The Political Economy of Motherhood: How Race, Poverty, and (Non-) Equal Rights Shape Society

This panel will examine how various political and legal frameworks—the criminal legal system, child welfare system, the employment market, and historic regimes of slavery—interact to punish poor and working mothers and to prevent them from full participation in the demos. Barriers include a lack of affordable child care, increasingly high standards of expected parenting and the concomitant demonization of already marginalized women, double duty/swing shifts of elder care and child care, unequal burdens at both work and home, and the lack of equitable pay and advancement opportunities in virtually every type of job. Although these issues impact all mothers in their ability to fully participate as workers and citizens hierarchies of race and class compound the harm for low-income women of color. Whether or not women are tied to a man, specifically by marriage, also impacts their vulnerability to negative state action.

Underlying this political economy of motherhood is both a lack of state support for caregiving and families, with services often linked either to punishment or perceived desert as with drug-using pregnant women and working war widows, respectively; as well as a deeply entrenched view, even among female activists, that a woman’s primary, essential role as a mother is incompatible with her full and equal status in the public sphere.

Panelists will discuss a variety of topics centering on these themes including: the prosecution of women using drugs during pregnancy for ‘fetal assault,’ justified in part for the women’s ‘own good’; the ongoing denial of Constitutional equal rights for women, in large part due to their role as mothers first, and concomitant legal and financial support for working mothers; the punishment of low-income mothers (disproportionately women of color) for ‘child neglect’ that is either typical, harmless parenting conduct or the consequences of a lack of resources and services; and the way that slavery’s legal construction of families and non-families continues to resonate today by according status to certain types of families while excluding others, and treating poor families—particularly low-income Black mothers—differently than affluent ones.

All of these papers demonstrate the double-bind of motherhood—it is used to deny equal pay and political status, but also places women under intense scrutiny to (often single-handedly) provide and care for their children.


Wendy Bach (University of Tennessee College of Law), Criminalizing CareDownload
Jessica Dixon Weaver (Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law), Slavery and the Origins of Family LawDownload
Cynthia Godsoe (Brooklyn Law School), Neglecting Mothers aka An Abolitionist Horizon for Child WelfareDownload

Julie Suk (Yale Law School, CUNY Graduate Center), Working Mothers and the Postponement of Women’s Rights, from the 19th Amendment to the ERA