Ruddick - Headnote


A Love Affair with Reason

Sara Ruddick opens her Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace with her anecdotal “love-affair” with Reason and her struggles to maintain an identity as both a feminist and a philosopher. In this book she compares her own experience as a mother to the traditional championing of reason over emotion in philosophy, and she comes to recognize that her adulthood alienation from Reason resulted in part from the sexual politics in which it had become ensnared. Like Carol Gilligan, Ruddick has identified a discourse in which the female experience had been excluded and disrespected. Her book exposes the inconsistencies found in these dichotomies between masculine and feminine epistemologies using both a practicalist conception of truth and, in the second half, Standpoint Theory.


A Practicalist Conception of Truth

Central to Ruddick’s ideas about maternal practices and epistemology is a practicalist conception of truth which argues that there is no truth by which all truths can be judged and that epistemologies and criteria for truth arise out of practices. Practices are engaged in by multiple agents who construct shared aims and rules, thus indicating that thought itself is social, unable to reach some objective or transcendent point of view. Ruddick identifies her debt to philosophers like Wittgenstein and Habermas and emphasizes that there are many different ways of thinking and that these epistemologies arise out of their practices, rather than the other way around.


Ruddick is the first to use this conception of truth to talk about women and mothers and about how the practice of mothering begets certain ways of thinking. According to Ruddick, the identification and response to a child’s vulnerabilities and demands for protection, nurturance, and training create maternal agents who thus become engaged in a maternal practice. The epistemological standpoint of mothers, their reflection on their methods and navigation through children’s conflicting demands, arise out of the shared goals of all those who are responsive to the demands of a child.


Maternal thinking and Non-violence

Ruddick begins Part III describing Nancy Hartsock’s Standpoint Theory, which emphasizes the political condition of mothers and the opposition between the work they do and the work that is valued in society. In Standpoint Theory, a standpoint is an engaged epistemology of the world that is opposed to dominant ways of thinking. According to Hartsock, the standpoint is superior to the dominant view, although this does not concur with a practicalist conception of truth. Ruddick appropriates standpoint theory in order to show that a feminist standpoint can be seen as valuable because of its adherence to and existence within the physical realm, and thus its opposition to an abstract militant epistemology.


Maternal thinking reveals the destructiveness of war; as Ruddick explains, the discourse surrounding war and peace is traditionally divided along gendered lines: a soldier’s death is opposed to a child’s birth, male violence to female connection, destruction to love. Essential to Ruddick’s theory is the idea that the abstractions of militant practices and epistemologies directly counter and negate a mother’s goals to protect, nurture, and train a human being. Although she recognizes that women are not all essentially peaceful, and that sometimes mothers themselves can advocate or enact violence, she believes that maternal practice is a viable and natural resource for a politics of peace.



While many criticize Ruddick for adhering to a rather normative mothering experience, her theory presents an epistemology of mothering that had previously been ignored or rejected. Like Carol Gilligan, Ruddick addresses a specific epistemology that had earlier been labeled as “feminine” or “underdeveloped.” Ruddick was able to shift attention away from the biological or institutionalized version of motherhood and instead emphasized the actions and practices that mothers actually engage in.


The following selection is from Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Part III,

Chapter 7: “Maternal Nonviolence: A Truth in the Making” (pp 160-184).




Ruddick - Further Questions

1. A common critique against Ruddick concerns her normative and limited presentation of the practice of mothering. Do you think her thesis would be weakened by a subjective perspective? Would a different point of view yield different conclusions?


2. Who do you think Ruddick’s perceived audience is? She claims her aim to is to recruit all mothers to a politics of peace, but her book also looks to attract a scholarly audience. She also uses examples that might not be understood by non-western mothers (horse jockeys, ice-cream, getting a high school degree).


3. How might Ruddick’s conception of maternal practice address present-day military issues such as drone warfare, rape of female soldiers, or the increasing lack of care for veterans?


4. Is Ruddick’s delineation of maternal practice, especially as found in Part II, descriptive or proscriptive? Why is this question important to Ruddick’s methodology?


5. Ruddick uses multiple examples of other practices to compare the practice of mothering: nurses, surgeons, parking attendants, scientists, etc. Is it problematic that almost every comparison Ruddick makes is to a career or a job? Should we be thinking of maternal practice in the same way we do a practice in which the practitioner is compensated with pay?