Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

I read the 10th anniversary edition of Adrienne Rich's 1976 work, and I am shocked (perhaps at this point in my reading list, I shouldn't be; I feel like I say some version of this in every entry now) at how much worse several problems she names are now, thirty-five years later. I'll get back to that later in the post, but first I'd like to discuss the book's title and style of composition, since I think those are what distinguishes it from other books that try to do the same thing. Rich (as the book's title lays out) talks about two kinds of motherhood: the bodily (more-or-less), essential experience, and the medicalized, (more-or-less) socially constructed institution. I say more-or-less here because Rich makes a point in many of the notes that revise the second edition to correct broad assumptions, most of which are based in her own euro-American, cis-gendered, heterosexual experience. Because this is a text that combines theory with experience, and because i realize that i have to struggle to reconcile the privilege i receive as a white, educated, cis, heterosexual woman with the prejudice I feel being a woman in a patriarchal society and a woman with a disability in an often ableist society, I really appreciated both that Rich wasn't shy about discussing the ways the multiple identities we wear as people intersect and the fact that she made sure to acknowledge her own privilege the second time around. A lot of authors of second editions spend a lot of time criticizing their detractors (I'm looking at you, Judith Butler!), so it was refreshing for me to see Rich engage in some mea culpa. No one is the same ten years after a project. Perspectives change. That's life. EDIT: I'm thinking back, wondering if I've noticed male theorists doing this, and how I'd react if I did. I'm not sure I'd like it, or know what to do. Perhaps I myself am stereotyping female expression...

It is this invocation of personal experiences that really gives weight and gravitas to the book, I think. Stats and studies about PPD read less drily when their mise en page is interrupted by Rich's own journal entries recounting playdates in which, with their toddlers toddling in an adjacent room, young mothers discuss the news coverage of a local woman's infanticide, how they connect to her rage, revel in it, and feel ashamed, all at once. Susan Bordo takes a similar tack in Unbearable Weight, which also resonated with me a great deal.

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