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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 359-360
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Allison Berg. Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2002. x + 186 pp.
Though it is often assumed that qualities of "good mothering" are universal and static, a closer study of history reveals that the definition of motherhood has often been debated and contested in American culture, especially during the early twentieth century. Allison Berg takes up this debate in Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930. In this text, she "examines early twentieth-century fictional portrayals of motherhood as they reflect and contribute to larger public debates about the relationship between race, reproduction, and female agency" (5). Drawing on the works of black and white women writers during this time period, Berg demonstrates how these writers used the political nature of motherhood to challenge common assumptions about the role that motherhood was supposed to play in the lives of women from various racial and class backgrounds.
Berg focuses on the following fictional texts in her study: The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, Contending Forces (1900) by Pauline Hopkins, Summer (1917) by Edith Wharton, Weeds (1923) by Edith Summers Kelley, and Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen. By utilizing the works of both black and white women authors, Berg effectively engages in what she calls a "cross-racial literary analysis" (7), in which she reveals how both groups of women were impacted by issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the portrayal of motherhood in their texts. For example, Berg argues that due to stereotypes stemming from slavery, black women writers faced greater restrictions on the ways in which they could express black female sexuality. At the same time, both black and white women authors were still struggling with the stultifying legacy of True Womanhood and True Motherhood ideology from the mid-nineteenth century.
Through her insightful close readings of these literary works, Berg reveals how black and white mothers in these texts, representing the poor, the working class, and the elite, often defy the widely held belief that motherhood is a joyous experience that enriches a woman's life in unimaginable ways. Instead, many of these works present the hardships of motherhood and how taking on this role either voluntarily or by accident often precludes women's involvement in other activities that they need for personal growth and fulfillment. Berg's discussion of the extremely graphic portrayal of childbirth rendered in Weeds, a portrayal so disturbing that Kelley's publishers convinced her to leave it out of the first publication of her [End Page 359] novel, is especially significant. This seventeen-page childbirth scene revealed how some women writers during this time period were adamant about deromanticizing the idea of motherhood and childbirth and chose instead to reveal all of the pain and anguish involved in actually giving birth and raising children.
Despite the potentially negative consequences of motherhood as revealed in these texts, Berg notes that these women authors still felt compelled to present motherhood as a type of racial imperative that promotes childbirth as something necessary for the good and for the survival of the race. Berg notes that this racial imperative is not surprising given the fact that these women were writing during a time in which American society was obsessed with ideas about racial identity and classification, especially ideas that promoted white racial supremacy. The contradictions about motherhood within these texts are also more clearly understood given the additional historical background information that Berg provides. She frames her analysis of women's fiction in a discussion of many other popular debates of the day including first-wave feminism, the eugenics movement and Social Darwinism, Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement, antilynching campaigns, the New Negro Movement, and Black Nationalism. Berg's discussion of these issues and their influence on motherhood debates helps the reader to see why the women's fiction that she explores renders such complicated interpretations of maternal identity and responsibility.
At the end of her text, Berg brings readers...