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Of Woman Born

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 “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution” (1976)

From: Rich, Adrienne.  Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.  London: Virago, 1977.  

Throughout this book I try to distinguish between two meanings of motherhood, one superimposed on the other: the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that the potential—and all women—shall remain under male control. This institution has been a keystone of the mot diverse social and political systems.  It has withheld over one-half the human species from the decisions affecting their lives; it exonerates men from fatherhood in any authentic sense; it creates the dangerous schism between ‘private’ and ‘public’ life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities.  In the most fundamental and bewildering of contradictions, it has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them.  At certain points in history, and in certain cultures, the idea of woman-as-mother has worked to endow all women with respect, even with awe, and to give women some say in the life of a people or a clan.  But for most of what we know as the ‘mainstream’ of recorded history, motherhood as institution has ghettoized and degraded female potentialities.

    The power of mother has two aspects: the biological potential or capacity to bear and nourish human life, and the magical power invested in women by men, whether in the form of Goddess-worship or he fear of being controlled and overwhelmed by women.  We do not actually know much about what power may have meant in the hands of strong, prepatriarchal women.  We do have guesses, longings, myths, fantasies, analogues.  We know far more about how, under patriarchy, female possibility has been literally massacred on the site of motherhood.  Most women in history have become mothers without choice, and an even greater number have lost their lives bringing life into the world.


In a living room in 1975, I spent an evening with a group of w omen poets, some of whom had children.  One had brought hers along, and they slept or played in adjoining rooms.  We talked of poetry, and also of infanticide, of the case of a local woman, the mother of eight, who had been in sever depression since the birth of her third child, and who had recently murdered and decapitated her two youngest, on her suburban front lawn.  Several women in the group, feeling a direct connection with her desperation, had signed a letter to the local newspaper protesting the way her act was perceived by the press and handled by the community mental health system.  Every woman in that room who had children, every poet, could identify with her.  We spoke of the wells of anger that her story cleft open in us.  We spoke of our own moments of murderous anger at our children, because there was no one and nothing else on which to discharge anger.  We spoke in the sometimes tentative, sometimes rising, sometimes bitterly witty, unrhetorical tones and language of women who had met together over our common work, poetry, and who found another common ground in an unacceptable, but undeniable anger.  The words are being spoken now, are being written down; the taboos are being broken, the masks of motherhood are cracking through.

    For centuries no one talked of these feelings.  I became a mother in the family-centered, consumer-oriented, Freudian-American world of the 1950s.  My husband spoke eagerly of children we would have; my parents-in-law awaited the birth of their grandchild.  I had no idea of what I wanted, what I could or could not choose.  I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, to prove myself, to be ‘like other women.’


At the core of patriarchy is the individual family unit which originated with the idea of property and the desire to see one’s property transmitted to one’s biological descendants.  Simone de Beauvoir connects this desire with the longing for immortality—in a profound sense, she says, ‘the owner transfers, alienates, his existence into his property; he cares more for it than for his very life; it overflows the narrow limits of his mortal lifetime, and continues to exist beyond the body’s dissolution—the earthly and material incorporation of the immortal soul.  But this survival can only come about if the property remains in the hands of its owner; it can be his beyond eth only if it belongs to individuals in whom he sees himself project, who are his. ‘   A crucial moment in human consciousness, then, arrives when man discovers that it is he himself, not the moon or the spring rains or the spirits of the dead, who impregnates the woman; that the child she carries and give birth to is his child, who can make him immortal, both mystically, by propitiating the gods with prayers and sacrifices when he is dead, and concretely, by receiving the patrimony from him.  At this crossroads of sexual possession, property ownership, and the desire to transcend death, developed the institution we know: the present-day patriarchal family with its super-naturalizing of the penis, its division of labor by gender, its emotional, physical, and material possessiveness, its ideal of monogamous marriage until death (and its sever penalties for adultery by the wife), the ‘illegitimacy’ of a child born outside wedlock, the economic dependency of women, the unpaid domestic services of the wife, the obedience of women and children to male authority, the imprinting and continuation of heterosexual roles.

    Again: some combination or aspect of patriarchal values prevails, whether in an Orthodox Jewish family where the wife mediates with the outer world and earns a living to enable the husband to study Torah; or for the upper-class European or [Asian] couple, both professionals, who employ servants for domestic work and a governess for the children.  They prevail even where women are the nominal ‘heads of households.’  For, much as she may act as the coequal provider or so-called matriarch within her own family, every mother must deliver her children over within a few years of their birth to the patriarchal system of education, of law, of religion, of sexual codes; she is, in fact, expected to prepare them to enter that system without rebelliousness or ‘maladjustment’ and to perpetuate it in their own adult lives. Patriarchy depends on the mother to act as a conservative influence, imprinting future adults with patriarchal values even in those early years when the mother-child relationship might seem most individual and private; it has also assured through ritual and tradition that the mother shall cease, at a certain point, to hold the child—in particular the son—in her orbit.  Certainly it has created images of the archetypal Mother which reinforce the conservatism of motherhood and convert it to an energy for the renewal of male power.


