Mothering, Public Leadership, and Women's Life Writing

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Claire E. Wolfteich
Theology in Practice, Volume 2
  • Boston, MA: 
    , August
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mothering, Public Leadership, and Women’s Life Writing argues that mothering is worthy of theological reflection, and is an important source for spiritual practice. The book is divided into two sections: in the first, Claire Wolfteich offers case studies of mothers and spirituality; in the second, she analyzes select theological categories related to mothering. The sections work together to produce a practical theology that benefits from the insights of spiritual studies and a study of spirituality that is grounded pragmatically in quotidian experience. In short, Wolfteich’s focus on motherhood enables her to push at the boundaries of two disciplines to help us to understand the moral and spiritual significance of motherhood—for mothers themselves, and to the larger Christian community. The book is well-organized and written in a clear and engaging style. Noteworthy is Wolfteich’s repeated attention to potential further avenues of research, thus underscoring how her research and analysis indeed generate significant theological reflection and enlarge our understanding of spirituality (151). 

A practical theologian, Wolfteich celebrates “everyday practices of mothering” as potential models of holiness that offer alternatives to devotion that depends on separation, such as practices in the desert, cloister, or mountaintop. Mothering describes a range of activities, including pregnancy, birth, and nursing, as well as the daily, on-going physical and emotional care of children. For minoritized women, mothering is better described as motherwork, a term Wolfteich uses with reference to Patricia Hill Collins’s theorizing about how motherhood for women of color requires acts of cultural resistance and empowerment to raise children in a racist society that persistently denigrates their humanity. 

Wolfteich attends to figures familiar to Catholic studies, such as Margery Kempe, Dorothy Day, and Jane de Chantal, and others less well-known like Lena Frances Edwards, a midcentury black American obstetrician who devoted her career to migrant women’s reproductive health. Wolfteich also includes Jarena Lee and Delores Huerta, figures better known through historiographies of American religious and social movements. By reading each figure primarily as a mother, Wolfteich inspires fresh questions about these women’s spiritual lives. For example, early 19th century black preacher Lee traveled often; Wolfteich wonders how Lee, a mother of two and a widow, negotiated care for her children while she was away, what networks were available to her, and whether her children influenced her vocation to preach? 

Wolfteich emphasizes the challenge of hermeneutical silences, for example Kempe said little about mothering her fourteen children. Wolfteich also illuminates critical silences, for example an underexplored theme in Day’s writing—the tension between what Day perceives to be the private work of mothering and the public work of leading the Catholic Worker movement. Though vocational and spiritual conflicts related to motherhood are not often discussed in work on Day, Wolfteich demonstrates how central to Day’s life, and throughout her written reflections, was a persistent struggle to integrate motherhood and work. For Huerta and Edwards, Wolfteich underscores that motherhood did not present a conflict with public leadership and service. On the contrary, motherhood for both women was “formation for public service, for the community” (90). In short, Wolfteich presents a compelling and diverse portrait of different mothers and the variety of ways they undertook motherhood, public service, and religious devotion. 

Wolfteich accesses these women’s experiences through their “maternal life writing” to surface how motherhood intersects with spirituality and community leadership. Life writing includes letters, diaries, memoirs, travel narratives, and autobiographies. Since mothers do not often have sustained opportunities to reflect, a broad archive enables a researcher to access how “everyday practices of mothering” can be primary resources for reflecting on Christian spirituality. Writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, Wolfteich underscores how texts, as a performance of the self, may also reflect a kind of spiritual formation. Indeed, Wolfteich shows the significance of life writing as a theological source, for it provides a way to be in touch with the faith of “the whole People of God, and not only male elites, [which] is a key task of theology” (14). Focusing on motherhood enables spiritual studies to “widen conceptions of vocation to encompass life in the world” as it “frames mothering as a paradigm of lay devotion” (69). 

The book’s second part puts maternal narratives in conversation with selected theological themes, including vocation and sabbath. Drawing from Jewish feminist writing about sabbath, Wolfteich considers whether and how sabbath is possible for women who, after all, do not stop mothering on the seventh day. A related issue is that many women suffer from time poverty, having little time for leisure activities outside of wage work and/or care work. A theological focus on motherhood helps to put into relief the impact of shift work, especially on working class families who struggle to synchronize work schedules for shared leisure time. If time is “a form of political capital,” women in general have less of it, and low-income and poor women have the least, thereby raising questions about whether these women have opportunities for spiritual formation.

Wolfteich is attentive to the importance of critical, close listening as a way to obviate against cooptation of particular experiences. She stresses that the meanings of the texts that she reads and practices, she interprets, “are multivalent and best interpreted not only by an individual academic but also by diverse communities of scholarship and practice” (104). In this way, I would have liked to see Wolfteich dwell more with the theoretical demands of motherwork as a category. If motherwork describes mothering in the midst of racial domination and economic exploitation, as Wolfteich—in referencing the work of Hill Collins and others—acknowledges it does, then it is as important to consider how domination and exploitation affect women’s experiences in religious communities, and their spiritual formation. Indeed, it is Wolfteich’s care with her sources, and her own pressing for fresh insights in theological and spiritual practices, that make this book a tool for others to undertake such analysis. 

Mothering, Public Leadership, and Women’s Life Writing is an ideal text for seminary students in practical theology, Christian ethics, and theology, as well as scholars and students of Christian spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Azaransky is Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Date of Review: 
April 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Claire E. Wolfteich is professor of practical theology and spirituality studies at Boston University. She has published monographs, edited volumes, and articles, including (co-ed. with A. Dillen) Catholic Approaches in Practical Theology: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Peeters, 2016).


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