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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 202-203



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Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930. By Allison Berg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 186 pp. $35.00.

As Elaine Tuttle Hansen notes in Mother Without Child (1997), "the story of feminists thinking about motherhood since the early 1960s is told as a drama in three acts: repudiation, recuperation, and, in the latest and most difficult stage to conceptualize, an emerging critique of recuperation that coexists with ongoing efforts to deploy recuperative strategies" (5). Following "second act" works like Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (1983), literary critics began applying psychoanalytic, semiotic, and cultural-historicist approaches to maternal representations in an effort to reconceptualize both the power and paralysis of motherhood.

Building in particular on works by Hazel Carby, Eva Cherniavsky, Laura Doyle, and Stephanie Smith, Allison Berg offers a historically and geographically specific, "third act" analysis of the intertwining narratives of race and maternity in Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930. Eschewing a formalist or psychoanalytic approach, Berg focuses on the American social and political contexts for constructions of maternity in native white women's and African American women's fiction of the so-called Progressive Era. In doing so, she provides a valuable exploration of how and why "motherhood remains one key arena in which national racial anxieties are worked out" (143). [End Page 202]

Although Berg's historical focus may appear narrow, her slice-of-history approach allows for a deep analysis of discourses—racial Darwinism, eugenics, and birth control, among them—that first rose to prominence in the early-twentieth century but continue to reverberate in American culture today. In her introduction and epilogue, Berg teases out some of the implications of this "persistence of racial and maternal hierarchies at the turn into the twenty-first century" and echoes a question first posed by Pauline Hopkins in 1900: "'Of what use is fiction?' How do recent images of maternity reflect and reshape the cultural landscape of motherhood?" (135). Harnessing the power of a historicist approach to literature, Berg thus enables the reader to better understand (racialized) representations of maternity throughout twentieth or twenty-first-century literature or public discourse.

Employing speeches, essays, articles, and books by key historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angelina Weld Grimké, and many lesser known figures, Berg examines the racial and sexual ideologies behind the construction of the "race mother," a figure that served very different purposes for white middle-class and African American women writers and activists. While the former typically advanced the notion that motherhood made (white) women pivotal in the advance of (white) civilization, the latter often emphasized the universality of women's interests through the shared experience of motherhood. Within the Black Women's Club Movement, though, class- and color-based hierarchies were commonly reinforced through the doctrine of racial uplift, a process that mothers could abet by instilling middle-class values in their offspring. Common to both white and African American women was the tension between the maternal imperative to advance the race and the sometimes nascent impulse toward female emancipation.

Whether classics like Kate Chopin's The Awakening or "lost" novels such as Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds, the works Berg considers have rarely if ever been analyzed for their racially specific representations of motherhood or their engage- ment with cultural debates around eugenics and "race suicide." By revealing the unexplored cultural function of several women's novels of the period, as well as countering "the de facto segregation of feminist literary studies" by considering the intersections and divergences between women's literature across the color line (7), Mothering the Race enriches not only feminist and race-based literary studies but also the field of early twentieth-century American literature studies more generally.

Berg excavates the buried discourse of maternity in novels organized roughly chronologically: Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces (1900), Chopin's The Awakening (1899...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 202-203
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-18
Open Access
No
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