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Feminism and Motherhood in Costa Rica: Research Paper

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Feminism and motherhood have a complicated and unique relationship. Since the formation of the women’s movement in Latin America, women have fought for reproductive freedom, pushed for economic equality, and called for universal childcare in an effort to achieve greater success in the public sphere. However, the women of Costa Rica remain faced with one problem: womanhood hasn’t been separated from motherhood in the same sense that men are separated from fatherhood. Society continues to ignore the work mothers do in reproducing the human race and caring for vulnerable, dependent children as important and necessary work. Women who are single mothers are at higher risk of poverty. Within the matriarchal system in Costa Rica, mothers are more likely to be the head of household and the singular source of income and thereby vulnerable to patriarchal capitalism and the division of labor. Myrna Cunningham writes, “Many women like me who are from historically marginalized groups, whether indigenous, African-descendent, or poor - have seen the potential of feminism to our struggles, especially our struggle for our rights as women within our communities” (55). Feminism has failed to address what mothers can do to ensure that they do not sacrifice their economic autonomy or self-reliance in order to care for their children.

This paper is based primarily on the ideologies of the second and third waves of feminism. The second wave of feminism expanded the discourse of gender equality to include sexuality, family, the workplace and reproductive rights. Some of the instances that second-wave feminism highlighted were issues of domestic violence and marital rape, in addition to contraception use. Some of the laws resulting from the second wave in Latin America include the Domestic Violence law, Penalization of Domestic Violence Against Women, and the Paternity law allowing women to challenge the surnames and custodial rights for their children. The third wave of feminism was the deconstruction of universal womanhood, notions of the body, thoughts on gender, sexuality and traditional roles. It emphasized issues with language as a construct in the similar manner that gender roles are a construct and are problematic in many Latin American regions where machismo is built into the structure. This paper aims to understand how feminist movements that occurred between the second and third wave have allowed women/mothers in the last decade to mobilize in an effort to create space for their daughters to have more autonomy in the present. In order to gain insight into mother-daughter autonomy trends, this paper draws on qualitative fieldwork gathered through short impromptu interviews with eight women of various age ranges in the Limón province of Costa Rica. The interviews were conducted over the timespan of one week without any follow-ups. Five of the women were near the local elementary school. Three of the women were a part of the Boruca indigenous population. Seven of the participants were mothers with daughters between the ages of 6-13 and one participant was a former expectant mother and educator in an all-girls program. The first two sections of this paper provide a brief overview of Costa Rica in relation to other Central American countries. In addition to the overview, it defines the terms that will be used throughout the paper. The third section introduces the importance of motherhood. This includes examination of two audio recorded interviews in combination with previous literature. Also, this section explores views about ‘women and nature’ in the Boruca and BriBri tribes. The fourth section examines the contributions of single mothers as well as their entrance into the labor market. In the fifth and final section, I summarize the findings of the research and assert that while the daughters gain more autonomy, women had less sovereignty in the name of ‘motherhood’.

There has been debate regarding the redistribution of wealth and the fair organization of labor. The fact is, many mothers remain trapped by the market either as workers or as unwaged care givers. Society needs to find ways to value care work and provide more autonomy for those who are sustaining and nourishing the human race — mothers. While mothering through some of the encountered narratives have been liberating, we need to liberate motherhood from the patriarchal capitalist constraints that mothers in Costa Rica have commonly associated with it. “Liberating women does not mean putting them on a pedestal, proclaiming them to be divine, exceptional creatures who can be touched only in dreams or mystic visions. Such an image would rob them of soul and body ¾ of everything they have ¾ and would send them into nothingness” (Coto, 1989, 32).

Profile of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country in Central America that is bordered by the neighboring countries of Nicaragua and Panama in addition to the beautiful bodies of water, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Colonization by the Europeans began in 1522 and still predominantly influences Costa Rica, including the official language of Spanish. Currently, there are various ethnic groups and colonies of immigrants especially African descendants situated on the eastern coast of Costa Rica in Limón as well as the two largest indigenous populations of the Bribri and Boruca. Boys and men in Costa Rica are more likely to acquire higher education. Education allows men to navigate various resources in the local, national and international markets to sustain income while preventing girls, many of whom don’t go beyond primary schooling, the lack of opportunity to compete for autonomy in their home countries.

