- From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich's 'Of Woman Born'
Andrea O'Reilly is one of the key figures in motherhood scholarship. She was founding member of both the Association for Research on Mothering (with more than five hundred members internationally) and Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering. She has written several books on the subject and with this collection of essays has brought together some of the best-known scholars on motherhood and relative newcomers. O'Reilly's aim in this volume is in part to pay homage to Adrienne Rich's great 1976 study on Motherhood as Experience and Institution ('ovarian' says O'Reilly, which I like a lot) and to examine the ways that work has 'informed and influenced' subsequent scholarship. O'Reilly bases her collection on Rich's distinction between the oppressive institution of motherhood (oppressive because it is controlled and defined by male-dominated societies) and the potentially 'empowering' experiences of mothering that women have. The book comprises a longish introduction by O'Reilly and three sections entitled 'Motherhood as Institution: Patriarchal Power and Maternal Outrage' (three essays); 'Mothering as Experience: Empowerment and Resistance' (seven essays); and 'Narrating Maternity: Writing as a Mother' (three essays). While the idiom of these titles might suggest that the essays will fall into the language of a now rarely seen feminist enthusiasm, in fact the essays are diverse in discipline and tone.
Chapters examine Canadian laws, the politics of reproduction in China, and conditions of motherhood in matrilineal societies. Others use Rich's book to read Toni Morrison's Beloved, Monique Mojica's play Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, and the Demeter/Persephone myth. Lesbian motherhood, feminist motherhood, and activist mothering each have chapters. For readers whose area of expertise is not maternity, these essays [End Page 393] provide a cross-section of the field and a sense of the range of research being undertaken. The least satisfying, because most predictable, in my view are the papers that apply - using this word advisedly - conventional theoretical paradigms to the issues. One can tolerate only so many abstractions reiterating the same dozen phrases before the eyes glaze or the teeth clench. In contrast, I fully admire Margaret Morganroth Gullette's very personal analysis of her family's effort to raise their son in a home in which each parent has equal value and is equally recognized. Her detailed account and subtle understanding of 'parenting [as] a school of moral reasoning and self-development every single day' brings fatherhood (as experience not institution) into the picture in hopeful ways while making a powerful feminist argument.
While Of Woman Born makes its presence felt in all the essays, mostly it seems to serve as pretext rather than engagement with Rich's text. A couple of the pieces recognize Rich's limitations (her racial perspective, of course), but it is clear that, as O'Reilly notes, her book has not been superseded. Rich is still the great mother of motherhood studies. [End Page 394]
Jeanne Perreault, Department of English, University of Calgary