Unsex Mothering Responses: Mary Whisner

Unsex Mothering? Or Change Parenting?

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

Mary Whisner[1]

This weekend I attended a memorial on Saturday and read Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering[2] on Sunday.  The juxtaposition was interesting because the 93-year-old emeritus law professor memorialized, Professor Emeritus Robert L. Fletcher,[3] had defied 1950s sex roles, taking over the kitchen and much of the child care so his wife, Judge Betty Binns Fletcher,[4] could devote more time to her law firm career.  I doubt very much that Bob thought of himself as a mother (even though he baked bread) or that Betty thought of herself as a father (even though, with her law firm salary, she might have been the bigger breadwinner[5]).

If Rosenblum now has people wondering why he’s the one with the baby at the grocery store, how many times must people have asked Bob why he was doing the grocery shopping, perhaps with one or more of their four children tagging along?

I.     Taxi!

Darren Rosenblum responds to the ignorant generalization of the taxi driver (“Only the mother knows how to do this”)[6] by redefining “mother.”  If “mother” is unsexed, then a parent who “does this” is a mother.  He struggles to make the generalization true.

Another possible reaction would take Rosenblum’s lived experience as a counterexample to the taxi driver’s rule.  It’s not true that only mothers can do that because he’s not a mother and he does it.

Imagine two extended versions of the taxi conversation:

  1. Driver (seeing that a fussy baby needs something to settle her down): Only the mother can do this.

Rosenblum: Why do you assume I’m not the mother? I like to think of “mother” as someone who has a certain relationship to the child and performs a range of actions, such as dressing her, feeding her, taking care of her when she’s sick, and soothing her when she’s upset.  I do all of those things, therefore, I am the mother.

Driver: But you’re a guy!

Rosenblum: I believe that the term “mother” should be unsexed.

Driver: ?

  1. Driver (seeing that a fussy baby needs something to settle her down): Only the mother can do this.

Rosenblum: Yeah, I’ve seen families where the mother is better at calming down a fussy baby.  But I’ve also seen families where the father is better.  In my family, my daughter has two parents who are men, and we’re both pretty good at calming her down.

Driver: Hmph.  Whenever our baby starts to fuss, my wife sort of grabs her from me. She doesn’t think I can do anything right.

Rosenblum: You might both be surprised if you gave it a try.  The more time you spend taking care of the baby, the easier it will be for you to know what she needs and how to soothe her.

Which conversation would be more likely to make the cab driver try rocking his baby in his arms when she cries?

Rosenblum says that “unsexing is not the same as 1970s formalist sex-neutrality.”[7]  I think he would also say that it’s not the same as the loosening of sex roles, reflected in the 1970s album, TV special, and book, “Free to Be . . . You and Me.”[8]  But he hasn’t explained to my satisfaction just what it is and why it’s preferable to saying: people with any reproductive organs and any gender identity can (and do) lovingly and effectively care for children.

II.     Words in the Way

I am not sure why Rosenblum is so attached to “mother” and “father” as verbs.  The long-standing meaning of “father” is all about the genetic input.  “Joe fathered three children,” for most speakers, doesn’t say much about Joe’s conduct as a father, even within the stereotyped fatherly activities like teaching a boy to throw a ball and taking a girl to the father-daughter dance. 

In my speech community, I don’t hear “mother” used as a verb very often—at least not with respect to women taking care of their children.  I more often hear it in figurative senses: “My boss likes to mother us by bringing in cookies.”  “We sometimes mother our interns when they’re insecure about job prospects.”  “Stop mothering me!”

So when I read, “single mothers often engage in fathering and parenting alongside their mothering,”[9] my reaction is mostly “huh?”  It’s a little better than Rosenblum’s transformations of nouns (Rosenblum as “mother”), but the linguistic tricks still get in the way of my understanding his project.

[1] Reference Librarian, Marian Gould Gallagher Law Library, University of Washington School of Law.

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

[3] For more information on Robert Fletcher, see Robert L. Fletcher Obituary, The Seattle Times (Jan. 4, 2012), http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=robert-l-fletcher&pid=155324148.

[4] For more information on Judge Betty Binns Fletcher, see History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center, http://www.fjc.gov/servlet/nGetInfo?jid=768&cid=999&ctype=na&instate=na (last visited Feb. 5, 2012).

[5] I'm not sure about the salary.  Today partners in Betty Fletcher's former firm make several times what law professors do, but law firm economics were different in the 1960s, when she became the first woman to make partner in Seattle.  “Years ago—say, back in the ancient 1960s and 1970s—being a lawyer was a great way to make a good living, but a hard way to get rich.”  Gregory W. Bowman, Big Firm Economics 101: Why Are Associate Salaries So High?, Law Career Blog (Feb. 7, 2006).  Whatever the comparative salaries, it’s clear that the hours in the office differed for law professor and law firm lawyer.  A speaker at the memorial said that the family always ate at 8:00, when she finally got home from the firm.

[6] Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 58. 

[7] Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 81.

[8] See Free to Be…You and Me, http://www.freetobefoundation.org/ (last visited Feb. 5, 2012).

[9] Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 86.



2 thoughts on “Unsex Mothering Responses: Mary Whisner”

  1. Ms. Whisner makes a very good point in her comparison of the two "potential conversations" with the taxi driver. I think we often get caught up in our efforts to explain everything at a highly theorhetical level, when in reality changing culture will have to include more "grass roots" efforts. While it would be great to have a more gender neutral view of parental roles, sometimes small conversations with just one person can make a big difference – maybe not a culture changing, or "universal" change" – but change nonetheless. 

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