Migrant Mother Inquiry Question Essay

Exploring Contexts: Migrant Mother

Destitute peapickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division.
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As suggested in the Researching Images section, awareness of the circumstances surrounding the creation of any given image enriches our interpretation of it. Exploring, however briefly, the multiple contexts surrounding a single, well-known picture vividly illustrates the point that many factors shape the making and meaning of images.

The photograph popularly known as “Migrant Mother” has become an icon of the Great Depression. The compelling image of a mother and her children is actually one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California. Seeing the photograph in the context of related images, understanding the purpose for which it was made, and knowing something of the photographer's and subject's views of the occasion amplify our perspectives on the image, and, at the same time, suggest that no single meaning can be assigned to it.

Lange made the photographs toward the end of a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor for what was then the Resettlement Administration, later to become the Farm Security Administration. Her work was part of the administration's larger effort to document economic and social distress among the nation's agricultural workers and to advertise the agency's relief programs and the measures it was taking to address underlying causes of the dislocation. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the photographic encounter:

Migrant agricultural worker's family. . . Nipomo California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division.
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I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (Lange, “The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960)

Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division.
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Whatever the woman, Florence Owens Thompson, thought of Lange's actions at the time, she came to regret that Lange ever made the photographs, which she felt permanently colored her with a “Grapes of Wrath” stereotype. Thompson, a Native American from Oklahoma, had already lived in California for a decade when Lange photographed her. The immediate popularity of the images in the press did nothing to alleviate the financial distress that had spurred the family to seek seasonal agricultural work. Contrary to the despairing immobility the famous image seems to embody, however, Thompson was an active participant in farm labor struggles in the 1930s, occasionally serving as an organizer. Her daughter later commented, “She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn't show her in that light.”1

For further information, see: “Dorothea Lange's ‘Migrant Mother’ Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview” (http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html).

Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division.
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Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division.
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It is here that feminist theories of reproduction and the reproductive body are of value, for it is precisely in relation to these concepts of home, place and reproduction that they have something different to say. Many feminist theories of the body have worked with the idea that birth and maternal subjectivities have been excluded from serious consideration in most of the history of Western philosophy. The French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, argues that an ‘act of matricide’ (Whitford, 1991b) is the founding gesture of Western thought, whereby all possibility of change, dynamism and generation is stripped from the embodied reproductive experiences of women and granted instead to a rational, dis-embodied masculine subject (Irigaray, 1974). Irigaray has been a key reference point for a critique of Western philosophy's denial of reproduction and for thinking alternative approaches to identity and subjectivity from the perspective of a body that births. This work reveals the recurrence in Western thought of the ‘myth of masculine self-birth’ (Walker, 1998) through appropriating metaphors of birth for masculine models of being and creativity, while ‘simultaneously and repeatedly disavowing maternal origin in its theories and models of subjectivity’ (Tyler, 2000: 291). It notes the ways in which dominant discourses of mothering seem to require an absence of self (Lawler, 2000) and omit any consideration of the subjectivity of the mother (Young, 1990). In Irigaray's work, this is linked to the long tradition in Western philosophy of associating the mother with mere ‘matter’, which must be transcended in order to become a subject of reason. A production/reproduction and thought/matter divide is instated in which masculine production and thought are privileged over the ‘mere’ matter of reproduction, and this binary underpins much Western philosophy (Walker, 1998). Production opens out to the new, the different, while reproduction is conceptualized only as repetition of the same (ibid.: 166–167). For Irigaray, the woman as mother is positioned as place, the ‘still silent ground’ (1974: 365) upon which the masculine subject is constituted, and as long as she serves that symbolic function she can not take a place of her own or even take place, that is, exist and define an identity of her own. Thus there is a need to rethink the terms of place itself, since the problem is not only the positioning of the woman/mother as place, but also the very conceptualization of the place they are said to be – a site of stasis and repetition-as-same against which the dynamism of time is produced.

