Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution
I told myself that I wanted to write a book on motherhood because it was a crucial, still relatively unexplored, area for feminist theory. But I did not choose this subject; it had long ago chosen me.
These mixed motives—to enlarge “feminist theory” and to express a personal experience of a fateful kind—account for the title of Adrienne Rich’s book. Motherhood as experience appears in autobiographical episodes interspersed through much longer reflections attempting to analyze motherhood as a social institution. It is impossible to discuss either the autobiography or the analysis without raising the problem of partisan writing.
The autobiography is retold by a convinced feminist, reinterpreting her past in the light of her present convictions. All autobiographies construct a myth of explanation; some are more complex than others; some authors are conscious of the limitations of their myths (as Yeats was in discussing his “masks”). Though Rich is conscious that she has not always interpreted her life as she now does, her present myth is not offered as provisional; instead, the current interpretation of events of the past forty years, from childhood to liberation, is offered as the definitive one. The gist of it runs as follows:
I don’t remember when it was that my mother’s feminine sensuousness, the reality of her body, began to give way for me to the charisma of my father’s assertive mind and temperament; perhaps when my sister was just born, and he began teaching me to read.
This “perfect” daughter [herself], though gratifyingly precocious, had early been given to tics and tantrums, had become permanently lame from arthritis at twenty-two; she had finally resisted her father’s Victorian paternalism, his seductive charm and controlling cruelty, had married a divorced graduate student, had begun to write “modern,” “obscure,” “pessimistic” poetry, lacking the fluent sweetness of Tennyson, had had the final temerity to get pregnant and bring a living baby into the world. She had ceased to be the demure and precocious child or the poetic, seducible adolescent. Something, in my father’s view, had gone terribly wrong.
It is not surprising that a woman who, at this stage in her life, represents her father as seducer, cruel controller, intellectual critic of her first poetic attempts, and angered despot, should find herself protesting the control that a society which she regards as male-dominated, and therefore cruel, exerts over women. It is not suggested in these pages that a woman with a different sort of upbringing—or a woman with the same upbringing who read it differently—might have arrived at different political or cultural feelings.
The autobiography, though sketchy and scanty because of its subordinate (though controlling) position in the book, continues. Rich had three sons, and was anesthetized for all three hospital deliveries; after the third birth she had a tubal ligation. For many years she was a “full-time mother”; she ended the marriage; her husband committed suicide; her children are now grown. Since her undergraduate years she has published poetry; during the years when she had small children, she experienced as “primal agony” the conflict between the constant care of children and the attempt to create an individual self. The autobiographical construct ends with a new sexual orientation and a new reconciliation with the mother:
For those of us who had children, and later came to recognize and act upon the breadth and depth of our feelings for women, a complex new bond with our mothers is possible.
Rich interprets history as a phylogenetic analogue to her own ontogenetic myth. Once there were “pre-patriarchal” periods of human culture which “shared certain kinds of woman-centered beliefs and woman-centered social organization.” (By these terms Rich does not mean either “matriarchy” or “gynecocracy,” those two unsubstantiated institutions; instead she means matrilocal social organization—in which the husband enters the woman’s family, and the woman, in marrying, does not lose her mother, sisters, female relatives, etc.—and, more dubiously, goddess-worship.) In “prepatriarchal” times, while men hunted, “women became the civilizers, the inventors of agriculture, of community, some maintain of language itself.” Then, in the feminist version of the Fall, society extirpated the worship of the Mother-Goddess in her various forms, instituted monotheism, and devised the patriarchal family “with its supernaturalizing of the penis, its division of labor by gender, its emotional, physical, and material possessiveness, its ideal of monogamous marriage until death,…the obedience of women and children to male authority, the imprinting and continuation of heterosexual roles.”
To the patriarchal system, represented by “rapism and the warrior mentality,” “the death-culture of quantification, abstractions, and the will-to-power,” Rich opposes the “maternal” or “nurturant” spirit, now oppressed and confined in institutionalized motherhood. Both of these myths—the personal narrative and the historical reconstruction—refuse full existential reality to men. The Svengali-father is matched by the warrior-rapist-abstract-power-hungry generations of patriarchal males. It is disheartening to see any of our ruling ideologies (“those lower forms of religious instinct,” as Octavio Paz calls them) able to seduce a poetic mind, able to make a poet choose (in Paz’s terms) “the rhetoric of violence.” In Rich, the rhetoric of violence is accompanied by a rhetoric of sentimentality, as though, in having chosen to ally herself with a female principle in opposition to a putative male one, she has adopted a language of uncritical deliquescence:
There was, is, in most of us, a girl-child still longing for a woman’s nurture, tenderness, and approval, a woman’s power exerted in our defense, a woman’s smell and touch and voice, a woman’s strong arms around us in moments of fear and pain.
