The female body is perhaps doomed to remain an object of derision, violence, and political propaganda. Its beauty is either eroticised or regarded with suspicion. Its bodily functions, in particular menstruation and child bearing, are still shrouded in superstition. At the time Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born was published, in 1976, not much had been written about invisible but life-giving parts of the female anatomy. Of note though, is Anne Sexton’s sensual 1969 poem, “In Celebration of My Uterus”:

“Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.
They wanted to cut you out
but they will not.
They said you were immeasurably empty
but you are not.
They said you were sick unto dying
but they were wrong.
You are singing like a school girl.
You are not torn.”

Rich’s Of Woman Born is impassioned, much like Sexton’s poetry. But it is also scholarly in its critique of the institutionalisation of motherhood, fragmentary in structure, frank and intimate in delineating Rich’s own experiences. Novelist and poet Alexander Theroux condemned it by calling it “less a female manifesto than the ‘Confessions of St Adrienne.’ A hodgepodge of ten aggrieved essays…This book is an absolute radical witchery; the bookend to its male chauvinist counterpart.”

Adrienne Rich
(From left) Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich | Image credit: K Kendall / CC-BY-2.0

The mother’s reality

Aggrieved, it indeed is. The book does away with the usual academic apparatus of cool distance and objectivity. But Of Woman Born isn’t a “hodgepodge” — in fact, its experimental style is an edifice of carefully constructed thoughts, feminist history, and anthropology. Rich wrote it in the aftermath of her marriage to Harvard economist Alfred Conrad, in 1953, and the birth of her three sons before she turned thirty.

The first chapter, titled “Anger and Tenderness”, describes how she alternates between love and loathing for her children, and her life in a Cambridge tenement. She describes the “ultimate lack of seriousness with which women were regarded in that world – all of this defied analysis at that time, but I knew I had to remake my own life. I did not then understand that we – the women of that academic community – as in so many middle-class communities of the period – were expected to fill both the part of the Victorian Lady of Leisure, the Angel in the House, and also of the Victorian cook, scullery maid, laundress, governess, and nurse.”

Rich recalls an evening in 1975, when a group of women poets got together to discuss the case of a mother of eight, who had struggled with depression since the birth of her third child. She had killed her two youngest on the front lawn of her suburban home. “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,” Rich confesses.

On abortion and sexuality

Of Woman Born draws from contemporary literature, essays, mythology and folklore, handbooks on mothering, and poetry in a bid to define motherhood and include within that definition, the cultural subtext of a milieu. In the introduction written for the tenth anniversary edition, titled “Ten Years Later: A New Introduction”, Rich is startlingly current in her preoccupations. She decries the “assault” on a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy in a safe and affordable manner.

“Arguments against abortion have in common a valuing of the unborn foetus over the living woman,” she writes. Her comprehensive footnotes include references to Kristin Luker’s 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, in which Luker puts forward the idea that the “pro-life” movement condemns birth-control as “abortifacient” (causing abortion), and considers “natural family planning” an acceptable form of birth control.

“The living, politicised woman claims to be a person whether she is attached to a family or not, whether she is attached to a man or not, whether she is a mother or not,” Rich declares, her vehemence evident in calling out the hypocrisy of antiabortion moralists. What would Rich have thought of the recent anti-abortion laws in Alabama, followed by Missouri, in the United States? The new introduction states her timeless stance: “The antiabortion movement trivialises women’s impulses towards education, independence, self-determination as self-indulgence. Its deepest unwritten text is not about the right to life, but about women’s right to be sexual, to separate sexuality from procreation, to have charge over our procreative capacities.”

Female anger and the male world

The subtext of Of Woman Born simmers with anger that boils to the surface even in Rich’s most restrained sentences. She explores this very feminine anger, and its rampant repression, by citing from much-loved literature, like Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, Little Women. Marmee advises Jo March, the ill-tempered one, to restrain her emotions:

“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

Female anger, unbecoming of the mother who dares to express it, is a threat to the institution of motherhood. Rich recalls how her childhood anger was labelled a “tantrum”; as a young mother her temper was considered a ‘bad example’ for her children. She also quotes from Lydia Maria Child’s 1831 discourse, The Mother’s Book:

“Do you say it is impossible always to govern one’s feelings? There is one method, a never-failing one – prayer…”

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by the notions that the home was a separate unit from the “man’s world” of work, ambition, and power, that motherhood was a “specialisation” of women alone. In the chapter titled “The ‘Sacred Calling’”, Rich also mentions the movement of women to mills or factories, to supplement a husband’s wages. But women’s employment was a travesty of the norms of a patriarchal marriage – it led to economic independence. Legislation that restricted women’s labour came into being to protect the disruption of the family unit in which the man was the provider and the woman, a dependant, much like her children.

Rich attempts a working definition of several of her thematic concerns in the chapter titled “The Kingdom of the Fathers”. She grapples with patriarchy, matriarchy, power – words that contain the politics and histories of nations. Subsequent chapters, with their conglomeration of ideas on mothers, daughters, and lovers, dwell upon Amazonism, Dionysian matriarchy, the Moon Mothers, midwifery and the obstetric forceps.

Rich draws from the writings of Jane Harrison, (Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion), Helen Diner (Mothers and Amazons), Robert Briffault (The Mothers), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers). She allows vehement personal testimony to mingle with research – a method that no doubt prompted Theroux’s dour comment. And she writes of anger, in fact she writes with anger. She is believed to have said to her friends, the critics Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, that “anger can be a kind of genius if it’s acted on.” Of Woman Born is just that – genius born of anger.