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Mothers as Feminist Mentors

Modeling female leadership in our families

Source: Chiplanay/Pixabay

Motherhood and Work Series — Part 1

Women are often encouraged to find feminist mentors in our workplaces or professional organizations. Yet many of us find our first feminist mentors in our mothers; one reason being that we learn important feminist lessons by watching our mothers navigate professional and family life. Theory on the practice of feminist mothering affirms this role as an opportunity to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of oppression (O'Reilly, 2008).

Like many professional women of her era, my mother was what Chernin (2003) termed a pioneer in the workforce, immigrating into new territory. As a physician to underserved communities, she committed herself to delivering quality care for families living below the poverty line. Her modeling of a fulfilling career in public service was excellent feminist mentoring. Throughout my training as a clinical psychologist, she gave valuable input on managing systems of power and fighting for social justice in health care. Her work also provided significant resources and privilege that helped make my career in clinical psychology possible.

A key source of guidance that a feminist mentor may offer is in balancing career and family with a sensitivity to gender (Benishek, Bieschke, Park, & Slattery, 2004). At times, my mother felt the need to overcompensate for her status as a woman in the workforce, taking on extra responsibilities, saying yes to every opportunity, and tirelessly climbing the status ladder. In an article on feminist mentoring, Chesney-Lind and colleagues (2006) described the difficulties of balancing home and work while working for social change, as women are often expected to take on more in both domains. Some feminists argue that women experience added pressures and guilt surrounding childcare and housework to "make up for" their work outside the home (Senior, 2014).

Perhaps one strategy to address these challenges is for feminist mentor mothers to illuminate the impact of gender oppression on labor disparities, and work towards setting boundaries and seeking fairness in expectations and demands. Mothers who are feminist mentors can demonstrate that “work and home are not separate, but interconnected spheres of social life” (McGuire & Reger, 2003, p. 55). The notion of work-life balance may even be a false dichotomy that positions one sphere in opposition to another, setting women workers up for failure (Sandberg, 2013). I've learned that balance may not be represented in an even split, but rather look different for each woman, shifting over time. Feminist mentor mothers can help us to understand the complicated and individualized nature of this "balance."

Theory on multicultural feminist mentoring reminds us that these relationships are not without conflict (Benishek et al., 2004). I remember feeling a mixture of pride and envy when I heard many of my mother's trainees commend her with the praise: “You’ve been like a mother to me." As a feminist, I've always wanted to support her as a woman in the workforce, mentoring other women. As her child, I've sometimes wanted more of her time to myself. Ultimately, her empowered mothering has motivated the development of my relationships with other female role models, allowing me to weave together a network of feminist mentorship.

I am grateful to my mother, who has offered me some of my most critical feminist teachings. She has instilled in me an awareness of racism, sexism, and classism, as well as a commitment to activism as a feminist psychologist. My mother’s feminist mentoring reminds me that the personal is political, and that our mothers' values are embodied in our work and private lives. Our mothers’ stories and lessons may be one of the greatest sources of feminist mentoring, inspiring our passionate struggle for equity and justice.

[This post is the first part of a series on motherhood and work.]

*Adapted from the original publication in The Feminist Psychologist


Benishek, L. A., Bieschke, K. J., Park, J., & Slattery, S. M. (2004). A multicultural feminist model of mentoring. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 32, 428-442.

Chernin, K. (2003). In my mother's house: A memoir. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam/Cage.

Chesney-Lind, M., Okamoto, S. K., & Irwin, K. (2006). Thoughts on feminist mentoring: Experiences of faculty members from two generations in the academy. Critical Criminology, 14, 1-21.

McGuire, G. M., & Reger, J. (2003). Feminist co-mentoring: A model for academic professional development. NWSA Journal, 15(1), 54-72.

*Mizock, L. (2014). Mothers as feminist mentors. The Feminist Psychologist, 41(4), 7.

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in. New York, NY: Knopf.

Senior, J. (2014). All joy and no fun: The paradox of modern parenthood. New York, NY: Ecco.