A Journey to the Past
So, you like to read about motherhood. You are not alone. A Brain, Child article titled Tales from the (Mother) Hood reports that women readers purchase sixty-eight percent of all books and read fifty-six percent of all literary works. And since 85.2 million of US women are mothers, many of us are mother readers.
We are lucky to have more writing about motherhood to choose from now than we did five years ago. However, more variety means more choices. And we busy mothers don’t always have the time to sift through all the mother literature by ourselves.
That’s one reason that Literary Mama, in addition to offering high-quality literature about motherhood, also provides in-depth profiles and reviews. Our reviews can guide you in reading contemporary literature published about motherhood. Our profiles give you a behind-the-scenes look at what mother writers think and say about their writing and their lives as mothers. Overall, we want to help with your reading process.
This new column takes that effort even further. This column will be your guide — because much of this history is not easy to find. Each month, I will introduce (or reintroduce) you to a mother writer from our past, examining her writing through the lens of the maternal. I will focus on one or two of her texts, and if possible, provide links to her texts online for further reading. In addition, I will offer discussion questions that I hope will foster debate in our comment section and in real time book clubs. (To join or create a Literary Mama book club, see Literary Reflections.)
When mother writers Louise Erdrich in The Blue Jay’s Dance and Alicia Ostriker in her essay “A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry” looked back at the women’s literary tradition, they saw primarily childless women and wondered about their places as mothers and writers within that tradition. Many mother writers do. Few texts written by mothers about motherhood before 1970 are available. The usual explanation promoted by such authors as Tillie Olsen in Silences is that because of the idealization of motherhood, women were encouraged to create either books or babies, but not both.
However, looking at American literary history through the lens of the maternal reveals more than expected. In many matrilineal American Indian communities, grandmothers served as spiritual and cultural guides, often passing down stories and songs from one generation to the next. Importantly, these women’s songs, stories and speeches reflected the image of the mother as creative and powerful, and often depicted the divine as feminine. The powerful role that mothers and grandmothers held in their cultures helped them gain a voice. Social idealization of the maternal can be, then, a double-edged sword — for some silencing, and for others, empowering.
For the European colonizers, women’s status was different. The removal of the feminine from the godhead in these cultures contrasted sharply with Native American visions that kept the maternal central in religion, family life, and politics. Nonetheless, the role of the mother still held some residual power, and in the Colonial period, Anglo women writers such as Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Martha Ballad used their status as “good” mothers as protection against attacks on their characters, which allowed them to have a voice. In the Revolutionary Era, women such as Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Susanna Rowson, and Hannah Foster employed their new roles as “mothers of the republic” as well as the power of actual motherhood in order to speak out.
Later, the nineteenth-century explosion of American women writers included quite a few mother writers who answered the question of “books or babies?” by successfully balancing lucrative careers while raising children. Writers such as Fanny Fern, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Sarah Josepha Hale, Caroline Lee Hentz and Caroline Kirkland became powerful forces in the publishing industry. African American slave women writers such as Harriet Jacobs used their motherhood as a link to white mothers — helping them win sympathy for the anti-slavery cause. And the mythic image of Harriet Beecher Stowe stirring a pot or holding a child with one hand and writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the other is rooted strongly in our cultural imagination.
Childless women such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps also explored the lives of mothers, but wrote more about the artist’s need for individuality in opposition to life with children. These writers began a tradition in women’s writing that explores the difficulties mother writers face, a tradition continued in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries by such mother writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin, who write of mother artists who become mad or suicidal. Gilman and Chopin are followed in the 20th century by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, mother writers whose suicides can seem to support the claims made in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) that children and art cannot mix.
These are just some of the mother writers and issues surrounding them that we’ll be exploring. Come with me into the past, and see the rich and diverse tradition from which our current mother writers grow.
2 replies on “A Journey to the Past”
Amy, I’m really looking forward to your “guided tour.” Well-needed — As they say, “Context is Everything,” and the work we do as mother-writers (or, as writers who are mothers) does NOT exist in a vacuum!
Thank you! I majored in American Literature and though I’ve been exposed to these texts (of course!) my predominanty male faculty always resisted exploring issues of motherhood in them. I will enjoy following this column and appreciate the links to online texts where available.