Agriculture is the basis of its economy. When cultivating the land, the Spanish found very little amounts of gold or other valuable minerals within Costa Rica and as a result decided to turn to agriculture. Coffee has historically been the country's most important crop and the country continues to produce some of the finest coffee in the world. However, in recent years with changes in international trade agreements, less traditional crops have been playing an increasingly important economic role. As a result, bananas have become the second most important export crop. The relative poverty of small landowners, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica's isolation from Mexico have all contributed to the development of the individualistic agrarian society we have come to know today.


  • Patriarchy is a societal structure in which the male is the head of the family and entitlement has succession that is traced through the male linage. Men’s responsibility for their wives' support, according to societal standards, is in actual fact relatively low. Patriarchy in its classic form is an arranged marriage in which the young girl becomes subordinate to the males in her husband’s family as well as her husband’s mother. “Patriarchal bargain - protection in exchange for submissiveness and propriety” (Kandiyoti, 283). Mothers in Costa Rica bargain with patriarchy by prolonging the need for their daughters to marry and by accumulating income through domestic work.
  • Feminization of poverty is the widening income gap between men and women living in economic deprivation. Poverty is determined by a specified income threshold and the inability to meet basic needs due to the inaccessibility of resources. This leads to a state of economic dependence, labor exploitation, and gender oppression. Two of the assumptions among women and female headed households living in poverty is the ability to equate earned income with control over the distribution of the income and the assumption that income results in equal opportunities and benefits.
  • Division of labor is the way work is divided between men and women according to their gender roles. Domestic work such as cooking, cleaning and raising the children to sustain the household is assigned to mothers and girl. Work that requires the use of specialized equipment is considered ‘man’s work’. According to Engels, “It was the man’s part to obtain food and the instruments of labor necessary for the purpose. He therefore also owned the instruments of labor, and in the event of husband and wife separating, he took them with him, just as she retained her household goods” (29-30).
  • Feminization of agriculture is the increase of women participating in the agricultural sector, especially in third world countries. The increase in women’s participation was the result of males migrating out of rural areas that led to a decrease in opportunities available to women and lower pay in available positions due to skill exclusions. Many critiques argue that this is fueling the dangerous trend of women in poverty as well as food insecurity. Women were primarily concerned with the commercial production of food and its dilution of the soil. This is due to the fact that women in agriculture generally have smaller plot sizes than the men and less access to other necessary resources for production. The term feminization of agriculture precedes the ecofeminism movement. The ecofeminism movement is a commitment to the environment and an awareness of the associations made between women and nature. The contentions are that women have a more intimate relationship with nature because of their roles as family nurturer and provider and their biology that causes menstruation, pregnancy, and breastfeeding (Ortner).
  • Empowerment is the increasing capacity of individuals to make choices and transform those choices into desired outcomes. This choice making capacity is divided into three different categories: power-over, power-to, and power-with. ‘Power-over’ is the ability of a person or persons to constrain the choices available to another person or persons in a menial way (Amy Allen, 33). ‘Power-to’ is the ability of an individual to attain a desirable outcome or multiple outcomes (34) ‘Power-with’ is the collective efforts to attain a mutual goal (35).

The Importance of Motherhood

If you ask anyone who has parented a child what the most difficult job in the world potentially is, they likely will reply: being a mother. At the moment of conception of the child, through hours of gruesome labor, and up into adulthood, being a mother is a full-time job, that has the ability to result in a lifetime of love. For this reason, mothering has been seen as the most essential aspect of parenthood considering that the contributions of a mother haven’t been removed from their assigned gender roles.

However, motherhood has been criticized by third wave feminists who argue that it is a misfortune. They believe that women who become mothers are oppressed because raising children imposes a serious limitation on the psyche and physical bodies of women that are not equally encountered by men. Motherhood is conceived as a weakness and not as a godly gift because of the lack of agency of women to make decisions unrelated from their domestic work. “Cooking and other types of domestic work are only recently beginning to be seen by researchers as more than reproductive, mundane tasks. Reproductive labor (the everyday domestic tasks that reproduce one’s, or a family existence) can serve both as a means for female resistance to patriarchal culture and as a site for symbolic play” (Preston-Werner, 2008, 330). It forces employers and the international economy to place value on previously devalued work by women. The wage should align with the labor power that women have exerted to produce the commodity that is placed on the market. For women in the Boruca tribe, entry into the international labor market is distributing pure, unprocessed cacao chocolate to tourists who witness them roasting and shelling them beans before making milk chocolate or hot cocoa out of condensed milk and hot water.

