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A review of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

The mother of all books about motherhoods

The mothers: collecting their children at school; sitting in rows at the parent-teacher meeting; placating weary infants in supermarket carriages; straggling home to make dinner, do laundry, and tend to children after a day at work; fighting to get decent care and livable schoolrooms for their children; waiting for child-support checks while the landlord threatens eviction; getting pregnant yet again because their one escape into pleasure and abandon is sex; forcing long needles into their delicate interior parts; wakened by a child’s cry from their externally unfinished dreams–the mothers, if we could look into their fantasies–their daydreams and imaginary experiences–we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 280

That quote says it all. It contains all the complexities and ambivalences of motherhood–the anger, the frustration, the fragility, and the joy as well. Rich’s is a mammoth of a book, a sort of encyclopedia of academic motherhood. Although it was written in 1976, reading it today still makes the reader feel like a major breakthrough is happening, a new light is being cast on a field which had been kept in the dark for ever. Many books have been written about motherhood since Rich’s Of Woman Born, yet the sense of urgency which pervades it still makes it today a compelling read.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet, an academic and a feminist activist. She married at a young age and quickly had three sons between the ages of 26 and 30 before she eventually left her husband to live her own life as a lesbian. Around that time, in 1976, she published Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution which was to become the founding text in the field of maternal studies, announcing all the major themes that were to be explored by those who wrote about motherhood after her: maternal ambivalence, the dilemmas of the writing mother, the hold of patriarchy over the experience of birth and motherhood, etc. What was truly new about her approach was, first, the blend of personal testimony and academic reflection (which has now become the new normal with the trend of personal essays), and second the intensely political focus. In effect she was dragging motherhood from the confines of the bedroom or the nursery to the public sphere of intellectual debate. She showed that mothers, far from being proverbial angels in the house were every bit as part of the world of ideas as men, whose fatherhood does not seem to affect their ability to speak, think or write.

In the introduction to the 1986 reissue of the book, Rich thinks back on the project she was trying to carry out with this book and she finds that it was essentially a political one. She explains:

It seemed to me that the devaluation of women in other spheres and the pressures of women to validate themselves in maternity deserved exploration. I wanted to examine motherhood–my own included–in a social context, as embedded in a political institution: in feminist terms. (ix)

Motherhood for Rich is not a domestic issue or simply a question of choice, or lifestyle, it affects every member of society, from the mothers themselves to their children, the fathers and childless (for want of a better, more inclusive, term) women. But it has to be explored from a personal point of view: for Rich no issue is a better illustration of how the personal is also political. She starts her exploration of motherhood by digging in her own private experience: as she pores back over the journal entries she wrote around the time when her children were little, she realises how ambivalent her feelings were – not so much towards her children themselves as towards the constraints of motherhood. This is how she came to see a separation between the experience of motherhood, that is “the potental relationship of any women to her powers of reproduction and to children”, and the institution of motherhood, described as “ensuring that that potential–and all women–shall remain under male control.” (13)

Thus if one looks at the institution of motherhood, one also needs to look at the expectations society has of women who decide to have children, with the everlasting debate over whether women can really “have it all”, for example; but also at the possibility for women to choose when they want to have their children, how many of them they want, or whether they want any children at all. Writing about motherhood for Rich also means discussing issues of reproductive health and reproductive choice, which were all extremely politically charged topics at the time–and remain so today. It also means looking at questions of childcare, the moral judgment we have over women who let other people (mostly women) take care of their children, the political issues that this raises in terms of social policies and investment.

But it is the weight of the political over the personal which makes motherhood such an ambivalent experience: if the values of society pressure women into staying at home on their own, renounce work or any other form of self-fulfilment, some will inevitably suffer under the yoke and will internalise their inner conflict, giving way to the most common negative affect associated with motherhood, maternal guilt. I believe therefore that writing Of Woman Born was Rich’s way of making sense of her own conflicting emotions. But in choosing to ground her political reflection in her personal experience she was also taking part in the new trend (as she recalls in the introduction, highly controversial at the time) of the personal essay, blending personal testimony and academic reflection, which has become the norm today, especially in maternal studies, from Maggie Nelson to Sarah Manguso, among others.