There is, of course, no such thing as a sentimental emotion; emotions are felt or not felt, and that is all. It is the language of expression which is or is not sentimental. To find language better than that of greeting-card verse to express the sentiments of love is the poet’s task: the rest of us are not equal to it. In lapsing so often into cliché in this volume, Rich has failed her own feelings.
And yet, for all the impatience it provokes, the book has a certain cumulative force, not so much on account of its theorizing as because of its undeniable feelings and its unarguable social facts. Some of these are frequent in feminist publications (the fact, whatever its origin, of male control of women’s reproductive choices; male definition of women in art, theology, and education, etc.); others, mostly dealing with motherhood, are less familiar. As Rich remarks, there is remarkably little written at all about motherhood. Most of what exists, in documentary and in narrative, has been written by male doctors, psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists. The scanty testimony of females is still being unearthed. A few contemporary accounts have recently appeared. The reason for the dearth of information and analysis, of course, is that motherhood is profoundly uninteresting to men. They have no expectation of engaging in it, their fellow males have not experienced it, it is not a subject of male conversation, nor an object of male achievement. Men do not read books on motherhood. They will not read this one.
This is a great pity. The corresponding ignorance in women occurs, I suppose, in relation to war: but women do not live in close proximity to barracks, while men do live in the houses where motherhood is experienced. Only in certain stereotyped ways (such as pain or death in childbirth, or the attraction felt toward a daughter) has the experience of motherhood or parenthood engaged the male imagination. Oddly enough, Rich did not, at least when she was a young mother, see her children as a subject which could engage the female imagination:
Once in a while someone used to ask me, “Don’t you ever write poems about your children?” The male poets of my generation did write poems about their children—especially their daughters. For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.
This remark is one of many, scattered throughout the book, which are arresting and provoking. Is solitude so conceived—“When I write, I am a self which is no-one’s mother”—even possible after childbearing? Is it a delusion that writing mothers practice on themselves, a perpetuation of a fantasy of intact girlhood? Rich does not say, “Poetry was where I lived as no-one’s daughter, as no-one’s wife.” Is there something about the relation with children, in contrast to relations with adults, which makes it unavailable to the writer? Is it simply that one can separate oneself from other adults, but not from children?
Rich’s vocabulary of selfhood is troubling in its assumptions:
Institutionalized motherhood demands of women maternal “instinct” rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than the creation of self.
Rich is here speaking of the ideals held up to mothers by society. Yet her disjunctions imply that she endorses the set of opposing terms—intelligence, self-realization, the creation of self. But how is the self realized and created except by relations to others; and why is a “selfless” realization not as self-actualizing as a “selfish” one? Even the notion of “selflessness” is, as we know, a suspect one. The relation of altruism to self-interest, the relation of “instinct” to “intelligence,” are questions begged in such quick summaries. Elsewhere, Rich endorses a concept of “intelligence” which would include something she calls, rather melodramatically, “thinking through the body”:
There is an inexorable connection between every aspect of a woman’s being and every other; the scholar reading denies at her peril the blood on the tampon.
The concept—that an inclusive consciousness is to be preferred to a disembodied or repressed one—is one endorsed in every century anew, and found too painful by most inhabitants of every century except for the greatest artists. But Rich’s language ignores the honorable history of this idea, and espouses inclusiveness as a “new form of thinking” to be practiced by women, who will thereby free themselves from the death-culture of abstraction and quantification. Why not tell women to imitate Keats or Shakespeare? There are models for such “thinking through the body”; that they are men does not vitiate their usefulness.
The things to remember, against all this rhetoric, are the other, undeniable sentences. Of motherhood, says Rich, “I could remember little except anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself: a division made more acute by the moments of passionate love.” It is useful to have it said forcefully that the institution of motherhood (the nuclear family, the mother’s exclusive responsibility for the children) is not identical with bearing and caring for children. It is a plain fact about mothers that “our wildcat strikes have most often taken the form of physical or mental breakdown.” It is a truth ignored by childrearing manuals that “motherhood without autonomy, without choice, is one of the quickest roads to a sense of having lost control”:
Some women express this by furiously and incessantly cleaning house, which they know will be immediately disorganized by small children; others, by letting the house go utterly to pieces since any kind of order seems hopeless.
More sinister, though quieter, are the deeper disorders of the psyche;
the woman who serves her family their food but cannot sit down with them, the woman who cannot get out of bed in the morning, the woman polishing the same place on the table over and over.
Rich avoids a confrontation with the differences, even in modern America, between ethnic and economic groups in their perception of the difficulties and satisfactions of motherhood, differences mentioned by Jessie Bernard and Mirra Komarovsky. In criticizing, implicitly or explicitly, women who do not share her views—who would prefer anesthetized childbirth in hospitals, who are phlegmatic enough to enjoy routine, who are socially timid and prefer the company of children to the stress of being with other adults, who do not perceive men as exemplars of rapism and the warrior mentality—Rich seems to attribute stupidity, bad faith, or self-delusion to all women not yet radical. There are no doubt real elements of historical and social evil which contribute to the oppression of women. Selfish or unprincipled doctors, puritanical clergy, prejudiced professionals, vanishing fathers, brutal husbands are all real agents of the suffering of women. On the other hand, the puritanical regrouping of women without men, the new theology of male evil, the prejudices of radical feminism, the rewriting of history seem scarcely a solution to the problems they confront.
