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The family has long been understood as the basic unit of American cultural and political life. Yet the experience and work of motherhood, and mothers themselves, remained understudied for generations. Adrienne Rich’s pioneering 1976 text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution inaugurated an era in which scholars sought to theorize the ambivalence that characterizes mothering. Rich contrasts the “potential relationship” of women to their powers of reproduction with the institution of motherhood, which aims at “ensuring that that potential—and all women—shall remain under male control.”

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The texts in this reading list illuminate the potential for empowerment, alienation, and repression within motherhood. Because second-wave feminist scholars inaugurated the study of motherhood in the academy, late 1970s feminist scholarship features prominently here. From the outset, the field of “maternal studies” was characterized by an omission of the experiences and concerns of women who were not white, heterosexual, economically secure, or members of the academy. Many authors have corrected this omission with scholarship on Black, Native, and lesbian motherhood as well as mothering while disabled. Several texts explore the role of the state in regulating forms of mothering that don’t conform to the white nuclear family ideal on which are based traditional American conceptions of family.

Lastly, the list explores the relationship of mothers to the American medical system. Since the founding of the United States, women’s autonomy over pregnancy, childbirth, and family planning have shifted continuously. Today, as throughout history, motherhood is a barometer of America’s cultural and political ideas about women, mothers, and families. The research and scholarship featured here shows how cultural shifts alter the conditions under which American mothers perform their work.

Ruth H. Bloch, “American Feminine Ideals in Transition: The Rise of the Moral Mother, 1785-1815,” Feminist Studies 4, no. 2 (1978): 101–26.

Early Puritans conceived of the ideal woman as a “help-meet” or ornament. Bloch’s reading of popular seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts reveals how these conceptions gave way to the Victorian figure of the “moral mother,” whose role was to “establish gentle but firm moral discipline as early as possible” in their children. This duty granted Victorian mothers a degree of esteem; ideal mothers could obtain a limited (but heretofore absent) degree of education in their path toward piety. On the one hand, the role of moral mother “provided both ideological justification and incentive for the contraction of female activity into the preoccupations of motherhood.” On the other hand, “the rise of the moral mother also played its part in the long-range upgrading of the social status of women.”

Judith Walzer Leavitt, “Under the Shadow of Maternity: American Women’s Responses to Death and Debility Fears in Nineteenth-Century Childbirth,” Feminist Studies 12, no. 1 (1986): 129–54.

The shadow of death and debility haunted American women throughout the nineteenth century. Through an examination of mothers’ diaries and letters, Leavitt sheds light on the experience of childbearing in a time when “a possible death sentence came with every pregnancy.” In the face of their fears, women gathered to support one another during birth and recovery. In this way, Leavitt asserts, the shadow of birth “gave women the essence of a good life at the same time it contributed to a strict definition of that life’s boundaries.”

Carole Henry, “Instructional Resources: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange,” Art Education 48, no. 3 (1995): 25–40.

This instructional resource pulls together poetry, image analysis, historical context, and pedagogical instruction to explore Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph Migrant Mother. The result is a deeper understanding of the image’s power and its legacy in American history.

Mary Jacobus, “Madonna: Like a Virgin; or, Freud, Kristeva, and the Case of the Missing Mother,” Oxford Literary Review 8, no. 1/2 (1986): 35–50.

Freud’s theory of the Oedipal complex haunts every discourse about the development of sexuality and subjectivity. Jacobus focuses on the unreconcilable conflict in Freud’s theory wherein the female body is conflated with the maternal body but is also the object of male desire. By deploying Julia Kristeva’s theory of “the abject” to analyze Freud’s studies of Dora, Jacobus asserts that “the discourse of maternity becomes another name for the multifold divisions and ambiguities of sexual difference, in which we find ourselves mirrored, and again split.”

Ina May Gaskin, “Intuition and the Emergence of Midwifery as Authoritative Knowledge,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1996): 295–98.

