A woman reading a book.
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Georgetown Professors Create Public Forum For Motherhood

Reading Motherhood, a digital resource launched by two Georgetown professors, is an online, public-facing extension of the eponymous class taught in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

The website, like its namesake course, explores motherhood in all of its cultural dimensions, seeking to understand how literature, media and popular culture define the role of motherhood and impose social expectations on mothers.

Pamela Fox, a professor in the Department of English and a co-teacher of the course, confronted some of the social responsibilities of motherhood when her daughter began school and groups like the Parent Teacher Association organized relied on mothers to sustain its operations.

“Expectations were placed on mothers to do all this work, like fundraising, around the school,” reflects Fox. Experiences such as these informed the structure of the course. Fox states, “I wanted to talk this through. What are these expectations for mothers and why is it that mothers are only doing it?”

Pamela Fox (left) and Elizabeth Velez (right).

Their course not only focuses on the critical understanding of motherhood – the work of feminist theorists and thinkers who have developed frameworks for understanding how systemic structures define the role of motherhood for women. Reading Motherhood also asks students to confront the cultural products that produce and reaffirm those structures.

Elizabeth Velez, a Professorial Lecturer in English and Women’s and Gender Studies, traces its inception to conversations between Fox and herself in 2006 and 2007. The two were constantly exchanging books and discussing how representations of motherhood in popular culture directly led to ideas of motherhood that women would impose on themselves and others.

“There are, in this culture, universal ideas of what a good mother is,” Velez explains. “We look at cultural representations of motherhood since WWII – this upper-middle-class, white-woman ideal of motherhood has been the one that is most culturally prominent.”

For students taking the course, exploring motherhood through a variety of texts broadens their conceptions about how complicated and fraught mothering can be, and allows them to connect their own experiences with academic discourse.

“Reading Motherhood is different from other classes because the readings are so much more interesting and we study almost entirely women authors, poets and artists,” reflects Leila Sebastian (C’24). “The class is this alternate space that prioritizes and privileges the ideas of women from all backgrounds who have different opinions and experiences of motherhood. It is a space that is both critical of the ways motherhood has been depicted in society and also open to hearing about the experiences of all mothers and validating those experiences. It is my favorite class I have taken at Georgetown so far.”

Students from the course have been instrumental in carrying its message outside the classroom and into the public square. Colleen Baer (C’22) helped Fox and Velez get the website off the ground and continues to maintain the site and its content.

The website, much like the course, asks big questions and invites readers to consider how new books, television shows and radio programs depict and constrict the concept of motherhood.

“Every time I walk into the classroom, I know I’m going to encounter an honest conversation that reckons with motherhood both as an individual experience and as a cultural institution,” says Mia Murillo (C’24).

Visitors and contributors to the site can be sure to feel the same.

Women's and Gender Studies