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Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

Adrienne Rich's Feminist Examination of Motherhood

By

Adrienne Rich, 1991

Photograph of Adrienne Rich, 1991

Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

Adrienne Rich combined her own experience as a mother with feminist theory to write Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.

Foray into Feminist Theory

Adrienne Rich was already an established feminist poet in 1976 when she published Of Woman Born. It had been more than twenty years since her first volume of poetry was published.

Adrienne Rich is known for confronting society and writing political themes in her poetry. Of Woman Born, a thoughtful, non-fiction prose examination of motherhood, was nonetheless an eye-opening and provocative work. Before Of Woman Born, there had been little to no scholarly feminist analysis of the institution of motherhood. The book has since become a classic feminist text, and motherhood has become an essential issue of feminism.

Personal Experience

Of Woman Born begins with excerpts from Adrienne Rich’s journal. In the journal entries, she reflects on her love for her children and other emotions.  She describes moments in which she questioned her ability and desire to be a mother. 

Adrienne Rich then writes that even her own children recognize the impossibility of constant, 24-hour love and attention. Still, she argues, society places on mothers the unreasonable demand that they provide perfect, constant love.

How the Patriarch Views the Matriarch

Of Woman Born includes a historical overview of motherhood. Adrienne Rich asserts that being a mother changed as the world moved from primitive societies that revered women to patriarchal civilization.  

Of Woman Born explores the modern division of labor that relies heavily if not solely on mothers to do the child-rearing. Adrienne Rich asks why childbirth went from midwife’s calling to medical procedure. She also questions what childbirth and motherhood demand of women emotionally.

One Dimension of Woman

Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born that motherhood is but one physical dimension of a woman’s being. Rather than being defined as mothers, or by their status as childless, women should be defined in terms of themselves, as all humans should be. Nor should becoming a mother mean women are isolated and not allowed to participate in the social and professional world. Instead, Adrienne Rich calls for “a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body.”

“None of Woman Born…”

The title Of Woman Born recalls the line from Shakespeare's play Macbeth that tricks Macbeth into thinking he is safe: “…for none of woman born/Shall harm MacBeth”  (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 80-81).

Of course MacBeth is not safe in the end, for it turns out Macduff was “untimely ripp’d” (Act V, Scene 8, line 16) from his mother's womb. Macbeth is fraught with themes of good and evil; it also examines the downfall of a man. Lady MacBeth, with blood on her hands, and the three sisters, or witches, are among the memorable Shakespearean women whose power and prophecies are threatening.

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