Childbirth is (or may be) one aspect of the entire process of a woman’s life, beginning with her own expulsion from her mother’s body, her own sensual suckling or being held by a woman, through her earliest sensations of clitoral eroticism and of the vulva as a source of pleasure, her growing snese of her own body and its strengths, her masturbation, her menses, her physical relationship with nature and to other human beings, her first and subsequent orgasmic experiences with another’s body, her conception, pregnancy, to the moment of first holding her child.  But that moment is still only a point in the process if we conceive it not according to patriarchal ideas of childbirth as a kind of production, but as part of female experience.


Beyond birth comes nursing and physical relationship with an infant, and these are enmeshed with sexuality, with the ebb and flow of ovulation and menses, of sexual desire. During pregnancy the entire pelvic area increases in its vascularity (the production of arteries and veins) thus increasing the capacity for sexual tension and greatly increasing the frequency and intensity of the orgasm.   During pregnancy, the system is flooded with hormones which not only induce the growth of new blood vessels but increase clitoral responsiveness and strengthen the muscles effective in orgasm.  A woman who has given birth has a biologically increased capacity for genital pleasure, unless her pelvic organs have been damaged obstetrically, as frequently happens.  Many women experience orgasm for the first time after childbirth, or become erotically aroused while nursing.  Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Niles Newton, Masters and Johnson, and others have documented the erotic sensations experienced by women in actually giving birth.  Since there are strong cultural forces which desexualize women as mothers, the orgasmic sensations felt in childbirth or while suckling infants have probably until recently been denied even by the women feeling them, or have evoked feelings of guilt. Yet, as Newton reminds us, ‘Women…have a more varied heritage of sexual enjoyment than men’;  and the sociologist Alice Rossi observes,

I suspect that the more male dominance characterizes a Western society, the greater is the dissociation between sexuality and maternalism.  It is to men’s sexual advantage to restrict women’s sexual gratification to heterosexual coitus, though the price for the woman and a child may be a less psychologically and physically rewarding relationship.

The division of labor and allocations of power in patriarchy demand not merely a suffering Mother, but one divested of sexuality: the Virgin Mary, virgo intacta, perfectly chaste.  Women are permitted to be sexual only at a certain time of life, and the sensuality of mature—and certainly of aging—women has been perceived as grotesque, threatening, and inappropriate.

    If motherhood and sexuality were not wedged resolutely apart by male culture, if we could choose both the forms of our sexuality and the terms of our motherhood or non-motherhood freely, women might achieve genuine sexual autonomy (as opposed to ‘sexual liberation’).


This cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story. Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other.  The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.  Margaret Mead offers the possibility of ‘deep biochemical affinities between the mother and the female child, and contrasts between the mother and the male child, of which we no know nothing.’   Yet this relationship has been minimized and trivialized in the annals of patriarchy.  Whether in theological doctrine or art or sociology or psychonalytic theory, it is the mother and son who appear at the external, determinative dyad.  Small wonder, since theology, art, and social theory have been produced by sons.  Like intense relationships between women in general, the relationship between mother and daughter has been profoundly threatening to men.


We are, none of us, ‘either’ mothers or daughters; to our amazement, confusion, and greater complexity, we are both.  Women, mothers or not, who feel committed to other women, are increasingly giving each other a quality of caring filled with the diffuse kinds of identification that exist between actual mothers and daughters.  Into the mere notion of ‘mothering’ we may carry, as daughters, negative echoes of our own mothers’ martyrdom, the burden of their valiant, necessarily limited efforts on our behalf, the confusion of their double messages.  But it is a timidity of the imagination which urges that we can be ‘daughters’—therefore free spirits—rather than ‘mothers’—defined as eternal givers.  Mothering and non-mothering have been such charged concepts for us, precisely because whichever we did has been turned against us.

    To accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in ourselves is no easy matter, because patriarchal attitudes have encouraged us to split, to polarize, these images, and to project all unwanted guilt, anger, shame, power, freedom, onto the ‘other’ woman.  But any radical vision of sisterhood demands that we integrate them.


The repossession of women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers.  The female body has been both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life.  We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body.  In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence—a new relationship to the universe.  Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.

    This is where we have to begin.

Of Woman Born.doc

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