Fiona Woollard: Thank you, Lisa. It feels to me that I was part of a fortunate group of women philosophers who felt able to be philosophers while still being women, without having to downplay the interests that we have as women. In the past it had been seen as possible to succeed as a woman in philosophy. But it was harder to get recognized as a philosopher if you were dealing with things that were thought to as women's issues.
I was first thinking about becoming pregnant, and then I was actually pregnant, and I was going through birth and early motherhood and I just can't help but reflect on what I see, and I experience in my own life. I try to make sense of it philosophically. It’s just how my mind works and I was also really fortunate to have a great colleague else in Elselijn Kingma, who was also working on the philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. She was really receptive to the things that I was thinking about, and encouraged me to pursue them. So it was just really lots of things coming together at the right time.
LB: It sounds brilliant to have the opportunity to think philosophically about experiences that you are having as a human being. It's one of the good things about what we do. One amazing feature of your work is that as well as writing and publishing papers for peer-reviewed journals, and contributing to the scholarly literature on these topics, you're also doing a lot of work with partners outside academia, finding innovative ways to use philosophy to improve the wellbeing of pregnant women and new mothers. So I was wondering whether you could tell us more about your recent and current projects.
FW: I have always wanted philosophy to be practical. I originally started doing maths and philosophy, and I thought I was going to be a mathematician, and then I just got drawn into philosophy. It was because it just seemed to me to be dealing with issues that mattered, and things that affected our lives. And so I think one thing I love about the philosophy of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood is that I really believe that it has the potential to help people.
Part of the reason why this is happening is that we mistakenly think that these are decisions that we need to justify at all. So we treat not breastfeeding as if it's something that requires justification by assuming that there is a defeasible duty to breastfeed. A defeasible duty is where you're required to have some justification for failing to do it, for not doing it; and if you don't have that justification you are subject to blame and guilt. On the other hand, we treat breastfeeding as if it is a deviant activity which is only okay if it is absolutely necessary. We treat breastfeeding as if breastfeeding is only permissible if breastfeeding had all these amazing benefits, if it was morally required.
We should reject the idea that breastfeeding is this deviant thing, because that's wrapped up in lots of mistakes about how we should think about breastfeeding, breastfeeding as kind of sexual. There is a failure to recognize the right to have these kinds of interactions with your child. So I think if we could reject both of those premises. Then we wouldn't get this need for defense. Which means people wouldn't feel attacked. Which means that the conversations about infant feeding could be much much better.
LB: Yes, it definitely sounds like it's helpful, especially for interpersonal relationships, because thinking about my experience with infant feeding as well, which was not easy, there was a lot of tension with healthcare professionals who were putting pressure on me to do things, and other mothers who also suggested things for me to do. And all that tension is exactly what you don't want at a time in your life when you are particularly vulnerable. What you do sounds like it's definitely something that can be helpful.
Working as an academic with non-academic partners can often be quite challenging. It's challenging to find a shared language. It's challenging to find ways of working together and not necessarily because people do things differently, but because they haven't worked together before, or they haven't had that the same type of audience before. So I was wondering about your own experience. I know that you have worked with the NCT and the Breastfeeding Network. What did you find challenging, and also what did you find rewarding, about working with these organizations? What do you think junior women philosophers should expect if they want, like you, to try and bring philosophy outside academia?
FW: One thing I learned was that I was a bit arrogant when I first started this. I was like: "Oh, I've noticed as a problem here." But then I talked to people, they knew there was a problem. They'd been thinking about this problem for decades. Realizing that people often have been thinking about things and have been trying to sort things out and not assuming that you're coming in with something they haven't thought about before is really important, but it's also important to think about what contribution we as philosophers can make.
LB: That sounds a really good advice: not being arrogant to start with, but also carving a space for ourselves which at times may not be easily recognizable by everybody. I know you have contributed to producing a number of different resources, that can be helpful to pregnant women and new mothers. I was wondering whether you'd be happy to share some with us, and maybe tell us a little bit about you came to be involved in making them, and again, what the difficulties and the goods points were in producing them.
FW: One of the first things I made was a series of posters. This was for a science festival. We had the posters on display, and we ran a cake and a chat activity where we basically sat down and talked to mothers while their children decorated cakes, and they could also decorate the cakes, and we talked about their experiences and talked about the philosophy.
