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The Intellect of Motherhood

Mother Playing with Child by Mary Cassat, 1899
What else do you do when you are cooped up due to a blizzard but read? I wish I could say I made a dent in my reading pile of books. I am afraid my reading was much more work related. This meant that I spent more time than usual perusing the New York Times. It was there that I found this essay by Carol Hay, an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the gender studies program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. In her piece entitled Girlfriend, Mother, Professor? Ms. Hay argues that cultural stereotypes of women hinders the work of female professors. She claims that students go from seeing a woman professor as a possible girlfriend when she is young to a stand-in for their mother as she matures.

I never taught college students during my younger years so I cannot speak to ever having been viewed as a girlfriend by students. However, the college students I teach now are very close in age to my own children, and yes, they do sometimes approach me as a mother. But I also respond as a mother because that is who I am. Their pencil breaks during an exam and they don't have a spare. They come to class with the sniffles and don't have a tissue. You know what? I have both and I gladly offer it to them with a reassuring smile. A professor who teaches the other section of my course is  a woman about my age and has experienced the same thing. We laugh about it. It doesn't make us less effective teachers. In fact it might just make us better teachers as students are less afraid to approach us with questions.

Perhaps because Ms. Hay is immersed in gender studies she is programmed to see any difference between men and women as a problem where I see it as a feature, not a bug. But she also has a very demeaning view of motherhood. This quote, in particular, ruffled my feathers:

If I were to serve as their mother, I’d have only compassion and unconditional acceptance to offer, not intellectual lessons.
It was then followed by this claim:

In our culture mothers dispense hugs, not pearls of wisdom, and when they do venture to have opinions we’re likelier than not to roll our eyes at them for being nags or scolds.

Really? That is what mothers do? Someone better tell my kids because that is not what they have seen. In fact, I don't know many children who have seen this. Hugs and pearls of wisdom are not mutually exclusive. Lots of smart women are mothers and very capable of dispensing both.

The tough love I meted out to my children prepared me to face a tearful student who forgot an assignment and tell her that I cannot let her make up the work. I will not bail her out. She must take personal responsibility for her academic performance. Ms. Hay laments that standing firm leads students to think of her as a shrew. So be it. I do not seek to be the best friend of my children nor the best friend of my students. The mature students appreciate this and respect me. The less mature students are not going to grow if I worry about how popular I am with them.

I will concede that a mother may exercise her authority differently than a father. But that does not mean she is any less authoritative or any less respected. Mothers are not meek. Mothers are not mentally bland. If Ms. Hay believes that having the aura of a mother is an obstacle to her being an effective professor, it is because she does not understand the intellect of motherhood.


My wife was a college prof for about 40 years- never heard her allude to any of this.

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