‘‘We are Volcanos’’: Transgressing the Silence of Motherhood
Recently I was due to present my paper ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for: The Feminisation of Resistance in Venezuela’ at the Historical Materialism Conference in Sydney. I intended to speak about how shanty-town women are taking centre stage in the reimagining of revolutionary politics in which the place of home, the community and a politics of care are central. However, I was unable to attend.
As a single mother in a new land with two daughters the hegemonic political economy of care left me emotionally, physically and logistically unable to participate. The feelings I experienced were connected to a re-living of being silenced and were intertwined with disappointment, powerlessness, sadness and guilt for letting others down.
Here as always, “the personal is political”. This problem is not simply a one-off difficulty, but part of the very way in which our society is structured. In facing this difficulty, I belong to an entire class of people who are similarly excluded and silenced from spaces connected to the public sphere which assumes a masculinised subject without caring responsibilities.
Thus I write to give voice to my silence (which is neither coincidental nor exceptional) by exploring the connections between the paper I was going to present and the conditions of (im)possibility for (single)mothers to appear as political subjects.
Mothers the world over are still treated as primarily responsible for childcare, and other reproductive labour. This continues to be the case, despite a global trend towards women doing paid work; work which is often of the most precarious and casualised kind. This results in mothers having to put in a double shift of paid productive labour and unpaid reproductive labour.
Additionally, with state support being cut back, companies and institutions unwilling to be flexible, and support from friends and family corroded by generalised overwork and precarity, the communities of care which could sustain women's political work are eroded. Thus (single) mothers are increasingly facing caring labour alone.
There are commonalities in this situation between North and South. The political economy of care which forced me to miss a conference is also affecting (single) mothers worldwide. Across sectors and regions, women are expected to meet the task of caring for themselves and others, usually without the resources to do so effectively. These conditions leave little time, if any, for self-care, play and pleasure or the nurturing of women's political voice.
Thus many mothers experience a political economy of care that is either commodified and so augments inequalities between women, or careless and so leaves them isolated and exhausted. This ultimately reinforces and reproduces in ever more pernicious and divisive ways the historic gendered exclusions of mothers, particularly poor and single mothers, from the public sphere.
Resistance: The Venezuelan Experience
Yet this is not the only story of the politics of motherhood. In Venezuela mothers are at the heart of a reinvention of revolutionary politics. From the election to Chavez as president in 1989, women have been valued and recognised as political subjects.
As Ana Laura Pereira a Venezuelan film maker explains, ‘historically women in Venezuela have been the core organising force in their community, ensuring their families’ survival through their labour and responsibility. Under Chavez they went from undertaking this work silenced and in the shadows to the dignified position at the head of citizen marches and at the centre of social movements’.
However, it would be mistaken to assume that the silence of women's work pre-Chavez implied an absence of political subjectivity and creativity. As Adrienne Rich, in her poem ‘Cartographies of Silence’ describes,
'Silence can be a plan
the blueprint of a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence'
By delving into the silences we can begin to make visible the conditions of possibility that enabled mothers to appear from the historical shadows.
Shanty-towns like La Vega in Caracas have a history of feminised poverty, political repression and exclusion and ways of community life in which the nuclear family never became hegemonic (as in many Latin American urban contexts) but rather women headed households were common.
Throughout the 1980s women organised struggles over water, health care, housing and education. Through these experiences they formed structures of solidarity, communities of care and ways of organising politics in which they took power and social reproduction into their own hands.
Pivotal in building the conditions of possibility of the emergence of mothers as political leaders and facilitators was largely invisible labor-intensive community organizing.
This, as Mariela Machado, community organiser describes ‘began from the everyday practice of making communal meals cooked and eaten in the street in which neighbours who had previously never spoken began to talk and learn about each other’. This helped create spaces of dialogue and connection amidst collective experiences of violence, fear and isolation.
It included cultural projects involving art, music and dance which created space for laughter and play and practices that reclaimed dignity, self-respect and belief in one’s creative abilities.
It also involved bible study groups that sought to develop a collective understanding of experiences of poverty, violence and oppression through a critical reading of the New Testament. Here women could begin to speak their experiences and find their voices by being listened to and valued.
Such invisible and feminised everyday practices of politics fostered the conditions for giving voice to silence.
From the election to power of Chavez subaltern mothers came out from the shadows and began to speak in their name. Chavez supported this by opening political possibilities to validate, make visible and consolidate women’s political work and social power.