Yet although she speaks from her own particular background, she is very careful not to generalise her experience and to do so she regularly makes sure to “situate” her point of view. At several points in the book she reminds the reader that she may be a woman, a mother, and a lesbian, she is also white and privileged, at a time when feminism was starting to reckon with its own class biases and color-blindness. I would even go as far as to say that Rich’s approach of the issue of motherhood can be described as intersectional, even though the term had not yet surfaced in academic circles at the time when the book was written. She is aware that her own experience of motherhood is probably very different from that of a black working-class woman, and that as a woman raising her children in a heterosexual relationship she was shielded from the issues faced by lesbian mothers.

Another striking aspect of the essay is the wide range of academic domains and perspectives Rich mobilises in order to study the history of motherhood: from literature to anthropology, cultural history, history of medicine, Marxist history, theology, and psychoanalysis. The main point in her demonstration is that the experience of motherhood has been confiscated from women by patriarchy, which she reminds us appropriately, is etymologically defined as the power of the fathers. Looking back to prehistorical times, she demonstrates how the power of procreation was coveted by men, who replaced it by the power of ownership and symbolic filiation in a revolution which involved the movement from polytheism to monotheism and the advent of capitalism and private property 1:

Patriarchal monotheism did not simply change the sex of the divine presence; it stripped the universe of female divinity, and permitted woman to be sanctified, as if by an unholy irony, only and exclusively as mother (without the extended mana that she possessed prepatriarchally)– or as the daughter of a divine father. (119)

Procreation then was no longer divine but became abject, no longer a power, but a weakness. Mothers were confined, hidden away, relegated to their roles under the protection of the fathers, who took ownership of the symbolic power of creation. Men created with their minds and their tools, women with their bodies only. This great historical shift was also illustrated by the appropriation of the knowledge concerning birth by patriarchy which happened along with the medicalisation of labour. While historically midwives held and shared their wisdom about the facts of labour, they were stripped of their authority by the figure of the (male) doctor or gynaecologist, who took precedence. Similarly with the advent of Christianity, labour pains went on from being a normal part of birth to the sign of a definitive moral condemnation.

While for Rich birth should be a transformative experience, with Christianity it became tainted with the shame associated to the sins of the flesh and the horror of the woman’s body. Women were denied any agency in their own labour and were increasingly placed under the authority of the doctors, made passive and alienated from themselves.Yet while Rich advocates for the possibility of women to re-appropriate the experience of birth, she is also very wary of the “natural birth” movement, which she views as a mostly white and middle-class phenomenon: in this day and age, not all women can afford to give birth at home in good conditions. This position is a very good example of Rich’s approach mixing both theorical analysis and pragmatic considerations – her tone is often radical, sometimes even belligerent, but she is careful to nuance her ideas, and to frame them from another perspective. What may be true for one category of mothers may remain completely foreign to another and vice versa.

The final chapters look at the experience of motherhood as the relationship with a child, and she finds that that experience is profoundlly gendered, since the bonds one forges with a son are very different from those forged with a daughter. While psychoanalysis has placed the emphasis on the child, turning the figure of the mother into a mere passive screen for their attachement, she proposes to shift the perspective and to give back their agency to the mothers and make them an active part in the relationship. She believes that ending the myth of maternal sacrifice could have a transformative effect both for men and women, as an independent, fulfilled and powerful mother figure would become an inspiration both for her sons and her daughters, and have a mitigating effect on the alienating power of patriarchy. It would also alleviate the negative affects associated with the all too common experience of motherhood as powerlessness, resentment and guilt. If the experience of motherhood could be liberated from the constraints of motherhood as institution, both men and women would benefit from the change of perspective. In other words, for Rich, If we could learn to love our mothers as beings independent from ourselves, we would also reconnect with our ability to share and care for others.

  1. This is something which can also be found in Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe. ↩︎

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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