In order to explore a different way of thinking about the time and place of reproduction, Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero (1995) revisits the mythic figure of Penelope, the archetypal patient wife keeping the home fires burning for her travelling husband-hero Odysseus. She pays particular attention to the specificities of the domestic work in which Penelope is engaged as exemplified by ‘the unending work of weaving and unweaving’ (12) the same shroud, the one task that stands between her and an unwelcome betrayal of her husband through a forced second marriage. Cavarero acknowledges that Penelope's is ‘a small story, repetitive and motionless, that reflects the rhythm of a single place’ (12). But, she argues that ‘Penelope has a symbolic power of her own that is open to different readings’ (13). Penelope, for Cavarero, ‘weaves her quiet time of self-belonging’ (14); ‘she weaves and unweaves and in so doing delineates an impenetrable space where she belongs to herself’ (17), transforming a ‘womanly’ role into its own liberating rejection (18). Odysseus’ story is one of pressing time, a progression of deeds projecting into the future, a ‘time of action … characterized by the new and the unexpected’ a time that ‘does not belong to the home’ (15). Home, for Odysseus, is only a point of departure and return, characterized by the absence of action. By contrast, and in Odysseus’ terms, Penelope's time is ‘predictable and productive – producing garments, satisfying needs, delivering care’ (16). But on her own terms, Penelope is tailoring for herself ‘an unpredictable and impenetrable time and space’ that is neither the time of ‘men's actions’ nor the time of ‘wifely domestic production’: it is ‘an infinite repetition’ that yet fails to achieve the completeness of domestic production – a rhythmic undoing (17). In unweaving what she has woven, Penelope defines her own time and space, engaging in a process of meaning-making that is inseparable from the body.

Cavarero's project, like Irigaray's, aims to disrupt the structures of meaning embedded in phallocentric philosophy, in order to find sites of subversion where a philosophy centred on the acknowledgement of birth, rather than the defiance of death, could be imagined, and she understands Penelope's deception as one such potential site. Thus she is looking for resources that could represent a more deliberate rejection of dominant structures of meaning and identity than I am claiming might be inherent in the everyday work of physical and cultural reproduction. Additionally, and particularly problematic for my purposes, both Cavarero and Irigaray privilege sexual difference over other forms of difference. Thus the ways in which sexual difference or gender intersects with race, ethnicity and other forms of cultural difference, fall outside the frame of Cavarero and Irigaray's consideration. This is a particularly significant absence if one wants to think about the connections between physical and cultural reproduction, and the ways in which women's reproductive practices are both mobilized and constrained within discourses of national, ethnic and racialized identities (see Kandiyoti, 1993; Yuval-Davis, 1997). As I have argued elsewhere, the reproductive ‘place’ that Irigaray claims mothers are meant to be is not just a ground upon which an unspecified masculine subject can stand, but is also a crucial terrain upon which collective identities are constituted and contested (Gedalof, 1999).

Nevertheless, Irigaray and Cavarero's work can make an important contribution to scholarship on migration. In particular, I want to retain two insights from Cavarero. The first is that we question the abiding power of definition of long-standing narrative structures. The ancient myth of Odysseus can be understood as one of those ‘founding gestures’ of Western thought that associates movement and travel with self-actualization and agency, while relegating the feminized space of the home to insignificance. This is a narrative structure that lends itself to stories of migration, but with problematic, gendered consequences, because it focuses only on the productive dislocating aspect of migration while under-valuing the reproductive relocating that migration also necessarily entails. Second, I want to retain Cavarero's insistence that we complicate our understanding of the meaning of repetitive, reproductive practices undertaken within the domestic sphere. For as Cavarero suggests, there is always the possibility of a repetition that undoes, a repetition that communicates agency and produces something new and challenging. By challenging the association between repetition and sameness and opening up the possibility that repetition is not always and only about sameness, Cavarero's retelling of Penelope's story suggests a way to reconceptualize the reproductive work of mothers.

