The Sylvia Forman Prize for outstanding graduate student paper will be awarded to Brady G’Sell, for the paper “Multiple Maternities: Maternal Repertoires and Support Seeking in South Africa,” advisor Adam Ashforth (University of Michigan).
G’Sell’s paper analyzes marriage and childcare in South Africa. In South Africa, 40% unemployment and plummeting marriage rates have put once reliable means of supporting children—employment, husbands, or husband’s family—out of reach. This shift has led to a situation where women must draw upon an ever-expanding network of people and institutions to support themselves and their families. Although women are expected to translate resources into proper social reproduction, they are not regarded as legitimate recipients of aid in their own right. Children are considered the deserving beneficiaries. Thus, women can only access resources by framing themselves as a maternal caregiver to a needy child. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper tracks how women living in a multi-racial and multi-cultural inner-city neighborhood claimed support from many categories of persons: social workers, pastors, school principals, boyfriends, and neighbors. These persons held different, often conflicting definitions of desirable, and therefore deserving, motherhood. In response, women cultivated semiotic skills to discern and apply effective ways of speaking and acting to each interactional context. By enacting the disciplinarian, the indulging auntie, or the thrifty housewife, Point women used performances of acceptable motherhood to justify their entitlement to support. This paper argues that such performances are both a strategy and a resource for poor women in South Africa that enables claim making and social recognition. However, this recognition remains limited as their legibility and merit resides not in their own needs or even in the value of their maternal labor, but in the social value of the child.