One of the first topics that you study when you do a Masters in Gender, is the dichotomy between nature versus culture. It’s an interesting place to start as the key feminist schools of thought – psychoanalytical feminism, Marxist feminism, poststructural feminism etc. – all, in essence, attempt to understand the implications of the dichotomy on women’s liberation. For example, a psychoanalytical approach to feminism argues that women are subjugated for reasons to do with language and archetypical symbols. Marxist feminists, to stick with the above examples, see the oppression of women as connected with unpaid domestic labour while poststructuralists examine discourses of power on gender-neutral bodies.
Nature versus culture is also interesting because there has been such an evolution of feminist thinking on the topic. In 1974, the feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner argued in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’ (pdf) that women’s second-class status in society was the result of women being more associated with nature, as opposed to men, who are more associated with culture. Since culture always aims to control nature, if women are closer to nature, then culture would aim to oppress women.
By the aughts, feminists had distanced themselves from nature rather than reimagine the ways to connect nature and culture. Constructed gender discourses became more of an analytical factor than biological sex, but key feminist theorists like Raewyn Connell still merged the two by saying (in her 2002 book Gender) that “Gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena”. Perhaps today, and here I extrapolate from Connell, feminists increasingly view “gender as the structure of social relations that centres on the cultural arena.” Full circle? Nature and Culture merged? In your dreams, Pedro, in your dreams.
I thought about the dichotomy when, last week in Davos, there was a seemingly clear fight between nature and culture. Among other debates, climate activist Greta Thunberg said that “From a sustainability perspective, the right, the left as well as the centre have all failed … we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.” Donald Trump, on the other hand, said, “We must reject the perennial prophets of doom … we will never let radical socialists destroy our economy, wreck our country, or eradicate our liberty.” A young, dignified woman fighting for nature, and an old, dishonest man fighting for [a specific type of] culture.
Thunberg was not the only young woman fighting for nature at the event. In their reporting of Davos, the Associated Press later cropped out black climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, from a photo which included white climate activists Greta Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson. How’s that for 21st-century post-racialism?! AP has since issues a number of non-apologies for their racially prejudiced reporting.
For the past few days, I have been listening to Angelique Kidjo’s album “Celia” (a tribute to Cuban singer, Celia Cruz) for which, to the chagrin of some, she won a grammy last weekend. In the song “Yemaya”, Kidjo honours the Yoruba goddess of the rivers after which the track is titled. In Yoruba mythology, (which by the way I frequently refer to because it’s political rather than religious to me), Yemaya (or Yemoja, Yemanya, who is also often conflated with Olokun, the goddess of the sea and oceans) is the essence of what we can call the Mother Instinct. She is the epitome of Woman Power. The Matriarchate. The protector of women’s affairs both as nature (!) and culture (!) are concerned.
Maybe the age of Yemaya (or Gaia, Isis, Asase Ya, Freya, Mary, etc.) is arriving. The Mother Instinct is not merely about maternity or being loving and nurturing. Those elements have been omnipotently glorified by male-dominant culture to keep women unthreatening. By depriving women of agency outside of the maternal, women are more easily relegated to serving patriarchal lineages through procreation and caretaking. But the Mother Instinct also informs women’s subjecthood, as erotic beings, as creatives, as divine symbols, as people who protect, resist, revolt and rebel. The Mother Instinct is, as Thunberg–who embodies many of its qualities–says, “to ACT as if you loved your children above all else.”
The Mother Instinct is, therefore, also an important source of self-regard for the feminist struggle, which should not neglect the political elements of the Mother Instinct. A feminism that is informed by the Mother instinct does not encourage hierarchical and binary thinking but rather the kaleidoscopic inseparability of nature and culture, symbolically represented by the mother-daughter bond. The featured image, Harmonia Rosales’s Creation of God, is powerful precisely because it shows a natural relationship we so rarely see depicted in popular culture, that of the mother and daughter – deified. We neglect to theorise mother and daughter relationships in Gender Studies because, despite our politicised ambitions, we remain loyal to the patriarchal discourses of father and son. In Rosales’s image, the mother passes on the ultimate gift to her daughter – subjectivity.
The Mother Instinct is not only a source of collective subjectivity and self-regard, but it is also a source of individual self-love. When seen from a feminist perspective, yes, the Mother Instinct helps you love and nurture yourself in a maternal way, but it also urges you to protect and stand up for yourself with agency and personhood. When activated, the Mother Instinct prevents you from allowing anyone or anything to mistreat you. It discourages you to self-negate in order to appease another’s power and desires. If anyone compromises you – your partner, lover, boss, the system, etc…, in any way big or small, you don’t make excuses on their behalf, you advocate for YOU; your ways and desires.