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

I feel like I have come to feminism far too late in life. It is only now, with the reading I have done, my research into the proto-feminist movement of the nineteenth century for my studies, and my engagement with current feminist issues relating to the erasure of the language we use to define women that the urgent need to embrace feminist issues has been enflamed in my heart.

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich

This book is one that I should have read a long time ago. It is a book about motherhood – the author’s experience of it, her view on motherhood as a social institution, and it is a book about being a mother – or not – and how that impacts on women. She is very careful to distinguish between the two meanings of motherhood that she discusses: ‘one superimposed on the other: the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential – and all women – shall remain under male control.’ In making this distinction, she begins to tear away at the conflict that all women who become mothers face.

I will be dealing with this book in greater detail as I begin to write my doctoral thesis, so this is not an academic review of the issues that she addresses. However, on a personal level, especially as a mother to sons, as Rich is, I found that what she had to say resonated. Her observation that the male view of women seems to be binary – that that ‘the female body is impure, corrupt, the site of discharges, bleedings, dangerous to masculinity, a source of moral and physical contamination’, yet at the same time, as a mother ‘the woman is beneficent, sacred, pure, asexual, nourishing; and the physical potential for motherhood – that same body with its bleeding and mysteries – is her single destiny and justification in life.’

When I consider her words in the context of the modern day battle ground for women’s rights, where the very words women and mother are under threat, subsumed within gender neutral language where women’s bodies are commodified to our component parts, I understand that much of this dichotomy that Rich discusses has been swept aside without consideration. On some level this should be a good thing, however, the lack of any tolerance for the discussion of the potential consequences that follow for women is telling. Just because you erase the words used to define the issue, it does not follow that the issue itself will disappear.

If we are women no longer, but uterus havers, bleeders, menstruators, pregnant people, it allows this idea of the female body as a contaminant to dominate, and it reduces us to body parts that can be harvested or scrapped. Then, if we take away words such as breast feeding and replace it with chest feeding by lactators this in turn also eats away at the opposite end of this binary that Rich discusses – the sacredness of “woman” as one who nourishes and nurtures.

This erasure of our language, of our words – of women – seems to me to be part of that innate jealousy that man has for woman, as Rich describes it, ‘the ancient, continuing envy, awe, and dread of the male for the female capacity to create life has repeatedly taken the form of hatred for every other female aspect of creativity.’ Is taking away our words evidence of that hatred?

Rich observes:

Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men – by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.

Today, law and language relating to women are under attack in a manner in which has never before been seen. Rich’s book has helped me to contextualise what is happening, even as I still want to explore the discourse around the imperative to modify our language.

Well written, her research evident on every page, drawing on history, on her own experience, and the experience of mothers everywhere, this is a book that is worthy of reading, if only because it gives you a starting point to understand why we continue the fight for women today. But sitting in silence is not an option, to have our words taken from us without our consent. To borrow from Rich – while it can be dangerous to move, to speak, to act, in silence, she is putting another stitch in her own shroud.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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