Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich
This is a big important feminist book about how motherhood is a patriarchal institution that oppresses women, but–and here is the crucial part–it doesn’t have to be. The language and approach is academic; it’s not really something that I think would appeal to a broad popular audience today. This is such an important topic because I feel like motherhood is really where feminism has the most work left to do. For example, the gender wage gap is really a motherhood gap: women earn just as much, if not more, than comparably educated men, until they have children.
Rich is of my grandmother’s generation; her second son was born the same year my mother was. I kept that in mind when some things she said seemed dated or odd. The book was written in 1976, and the edition I read had a foreword written for the ten-year anniversary edition that came out when I was two. Her experience of motherhood seems to have been close to that of the stereotypical 50’s housewife, and she goes into detail about how oppressive she found that lifestyle.
Given my recent experiences, the chapter on the politics of birth was incredibly relevant to me. It was interesting to read about the history of childbirth and what Ina May Gaskin would call the medicalization of birth, the way male OB/GYNs kind of took it over from traditional midwives. I really feel like people have recently become more aware of the problems Rich discusses here, and that things have gotten a lot better in this realm since she wrote this book almost 30 years ago. My birth experience in May was nothing like the horrors described in this chapter. I dealt exclusively with other women. At no point in the process did a man try to take control away from me or tell me what I should do. I was encouraged to trust my body and to be actively involved and mentally present throughout. Thanks to my midwife and all the other women who helped with my labor, including my mother, a volunteer doula, and several nurses, I emerged from the experience feeling strong and empowered. I am really grateful that things have improved as much as they have. It could still get better, though. For example, the nitrous oxide that I used to relieve labor pains could be more widely available. There are many areas, even in big cities, where there is no access to midwives at all. Not to mention the sometimes outrageous costs involved in giving birth.
The chapters on mythology and folklore did not feel as relevant and useful to me as the ones about Rich’s own experiences in her family, the chapter on birth, and the one about what it means to mother a son in a patriarchy.
One of the main things I’m taking away from the book is the difference between motherhood in my personal life and motherhood as a patriarchal institution. The first is good, the second bad, and the more influence the second has on the first, the worse off I will be.