Unsex Mothering responses: Ariela Gross

Unsex Parenting, or, What’s So Bad About the 1970s?

A Response to Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a Culture of New Parenting

Ariela Gross

John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History, University of Southern California Law School

I am extremely sympathetic to the idea of “unsexing” parenting, as a matter of both feminist theory and practice.  In theory, I remain extremely fond of 1970s-style sex neutrality, and I am not entirely convinced that this unsexed mothering is all that different from good old sex-neutral parenting.  Let women find their inner masculinity!  Let men release their inner nurturing mom!  In practice, I have felt persecuted by the new maternalism, by self-righteous gurus of attachment parenting and old-fashioned assumptions still embedded in most school cultures regarding team moms, classroom “parents,” and, as my older daughter coined the term in elementary school, “moms who work for kids.”  (She came home one day and told me, full of wonder, “Did you know there are moms who just work for kids??”)  I would love to move our culture along towards expanded notions of mothering and fathering—or at least back to some 1970s ideals. 

But I am curious about what is at stake in the title of Darren’s provocative piece, Unsex Mothering.[1]  Why ditch fathering so quickly?  Is it so hopeless to change the image of what it means to father that men need to call themselves moms in order to take on primary parental roles or status?  I am a fan of gender bending efforts to try on different genders and sexes.  My younger daughter was a boy for about three years, down to the boxer shorts, and she had a lot of fun with it—we have some great pictures of her wearing a kippah and praying on the men’s side of the Wailing Wall.  And I don’t want to end up in the dystopia where we are all unsexed in the sense of sex-free, sex-less automatons.  But I am puzzled about a plan where we maintain gendered, stereotyped roles of “mother” and “father” but just let different-sexed people bounce around between them.  Wouldn’t we want to encourage families to not designate a primary parent rather than merely take turns between serving that role? 

It’s not really a surprise that the Scandinavians are so much better than we are at unsexing, because it’s clear that an unsexed utopia would be expensive—it requires true state support for families, which is not something we are very good at.  I am extremely struck, in our rarefied corner of the 1%, at the continuing rhetoric of women being “able to afford” to stay home with their children, as though working only for kids were the most desirable state possible, with only financial considerations standing in the way.  Too often buried underneath the language of choice—the lucky women who can choose to stay home—is the way that sexed mothering continues to bolster capitalism.  One of the nice things about this piece is the way Rosenblum recognizes the “interrelatedness of regulation of the family and the market” and the necessity of shaping not only family law and policy but also corporate law and economic policy.  If there is one thing that has changed since the 1970s, it’s the increasing unattainability of middle class status for most working parents, and the growing chasm between the 99% and those of us who write law review articles.  In order to make unsexing possible for most Americans, we will need to reverse that trend.



[1] Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 57 (2012).




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