1st Edition

Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities Rewriting the Sexual Contract

By Petra Bueskens Copyright 2018
    336 Pages
    by Routledge

    334 Pages
    by Routledge

    Continue Shopping

    Why do women in contemporary western societies experience contradiction between their autonomous and maternal selves? What are the origins of this contradiction and the associated ‘double shift’ that result in widespread calls to either ‘lean in’ or ‘opt out’? How are some mothers subverting these contradictions and finding meaningful ways of reconciling their autonomous and maternal selves?


    In Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities, Petra Bueskens argues that western modernisation consigned women to the home and released them from it in historically unprecedented, yet interconnected, ways. Her ground-breaking formulation is that western women are free as ‘individuals’ and constrained as mothers, with the twist that it is the former that produces the latter.


    Bueskens’ theoretical contribution consists of the identification and analysis of modern women’s duality, drawing on political philosophy, feminist theory and sociology tracking the changing nature of discourses of women, freedom and motherhood across three centuries. While the current literature points to the pervasiveness of contradiction and double-shifts for mothers, very little attention has been paid to how (some) women are subverting contradiction and ‘rewriting the sexual contract’. Bridging this gap, Bueskens’ interviews ten ‘revolving mothers’ to reveal how periodic absence, exceeding the standard work-day, disrupts the default position assigned to mothers in the home, and in turn disrupts the gendered dynamics of household work.


    A provocative and original work, Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities will appeal to graduate students and researchers interested in fields such as Women and Gender Studies, Sociology of Motherhood and Social and Political Theory.



    1.1 On mothers and modernity

    1.2 Key questions

    1.3 Definitions and theoretical framework

    1.4 Situating the study and defining the theoretical argument

    1.5 Situating the study and defining the empirical research

    1.6 Scratching the empirical itch



    2.1 Introduction

    2.2 Establishing the parametres: structure and agency

    2.3 Classical sociology: Durkheim, Weber and Marx

    2.4 Feminist methodology and epistemology

      1. Postmodernism and its discontents
      2. Research methodology: structure and agency revisited
      3. Theoretical research
        1. Situating the self
        2. Theory as research
        3. Interdisciplinarity

    2.8 Empirical research

    2.9 Recruitment and interviews

    2.10 Interpreting the data

    2.11 Conclusions


    CHAPTER 3: The social and sexual contracts

    3.1 Introduction

    3.2 The social contract and the birth of ‘the individual’

      1. The philosophers: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (deleted)
      2. Summarising the social contract

    3.5 The ‘sexual contract’ or why women cannot be ‘individuals’

        1. Women’s position in ‘the state of nature’
        2. The emergence of ‘fraternal patriarchy’
        3. Women’s contradictory status in civil society
        4. Problems with the category of ‘the individual’

    3.6 Duality theory or on the emergence of sovereign women

    3.7 Conclusion

    CHAPTER 4: The invention of motherhood and the ‘new woman’: 1750-1920

    4.1 Introduction

    4.2 The traditional family: women’s work and family roles

    4.3 Transitions from feudal to industrial society 1600-1750: proto-industrialisation 1600-1750

    4.4 Industrialisation 1750-1850: class division and the surge of sentiment

    4.5 Working class women and the emergence of wage labour: 1750-1900

    4.6 Middle-class women and the ‘invention of motherhood’: 1750-1900

    4.7 The ‘New Woman’: shadow to the ‘Angel in the House’

    4.8 ‘Woman Right’ Activists

    4.9 New Women at the fin de siecle

    4.10 Conclusion

    CHAPTER 5: What is the new sexual contract?

    5.1 Introduction

    5.2 Late modernity: the end of ‘society’ and the rise of ‘the social’

    5.3 Individualisation: self-making in late modernity

    5.4 Women in late modernity: mapping the contours of freedom and constraint

    5.4.1 Education

    5.4.2 Employment

    5.4.3 Families now 5.4.4 Domestic division of labour

    5.5 Deregulated patriarchy and the new sexual contract

    5.6 Women’s two modes of self (check heading)

    5.7 The problematic as it stands


    CHAPTER 6: Becoming a mother: or, revisiting the sexual contract

    6.1 Introduction

    6.2 Individualised partnering and parenting

    6.3 The traditionalisation process and its discontents

    6.4 Analysis and conclusion

    CHAPTER 7: Leaving the default position in the home

    7.1 Introduction

    7.2 Revolving out the door: maternal transformations

    7.3 Revolving in the door: paternal and partner transformations

    7.4 External responses: envy, opprobrium, accolade

    7.5 Analysis and conclusion

    CHAPTER 8: Reconstructing the sexual contract

    8.1 Introduction

    8.2 Doubled selves, doubled lives and time-space de-sequencing

    8.3 Domestic divisions of labour and leisure revisited

    8.4 Rewriting the sexual contract: on the democratisation of intimacy

    8.5 Analysis and Conclusion


    CHAPTER 9: Concluding the contract: women in the twenty-first century

    9.1 Theoretical overview

    9.2 Research problematic

    9.3 Research findings

    9.4 Women in the twenty-first century










    Petra Bueskens is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

    Petra Bueskens has been in the forefront of the new, and very welcome field of motherhood studies. In Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract, she takes on the difficult challenge of thinking politically and ethically, and conducting extensive research, about matters—motherhood, maternal identity and maternal feelings—that do not fit easily into our universalized conceptions of equality. An astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge about classical and contemporary social and political theory, and of research across several disciplines on gender and the family from then to now, set the context for her work. Through investigating an imaginative solution to creating equality in the domestic sphere—women's traveling away from the home—Bueskens finds that in these matters of maternality, second wave feminism's conceptualization of equality in terms of shared parenting does not sufficiently address the emotions and identities that can accompany mothering. Confirming her pathbreaking edited volume, Mothering and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives, Bueskens finds that women want to mother, to be with their children and watch them grow. Happily, she shares with readers the contradictions and political-social theorizing that her findings entail: she does not try to smooth them over. Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities cannot solve the psychic, social, cultural and political challenges posed by the dual identities of mother and citizen, but it elegantly and capaciously ranges across 400 years of theory, up to the present, that address them, as well as providing psychologically-attuned interview documentation of how women feel and think, daily and throughout their maternal lives.

