Sara Ruddick, at 76; wrote philosophy of motherhood

Sara Ruddick refused to define mothering as a specifically female activity. It was, she insisted, sex-neutral.
Sara Ruddick refused to define mothering as a specifically female activity. It was, she insisted, sex-neutral.
By William Grimes
New York Times / March 28, 2011

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NEW YORK — Sara Ruddick, whose 1989 book, “Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace,’’ laid the groundwork for a feminist approach to understanding and analyzing the practices and intellectual disciplines involved in rearing children, died March 20 at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.

The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis, said her husband, William.

Dr. Ruddick, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies for nearly 40 years at the New School for Social Research, developed an approach to child-rearing that shifted the focus away from motherhood as a social institution or biological imperative and toward the day-to-day activities of raising and educating a child.

This work, she argued, shaped the parent as much as the child, giving rise to specific cognitive capacities and values — qualities of intellect and soul. Doing shapes thinking, in other words.

“A mother engages in a discipline,’’ she wrote. “That is, she asks certain questions rather than others; she establishes criteria for the truth, adequacy, and relevance of proposed answers; and she cares about the findings she makes and can act on.’’

Provocatively, she refused to define mothering as a specifically female activity. It was, she insisted, sex-neutral.

“Anyone who commits her or himself to responding to children’s demands, and makes the work of response a considerable part of her or his life, is a mother,’’ she wrote in the preface to the 1995 edition of the book.

From these premises she developed the argument that mothers, by virtue of their maternal work, cannot countenance violence, whether in social settings like the playground or the workplace, or as an instrument of state policy. They are, by life experience, trained to resist militarism and war.

The book encouraged a new way of looking at mothers, children, and parental practices. Writing in Women’s Studies Quarterly in 2009, the feminist scholar Andrea O’Reilly paired it with Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution’’ as “the most significant work in maternal scholarship and the new field of motherhood studies.’’

Sara Elizabeth Loop was born on Feb. 17, 1935, in Toledo, Ohio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Vassar in 1957 and a doctorate from Harvard in 1964.

At the New School, her work took on a feminist and political cast, strongly influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Marxist pragmatist Juergen Habermas, the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and Virginia Woolf, whose works she taught. In 1977, with Pamela Daniels, she edited “Working It Out,’’ a collection of essays by professional women describing the social and psychological difficulties they encountered in trying to make work a central part of their lives.

In 1984 two of Dr. Ruddick’s essays, on maternal thinking and its political implications with regard to violence and militarism, were published in “Mothering: Essays in Maternal Theory,’’ a collection edited by Joyce Trebilcot. They formed the basis for “Maternal Thinking,’’ which was republished in 1995 with a preface by Dr. Ruddick in which she revisited and elaborated on some of the arguments set forth in the first edition.

In 1999 she edited, with Julia E. Hanigsberg, “Mother Troubles: Rethinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas.’’

In addition to her husband, she leaves their two children, Hal of Berkeley, Calif., and Elizabeth of London; a brother, Christopher of Naples, Fla.; a sister, Barbara Owen of Scarborough, Maine; and four grandchildren.