The Neutered Mother

by Martha Albertson Fineman

black-and-white outline of a woman breastfeeding an infant

A. Definitions:
Mother; a female who has borne offspring
Female; of or pertaining to the sex that brings
forth young
Neutered; neither masculine nor feminine in
Gender; the quality of being male or female
B. Mother as Symbol
I use the term “Neutered Mother” because it represents conflict and
contradiction-words in contraposition to each other, incompatible when placed together. The Neutered Mother presents a gendered noun, degendered by the adjective that precedes it-an opposition of meaning that mirrors the conflicts in culture and in law over the significance and potency of the symbol of Mother.


In this Article, I will assess the evolution of the symbolic aspects of “Mother” in modem family law reform and offer an argument for revitalization of the powerful and positive aspects of changes in law for real life mothers.’ Focusing on Mother in any context is dangerous. Mother is a universally possessed symbol (although its meaning may vary across and within cultures). We all have a mother-some of us are mothers. As a lived experience, Mother is virtually universally shared in our culture and, therefore, more intimately and intensely personalized than many other symbols. Mother, however, is an ambiguous symbol–one about which there is contest. For that reason, the importance of Mother as a symbol is greatly enhanced on both an individual and a societal level. In its various configurations, Mother is a significant factor in defining our understanding of our own familial, sexual, and social circumstances. In this way, it is also significant in our construction of universal meanings-defining the general qualities of life for us.

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