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...
(The entire section is 727 words.)