feminism: motherhood vs. sisterhood


I know the election is probably what everyone is focusing on right now, but I’m not ready to write about it yet. So here’s another post about global feminism. If you read my “why don’t we confront western feminism” post, then you probably know that this semester I am taking an independent study class about global feminism and challenging western perspectives in feminism. I’ve been writing and reflecting and LEARNING so much in that class, that it’s been difficult to find the right time to write a post. However, I want to share with you some of the big things I learned in the past few weeks, specifically about these ideas. Before I took this class, I didn’t realize that there was anything special about sisterhood. I learned that The western idea of sisterhood and the African idea of motherhood and Latin American idea of motherhood are all different, and expose this false idea of a “universal female experience”. In this post, I’m going to talk about global feminism and western feminism, and the different perspectives on motherhood. As always, the books and resources that sparked this post will be at the end of the post, but a book list will be coming with the completion of my class.

disclaimer. Something important to consider is that each section of this blogpost relies on the other sections for meaning, so reading one section may not give a good view of what I’m trying to say/argue. Please look at and approach this post holistically and feel free to comment down below with any questions or contrasting ideas. 

sisterhood from the western perspective. Derived from the American nuclear family model, it assumes that all women suffer under the same oppressive force, the father, and therefore that there is a universal female experience. It homogenizes the experiences of women and fails to account for differences in identity, social, and political contexts while promoting an inaccurate idea that all injustice is the same and experienced the same. The domination of sisterhood, a western idea, in feminist discourse has been heavily rejected by women outside of western societies. 

sisterhood maybe in another (modern) perspective. In the modern western perspectives, we might think of sisterhood as this unity, race-blind method of western feminism. I’m not saying that your concept of sisterhood is bad, the main point of this post is to discuss the origins of sisterhood, the enforcement of sisterhood in western feminist discourse, and the idea that sisterhood isn’t an accurate way to describe feminism across cultures, countries, societies, etc. 

sisterhood’s appropriation. What I’ve mentioned before is the white, western, 1960s usage of sisterhood. However, when you really dive into the origin of the actual word “sister” in social organizing, you’ll see that it was actually appropriated, by the white savior feminist, from the Civil Rights Movement. This is a really important and complex topic in itself, so instead of going into the much-deserved detail of it, I’m leaving this article for you to read as well as some of the sources at the end of this page. 

motherhood overview. Motherhood consists of the notion that our experiences as women are different and valid. It also leaves room for women to learn from one another while acknowledging that our perspectives are different and our feelings of oppression aren’t identical. Additionally, the concept of motherhood has a different cultural connotation than the negative western idea. In many Latin American societies, being a mother is also seen as linked to survival, respect, leadership, and growth. This is why women in Ecuador, Argentina, and Latin America as a whole, negotiated their gender identities as mothers as a way of empowerment and development. 

motherhood in Africa. If you haven’t read my western feminist post, I think that will give a little background to what I am about to say. I had never considered the contrasting ideas of motherhood and sisterhood until I read the book, “African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood”.

motherhood in Latin America and the Caribbean. If the African Women and Feminism book introduced me to the ideas of motherhood and sisterhood in a global feminist context, then my readings on Latin America really drove the point home. I am going to focus primarily on Ecuador and Argentina, although I think the idea of motherhood is present in many more Latin American and Caribbean countries. They all have different meanings and significances, relative to the countries and cultures, but they do have an overall connection to motherhood and the rejection of the Western idea of sisterhood.

motherhood in Argentinian feminist organizing. During a period of economic adjustment and globalization, Argentinian women transformed motherhood into an organizing strategy that helped to unite mothers, women of different generations, and provided a framework for women’s organizing overall. In a confrontation with the military government, women’s organizing created the idea of “social motherhood”, and the Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo movement grew. Social motherhood focuses on the bonds and unity of mothers, rather than blood relations, and the idea aided women in demanding military visibility regarding the disappearances of their sons and women. While this was only one of the first occurrences of motherhood reaching the realm of politics and activism, motherhood became a dominant feature of future movements and generations.

what is strategic essentialism? It is the employment of the notions of gender (such as motherhood, sexuality, and identity) to achieve organizing goals and was a key organizing strategy of women and feminists in Ecuador.

motherhood in Ecuador. Ecuador is perhaps the best example of the utilization of motherhood in achieving women’s causes and advocating for themselves Strategic essentialism. Newly implemented neoliberal policies were hurting poor urban women at a disproportionate rate, necessitating action, and organizing. Their strategic essentialism arose because of specific government welfare initiatives that heightened women’s self-perception of themselves as mothers. The Ecuadorian government created community programs that relied heavily on poor women and their volunteerism. They realized that they had a shared identity as mothers and used motherhood as a way to unite against the neoliberal policies that were hurting them all. They renegotiated their gender by transforming the gender roles that society gave them into a way of uniting and raising their visibility as mothers and citizens, integral to the survival of significant communities.

what are the double-sided effects of the idea of motherhood? There is a double-sided effect of their re-essentialization of identity in that it can appear to reinforce gender stereotypes and the image of women as mothers. Additionally, it reinforced the state’s assumption of “maternal volunteerism” while being the catalyst for mobilization. Overall, in understanding their social and historical context, it is evident that their need to survive motivated their mobilization and allowed them to challenge power structures by creating a shared identity. This shows the significance of context and how context shapes the meaning of the term motherhood. 

if different societies have different meanings, what’s the big issue with sisterhood? While both ideas are valid, considering the cultural and political context that gave way to them, I think there is an issue with the western notion of sisterhood (or at least the origins of it). Everyone views sisterhood differently, so I’m talking about the specific definition of sisterhood, derived from the nuclear family model, which assumes a universal female identity.

conclusion. Maybe this is all general feminist knowledge, but when I started reading and learning and making these connections, I felt like my brain and mindset were opening as it had never done before. I had a lightbulb moment or explosion moment ( I really don’t know how to describe it). This is exactly what I have been looking for and missing, the broadening of my understanding of the world and feminist history.

If you agree with me or disagree, or maybe just want to share your perspectives please do! Don’t feel afraid to share a contrasting opinion and don’t think that you are “hurting my feelings” or anything like that. I think this discussion is so important, and this is a platform to engage in discussions about complex ideas and to share perspectives. I may have sounded like this is my definitive opinion on this topic, but this is just what I learned and what I got out of my research. I still think my conceptualization of motherhood and sisterhood has room to grow. There is so much to this concept that I haven’t been exposed to and I would love for someone to show me (in the comments or by email) Thank you!


Please keep in mind that some of these books talk about sensitive, although relevant and important, topics that may challenge your comprehension of western feminism. They may even gear you toward an intersectional and global feminist path.

White lady Sisterhood 

African Women & Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood

Gendered Paradoxes: Women’s Movements, State Restructuring and Global Development in Ecuador

Women’s Activism Latin America and the Caribbean: Engendering Social Justice, Democratizing Citizenship 

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