Historically, patriarchy has created an illusion that motherhood is the only sphere that is essentially created for women. Women are considered the natural reproducers of mankind, that is, they give birth and raise children. Patriarchy upholds that child bearing provides the innate capacity of women to achieve some form of agency and power especially if they produce sons. It gives in to exaggerations of the motherly values of nature that are demanded from women to perpetuate patriarchal norms. This has resulted in an idealization of motherhood especially by young girls in rural areas of Costa Rica which confines women to their role as nurturers. Young girls in rural areas of Costa Rica who receive an education have the capability to challenge traditional patriarchy. Monica Budowski asserts that religion, similar to the institution of marriage (discussed later) plays a large role in crafting women’s understanding of motherhood. She notes: “Catholicism is strongly oriented towards worshipping the Virgin Mary, referred to with the term marianismo. With regards to social identity, marianismo stresses virginity and a strong sense for mothers as the people to whom one owes the most gratitude. These norms do not reduce men’s powerful position as pater familia within the family, but they stress maternity as a sacred condition and a condition worthy of social recognition and daily satisfaction. However, maternity is not necessarily a source of joy and pleasure; marianismo also stresses women’s suffering and sacrifices for their children” (81).

Radical feminists of the third wave maintain that motherhood as constructed by patriarchy is highly oppressive. Patriarchy misuses motherhood as an instrument to subordinate women as a whole. The experience of motherhood has been conveyed to serve male interests and to maintain the hierarchy that is reliant on female dependence. It is far from being a liberating and enriching experience for all women. While women who would identify as indigenous and agree with the feminist theory provoked by radicals, they would also advance the view that women’s rights and indigenous rights are interconnected. “Indigenous rights include the right to full recognition as Peoples with our own worldview and traditions, our own territories, our own modes of organization within nation-states; the right to self-determination through our own systems of autonomy or self-government based on a communal property framework; and the right to control, develop, and utilize our own natural resources” (Cunningham, 2006, 56). This would correlate to the recognition of women separate from their roles as mothers along with being provided with the capability to generate autonomy not just for themselves but for their daughters who will inherit their property.

So, the right question would be: why is so much importance placed on motherhood if motherhood is deployed in ways that are considered oppressive or marginalizing? There isn’t just one answer. However, the sincerest and thought-provoking answers can be imagined through the women who are mothers themselves. This paper provides the following quotes regarding motherhood from my fieldnotes.

“I was pregnant six months ago and I actually lost the baby. Even if I can’t be a mother to my own child, I would like to be a mother to a child that needs that role model, that support. I just want to be able to teach them and to nurture them, to be creative and loving and an overall great person. We need to create a space where children can be open and aware. I hope to one day be a mother but for me right now that role comes at being a teacher”, - Ana.

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“Being a mother is an experience. Before not being a mother, you always think only in you, everything for me. Being a mother, I know it’s another etapas [stage]. Now I have to think no more in me. Being a mother, I have to think in my daughters. What they need, what they feel and be friends too. That is like an experience because every day is something different”, - Beatriz.

“A little girl was dancing, tripped and was stomped on, now she is a part of the ground and the reason our soil is so rich. Therefore, the importance of our roles as mothers is too nurture”, - Bribriwak Mother #1.

All of the women interviewed placed emphasis on the characteristic of nurturing as being important to motherhood. In the narratives, nurturing is associated with the ability to feed and protect, to support and encourage growth and development, and lastly, to educate. The analysis of motherhood through the interactions of the women challenges the belief that the disposition of masculinity is to protect. It highlights the feminine and masculine aspect of a quality associated with parenting as well as the ability for women to acclimate multiple roles. Specifically, while watching Beatriz interact with her eldest daughter, she demonstrated to her the correct way to utilize a shovel and move yard waste. She exhibited in the simplest form, how to cultivate land for the garden we were building. This is teaching her daughter to be self-sufficient while limiting her chances of food insecurity. Theresa Preston-Werner writes, “by succeeding in freeing her daughters from a dependence on male income by encouraging them to remain in school and become working professionals, she actually is inscribing herself in a new dependence upon her daughters who will eventually provide economically for the household” (338). In this cycle, Beatriz is introducing her daughter to the Preston-Werner's model of acquisition and application (341). Daughters acquire skills and knowledge from their mothers that they in turn apply to society to build and maintain their own autonomy.

