Earth Mother? What’s in a name?


I got called an ‘earth mother’ last week – and found it surprisingly offensive. The person who said it is a good friend of mine, and I don’t think she intended it in a perjorative sense, but still ….


The whole business took such a hold of me, that I needed to take a little time out to try to sift through everything and try to figure out just why I’d been so offended by the term. After all, as a committed environmental do-gooder, parent and gardener, it *ought* to be a compliment. Right?

A big part of my reaction stems from the fact that I just don’t like labels – those attached to people, at any rate. I believe that they become a limiting factor both for the person labelled, who finds themself almost conforming to the norms that label engenders, and for the person doing the labelling, who then sees all that other person’s behaviour through that filter. It closes off the possibility for either of them, certainly without rethinking the relationship as a whole, to see either sets of behaviour in any other light, and becomes incredibly restrictive. No single label can ever define an individual in their entirety. It can, perhaps, explain certain aspects of character or behaviour, but if it becomes the whole story, then that person ceases to become an individual and becomes a two-dimensional cardboard cutout fulfilling an externally-imposed role. Once a relationship is set into that course, it takes pretty drastic action on one side or another to break out of it. In this instance, my immediate reaction is a desire to do something that will smash the perception, but that’s perhaps not a sensible course of action to take, since the behaviours normally associated with the label ‘earth mother’ are largely positive behaviours I want to carry on doing.

That, in itself, raises questions about why I don’t like the term.

If the values and behaviours associated with the term ‘earth mother’ are something I identify as positive, then why should I be offended, beyond a reaction (or over-reaction) to a label used, possibly just as a flyaway comment.

Digging deeper, I see the label as something that isolates me, that identifies me as something ‘other’ than what the labeller would identify as ‘normal’ (or perhaps ‘like me’ would be more apt). If being an ‘earth mother’ puts me into another, separately identifiable group from that to which the labeller belongs (‘people like me’), then possibly it also puts those values and behaviours belonging to ‘earth mother’ into a separate group as well. By separating them from the ‘norm’, then those behaviours and values become something that those in the ‘people like me’ group can ignore. From my perspective, those values and behaviours are not particularly onerous or stringent or ascetic or puritanical or restrictive, nor do I believe that in terms of time or effort or finance or other resource, they are particularly burdensome things. They are (relatively small) things that everyone *could* do, that *would* (in aggregate terms) make a pretty big shift in the way society uses, interacts with and responds to the environment. So, to find that even those who I thought broadly shared my values consider my position as one more extreme than theirs, so much more extreme than theirs that it warrants a separate category, makes me feel a little disappointed, and a little angry. By identifying this separation, they are identifying an excuse (or reason) for not adopting similar measures.

That probably sounds a bit evangelical and over-zealous. I’m not on a mission to convert everyone to my way of doing things, nor am I involved in any sort of deep ecology movement that would entail dramatic change in a normal household. The actions I take *are* small-scale, and they are more shifts in thinking that lead to related action, than shifts in action without the supporting thinking underpinning the change, and as such I see myself as broadly in line with most people. To suddenly find myself categorised as some sort of extremist for these actions is rather startling, and makes me wonder how far out of step I actually am with my peers. It’s kind of unsettling, and a little bit worrying in terms of the long-term prospects for change and recovery.

And it’s still not the whole story.

There’s another level to it, one that goes back to the origins of the term itself.

‘Earth Mother’. It conjures up an image of hippyish sentimentality, of compassion and lentils and incense, kaftans and cymbals and astrology, and a whole raft of loose-headed new age thinking and hoppity-skippety happy-clappy spiritual claptrap driven by emotion rather than reason that sits very uncomfortably with my own self-image.

Perhaps this is an odd statement to make.

After all, Earth Mother also conjures an image of a strong woman, very grounded, very centred, with home and hearth at the heart of everything she does. That aspect of it is not so terrible, nor is the association with certain aspects of the Goddess movement coming out of the second-wave of feminism – a further step away from accepting the values and norms of a patriarchal and often misogynistic culture. Little to object to there, perhaps.

Maybe so, but the bitter aftertaste lingers. Partly because I’m not totally convinced that feminism has been the triumphant victory once heralded. Sure, women are now allowed to compete with men on all fronts, and sometimes they even win. But there has been no fundamental shift in attitude or behaviour or values, in real terms, in the way society operates. Some concessions have been made – men are more willing to show emotion, more willing to involve themselves with domestic pursuits, women are able to hold senior positions in respected organisations, and so on and so forth – but the structures and systems of our society have just been enlarged to accomodate women, rather than being fundamentally changed by any increasing influence of women upon them. Instead, there has been an irrational rush to fill these structures as quickly as possible, to introduce emotional, compassionate empathatic gestures and posturing into everyday life, without any supporting intellectual or rational vigour, or considered and effective supporting actions. The morals, ethics and standards of the despised patriarchal past have been torn down and tossed aside, but without any considered standards to replace them – rather, women and men alike have rushed to fill the void with strident evidence that each gender is as capable of behaving as badly and selfishly as the other (with blinkers firmly on to all evidence of exploitation and the need for moderation, checks and balances), whilst insisting that they have a right to do so. Nonsense on stilts. From where I’m sitting, it looks like the ‘liberation’ of women has just lead to a greater degree and range of exploitation, and greater acceptance of that exploitation in the name of ‘freedom of choice’. In my mind, the term ‘Earth Mother’ is a straight-line connection from the feminist movement of the 60’s to the present day catastrophe and death of reason, and I don’t much care for those sorts of connotations.

My position stems much more from a considered, rational piece of work than some emotional response to seeing fluffy bunnies being slaughtered, but, by calling me ‘Earth Mother’, I feel I am being deprived of the respect or recognition that these rational processes deserve. Again, I’m not claiming to be an intellectual giant in the field (or any field, for that matter), however, I do resent the implication that my standpoint is driven out of some irrational, emotional piece of hippyish sentimentality, high on empathy and compassion but low on any sort of intellectual rigour or application of logic.

Of course, for the person who used the term, ‘Earth Mother’ may not have any of this negative baggage associated with it, and perhaps she would be surprised if she knew what a strong reaction she’d provoked in me. Certainly, when I started unpacking it, I wasn’t expecting that my objections would run so deep and to such a fundamental level. It certainly made me think about how much power there can be in a name.

It has made me wonder if there have been times when I’ve thrown out the odd comment or phrase or label that has meant little to me, but has had a profound impact on the person to whom I addressed it. If that is the case, then I’ll apologise retrospectively for not considering the implications more carefully before using it. I wonder how many other people have found themselves in a similar position – tagged with a name or a label that is not, on the surface, offensive, but has deeply affected them?

Has it ever happened to you?


2 Responses to “Earth Mother? What’s in a name?”

  1. Yes! It has, and does. Once someone called me a “Tree-hugging, bunny-loving, vegetarian”. AND I’ve been called a redneck. LOL.
    Very good points here, appreciated.
    As a woman who does not pick my friends by how well they “fit in” with me or my ideas, but for their merit, I find myself seen as “different” in some circles. By all “sides”. It’s very interesting. Of course I can never conform to anyones idea of any stereotype, because I’m me.
    Well done, thanks for sharing.

  2. lol, I think I’d rather be a bunny lover than a bunny boiler! Strange how different people see you in different lights – I guess it depends on which side of the political spectrum they’re standing.

    And, of course, you’re right – friends don’t have to be all ‘like me’ – but it’s settling when you thought you were on common ground & a comment like that reveals that there’s a big gulf between you … being ‘different’ is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing 🙂

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