Unsex Mothering Responses: Elizabeth M. Schneider


The Conundrums of Unsexing Parenting

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

Elizabeth M. Schneider[1]

Darren Rosenblum’s interesting and provocative article, Unsexing Mothering: Toward A New Culture of Parenting,[2] raised many issues for me, personally and intellectually.  As a long-time feminist legal activist and biological mother who has argued for, cared deeply about, experienced, and observed many attempts at egalitarian parenting, the idea of a new “culture of parenting” is intriguing.

Rosenblum writes from the perspective of a new parent in a same-sex marriage.  He starts with his own experience of being in the world with his daughter and social responses that view him as inadequate because he is not the baby’s “mother.”  Reading between the lines, Rosenblum wishes in some sense to be the baby’s “mother” (also true in his prior article, Pregnant Man,[3] poignantly describing the surrogacy process which led to his daughter’s birth), so he can experience social legitimacy as a (or the) “primary parent.”  But he also wants to “unsex” mothering so that there will be a greater fluidity of parenting roles for all parents.  These are issues which feminist legal scholars and activists have struggled with for a long time both in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

I see this article in its historical context—part of a long process of different cultural phases dealing with unequal sex roles in parenting, starting, as Rosenblum describes, with Frontiero[4] and its progeny in the 1970s. Early cases that established parental leave—like Danielson v. Bd. of Higher Educ.,[5] brought by a father who wanted that opportunity, which I worked on at the Center for Constitutional Rights as a law student—were important.  Despite many victories for parental leave, men in general did not actually take leave for many complex reasons, including ones that Rosenblum discusses.  Many men in heterosexual couples simply did not want to assume substantial parental responsibility—not just on leave but also within the ongoing relationship.  In a sense, I think many younger women today in opposite-sex couples have given up on aspirations of equality in parenting (or at least that is what I hear from students and others I know in this generation).  This is one aspect of the “new maternalism” that Naomi Mezey and Nina Pillard describe.[6]  Here, Darren’s discussion of the operation of the Swedish system of parental leave is useful and instructive.

There are many obstacles to unsexing mothering, including not only “biosex” but deep cultural conditioning and socialization that is historically rooted but continues in all of us.  This includes not just parenting, but caretaking more broadly.  Women are trained to be caretakers, not just mothers of children, but for others.  I don’t want to overstate this, but in many opposite-sex couples, the woman is caretaking for elderly parents or parents of the partner, other family members, ill siblings or friends as well.  Many men simply don’t want to (or don’t know how to) take on caretaking responsibility for others.  Martha Fineman’s move from the “neutered mother”[7] to her recent work on vulnerability and the human condition[8] tells that story.  It is also true that while mothering may be critical to many women’s identities, mothering is also a loaded place of enormous blame, huge risk, and self sacrifice that is experienced differently by women in different situations, as I detail in my book Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking.[9]  And then there is male privilege.  How do all of these factors operate differently in same-sex, or transgender relationships?  Are there differences in relationships of gay men, lesbians or transgender individuals?  How do race, class, ethnicity and age (just for some other factors) impact these experiences?  As Rosenblum wants to be considered a “mother,” do others want to be considered “fathers”?  Hard to know, I think.  But there is no question that Rosenblum has opened a conversation about the ways in which same-sex marriage and/or parenting by gay men can open the possibility of more fluid gender roles in parenting.  I am delighted to be part of this ongoing conversation.

[1] Rose L. Hoffer Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School.


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


[3] Darren Rosenblum, Noa Ben-Asher, Mary Ann Case, Elizabeth Emens, Berta E. Hern­andez-Truyol, Vivan M. Gutierrez, Lisa C. Ikemoto, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Jacob Willig-Onwuachi, Kimberly Mutcherson, Peter Siegelman, & Beth Jones, Pregnant Man?: A Conversation, 22 Yale L.J. & Feminism 207 (2010).


[4] Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973).


[5] 358 F. Supp. 22 (S.D.N.Y. 1972).


[6] Naomi Mezey & Cornelia Nina Pillard, Against the New Maternalism, 18 Mich. J. Gender & L. __ (forthcoming 2012).


[7] Martha Fineman, The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies (1995).


[8] Martha Fineman, The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition, 20 Yale L.J. & Feminism 1 (2008).


[9] Elizabeth Schneider, Battered Women & Feminist Lawmaking (2000). 



1 thought on “Unsex Mothering Responses: Elizabeth M. Schneider”

  1. Just a thought on the observations about men not taking advantage of paternity leave – in addition to the motivations Professor Schneider describes, I've also heard anecdotally that many men fear being seen as uncommitted if they opt to take more than a week or two of paternity leave. Many might personally want to but feel that certain cultural expectations (from American to workplace-specific) hamper them from doing so. 

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