We live in in a patriarchal culture. What this means is that white men rule in a world where they feel they are the most important part. I would like to tell you today about some feminist women.
The first was a feminist woman named Adrienne Rich, lawyer, mother, feminist, author and an example of the fullness of life that women can have when they are liberated, free to make choices for themselves. She was a white, educated woman who lived in the late fifties and who had to plead and argue for sterilization after choosing to bear three children. This is something I also experienced in 1972, having to plead to be allowed to be sterilized. Being able to plan your life includes when to have children if you want children.
Another feminist, Margaret Sanger, wrote Motherhood in Bondage in 1928. She wrote about a women seeking birth-control advice so she could carry out her marital duties with her husband without becoming pregnant again and again. She wrote diaries in which she expressed how hard it was to be sensual and be able to give her children what they needed and not get pregnant again.
Mothers and daughters were bonded by strategy. Trying to ensure that they would not continue to have children made many women feel shame for what they wanted and were trying to accomplish. They feared losing love, home and desirability as a woman. Many women felt that their only value was for sex and procreation, which is what the patriarchal society they lived in taught.
When Adrienne Rich realized she did not wish to have more children, she wrote to Margaret Sanger to find a way to find some modest control over the use of her body. For generations, women have asserted their courage on behalf of their own children and their husbands. Women take care of their children, then their husbands. Then they help strangers, and finally they take care of their own needs. That has been the role of women for millennia.
The “sacred calling” of motherhood has had, of course, an altogether pragmatic reality. In the American colonies an ordinary family consisted of from twelve to twenty five children. An unmarried woman was treated with reproach even if she was as young as twenty five. A woman of this “advanced age” had no way of surviving economically, and was usually compelled to board with her kin and help with the household of children. No other “calling” was open to her.
An English working woman who was a child in the 1850’s wrote that “I was my mother’s seventh child, and seven more were born after me – fourteen in all – which made my mother a perfect slave. Generally speaking the mother was either expecting a baby to be born or had one at the breast. There was a time when there were eight of us old enough to go to school, but we couldn’t get ready without help.”
Both the white pioneer mother and the black family slave worked daily as a full productive part of the economy. Black women often worked the fields with their children strapped to their backs. Historically, women have borne and raised children while doing their share of necessary productive labor. It was just expected from them.
The mother bears the weight of Eve’s transgression ( Eve, as the first offender, the polluted one, the polluter ) yet precisely because of this, the mother is expected to carry the burden of male salvation. Women were frequently reminded of what horrible things could happen to her if she wasn’t a good mother.
This is the 21st century, and women’s choices are expanding beyond just motherhood. Motherhood is a wonderful calling, but there can be more to a woman’s life if she so chooses.