Marriage and the Female Labor Market

The sanctity of motherhood is traditionally only accepted when linked to matrimony. The patriarchal society has proclaimed that motherhoods’ validity lies only within the bounds of marriage for the establishment of paternity and it dishonors unwed motherhood as a curse desecrating the purity of all women. However, scholars and feminists would disagree on whether marriage similar to womanhood can be universally defined. The usual roles and responsibilities of the husband and wife include living together, having sexual relations only with one another, sharing economic resources, and being recognized as the parents of their children have changed. In Sylvia Chant’s Costa Rican study, she found that men had no intentions of sharing the load of household duties with their wives. “When men marry or start living with someone, what they really want is an empleada [domestic servant]. In previous research with men, I had also found that many looked for what they referred to as a segunda madre [second mother] or madre-esposa [mother-wife], who would attend to their needs, overlook their faults and at the same time allow them to exercise authority” (34). Men constrain the ability of their wives to achieve any autonomy and create this structure of women being economically dependent on their husbands because of the man’s capability and connections to distribute crops resulting in higher profit margins. Traditionally, when daughters in Costa Rica would enter marriage, some still just children themselves, they would be responsible for executing domestic duties for another individual instead of having a partner that would be equal in status and responsibility.

First and foremost, marriage is an outdated institution that has traditionally identified the bond between two people as man and woman for the purpose of procreation. Marriage and family serve as tools for ensuring social reproduction. Social reproduction includes providing food, clothing, and shelter for family members; raising and socializing children; and caring for the sick and elderly. In families and societies in which wealth, property, or a hereditary title is to be passed on from one generation to the next, inheritance and the production of legitimate heirs are a prime concern in marriage. However, in the last decade, rural Costa Rican communities, marriage functions less as a social institution and more as attachment to machismo for the women involved. Resulting in marriage no longer being considered a necessity when an unmarried woman and her partner become pregnant. In many cases, women enter pregnancy with the understanding that if their marriage ends in divorce, they are left with less economic support than before and even see a decline in their status. Tatiana Cabrera writes: “The Family Code allows women to renounce their right to financial support, particularly child support. As men are almost without exception poorly educated about their obligations as fathers, in the power struggle of divorce proceedings they often make the grand concessionary gesture of relinquishing custody of their children, leaving the mother with the right but also with burden, of caring for their children, usually without any economic support that would enable her to do so” (108).

The number of unmarried mothers may be a direct result of greater rights for women. Although the Family Code in Costa Rica may not be seen as upholding the position of power for women, it does allow women who have been involved in domestic disputes the ability to separate themselves from their abusive spouse and remove all social ties. “Independence allows them more choice over their occupations, greater control over household finances, and enhanced personal mobility and freedom, all of which makes it easier to cope with the structural challenges of female headship” (Sylvia Chant, 2009, 36). “The broad sense of headship refers to a form of power over others, the ability to influence, control, and make decisions” (Budowski, 2005, 35). This has meant that women have wanted to exercise this new-found independence and have felt that they do not need to rely on a piece of paper to say that they belong to a particular man or are entitled to some degree of autonomy. With the transition of women from the domestic to the public sphere, “the hegemonic type of household referred to was the one prevalent in the advanced Western economies, with Christian moral values and norms (usually formally) married couples and their children constituting the members of the household” (Budowski, 2005, 31). There also seems to be no shame now in living alone and never marrying is no longer considered as unorthodox. Women who are now entering the journey of motherhood in Costa Rica aren’t confined to the religious values their mothers were forced to abide by.

Although practices vary from one culture to another, all societies have regulations about who is eligible to marry and when as well as the process of how they select a partner. In Costa Rica, child marriage (also known as arranged marriage in many third world countries) especially in Indigenous communities is the most common form of relationship. Mothers who have acquired more land and resources through their matrilineal lineage could enhance their economic class and life probability through a child’s marriage. Take for example the case study of Doña Pilar and her daughters that Preston-Werner analyzes. “Uneducated, married, and pregnant at eighteen, Doña Pilar’s only employment option was to work in what Susan Gal terms the second economy of informal labor as a domestic laborer or a peddler” (334). Many of the mothers I encountered in Costa Rica spoke very little English, a critical skill used to assess the education of both men and women in the job market. Without this necessity acquired first hand by the mothers or the potentiality of enrolling their daughters in some of form of educational programming, they risk creating the next generation of subservient women in their lineage.

