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Of Woman Born

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

Motherhood as Experience & Institution

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich ( 1929-2012) was an award winning poet, influential essayist, radical feminist, and major public intellectual of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

From its original publication in 1976 to the present, Of Woman Born has had a big impact on the way women think about motherhood and their own liberation.

The recent version I read includes a new foreword written by author Eula Boss ( National Book Critic Award -winning author) and a contextualising introduction from Dani McClain ( a reporter and author whose work centres on reproductive health, race and activism) helping Of Woman Born resound with as much wisdom and insight today as when it was first written.

My emerging position as a cultural feminist, a specific form of feminism, pertinent to my values and situation seeks to validate feminine attributes that have been systematically undervalued within a patriarchal society.

Cultural feminist initiatives are aimed at questioning dominant gender forms and institutions, focusing primarily on everyday life, the family, the body and sexuality.

Cultural feminism argues that feminine characteristics are superior to male characteristics, I think a really good example of this is e.g. women are more likely than men to reduce conflict and war in the world.

My emerging feminist position enables my questioning voice to be developed, specifically with regards to relationships and communication within the family constructs overshadowed by patriarchy and how this can shape motherhood and daughterhood.

The first quote I resonated with was in the Introduction written by Dani McClain where she describes... Alice Childress's play Florence, the mother is both fiercely protective of her daughter and fiercely determined to support her daughter's aspirations in a world which wants her daughter to be nothing but a domestic worker.1

Albeit I recognise that this book was written quite some time ago and that perhaps overall things have progressed somewhat in our favour, I can still resonate with this idea through my own experience of raising my daughters. I fought really hard to give them the best education I could to hopefully increase the chances of them having solid careers. This was in a circumstance where their father made a decision not to share in the responsibility of our three children.

Which brings me to the next paragraph that I resonate with In chapter 4, The "Sacred Calling":

The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery or sweated labour because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways which the forced labourer does not know...2

As a mother of three children, I could not fathom forsaking the responsibility of my own flesh and blood, as their father had given himself the right to do. And somehow society seemed to accept this behaviour from a man. I feel society see's it as described in the passage below, also from chapter 4:

It is she, finally who is held accountable for her children's health, the clothes they wear, their behaviour at school, their intelligence and general development. Even when she herself is trying to cope with an environment beyond her the eyes of society the mother is the child's environment. 3

Having raised three children from a broken marriage, I know all to well that the responsibility of raising the children falls on the mother, and in my case the mother alone. Which brings me to my next passage from the chapter 8, Mother and Son, Woman and Man:

What is mis-read as power here is really survival-strength, guts, the determination that her children's lives shall come to something even if it means driving them, or sacrificing her own pride in order to feed and clothe them.4

As a mother you have a biological, emotional bond with your children. I felt fully responsible for my children and I was also determined to undo the wrongs I had felt growing up as a child. I had felt disappointment and hurt from both my parents. Through which I developed a passion to give my children a better chance and understanding of the world. Metaphorically speaking I wanted to teach them how to fish for themselves as opposed to just giving them what fish there were within our reach. I think inherently most of us want to give our children what we felt we didn't have.

The cry of that female child in us need not be shameful or regressive; it is the germ of our desire to create a world in which strong mothers and strong daughters will be a matter of course.5

This passage from chapter 9, Motherhood and Daughterhood makes me think back to my relationship with my mother, and how this has affected my views on being a mother myself:

...whatever the individual mother's love and strength, the child in us, the small female who grew up in a male-controlled world, still feels, at moments, wildly unmothered. When we confront and unravel this paradox, this contradiction, face to the utmost in ourselves the groping passion of that little girl lost ...

Before sisterhood, there was the knowledge - transitory, fragmented, perhaps, but original and crucial- of mother-and-daughterhood.6

This passage, also from chapter 9, Motherhood and Daughterhood, helps me to realise some truths about my life:

The women ( activist or) artist born of a family-centered mother may in any case feel that her mother cannot understand or sympathise with the imperitives of her life; or that her mother has preferred and valued a more conventional daughter, (or a son.)7

I found this to be particularly powerful and pertinent:

Yet what that woman focuses her rage on today is that her mother told her, "Never say a word about it to anyone."8

The power of the bond between mothers and daughters is simultaneously strong as it is weak...

Or, because there is no indifference or cruelty we can tolerate less, than the indifference or cruelty of our mothers.9

The last passage written in the Afterword, albeit maybe a little dated now, I still find it relevant to my life and I feel it resonates with my lived experience and helps to define conceptually what I attempt to discuss in my practice.

There is for the first time today a possibility of converting our physicality into both knowledge and power. Physical motherhood is merely one dimension of our being...

We are neither "inner" or "outer" constructed; our skin is alive with signals; our lives and our deaths are inseparable from the release or blockage of our thinking bodies.10

My practice offers me a dialogical space in which to generate conversation about what it is like to be a woman and a mother. Working through the insights and feelings that come from my role as woman is crucial to finding the contribution my work can make.

Lastly - I would like to finish with this excerpt from Chapter 8, Mother And Son, Woman And Man, which for me emphasises that as woman we take motherhood seriously, but at the same time, we also like to be taken seriously in other facets of our lives, for me, especially when it comes professional ability or accomplishment:

But before we were mothers, we have been, first of all, women, with actual bodies and actual minds.11

1. Dani McClain, Reading Of Woman Born in 2020 ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), Introduction: 1986, xlv.

2. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience & Institution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021) 36.

3. Rich, Of Woman Born, 37.

4. Rich, Of Woman born, 205.

5. Rich, Of Woman Born, 228.

6. Rich, Of Woman Born, 229.

7. Rich, Of Woman Born, 233.

8. Rich, Of Woman Born, 250.

9. Rich, Of Woman Born, 235.

10. Rich, Of Woman Born, 296,297.

11. Rich, Of Woman Born, 193.


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