Too often, the argument here collects only the evidence which seems attractive. The wish is the father to the deed. Of all the anthropological “evidence” randomly assembled, the single worst item, to my mind, came in Rich’s discussion of puberty rites. “In becoming a man,” she says, “it is necessary to expunge all susceptibility to the power of women.” A quotation follows:
The youths of the East African tribe of the Kikuyu fear that the first sexual intercourse after initiation will be fatal. For this reason, bands of fifteen or twenty newly initiated youths range the country together, fall upon some old woman, rape her and then put her to death with stones. According to Reik, this old woman is a symbol of the mother.
A horrifying story. An old woman raped by “fifteen or twenty youths” and then stoned to death. Rich’s footnote directs the reader to Dark Legend: A Study in Murder (1941), by Frederick Wertham. Now Frederick Wertham is no authority on anything. His source is Reik’s Ritual (1931). Reik reads:
Chazac reports of the Kikuyu of West Africa that they believe that the first coitus which the newly circumcised youths perform leads to their death or that of their partner…. [Therefore], fifteen or twenty men collect together, seize some old women in a lonely spot, misuse them sexually, and then kill them.
The Kikuyu have been translated to West Africa, and the old woman is now “some old women,” and the means of killing is indefinite. Reik gives as his source a 1910 article by the aforesaid “Chazac.” Though the reference is incorrect (the 1910 volume of Anthropos is not ii, as the English version of Ritual says, but v, and the author’s name is Cayzac, not Chazac), the essay can be found. “Chazac” turns out to be a missionary of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, writing on the religion of the Kikuyu (who are retranslated to East Africa). Father Cayzac identifies himself as one of the “chercheurs d’évolution morale et religieuse“: this places him as one of those early colonizers who justified colonial rule by announcing that it improved the savages. The savages had therefore to be described as savage, at least before the advent of Christianity and benevolent European rule.
Yet the Kikuyu seem relatively harmless in all that Cayzac can relate of them from his own experience. However, what of long ago, before the present vigilant government arrived? “Il existait naguère,” he says earnestly, “une coutume barbare, qui disparaît depuis l’arrivée d’un gouvernement vigilant“:
Or donc, voici ce qu’on a pensé: La première fois qu’un nouveau circoncis aura des rapports avec une femme, ce sera la mort de l’un ou de l’autre…. Réunis en une bande de quinze ou vingt, les nouveaux circoncis surprennent quelque vieille femme en un lieu écarté, abusent d’elle, et l’assomment ensuite à coup de pierre!… Les jeunes circoncises, pour la même raison, sont sauvées de la mort par un petit incirconcis, mais lui n’est pas immolé, n’étant pas censé un être humain.
The total absence of any authority for this story, and the suppression, in all of the quoted accounts, of the rape of a young uncircumcised man by the recently circumcised women, give proof of the game of rumor appearing as anthropological “evidence.” The selectivity of quotation throughout is a fault common to all ideologically motivated writing. It will be said that all writing is ideologically motivated. To that remark there is no response.
Rich says of The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis that though it is “at times inaccurate, biased, unprofessional—all these charges do not really dismiss it…. [Davis tries] to prime the imagination of women living today to conceive of other modes of existence.” The same might be said of Rich’s own book. The value of it does not lie in its remarks about women’s historical role or their function in religious cults of antiquity, where better authorities (like Sarah Pomeroy’s recent book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves) can be found.
Its value lies in reminding us that different conceptions of motherhood are possible; that motherhood is not necessarily congenial in the same way to every woman; that the “failures” of mothers in past generations were often socially caused; that infanticide and abortion are first of all crimes that society has induced women to perform against their own sentiments; that every mother, before she was a mother, was a woman with a body and a mind of her own; that motherhood is only “one part of female process…not an identity for all time”; that “motherhood has a history, it has an ideology”; that, in 1973, more than six million children under the age of six had mothers who worked fulltime outside the home; that men excluded women from medicine; that “an indifference and fatalism toward the diseases of women…persists to this day in the male gynecological and surgical professions”; that birth itself “is neither a disease nor a surgical operation”; that a woman should be able to choose her own style of giving birth; that men may for a long time, as the roles of parenthood change, “need a kind of compensatory education in the things about which their education as males has left them illiterate”; that “the cathexis between mother and daughter is the great unwritten story.” But it would have been preferable if the whole book had been as cogent as these remarks. Freud, according to Rich, was “terribly limited both by his culture and his gender.” What she finds true of Freud is of course true of herself.