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  • “Between Creation and Devouring”Southern Women Writers and the Politics of Motherhood
  • Keira V. Williams (bio)

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So where are the voices of those millions of mothers who reject, resist, and redefine the maternal ideal?

Woman Waiting No. 38, by Susan Harbage Page, courtesy of the artist.

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In 1989, American audiences flocked to see the sweet southern dream that was Steel Magnolias. The film follows a multigenerational group of women through the wedding, marriage, pregnancy, and death of the young and beautiful Shelby, played by Julia Roberts in an Oscar-nominated performance. Female relationships are the center of this movie, and these big-haired, drawling matriarchs love each other fiercely. M’Lynn, played by Sally Field, donates a kidney to her diabetic daughter Shelby, who fatally chooses motherhood over her own life, deciding to have a child even though she knows her body cannot survive the stress of childbirth and rearing. The film’s title is drawn from M’Lynn’s discussion of motherhood and the death of her only daughter: “I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something … I realize as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.”1

While the paternal figures in the movie are mostly present for comic relief, mothering is shown as serious business. Steel Magnolias traffics in stereotypes, the most prominent of which is the southern self-sacrificing mother who finds ultimate fulfillment in her children. This regional portrayal of selfless motherhood replicated the pronatalist national culture of the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century—one that is still prevalent today. All too often when motherhood makes the news or the big screen, we are confronted with impossible ideals of full-time motherhood: attachment moms who breastfeed, co-sleep, and literally wear their babies day in and day out, or “helicopter helpers” who hover, chopperlike, ready to swoop in to do their kids’ homework. These women have little time for anything other than mothering, and their presence in the media shames those mothers who can’t, don’t, or won’t spend their days monitoring their children’s every hiccup. For those of us who have read Backlash, Susan Faludi’s bestselling book about antifeminism, each of these news stories should sound familiar, echoing the New Traditionalist movement of the 1980s in which women allegedly ditched their careers, leapt joyously onto the “mommy track,” and “cocooned” at home with their children (a movement that itself imitated the nineteenth-century middle-class “cult of domesticity”).2

It is worth noting that our culture has not always been so clearly divided on definitions of “good” and “bad” motherhood. Past eras have featured unashamed, public acknowledgement of the complexity of maternity. Specifically, the politics of motherhood have changed drastically in the past two generations. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists provided us with a vibrant, complex analysis of the wide variety of maternal experiences. “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering,” Adrienne Rich, a major contributor to this feminist analysis of motherhood, told readers on the very first page of her widely read Of Woman Born (1976). [End Page 28] The reigning feeling of most mothers toward the “experience and institution” of motherhood was, according to Rich, “ambivalence.”3

Yet just a few years after Rich wrote those words, the neoconservative backlash—a reaction to, among other things, second-wave feminism’s assault on traditional gender roles—took a firm stranglehold on American culture. Despite very public feminist critiques that began in the 1970s, maternal struggles quickly became a taboo subject. By the 1990s, even many feminists at least partially internalized the neotraditional “mommy myth” that made criticism of the institution nearly impossible. Women, according to this myth, were incomplete without children, and Good Mothers devoted their entire beings—body, soul, time, and mind—to their children. Those mothers who did not fall within the narrow definition of the mommy myth—single, working, or minority mothers—were, of course...