Beginning in the 1970s, Gaskin was the lead midwife on The Farm, a rural community in Tennessee where midwives supported women through nonmedicalized births outside the hospital setting. In this article, she asserts that her intuition as a woman, mother, and birthing person was often more trustworthy than the accepted obstetrical knowledge about pregnancy and birth in the 1960s. She exhorts the obstetrical field to cease relying on technology for understanding and treating pregnant women, arguing that medicalized births and high cesarean rates pose high “personal, social, and medical costs.”  Traditional cultural wisdom is threatened, Gaskin claims, “as childbirth is moved into hospitals and midwives are made responsible to institutions rather than to their communities.”

Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (1980): 342–67.

Ruddick’s text is part philosophical treatise, part cultural theory, and part first-person inquiry into the experience of motherhood. Ruddick articulates a concept of “maternal thinking,” positing that “out of maternal practices distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing arise.” For her, all thought arises out of social practice. The practice of mothering produces a specific way of thinking oriented toward three interests in relationship to one’s children: preservation, growth, and acceptability. In her elaboration of these interests, she shows that the work of mothering is both self-contradictory and holds potential for creativity and joy. Ultimately, she asserts that “the self-conscious inclusion of maternal thought in the dominant culture will be of general intellectual and moral benefit.”

Evelyn Torton Beck, “The Motherhood that Dare Not Speak its Name,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1983): 8–11.

Beck’s succinct essay provides a snapshot of lesbian women’s experience of motherhood in the late 1970s. Writing within the context of second-wave feminism, Beck asserts that “until all women’s studies scholarship and teaching includes a lesbian-feminist perspective, the homophobic and heterosexist biases of the dominant culture will be perpetuated in all of the disciplines, including women’s studies.”

Dorothy E. Roberts, “Unshackling Black Motherhood,” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 4 (1997): 938–64.

An influential legal scholar, Roberts composed this text in response to rising prosecutions of women for using drugs during pregnancy throughout the 1990s. In Roberts’s framing, “the prosecutions punished poor Black women for having babies” by violating these women’s rights to equal protection of the laws and to privacy. One South Carolina hospital’s punitive approach to prenatal drug use reveals how structural and ideological biases against Black mothers lead to government policies that regulate Black women’s reproductive decision-making. State intervention into Black maternity, Roberts asserts, is consistent with state regulation of the bodies and pregnancies of enslaved women from the time of America’s founding. Roberts also shows how media representations of Black mothers contribute to, and reflect, a widespread cultural belief that that Black childbearing causes social problems.

Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, “The Intriguing History and Silences of Of Woman Born: Rereading Adrienne Rich Rhetorically to Better Understand the Contemporary Context,” Feminist Formations, vol. 22, no. 2, 2010, pp. 18–41.

In Of Woman Born, Rich wrested the patriarchal institution of motherhood from the potentially empowering experience of mothering. O’Brien Hallstein examines receptions and interpretations of Rich’s text in the context of the rhetorical situations in which it was created. This reading reveals how both American culture and purveyors of feminist cultural theory were conditioned to receive the text and explains the text’s role in subsequent analyses of maternal experience. By rereading Of Woman Born within its rhetorical context, O’Brien Hallstein asserts, we can think more productively about “maternity” without splitting it into motherhood and mothering. In doing so, we prevent “undertheorizing and misdiagnosing” the split subjectivity that contemporary women experience in their relationship to both.

Barbara Gurr, “Mothering in the Borderlands: Policing Native American Women’s Reproductive Healthcare,” International Journal of Sociology of the Family 37, no. 1 (2011): 69–84.

Burr’s sociological study of Indian Health Services reproductive healthcare on the Pine Ridge Reservation examines the state’s role in producing and policing a privileged version of the family form. The state privileges traditional nuclear families in which the father is the breadwinner and the mother is in charge of domestic activities and childrearing. Burr’s research and interviews with Native women, activists, and healthcare providers leads her to conclude that by policing Native women’s access to and use of reproductive healthcare, the state seeks to “manage the threats of heterogeneity presented by Native women-as-reproducers.”

Angela Frederick, “Mothering while Disabled,” Contexts 13, no. 4 (2014): 30–35.

“Securing the right of people with disabilities to parent without interference is the last frontier of disability rights,” Frederick argues. She forthrightly supports this statement by showing how parents with disabilities experience a disproportionately high degree of involvement with social services. Social workers determine sanctions and custody details subjectively. These determinations, she asserts, are dependent upon speculation about potential parenting deficiencies that a mother’s disability might pose. Instead of engaging in this kind of speculation about disabled mothers, “we should be asking how we can help their families to thrive.”