Iris Marion Young develops some of these ideas in a less abstracted way when she argues for a feminist revaluing of home (1997). Young argues that Heidegger's gendered distinction between building and preservation remains influential in the ways the work of making homes is conceptualized. While both are essential, building is associated with making meaning, preservation with the lesser task of maintaining those meanings, and Young argues that ‘much of the unnoticed labour of women is this basic activity of meaning maintenance’ (1997: 138). This distinction continues to effect feminist thought, as in de Beauvoir's description of housework as ‘endless repetition … . The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present’ (ibid.: 147). In de Beauvoir's scheme of things, the domestic is mired in the realm of immanence, necessary to sustaining life but incapable of being a source of expressions of individuality. The time of immanence is cyclical and repetitive (ibid.: 148). For Young, though, ‘home enacts a specific mode of subjectivity and historicity that is distinct both from the creative-destructive idea of transcendence and from the ahistorical repetition of immanence’ (ibid.: 149). Making home is a materialization of identity through arranging objects in space as an extension of bodily habits and as support to embodied routines, and things in the home carry sedimented personal meanings as retainers of personal narratives (ibid.: 150). Home anchors (without fixing) identity in a physical being that makes a continuity between past and present. Preservation is not just a simple repeating of a meaning made once and for all; rather, the events and achievements materialized through the physical space of home must be ‘told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted’, as well as being protected from neglect or damage, if they are to continue to have any meaning at all. Preservation, then, is about renewing meaning, a ‘knitting together of today and yesterday’ (ibid.: 153). The work of preservation should not be romanticized, as it can be both conservative and re-interpretive (ibid.: 154), but neither should it be dismissed. As with Cavarero, Young is rethinking what can go on in the work of repetition. Unlike de Beauvoir's view, this is not just time and the subject standing still. It is through repetition, telling and retelling, that home as a materialization of identities is created; and if that repetition necessarily involves reinterpretation, as in the story told by my focus group, then we need to see those identities and home-spaces as dynamic in their own right.

This way of thinking about domestic spaces and the work that goes on in them is still relatively rare in white Western feminist scholarship. There tends to be much more emphasis on the ways in which women are materially and discursively constrained by what Marsha Marotta has called ‘MotherSpace’ (2005), in which mothers are disciplined as objects, rather than subjects, and through which both their movements and their identities are confined. Black feminists have been more insistent on complicating this picture, and also on linking women's individual reproductive subjectivities to processes of reproducing collective identities. Patricia Hill Collins (2005) points to the ways in which black mothering involves a dynamic space of reinvention and struggle. For bell (hooks 1991), women's role in constructing a stable ‘homeplace’ where a sense of self and belonging can be affirmed is a necessary part of building communities of radical resistance. As hooks argues, the work of establishing homeplace, of producing domesticity, may well be a ‘conventional role’ assigned by sexism. But what is important is that black women took this conventional role and expanded it, turning it into a site that exceeds the constraining logic of both sexism and racism (1991: 44). Tracey Reynolds’ research on Caribbean mothers in the UK (2005) similarly explores the work of ‘memory and re-memory’ by mothers to generate a sense of collective cultural belonging and identity (2005: 48).

So it is important not to assume that the work of producing stability is either (a) necessarily about repeating the same or (b) theoretically uninteresting, as so many philosophers seem to have done. Few actual lives can be lived without some sort of stability, as the destructive effects of the constant flux of war, racial and ethnic conflict, natural disaster, or persistent violence remind us. As Nick Gill has argued in relation to asylum seekers, ‘stillness’, the ability to stay put, can be both the condition for physical and psychological safety in the face of forced mobility, but also the condition for creative personal and political strategies that build more enabling networks and coalitions of community belonging (Gill, 2009). And as feminist theorists of the reproductive body argue, there is a way of thinking about the dynamics of identity-constitution as requiring processes of sedimentation and stabilization. If this is so, then something important is lost when we over-privilege movement and change as generating meanings of migration. Why should distance, separation, moving on and moving away be so privileged in the ways we think about what it means to be a human subject and what it means to act on the world? It should be possible to think about nearness, inter-dependency and the construction of bonds between selves as equally crucial to our sense of self and agency. Feminist migration studies should be able to make a space for valuing the work of preservation and caring, and for challenging the ways in which this ‘domestic work’ is conceptualized in terms of fixity.

