Mentioned briefly in Chapter I of this study by Adrienne Rich is a particularly grisly incident. In 1975, a mother of eight children decapitated the two youngest of her brood on the front lawn of their suburban home in broad daylight. According to later testimony in the case, the woman, though prone to depression, seemed a very loving mother, doting especially on her two youngest children. Of Woman Born concludes with a fuller discussion of this same event. This framing incident is more than an artistic device to bring the work full circle. Indeed, one could argue that the entire study is an attempt to make the reader understand why this suburban mother, later declared insane, committed the crime she did.
To accomplish this understanding, Rich ranges easily and unpedantically over a diverse range of human learning: economics, history, biology, literature, medicine, sociology, anthropology, archeology, religion, mythology, and genetics. More impressive, however, is Rich’s adept integration of her own personal experience as a mother of three sons, as well as the experiences of other historical and contemporary women, with considerations of Engels, Simone de Beauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Freud, and others.
The result is an eminently readable, informed, and intelligent study. Simultaneously, Of Woman Born conveys a deeply personal vision and will undoubtedly become a major feminist document. This is no small accomplishment in a relatively short work which also represents Rich’s first attempt at prose.
After twenty-five years as a poet, Adrienne Rich, presently considered a major contemporary poet, brings to her first prose work the most important qualities of her own poetry, and perhaps of all poetry: the economic and organic integration of personal experience and vision with those social forces, be they ethnic, political, religious, or other, which are perceived as dictating to the individual consciousness. Thus, the book has both an inner and outer structure. Of Woman Born has ample and accurate footnotes and bibliography. The objective, argumentative structure of the work is clear. Yet, these are all merely tools to convey and explain an intensely private experience.
The outer structure, or the book’s major argument, could be stated as follows: Power has been systematically denied women. They have little autonomous control over their biological, mental, emotional, or economic fulfillment as human beings. Historically, cultures which normally practiced the murder by exposure of infant females are numerous. Paradoxically, however, the apex of this process occurs late in history, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, when woman’s place became more than ever circumscribed to the rearing of children and the nurture and support of men. Prior to this, the home, rather than being an oversized playpen and hospitality station, was a cottage industry. Everything from soap to food to heirs was produced on the premises with the female having at least an equal participation in the production.
Second, this denial of female power happened because men were threatened by women. Rich speculates, with mythological justification, that women must be feared because they are the ultimate creators of life, and what they create they can also destroy. For this, among other reasons, men have been driven to envy female creativity and equally driven to control it, trivialize it, and even to deny it. From such an urge, witchhunts are instigated.
Or, if one is uncomfortable with the interpretation of myth, there are numerous sociological findings to consider. For instance, from time immemorial, it has been the custom of men to congregate in exclusive societies or clubs. This grouping is considered natural, even prestigious. To this day, the banding together of women, for whatever purpose, is subject at the least to ridicule and at the extreme to being considered an unnatural and subversive condition.
An interesting historical footnote illuminating the systematic degradation of female status had been the ouster of the traditional midwives in favor of the modern tool-oriented and male-dominated science of obstetrics. Rich concludes that if men cannot create life itself, they at least have tried to...