This qualitative study contests the moralizing of select personhoods that equates married motherhood to fulfilled womanhood by examining a growing yet rarely addressed group of women in Kenya - partner free professional women in their late thirties to late forties. Their experiences are instructing new constructions of womanhood, which are generating novel motherhoods and matriarchies. Choices of alternative approaches to attaining motherhood by this, until now, uninvestigated set of individuals, are rewriting conceptions of womanhood, and with it, family, as well as the concepts matriarchy and patriarchy. Rituals and demands of professional womanhood, which define a single professional woman’s (SPW’s) social and career patterns, sometimes lead to single adulthood and/or delayed parenthood. Increasingly, for a plethora of reasons, more SPWs in urban Kenya are not participating in rituals of bridehood and wifehood. This, in many ways, actuates their states and performances of identities that can result in contestations of patriarchal womanhood and motherhood, which are limited by the fact that they are defined in relation to men. This inquiry into maternal rituals, cultures, and processes, designates and delineates what I christen elective lone parenthood (ELP).
Besi Muhonja is Associate Vice Provost for Scholarship and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at James Madison University. She is a professor of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Dr. Muhonja’s work engages the interfaces of transnationalism, gender and sexuality in the politics, identities, philosophies, and products of/from Africa, the larger Global South, and the Black Diaspora. She is also a leading Wangari Maathai scholar. Dr. Muhonja is author of Radical Utu: Ideas and Ideals of Wangari Maathai (Ohio University Press, 2020) and Performing Girlhood and Womanhood: Rituals of Kenya's Twenty-First Century Middle Class (Lexington -Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Turn Down the Volume on Silence (a collection of plays, forthcoming in 2022); and co-editor of the book volumes Gender and Sexuality in Senegalese Societies: Critical Perspectives and Methods (with Babacar M’baye, 2019), Mothers and Sons: Centering Mother Knowledge (with Wanda Bernard Thomas, 2016) and Gender and Sexuality in Kenyan Societies (with M’baye, forthcoming in 2022).