    —Nancy J Chodorow, author of The Reproduction of Mothering, The Power of Feelings, Individualizing Gender and Sexuality, and other works; Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley; Lecturer on Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance; Training and Supervising Analyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and Society


    This creative and theoretically rich book re-examines the social contradictions and penalties faced by women who want to be both caring mothers and autonomous public individuals. Taking us beyond the logic of the "sexual contract," Bueskens introduces us to the "revolving mothers" who offer a glimpse of the social revolution required to undo the gendered separation of spheres. A fascinating and compelling study.

    —Dr Sharon Hays, author of the The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood


    In this lucid, timely and important new book, Petra Bueskens takes up the formidable task of investigating the ‘new sexual contract’ in late modernity that leaves women strung out between the promise of autonomy in the public sphere, and the demands of motherhood that isolate and intensify mothering work in the home, both freeing and constraining women at once. Bueskens brings into view this impossible contradictory duality by producing both a new social theory of dualism, and the empirical evidence to show that it is possible to force changes in the sexual contract at the level of individual family organization. Through tracking a small group of women who both choose to mother and also spend protracted periods of time away from the family, she shows how these women produce radical shifts in the gendered dynamics of the household. Her bold and vital claim is that we can rewrite the sexual contract only if we understand the historical and contemporary double-bind that produces women’s liberty as it undermines it, making motherhood still the unfinished business of feminism.

    —Dr Lisa Baraitser, Reader in Psychosocial Studies, Birckbeck University, author of Maternal Encounters


    In this engaging and timely book, Petra Bueskens tackles a central challenge of modern life—how to reconcile the contradictory roles of women as citizens, individual workers and mothers. She traces the history through the theoretical views of motherhood, integrating the multiple strands in a sophisticated and fascinating synthesis. She highlights periodic maternal absence as a bridge between individualism and constraint, revealing both the ambiguities and a potential way to progress women’s liberation. The book is an absorbing read that makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of contemporary motherhood.

    —Dr Lyn Craig, Professor of Sociology/ARC Future Fellow, The University of Melbourne, author of Contemporary Motherhood


    Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract cogently and compellingly elucidates a central debate in motherhood studies and a persistent dilemma in most mothers’ lives; namely the contradiction between women’s maternal and individualized selves. Through her lucid theoretical ruminations on the ‘new sexual contract’ in late modernity and by way of an innovative empirical study on ‘revolving mothers’, Bueskens delivers the needed blueprints to actualize the potential of what she incisively terms ‘the individualized mother’.

    —Dr Andrea O’Reilly, Professor of Women’s Studies, York University, Toronto, Founder and Director of the Motherhood Initiative and author of Matricentric Feminism


    From my perspective, Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities awakens us to the basic fact that until mothers are free and equal, women cannot operate on an equal footing with men. By introducing us to the concept of maternal citizenship, Petra Bueskens has bequeathed us a new heuristic and political tool to both understand and advocate for what is needed for women’s freedom in late modernity. Undoubtedly, this implies fundamental change in political, social and economic spheres – a tall order! Nevertheless, this important book provides us with a way of thinking that transcends the binary of woman as free agent and autonomous individual versus woman as victim of the stalled revolution.
    —Ilene Philipson, review in Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41282-019-00147-3


    Bueskens’ discussion of the new sexual contract is one of the masterly moves in this book. It provides a theoretical framework from which a constellation of insights emerges. It offers a less binary notion of duality and brings to the fore different bodies of knowledge, including feminist social theory, political economy, sociology and also psychoanalysis. It would be difficult to find similar research that matches the richness and breadth of the scholarship Bueskens introduces and employs to support her argument. [...] In identifying the cracks and fissures in the sexual contract, the book signals, among other things, alternative social, political and domestic arrangements whereby motherhood could be transformed from an individualised liability to a renumerated social good, with all the freedom and equality that modernity was supposed to bequeath to women in the first place. Modern Motherhood makes an enormous contribution to feminist social theory. It is poised to become one of the definitive texts in the maternal studies field.
    —Stephens, J., 2019. Review of Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract. Studies in the Maternal, 11(1), p.10. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/sim.280 


    Overall, this study marks an exciting development in motherhood studies, as well as in the fields of gender studies and social and political theory. Perhaps its most impressive contribution to the field of motherhood studies lies in its willingness to effectively return to past social and feminist theory that may have been disregarded in order to present new understandings of the contemporary female dilemma. Arguably this is a brave and worthwhile decision by Bueskens, as it allows her to implement innovative analysis of the modern ‘sexual contract’ and to consider strategies that can disrupt it. The book will appeal to a wide range of readers who are interested in or familiar with the experience of the contemporary woman and mother. Undoubtedly, it will become a significant theoretical addition to the feminist debates and existing research on modern motherhood and women’s dual identities.
    —Thomas, M. (2019). [Review of the book Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract, by Petra Bueskens]. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics, 3(1-2), 17. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/5923