In search of economic security, more and more mothers who were married and had husbands that didn’t contribute to the household in addition to unmarried women begin to enter the labor market. The mothers I encountered during my time spent in the Limón province entered the labor force for various reasons such as they were singular source of household income, some seen it as a way to ‘explore’ outside the home and others had a collective understanding that if their daughters seen they were capable of something that they too would seek out the means to do more. “The factors of class, race and gender interact to make Limón women who are single heads of household vulnerable to poverty. Yet, being alone, having a space of their own, allows them to make decisions, control their own money, and become aware of their capabilities and rights” (Lopez-Casas, 1990, 144). Economic autonomy has been configured as a right for women during the second wave. Because of this, the international labor market has recognized that agriculture is a medium of growth and poverty alleviation in third world countries where it is a primary occupation of poor women. Gutiérrez and Vargas Mora (1979) writes: “This form of economic production led to a division of labor through specialization of men’s and women’s activities/ Men were responsible for fieldwork, selection and preparation of land, and sowing, transport and sale of crops. However, women did not enjoy a clear separation between housework and fieldwork; they, to, participated in sowing, harvesting, and processing crops. Moreover, adult women and girls were exclusively responsible for housework. When men were absent— out scouting for new land or involved in business transactions — women and children had to carry the entire workload in houses and fields” (94).

The agricultural sector in many developing countries such as Costa Rica is underperforming, in part because women, who represent a crucial number of the employees in agriculture and the rural economy through their roles as farmers, laborers and distributors, primarily on the banana plantations and in the production of coffee face more severe constraints than men in access to production resources and wage compensation. Lopez-Casas asserts that “Costa Rica is experiencing in economic crisis resulting from several factors; these include, but are not limited to, the external debt, the decline of coffee prices (coffee being one of Costa Rica’s two principal export crops, the other being bananas, though both have recently ceded first place in export earnings to tourism), and the constant political upheavals in countries of the Central American region” (141). Agriculture had a measurable increase of women participating in the agricultural sector. These women, many of whom are mothers but are seen as secondary laborers make essential contributions to the agricultural and rural economies to support the continuation of their tribes (including men) and pursue multiple livelihood strategies such as art and jewelry making that could be seen in the BriBri community. When tourists entered their village, each pair of earrings or bracelets that are up for sale has a little tag attached to it with the name of one of the women in the village who made it. The feminization of agriculture has traditionally been associated with poverty and food insecurity due to a short supply of harvested crops. When I asked indirectly how profits from craft sales go back into the economy and what are the benefits that are received by the mothers who make the products, the woman hosting us responded that it secures land on which the women maintain and are able to grow crops for personal consumption to ensure they don’t encounter a food shortage.


This paper has argued that second and third wave feminist movements have allowed women, specifically mothers the ability to assemble and create spaces where their daughters have more autonomy. Within analyzing the achieved autonomy that the daughters received and taking into account that motherhood has been empowering for many women, other women have faced exclusions in the name of motherhood. In fact, some of these mothers such as Dona Pilãr mentioned in Preston-Werner’s research have become dependent on their daughters as a result. Also, with the heavy emphasis placed on rural women in Costa Rica to reproduce the roles and responsibilities they have as mothers onto their daughters, they exercise Kandiyoti’s argument of bargaining within the patriarchal structure by denouncing the institution of marriage but still performing the work assigned to their gender. While I didn’t encounter any mothers under the age of 26, some of the women in Budowski’s study gave birth at ages as young as 13.

Lastly, when analyzing the literature for the proposed argument, all the primary sources included data for the Limón province. The implications of class and gender were discussed but in the overarching discussion, the issue of race had an inadequate number of mentions. It highlighted a bias that race isn’t always visible. When looking back at the fieldwork I conducted in Costa Rica, Beatriz, a mother of two that I interviewed had Jamaican ancestry. Although, Limón is identified as containing a primarily black population, I didn’t think deeper about how race plays a role in poverty and poverty affects their decision making as mothers until now. Feminism has to step up and address the injustices for all women economically, socially and politically. Feminism cannot embrace equal opportunities for women unless it also embraces mothers: all mothers, and the unique set of circumstances accompanied with them. Women have been forced into low paid, low status and low security work which many would prefer to decline, if they had the opportunity. These women chose occupations that allowed them to be at home with their children while earning menial wages to prevent their daughters being circumvented into the same patriarchal dependency.

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