Subversive Mothers: Stop Rocking the Cradle and Start Rocking the Boat

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Home, though depicted in western culture as a tranquil haven from the world of work, is more likely to be experienced by women as a place for a ‘second shift’ of work and a site of repressed anger and frustration. The second shift refers to the hidden shift of housework and childcare, primarily carried out by women on top of their paid employment. It is physical, mental and emotional labour which demands effort, skill and time but is unpaid, unequally distributed and largely unrecognised.

How might we disrupt the lopsided structures that exploit this? Where is our power? What does resistance look like? This paper presents mothers as ‘the original subversives’[1]. Beginning with Iris Marion Young’s essay about her mother’s rejection of housewifeliness, I discuss the power in maternal experience to disrupt the rigid expectations of women in the home.

Striking is the longstanding recourse for workers challenging the conditions of their labour. However it is difficult to go that far where care work is involved: besides the emotional difficulty there is a not-unfounded fear of being seen to fail.

Mary Douglas offers the idea of dirt as powerful in its transgression of order and embrace of ambiguity. Women’s ‘dirtiness’ has connotations of misconduct, whether of sexuality, domestic skill, personal hygiene or appearance. Similarly, women are often presented as belonging to a realm of disgusting stuff, and closely associated with what is unpalatable and should be hidden.  Disgust then might be seen as a confrontation with what we cannot, or will not, accept.

An act of resistance might be allowing ourselves to fail: to drop our standards and drop the ball. Perhaps it might also mean turning towards that which defies and threatens order.  Disorder produces power, and this is threatening and dangerous.

[1] Rose (2018) p18
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 18 Mar 2023
EventEvil Women: 4th Global Interdisciplinary Conference - Prague, Czech Republic
Duration: 18 Mar 202319 Mar 2023


ConferenceEvil Women
Country/TerritoryCzech Republic


  • mothers
  • dirt
  • resistance
  • disgust
  • home
  • art
  • photography
  • disorder
  • ambiguity
  • threat
  • housework


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