Resistance to such alternative views would appear to be related to another issue raised by feminist theories of the reproductive body, which is the conceptualization of the body itself underpinning dominant theories of the subject. This involves both the conceptualizing of the body as something that needs to be transcended – mere matter, as discussed above – but also the model of the body as bounded container for a discrete self/subject that acts upon objects outside it. The clear cut between self and other that drives most theories of the subject requires a body that can be easily distinguished from other bodies. But, on both these counts, the female body would appear to fall short, and in both cases this is related to the question of birth. Women are positioned in much of Western thought as being more bound to and by their bodies than men, and much of the rationale for this mobilizes particular representations of women's reproductive biology. Thus, ‘the ‘female’ subject-position is linked to fleshy continuity, rather than to an autonomous and individualized ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ that merely inhabits the flesh’ (Battersby, 1998: 10). The female capacity for birth, and pregnant embodiment itself, make a non-sense of the singular, bounded body-subject model and paradigms of self-other relations based on that model (Tyler, 2000).

Battersby, in particular, has been interested in asking what would happen to our models of identity if we take the body that births as norm. She argues that natality as an abstract category allows us to think identities emerging from a play of bodily relationships – an emergence that is not sudden but that occurs over time (1998: 38). Both physical birth and the reproductive work of caring for and nurturing dependents involve not a sudden and decisive cut between self and other, but rather an ongoing relationality in which ‘rhythmic repetitions provide the “labour” that allows identity to emerge from conflictual multiplicities’ (ibid.: 9). In the patterns of reproductive work, ‘“self” and “other” emerge together through repeated movements that never simply reproduce a “given” that remains “the same”’ (168). The self is continually established as self through responses, repetitions and habitual movements over time (207), in which ‘genuine repetition is recollected forward’ (172). Identity, then, ‘depends on a repetition that brings into existence (births) an order of events that was already potentially there in the past’ (173). The body that births suggests a model in which proximity, repetition and inter-dependence all provide dynamic resources for identity constitution. Thinking the body as bounded, by contrast, becomes a template for exclusionary self-other relations and for how the self deals with difference – securing to itself that which is ‘same’ while excluding that which is different. The irony is that what goes on in the ‘reproductive sphere’ should be conceptualized in these terms of repetition-as-same, when the work of reproduction tends to be assigned precisely to those embodied subjects who are the least likely to fit this model of bounded embodiment.

The bounded body also becomes a template for thinking the social body and the body politic, and this is also highly pertinent to questions of migration when debates about integration, social cohesion and ‘too much diversity’ are as high on the political agenda as they are at the moment. While this is a subject that can not be dealt with adequately here, much of the anxiety about migration is underpinned by an assumption that, in this case, collective identity – social stability and cohesion – requires clear boundaries drawn around a space of sameness, currently expressed in terms of ‘common values’ or ‘shared traditions’ (Gedalof, 2007). Indeed, many historic and current migration anxieties take reproduction as their stated or implied focus: the repeated fear of the ‘overly-fertile’ migrant woman who will ‘pollute’ the native stock (Klug, 1989; Kofman, 1997; Lentin, 2004; Luibheid, 2006); the concern that immigrant women become a vehicle for importing inappropriate and unacceptable family forms (Cheney, 1996); the contemporary focus in tabloid media and policy debates on ‘reproductive tourism’ and ‘uncontrolled migration's’ pressures on the social reproductive activities of health, housing and education services (Gedalof, 2007). Challenging the ways in which reproduction is theorized can also, therefore, feed into these policy debates.

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