The Institute for the Study of Motherhood Scholarship

The Institute for the Study of Motherhood Scholarship (ISMS) at Boston University, newly founded and housed under the auspices of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning (CITL) at the College of General Studies (CGS), reflects CITL’s dedication to the advancement of scholarship in the growing interdisciplinary scholarly field of Motherhood Studies and acts as a place of welcome for students, scholars and researchers working on the diverse and growing topics within motherhood studies scholarship.

In supporting contemporary motherhood studies scholarship, the ISMS embraces intersectional understandings that recognize that mothers lives are shaped differently based on intersecting factors of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The ISMS does so because, today, institutionalized “good mothering” assumes and promotes privileged motherhood, primarily by reinforcing White, at-least middle class, cisgender, heterosexual privilege and an even-more intensive ideology of good mothering, and any mother who “fails” to meet the standards of intensive mothering is policed and labeled a “bad mother.”  Through our support for intersectional motherhood scholarship, the Institute seeks to continue to cultivate motherhood studies as an interdisciplinary field of study, while also nurturing new scholarly work in motherhood studies.  Our mission is to build a rich scholarly community both within and outside the university and also to offer a public venue for the celebration and study of Motherhood Studies.  To this end, the ISMS supports undergraduate and graduate students and faculty working in all areas of Motherhood Studies across disciplines.

The Institute hopes to host conferences and lectures to broaden academic knowledge created within Motherhood Studies.  We also hope to become an intellectual community for scholars including those already and newly passionately committed to Motherhood Studies.  Finally, ISMS intends to design directed studies at both the undergraduate and graduate level that are tailored to individual students’ disciplines and interests in Motherhood Studies.  In addition to existing resources provided by the University, the Institute hopes to attract external support for fellowships and for visiting lecturers.  Graduate students can affiliate with the Institute.


The ISMS embraces and traces its own emergence in the historical development of motherhood studies.  Once only a topic among women in the private sphere, motherhood and mothering became important intellectual topics across academic disciplines in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Much of this early work–and this Institute—embraces and is grounded in a key distinction that Adrienne Rich first detailed in her landmark book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.  In the book, Rich made an all-important distinction between the institution of motherhood and the potential empowered relations in mothering. In viewing motherhood as a complex site of women’s oppression and as a potential location of women’s creativity and joy, Rich argued, “I try to distinguish two meanings of motherhood, one superimposed on the other: the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential–and all women–shall remain under male control” (italics in original 13). Based on this ground breaking distinction, Rich viewed the institution of motherhood as male defined, male controlled, and deeply oppressive to women, while she viewed the experience of mothering as a potentially empowering relationship for both women and children.  Today, based on this distinction, contemporary scholars theorize the potential of mothering to be empowering for mothers, what they now call empowered mothering, when mothers can define mothering for themselves, while contemporary scholars also theorize and explore the institution of motherhood, what they now refer to as institutionalized motherhood, in the focus on contemporary forms of patriarchal and controlling forms of motherhood.

While much of the intellectual work of motherhood studies emerged first within feminist and women’s studies scholarship, in 2006, Andrea O’Reilly coined the term motherhood studies to acknowledge and demarcate this new scholarship on motherhood as a legitimate and autonomous scholarly discipline—one grounded in the theoretical tradition of maternal theory developed by such scholars as Patricia Hill Collins, Adrienne Rich, and Sara Ruddick, and one explicitly interdisciplinary in both scholarship and teaching.  A cursory review of motherhood research reveals that hundreds of scholarly monographs, anthologies, journal issues, and journal articles across disciplines have been published on every imaginable motherhood theme and topic. Given the depth and breadth of motherhood research to date, it is impossible to list all the themes explored; however, some examples are:  sexuality, queer mothers, Black mothering, Muslim mothering, indigenous mothers, Latina mothers, incarcerated mothers, third-wave mothering, mothering and globalization, mothering and domestic violence, religion, public policy, economics, literature, work, popular culture, the maternal body (both able and disabled/differently abled), health, carework-caregiving, ethnicity, environment, militarism, young mothers, motherhood and feminism, mothers and sons, and mothers and daughters.


The ISMS faculty is a group of nationally and internationally recognized academic scholars. Their collective expertise spans a wide range of scholarly subjects and foci within motherhood scholarship:  feminisms and motherhood, empowered mothering, mothering rhetorics, matricentric feminism, queering motherhood, transnational mothering, Black motherhood, matrifocal voices in literature, Victorian motherhood, mothering and popular culture, mothering and art, mothering and families, mothering and work, mothering and politics, mothering and reproductive justice, mothering and health, and mothering and neoliberalism. Faculty members are intimately involved in other interdisciplinary fields of inquiry, such as motherhood studies, communication studies, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, literary studies, the arts, and critical/cultural studies.


Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning


For more information, please contact the Chair of ISMS, Lynn O’Brien Hallstein,