/Child dyad is exemplary, with Mother as a metaphor and a symbol indexing an ethical ideal. The gendered nature of this metaphor may give pause to a queer reader, yet it is precisely for that reason that it has potentially unsettling implications for how we think about both parenting and dependency. In Fineman’s view, men, too, “can and should be Mothers.” That is to say, a father, properly construed, is a male Mother. The transfiguration of the gender-neutral notion of parenthood into an omnibus category of Motherhood thus carries potentially queer implications. Is a nurturing father a queer Mother? What kind of rearrangement of gender does he represent?
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation