Eula Biss on How Motherhood Radicalized Adrienne Rich

“‘… He had heard about ‘essential workers’ in the news, I realized, and he was telling me that, from his point of view, I was an essential worker. I would remember this term, life worker, months later when I saw video footage of the Wall of Moms in Portland, women who were leveraging the symbolic power of motherhood in support of Black Lives Matter protesters, chanting, ‘Feds stay clear, the moms are here!’ In her 1986 introduction to Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich warns of a tendency, particularly among white women, to idealize motherhood, to conflate motherhood with moral authority, and to participate in the kind of thinking once used to justify a ‘separate sphere’ for women. But the mothers of the Wall of Moms were doing what some people once feared women would do if they were given the right to vote. And their protest suggests the potential of motherhood to radicalize mothers, which is what it did for Rich. I felt the first stirrings of that potential over a decade ago, when my child was an infant. … Back then, I didn’t fully understand my resistance to calling myself a mother, but I understand it now, and all the more clearly after reading Of Woman Born. What I was resisting was becoming a role, rather than a person. I didn’t want to enter the institution of motherhood. … I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Within the institution of motherhood, I felt every emotion Rich noted feeling fifty years before I became a mother—ambivalence, weariness, demoralization, powerlessness, and rage. … I am two generations removed from Rich’s experience, and my understanding with my husband is that my work is as real as his. Still, as a new mother I struggled to do the unpaid work of mothering and the mostly unpaid work of writing while also doing the paid work of teaching, which subsidized my other work. And now, with childcare unavailable during the pandemic, I am once again struggling to do my work as an artist while doing the work of mothering. Rich’s predicament, as a mother who was also an artist, remains a predicament today. And what she did with that predicament, what she did with her rage and frustration, remains deeply instructive. Of Woman Born lays bare the cultural and medical and economic practices that define motherhood, and exposes how our everyday experience of mothering is shaped by this enduring institution. The institution of motherhood, Rich writes, is superimposed over the potential of motherhood. This is the potential relationship women might have to our reproductive powers and to children. The institution of motherhood limits the full range of possibilities, and limits our ability to imagine them. …”
A Change of World: An oral history of poetry and the women’s movement.
[PDF] Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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