On Revolutionary Motherhood: (In)Voluntary Spinstership and “Broken Homes”



I have always been fascinated by the left hand. The way in which the gold wedding band curls around the ring finger. My mother’s left ring finger was never decorated with a wedding band. Like Assata Shakur, she belonged to nobody but herself. She is an unmarried woman with six children—two boys and four girls– born out-of-wedlock. In a patriarchal, pro-family African society, she is a lefetwa– a spinsteran unmarried woman often regarded as a second-grade woman. Her existence as an unmarried mother, in a country and culture that rewards and honors married women with children, my mother disturbs the patriarchal vision of family and womanhood. Her unconscious, subtle, and ordinary defiance is an unaccounted feminist practice that remains in the margins of hegemonic narratives within the feminist discourse. The choice of spinsterial motherhood is one that revolts against restrictive, possessory, and violent notions of patriarchy perpetuated by African customs and colonial antics such as the Christian religion.

When my mother conceived her first child in her first year out of high school, as she recalls, there was anger and disappointment and shame extended towards her. The idea of premarital sex is one that is regarded as a taboo—religiously and customarily. There is a prescriptive way the Batswana people of Southern Africa and the Christian faith force on women—an emphasis on purity in the form of virginity. Virginity is a commodity of “respectable womanhood,” and a disturbance of this idea with the evidence of pregnancy, as in my mother’s case, is punishable but claiming it is an unconscious yet revolt. Whilst women’s choice to conceive out-of-wedlock is “shameful,” there is honor afforded to men for a similar act—this reinforces the double standards of patriarchy in the form religion and customary beliefs.

When men have children at an early age, and out-of-wedlock, it received as a “manly act.” But my mother’s choice to have a child at an early age is revolutionary as it underscores her sexual agency—a gendered act often rewarded to men and used to shame women. On a religious and cultural level, the persistence on neglecting women’s sexual agency is patriarchal. The denial of that agency asserts power in one end of the spectrum but the choice to become a mother at a young age is to individually disavow male dominance; to exist in the margins of society as a woman and to tailor a path best suited for the woman (my mother in this case) and exist without, or limited, claims on the woman by religion and culture.

The ability and the liberty to choose to be an unmarried mother affords women with the power of centralized lineage through the naming process. In both Christian and Batswana naming practices, the naming of a child is a privilege, a right and normalcy afforded to the men—the father, often if married to the mother, passes their last names to their children. Fundamentally, the naming process normalizes the erasure of maternal lineage tracing; this lauds paternal lineage as primary, salient and dominant lineage and the maternal lineage as unimportant and secondary. For example, my siblings and I carry my mother’s last name, and this is an uncommon practice. But spinsterial motherhood becomes a paradigm shifting model of feminism which destabilizes normalized lineage tracing. The power of naming children allows women to have rightful claims on their children. Whilst the maternal ancestral tracing is regards these children as amavazandlebe— children of no birth, bastards, illegitimate children—unmarried mothers shield their children from this violence by assuring their children of their importance as people even without a paternal marking attached to their last names. In the article, Self-Identified Feminist Mothers’ Naming Practices for Their Children: Accepting Being “as Feminist as Everyone Else”, Amy Eshleman and Jean Halley examine western naming practices and reveal that:

“(p)arents’ explanations of their decisions regarding a child’s surname rarely acknowledge male privilege. Common explanations for patrilineal choices include following tradition, arguing that it will be easier for the child, claiming that it was an aesthetic choice, prioritizing that the family share a name, and avoiding the conception that a child’s parents were not married[1]” (Eshleman and Halley 215-229).

With unmarried mothers, the process of naming is one that unconsciously dismantles male privilege by disruptive normative traditions associated with naming children on patrilineal lines. This silenced process, practiced by women like mother, of naming children on matrilineal lines, mystifies heteropatriarchal power and privilege, and this act makes spinsterial motherhood revolutionary in the sense of agent and emancipatory reclamations.

The first time I heard of the term “broken home,” I was in a youth church service and it reminded of my family and the way my mother chose to raise us. This term, was referring to women raising children out-of-wedlock and were in fact, children without a paternal figure in their lives. To this very day, it is a term that continues to cause discomfort for me. A home does not become whole because there is a male figure present. The centering of unmarried mother’s agency within the private sphere and blurring patrilineal lines with regards to familial organization is frowned upon and is commonly called a “broken home.” The idea of a “broken home” is a heteropatriarchal presumptuous theory used to define unmarried with children out-of-wedlock. This term serves in two-fold: firstly, to single out unmarried women as broken, and secondly, to reduce single-women-headed-households as broken. The premise of this “brokenness” is based on the absence of a male figure. When traditional customs and religion deny women motherhood based on marriage, when these interlocking system regards motherhood as a service purchased through marriage, the choice to exist outside those systems cause patriarchal turbulence. It is this turbulence that hones unconscious consciousness in women like my mother[2].

The anti-patriarchal role of mothering in a “broken home” is a process of ungendering the domestic sphere and then subsequently the public sphere. Whilst the traditional role of the mother in a heterosexual marriage or domestic partnership insists on gendered roles for children, the logic of patriarchy is its insistence on the binary–boy/girl, masculine/feminine, strong/weak—and therefore, disregard of a spectrum of abilities. In homes led by unmarried mothers, there is great emphasis on shared labor. For example, the way in which my mother raised us, fixed gendered roles such as cooking, babysitting and cleaning were not executed in a gendered manner, to an extent, on both male children and female children. Within this revolutionary motherhood and feminism framework, the ungendered nature of domestic work is symbolic and paradigm shifting. It focuses on availability, responsibility and communal action—a tenet which mainstream feminism regards as important but often analyzed within the private sphere: the role of men and women in the workforce, although important, it does not strike a balance with the role of in the private sphere. In hindsight, spinsterial motherhood as a form of revolutionary feminism disturbs the normalized ways of domestic roles, with an emphasis on individuality yet enabling a sense of community. Most importantly, this form of mothering is a resistance to patriarchal power by deconstructing attributes to femininity and masculinity.

Spinsterial motherhood is about women who are paradigm shifters at the sight of religious and cultural dogmas posing to restrict them. Women whose very existence questions boundaries set for them and exist beyond those lines. Growing up, I saw my life and the way women around me raised me as an ordinary act– an act that did not require celebration. In retrospect, my mother and dozens of women around me continue to be extraordinary. They continue to subtly revolt against fallacious, one-sided and oppressive systems that are fixated on reducing their personhood and deny them of womanhood. There is a paradigm shifting way “broken home(s)” can shape an individual, especially children. Because you grow up being told that you are broken, you have more reason to prove to the world that you are in fact, whole–that your choices and decisions are not based on the lack of a father figure but you have been taught about the importance of excellence and courage. You have been taught to honor, support and love all people. This egalitarian style of motherhood enables choice, agency and freedom.







[1] Eshleman, Amy, and Jean Halley. “Self-Identified Feminist Mothers’ Naming Practices For Their Children: Accepting Being “As Feminist As Everyone” Else”. Women’s Studies 45.3 (2016): 215-229. Web.

[2] “Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines”. Secure.pmpress.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.


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