As Meysalun Cage a cultural activist explains 'Chavez legitimated and supported the possibility of dissent for women...he opened non-conventional political spaces and ways of politicising space which enabled me to grow and learn'.
He disrupted 'normal' performances of the political by embodying politics in colloquial Spanish, emotion and the realities of everyday life. For this he was labelled irrational, demagogic, and an authoritarian populist manipulating the poor, particularly women, for his own political gain.
Yet of course accusations of authoritarian populism only hold if we assume the historic silence of shanty-town women as absence of political subjectivity and agency. Such silences were of course much more than this. For as we have seen silence came from the inability to speak, the refusal and inability of others to hear and the risks involved in speaking truth to power.
Shanty-town mothers have played pivotal roles in developing and nurturing the spaces and practices of politics opened by Chavez.
They have been key organisers in Misiones (social programs), Consejos Comunales and movements such as the Comités de Tierra Urbana (CTUs). They have developed innovative forms of popular power which take government decrees beyond their initial, often limited, objectives.
This includes developing the ability of communities’ to control and organise initiatives in health, education and habitat and the generalisation of methodologies based in popular education in which a democratising of knowledge and the power of decision are enacted.
This revolutionary politics of motherhood breaks social isolation and fragmentation by shifting the space of politics firmly to the place of the community and the objectives of politics to a democratisation of social reproduction.
This is premised upon a politics of care in which women’s participation is enabled through steps towards collectivising childcare and other aspects of domestic labour.
It has transformed the practice of politics in which the embodied experiences of oppression, dignity and solidarity are the starting points of political understanding. This blurs the rigid divisions between the private and public realms as children and young people are ever present in political spaces as witnesses and participants.
There are of course contradictions and tensions in this process as women often take on the triple burden of paid, domestic and political work leaving aside their own self-care and nurturing. As Meysalun reflects, ‘entire families have been in the street, marching, organising. This kept the people alert and highly politicised…but to the detriment of the space of intimacy, the private and to an extent there was a banalisation of women’s bodies and intimate needs’
Nevertheless women and mothers are reinventing a revolutionary politics by changing the place of politics, multiplying the subjects of politics and redefining the practise of politics.
What can we learn?
What can we learn from these struggles about the creation of the conditions of possibility for the emergence of (single) mothers as political subjects?
There are at least three key lessons that stand out from this experience.
Firstly, it is essential to take the politics of care seriously so as to enable the emergence from the shadows of mothers who face multiple everyday oppressions and forms of silencing. This is essential because as Ursula Le Guin so astutely wrote when women have voice, '"We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains”.
Such a politics of care cannot reinforce a feminised ethics of care in which women shoulder the burden of caring for the community and devalue their own needs and desire. Rather, it involves unlearning commodified and careless political economies of care and learning new democratic and collective ones.
Secondly, it is important to expand how politics is imagined and practiced. This means valorising and naming as political those everyday cultural practices that currently exist which bring women together in safe spaces which nurture their creativity, self-confidence and voice and build the foundations for communities of care to emerge.
Such political valorisation also opens the door to a reorientation of political practices away from a focus on the visible macro-events of politics like demonstrations and rallies towards a practice of organising in the everyday of our communities.
This can be through cultural practices that are relevant and meaningful to the communities in which they develop. For example, creating spaces of communal cooking, play and care and developing projects that involve art, music and dance. It can also be around questions of social reproduction such as occupying vacant buildings and providing housing to all, developing local knowledges around health and wellbeing and creating popular education projects.
Thirdly, we have to reconfigure the performance of the political. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, that the ideal political subject is understood to be a disembodied ‘rational’ subject without caring responsibilities.
Politics embodied in the messiness of real life which transgresses the boundaries between the public and the private, politics and life and the mind and the body is transformatory.
To disrupt the taken for granted of who is a political subject and how they enact politics takes courage and such courage can only be built educating our fear together. In this way we can transform the silent and invisible work of mothers into the dignified voices of women’s political agency and social power.
In this way and through these types of practices I have begun to transform my silence, rooted as it was in the inability to speak and fear of speaking truth of power, into voice.
It is urgent that we recognise how these practices of politics are not secondary for radical transformation; they are fundamental. As the Venezuelan experience teaches us, it is though nurturing the conditions of possibility for (single) mothers to appear as political subjects that a revolutionary politics for our times can emerge.
Sara C. Motta is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia.