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Mother Studies Summer Accelerated Class: A Student’s Reflections

As posted on the website, we are underway with the seven-week intensive course offered through the museum, “Introduction to Mother Studies.” The course explores key questions related to motherhood, feminism, and the family – issues that the museum seeks to bring awareness to as an institution of thought. We are happy to share a glimpse into week one of the course, which has delved into the rich foundational text, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich, as well as a quick introduction to Sociology and a couple of short films about birth.

In Of Woman Born, Rich gives an in-depth historical, social, and economic context to motherhood.

Patriarchy would seem to require, not only that women shall assume the major burden of pain and self-denial for the furtherance of the species, but that a majority of the species – women – shall remain essentially unquestioning and unenlightened. On this “underemployment” of female consciousness depend the morality and the emotional life of the human family. Like his predecessors of fifty and a hundred and more years ago, [theorist] Hampshire sees society as threatened when women begin to choose the terms of their lives. Patriarchy could not survive without motherhood and heterosexuality in their institutional forms; therefore, they have to be treated as axioms, as “nature” itself, not open to question except where, from time to time, and place to place, “alternative life-styles” for certain individuals are tolerated (Rich 1986).

Below is a response paper to the reading/viewing assignments from week.

“Repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers” (Rich 1986). Though succinct, Rich has loaded this quote with key points of her thesis in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Embedded in it is Rich’s plea for women to reclaim consciousness and agency over their bodies, with special respect given to the institution of motherhood. The reference to Marx is intentional, as theory has pointed at capitalism as the root cause of the domestication of motherhood. However, as has been the primary feminist complaint of the father of socialism, Marx has overwhelmingly failed to account for gender in his observations of the proletariat – and this applies in the family, too. Though perhaps the reason for women’s reign over the domestic sphere, the subversion of women’s bodies occurs much deeper than in economics and cannot seek absolution from economics, as Engels would suggest. In Of Woman Born Rich maps the subjugation of women by the patriarchy and shows how this has extended to motherhood and the family.

If we understand sociology to be “the scientific study of human society – its institutions and people’s social behavior”, then borrowing Rich’s wisdom we will most certainly see patriarchal influences at work within medical institutions. The more egregious manifestations of this, of course, are in birthing practices that treat labor as an ailment in Western cultures, which she explores in the chapter, Alienated Labor (again, a nod to Marx). However, the less insidious assertions of male dominance in the medical field (but perhaps the most devastating) are in medical language itself. Anthropologist Emily Martin has devoted several publications to analyzing the use of masculine language when framing processes within human sexual reproduction. In the short medical video, Fertilization,” we hear phrases describing the life-cycle of the sperm as “a perilous journey against incredible odds,” “strength,” and “swimming harder and faster” amid a backdrop of language that describes the female reproductive system as an “acidic environment” (Nucleus Medical Media 2013). Presumably, Rich would attribute this what she sees as men’s fear of women’s ability to bear new life and of “her apparent power to affect the male genitals.” So of course, in a routine video describing the fertilization of an egg, the women’s system would a hostile, acidic environment designed to hinder the powerful sperm facing incredible odds.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Rich says that with this intrinsic fear of women’s bodies came men’s decided action to shackle the divine worship of women’s power. Women’s bodies, once revered and worshipped as an aspect of the hunt – a matter of survival for Neolithic cultures – were later looked at as forces to be controlled. However, where Rich’s argument falls short for me is in its ability to situate the rise of patriarchal dominance across all the diverse cultures she mentions. In one instance, she talks about the devaluing of goddesses in ancient Greece and credits another theorist’s explanation for this:

He theorizes that this fear of maternal woman derived from the sexual politics of fifth-century Greece, where women were ill-educated, were sold into marriage, and had no role except as producers of children, the sexual interest of men was homoerotic, and for intellectual friendships a man sought out hetaeras…or other men. He assumes the mother to have been filled with resentment and envy of her sons, and in frustration, excessively controlling of her male children in their earliest years. Her feelings would have been experienced by her sons as a potentially destructive hostility which is later embodied in mythology and classical drama.

This is one theory of the social climate in ancient Greece that caused the transformation of goddesses’ role in mythology. But what, exactly, brought about the patriarchal awakening across other cultures, in the same time period?

It would seem that if repossessing our bodies would do more to boost women’s power than the overthrow of capitalism, we should know how to dismantle the very patriarchal notions that have caused it subdominance in the first place.

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