Of Woman Born – By Adrienne Rich

Goodreads Synopsis: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.

“In order for all women to have real choices all along the line,” Adrienne Rich writes, “we need fully to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture.” Rich’s investigation, in this influential and landmark book, concerns both experience and institution. The experience is her own – as a woman, a poet, a feminist, and a mother – but it is an experience determined by the institution, imposed in its many variations on all women everywhere. She draws on personal materials, history, research, and literature to create a document of universal importance.

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While reading Forget Having It All earlier in the month, the author Adrienne Rich was again brought to my attention. In the past I had read some of her poetry and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until I read Of Woman Born that I became interested in more of her work. I took so many notes, and wrote down so many quotes that reviewing this book has seemed daunting to say the least. But I think I want to start with a small reflection I wrote while reading and then continue on to my review.

“I am reading this book at 21 weeks pregnant with my first child, whom we just found out recently is a boy.  My heart and mind are moved by Rich’s exploration of desire and consent under patriarchal motherhood, at the same time my son moves within me, reminding me of his brand new existence. And while I agree that gender is fluid and a social construct, this book has made me aware that until my son says otherwise the world will view him as male and I have to be aware of what lessons he’s learning because of his presentation.”

Of Woman Born is written out of the rage of a motherhood that was controlled by the patriarchy. Rich gave birth to and raised three children, she struggled with what many mothers have struggled with. Isolation, anger, depression, and wondering if she was doing the best for her children. The first part of the book is dedicated to her personal experience, which I thought was a really good way to start her exploration of motherhood. From there she explores history and mythology, combing through both to trace how patriarchal ideas of motherhood have confused and destroyed what should be a beautiful personal choice. I loved how she settled on the distinction of motherhood as an institution and motherhood as an experience. One is controlled by the patriarchy and the other the real experience lived by mothers.

At the time of reading this book, I didn’t stop to consider other perspectives than my own and Rich’s. I was just caught up in the honesty on a topic that I felt wasn’t talked about enough. I had always felt like something was missing in the discussion of motherhood, and now being pregnant I was struggling with how I fit into it all. But as I was reading some other reviews that I realized this book does have its flaws. One reviewer pointed out that many of Rich’s assumptions of motherhood are transphobic, and looking back I realize that they are right. She doesn’t consider trans mothers into her equation of how motherhood looks, and the reviewer went on to point out that she could have easily corrected herself later in life since it wasn’t until 2012 that she died. This was a big disappointment for me to realize, and it opened up my eyes because even though gender is still something I’m trying to figure out for myself, I still have a lot of privilege in this area.

Because of that, I want to be wary of recommending this book to people, though I do still consider it an important read for myself. It came into my life at a point when I was questioning how motherhood would look for me, and helped give me a few answers as well as gave me a lot to think about. For me it was reaffirming to hear that motherhood doesn’t need to become my entire identity just because I now have a child. And I am not selfish or wrong to hold this belief.

In the end, I removed my original 5 stars on Goodreads and bumped down it to 4 stars.

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