Lehigh CIE attended the “Mothers of Values: Enhancing the MDGs” session on Friday, March 4, 2011. A primary theme of the session focused on “values reorientation” within the gender equality policy agenda to promote and protect women’s traditional roles as mothers. As part of the session, her Excellency, Joy U. Ogwu, Nigerian representative to the United Nations, was honored as an “Excellent Mother of Values” for her work to advance the status of women. In her speech following receipt of the award, Her Excellency positioned her role as a mother above her contributions in her home nation through her work as an academic and policy-maker. Her Excellency encouraged women to “retain their femininity” and that “as women, nobody can put us (women) down unless we accept it”. While both points were well received among the session’s attendees, her comments and the focus of this session bring to light an important debate in the gender equality discourse: how do women promote and protect their essential “femininity” and unique roles as mothers, while advancing and legitimizing their status in other social sectors including education, employment and political participation?
This debate has received much attention throughout the feminist literature, but the modern women’s rights movement has positioned the advancement of women’s roles in economic and political sectors above the protection of women’s roles as mothers. As women’s participation in political, economic, and academic sectors continues to advance, many women still feel their achievements have come at a price; most notably their ability to participate in these arenas at the expense of roles as mothers. This sentiment was echoed by several participants in the session, one who notably thanked the panelists for bringing this perspective to the NGO CSW.
The politicalization of motherhood in the gender equality discourse, as evidenced in this session, is particularly interesting in light of the conference theme – promoting the advancement of women through work and education. The roles of women as mothers and first teachers are often marginalized because they reflect more traditional gendered social norms and values. If the measure of equality is to promote women’s participation in all sectors of society, women who choose to become mothers above or in concert with their participation in political, social, and economic sectors should also be honored and reflected in the policy discourse without fear of the loss of legitimacy.
(Quote used in title is attributed to William Ross Wallace, 1865.)