Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727
The fundamental point of analysis in Of Woman Born is a rejection of the belief that the experience of motherhood is universally positive and should be normative for all women. Rich presents a significant challenge to the romanticized notion of maternal bliss. Of Woman Born takes the reader on a difficult and disturbing journey through feminist analysis of motherhood. Rich also challenges traditional male scholarship by valuing her own diaries and journal entries equally with her formal research.
Rich’s social criticism authentically reflects the feminist theme that “the personal is political.” Women’s experience is essential to the arguments developed in Of Woman Born. Rich explicitly attempts to overcome the mind/body split, or dualism, that permeates patriarchal language. In this dualism, matters of thought or the mind are considered superior to matters of the body or sensual experience. Historically, men have been associated with the former and women have been associated with the latter. Of Woman Born draws the two realms together as Rich’s eloquent prose relates her bodily experience of motherhood. This “theory of the body” is ultimately concerned with control. Motherhood as experience is controlled by women, while motherhood as institution is controlled by men.
Of Woman Born is highly critical of patriarchy without making generalizations about men. In fact, the relationship between men and women is not the central focus of this book. On several occasions, Rich calls for a change in patterns toward equality in parenting relationships and responsibility. Rich is more concerned, however, with the relationship of mothers to their children, and in particular to daughters. While Rich is critical of men for creating and maintaining sexist institutions, she is also critical of women for perpetuating dependency upon men by participating in the patriarchal institution of motherhood. This participation comes through child rearing, which replicates the tradition of alienated motherhood in daughters. Yet Rich’s analysis recognizes the power of social and political forces in shaping child-rearing practices and therefore ultimately exonerates mothers as she discusses her attempts to recapture appreciation for her own mother.
The analysis in Of Woman Born represents a deconstruction of traditional motherhood in its alienating form, but the book also represents hope for women in the form of female power. While the distortions of patriarchal society extend to mother-daughter relationships, Rich believes that motherhood does not have to be alienating. Like many feminist theories, Rich’s analysis breaks down women’s oppression to find its origin and resources, but her analysis also finds sources of autonomous female strength. One such strength can be derived from sisterhood. Rich calls for women to find strength in female bonding in communities that value diversity. The creative power of motherhood can also be a source of empowerment and hope for women. History and mythology provide themes of female power from which modern women can draw. Of Woman Born demonstrates that female power historically has been suppressed and misdirected, resulting in alienation. With male experience as normative, social institutions transform mothers into “others,” resulting in anger, fear, and depression—the dark side of motherhood.
Her analysis makes the connection between this alienation and violence that mothers sometimes commit against their children. In the personalist approach found in Of Woman Born, Rich, while never having committed any act of violence against her children, explains her identification with the emotions that make such acts possible. Of Woman Born gives voice to the feelings that mothers have had but dared not speak. In Rich’s cathartic analysis, she participates in the feminist process of identifying and naming the previously unnamed.
Because Of Woman Born draws upon so many diverse disciplines in the process of creating an overarching theory of motherhood, it has been criticized for lacking appropriate depth in any particular field of analysis. The use of various historical examples of patriarchically determined motherhood has resulted in concerns that the context of these phenomena were not fully developed. While Rich focuses upon mother-daughter relationships, other social factors contributing to the creation of the institution of motherhood are ignored. In this manner, Rich has been criticized for portraying mothers as more powerful than perhaps they are: Mothers cannot control all the factors that contribute to their children’s socialization. This narrow focus also makes possible a related criticism of utopianism, because Rich’s solution ultimately rests with altering the child-rearing patterns of mothers.