Kara Van Cleaf, “Of Woman Born to Mommy Blogged: The Journey from the Personal as Political to the Personal as Commodity,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 247–64.

“Mommy blogs” offer an up-to-the-minute, authentic, less-isolated version of motherhood. In these respects, Van Cleaf observes, such blogs are potentially radical. But in her analysis of so-called mommy blogs, she finds that “the challenges of motherhood are overwhelmingly couched as personal problems that can be overcome by readjusting one’s mind,” rather than by readjusting patriarchal society. She contrasts this posture with Rich’s insistence that “the personal is political.” Furthermore, because mommy bloggers are motivated to seek profit by gaining followers, their mothering is enlisted into the project of neoliberal capitalism, wherein every human endeavor is cast in entrepreneurial terms.

Jennifer C. Nash, “The Political Life of Black Motherhood,” Feminist Studies 44, no. 3 (2018): 699–712.

Nash explores a set of scholarly texts on Black motherhood with a central question in mind: why is Black women’s subjectivity “politically visible only when it stands for the loss of another, a proximity to dead or dying Black—usually male—bodies”? She narrates the history of feminist representations of Black motherhood as powerful and spiritually rooted. Black mothering creates a “space of life-affirmation staged in (or against) a cultural moment that seeks to relegate [B]lack bodies to a space of death.” This conception of Black motherhood as inherently and always political, Nash points out, leaves little room for the ambivalence about mothering that is a hallmark of (white) feminism.

Daniel A. Cox and Samuel J. Abrams, American Enterprise Institute, “The Parents are Not All Right: the Experiences of Parenting During a Pandemic,” American Enterprise Institute, 2020.

When schools and childcare providers closed in March 2020 to stem the spread of COVID-19, American parents’ lives were fundamentally altered, practically overnight. This research report provides data and insight about the ramifications of a cultural moment when “parents working 40-hour-a-week jobs suddenly became required to provide an additional 40 hours of childcare and schooling.” Mothers, especially, experienced mental health challenges; in July 2020, more than half of mothers reported symptoms of depression, and they felt socially isolated and lonely in higher numbers than fathers.

Gender Equity Policy Institute, “The State of Reproductive Health in the United States: The End of Roe and the Perilous Road Ahead for Women in the Dobbs Era,” January 19, 2023.

The US Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision radically altered the landscape of reproductive healthcare in the US. The data in this research report reveals how changes in policies affect women’s access to reproductive healthcare and their decisions about childbearing. The report examines access to contraception, rates of teen and unintended pregnancies, and maternal and infant mortality to conclude that

on every indicator, pregnant people, women, and their children have healthier outcomes in states that are supportive of reproductive freedom. Conversely, on every indicator, those who live in states that ban abortion or restrict reproductive and sexual health services have poorer outcomes and face grave risks to their health and well-being during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period.

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University of Nebraska Press
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Feminist Studies, Inc.
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Feminist Studies, Inc.
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National Art Education Association
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Edinburgh University Press
Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 2, The Social Production of Authoritative Knowledge in Pregnancy and Childbirth (June 1996), pp. 295–298
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Feminist Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1980), pp. 342–367
Feminist Studies, Inc.
Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, Teaching about Mothering (Winter 1983), pp. 8–11
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Michigan Law Review, Vol. 95, No. 4, Symposium: Representing Race (Feb., 1997), pp. 938–964
The Michigan Law Review Association
Feminist Formations, Vol. 22, No. 2, The Politics and Rhetorics of Embodiment (Summer 2010), pp. 18–41
The Johns Hopkins University Press
International Journal of Sociology of the Family, Vol. 37, No. 1, POLICING MOTHERHOOD (Spring 2011), pp. 69–84
International Journals
Contexts, Vol. 13, No. 4 (FALL 2014), pp. 30–35
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the American Sociological Association
Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3/4, THE 1970s (FALL/WINTER 2015), pp. 247–264
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Feminist Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2018), pp. 699–712
Feminist Studies, Inc.
American Enterprise Institute
Gender Equity Policy Institute