Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Already established as a powerful feminist poet, Adrienne Rich ventured into the field of social criticism with the publication of Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. A self-identified feminist/lesbian/socialist, Rich made the transition to a new genre of writing with a carefully annotated scholarly work which departs from traditional impersonal research by combining a comprehensive feminist analysis of the institution of motherhood (objective research) with Rich’s personal experience of struggle as a mother and a poet (subjective experience). Written as a collection of essays with a common theme, Of Woman Born explores the dark and disturbing side of motherhood in discourse that counters popular romanticized views of maternity.

Rich’s life and emotions are laid bare as Of Woman Born weaves scholarly analysis with anecdotes and insights from her experiences of motherhood, as both a parent of three sons and as a daughter herself. Anger, tenderness, loneliness, and guilt contribute to the experience of alienation in the modern reality of motherhood. Alienation, or the separation of the institution of motherhood from the authentic experience of mothering, is the driving force of Rich’s analysis throughout the book. History, anthropology, mythology, literature, sociology, and psychology provide Of Woman Born with key resources for describing and explaining the alienation experienced by women. Rich...

(The entire section is 573 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Of Woman Born is a principal work in a larger debate within feminism over the complex relationship between reproductive issues, motherhood, and women’s oppression. For example, in Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) the argument is made that biological inequality between the sexes is the cause of social inequality. Firestone’s solution is a mandate to overcome biological differences through technology. Rich agrees with Firestone’s analysis when it is limited to institutional motherhood as it is constructed by society. In accord with Rich’s analysis of alienation, if women were in control of the experience of motherhood, there would be no need to “overcome” biological differences. This debate is indicative of the plurality of positions within feminism.

The mixed reviews that met the publication of Of Woman Born demonstrate how this work identified a previously undiscussed topic. Many of these reviews reflected gender bias. Because the forum for mothers expressing the negative side of their parenting experience was limited, many were shocked by Rich’s revelations. Some attempted to dismiss Rich’s analysis as an aberration and therefore not indicative of the feelings of a majority of mothers. Other women writers and scholars, however, while not always in agreement with her argumentation, would subsequently reinforce and vindicate the themes in Of Woman Born. For example, Nancy Chodorow discusses the creation of the institution of motherhood and the need for dual parenting from a psychoanalytic perspective in The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978). In 1986, the popularity and significance of Of Woman Born was marked with a tenth anniversary edition which included a new forword by the author.

While continuing to produce critically acclaimed and prize-winning poetry, Rich has compiled an impressive collection of works on cultural criticism, including On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (1979), Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (1986), and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). Among her essays, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience: The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand” (1980) is considered a watershed critique of homophobia in modern culture.

Of Woman Born

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

ph_0111201274-Rich.jpg Adrienne Rich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Cooper, Jane Roberta, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951-81. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. A balanced collection of essays and reviews of Rich’s poetry and prose. Five entries focus upon Of Woman Born including a negative review typical of the mainstream assessment of this work.

Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Chapter 5, “Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, and the Limits of Sisterhood,” contextualizes the writings of these two poets within their historical settings. The life of each woman is plumbed for its impact on her writings and politics.

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth, and Albert Gelpi. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. New York: W. W Norton, 1993. A comprehensive treatment of Rich’s writings, including selections of her poetry and prose. An extensive selection of reviews is provided, as well as a chronology of Rich’s life and a bibliography of her work.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. While this book only deals with Of Woman Born in passing, it offers a useful chronological approach to the emergence of Rich’s analytical themes. Her transformation into a leader in the feminist literary movement is carefully traced. A brief biography is included.

Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. A thematic approach to the works of three American poets. The lives and works of these women are juxtaposed against one another in a revealing analysis of the rise of feminist consciousness. Instead of a work-by-work analysis, the breadth of Rich’s writings is considered for their development of various themes.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction . Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Although this text does not focus primarily on Of Woman Born, it does place the social criticism of Rich in the proper context within the sweep of feminist writing. An excellent primer to the various strands of feminism, providing an extensive bibliographical listing by category of feminist thought.

Werner, Craig. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988. Rich’s writings are placed in the context of critical debates in culture, politics, and theory. Significant attention is paid to the evolution of her thought, including its lesbian, feminist, and radical dimensions.