LB: What was your role in making these posters like? Did you contribute to the choice of images? Did you contribute to the text? I'm just curious how a philosopher works with other professionals in producing this kind of resources
FW: I wrote all of the text, and then I got advice on anything that didn't seem clear from the people who ran the the the festival, who had more experience. They came up with a choice of different images. We talked about what we were looking for and they came back to us with a few different options, and then I made the choice. But the really big challenge when making something like this is to be concise and yet clear. When you're doing public facing stuff, you just need to work out just exactly what you want to say and how to explain it as clearly and simply as possible.
|A page from the Feelings about Feeding Babies website
LB: Amazing! The illustrations are beautiful. Did you get feedback on different drafts from the people you were working with? Did you show it to some of your target audience?
FW: Yes, Heather and Phyll and I wrote the text together and had a lot of discussions. Some psychologists from the University Southampton ran focus groups in person where we explained what our idea was and discussed how this idea might be helpful, how to present it. Then we had a trial run of the website--like a beta version of the website--and people gave feedback on each page and made suggestions.
LB: It sounds like a really long process.
FW: It did take a long time. We also made a very short video (you can watch it below).
FW: Yes, we got good feedback. One thing that was really difficult was that we had to be careful about how we framed things, because it's such a sensitive issue. It's sensitive in that it has the potential to make mothers feel very bad. But it's also sensitive in that there are a lot of people who are campaigning in these issues, and there's a lot of division, and if you phrase things wrongly, you might be taken to be saying something that you don't want to say so it was really hard to try and get the video short enough.
LB: That makes a lot of sense. One last question. It's about your future projects, and I know you're writing a book on a modest account of maternal duties, and I was wondering whether you'd like to share with us what your thoughts are about the book, what we're trying to do with it.
I don't think that you have a duty to each thing that might benefit your child. I think that's just a massively over demanding understanding of maternal duty which leaves mothers having to justify pretty much every decision they make, and it leads to mothers feeling hugely under scrutiny. And I'm so specifically talking about mothers here, because I don't think that this is a general problem that parents in general are over scrutinized.
I want to offer an alternative account of maternal duties. One of the pushbacks, when I was arguing against this extreme version of maternal duties, was this: "Well, surely there are some things that mothers are required to do!" and I think that's right. I do think that there are some things that mothers are required to do, but we can come up with something that's not just a free for all and is not the extreme version.
Another thing that I want to do in the book is to look what a mother is and who is subject to maternal duties. I've been reading some really interesting work in the metaphysics of gender and trying to think about how that applies to this area. There are people who are affected by these over demanding ideals of motherhood who aren’t mothers but are seen as mothers or treated as mothers in various ways.
Lots of people respond to my overall project by saying: "Why do you want a moderate account of maternal duties? Why not just say there are no maternal duties. There are duties, but just parental duties, and we need gender neutral accounts of parental duties." Part of my account is that you can be a woman and a parent, but not a mother. But I think some people find a lot of value in motherhood, the identity of mother is a really deep part of who they are, and they want to hang on to that. They don't find it an entirely negative, oppressive thing and they think that there are distinctive duties that go along with that identity.
So what I draw on some work by Florence Ashley, and they have this account of gender identity, which is gender identity as interpretation. And I love this account of gender identity because it means that you can say: "This is why I am a woman." And you can say the things that you interpret as being important to you for understanding yourself as a woman, without having to say anybody who doesn't have these features that they are not a woman. So the idea is that you have this kind of gender subjectivity that applies to all your gendered experiences. You interpret those, and you say: "This is the gender identity that makes sense of those."
This is important when it comes to motherhood because there isn't one thing that all mothers have in common. Even many mothers will find their motherhood is very strongly linked to maybe a certain embodiment or a certain role in the reproductive process. But there are mothers who have different bodies, who have different roles, and what I think drawing on Ashley's account allows me to do is to say: "You can say I'm a mother, and these are the things that make me a mother."
LB: It sounds really interesting, Fiona. I will be looking forward to the book. Thank you so much for sharing with us your philosophical ideas, but also your attempts at actually improving the wellbeing of new mothers, and your collaborations with external partners. Your work is very inspiring.