What do lesbians do?: motherhood ideology, lesbian mothers and family law


University of British Columbia

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Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis explores the application of ideologies of motherhood in the context of family law. The approach taken is to work from the ‘margins’ of motherhood, using the experience of lesbian mothers as a focal point, in order to explore the ‘centre’ of dominant discourse and ideologies of motherhood. Case law from Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA over the past 20 years is examined. These cases are used to explore the ways in which lesbian mothers are characterised as ‘bad mothers’, in order to ask what these configurations illuminate about the requirements of ‘good’ mothering. The cases used were primarily child custody decisions involving divorcing parents, but are supplemented with some welfare and adoption cases. The picture, or story, of lesbian mothers which emerges from the judgments is one of fear and horror - a mixture of claiming the foreignness of lesbians at the same time that ‘common sense’ assumptions about lesbian mothers abound. This ‘story’ is contextualised in the thesis with a discussion of the characterisation of lesbians in popular culture in the past 70 years, along with formulaic ‘types’ and narratives, and their presence in and parallels with the legal judgments are then explored. In part, this thesis asserts that rights based discourse has been unsuccessful in engaging the judiciary to any positive end for lesbian mothers in family law. A framework of mother archetypes is used in order to delve beneath the surface level of the judgments to deeper linking themes. These include such themes as requirements of maternal altruism and lack of agency, fear of maternal animality and fear of male dispensability in child rearing. All of these themes find links in feminist work on motherhood ideology in other contexts, and these commonalities are discussed in the conclusion.

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Law, Peter A. Allard School of