In June of 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled to eliminate the right to privacy for American women in choosing when and if to become mothers, a right that has been constitutional since 1973 in the decision Roe vs Wade.
Restricting and removing women’s rights, silencing our voices, controlling our choices and our bodies, is everywhere and throughout history intimately connected to tyranny. American slavery controlled women’s bodies through rape and forced breeding. It was only in 1919 that women were “given” the “right” to vote, and as American tyrannies rise again, the right to vote is being threatened in many states. From European Fascism and Nazism, to various ideologies and religious fundamentalisms around the world, now in the United States—everywhere tyranny is embedded with issues of caste and class – with racism, white supremacy and misogyny. As always, single mothers, women of color, poor women, and many working mothers without wealth or supports will be the most harmed.
Coincidentally, my first memoir, about pregnancy, giving birth and my first years of being a mother, (The Mother Knot) written and published over forty years ago, widely read then, is now being widely read again in a Spanish language edition as feminist movements gather energy in Spain and in South and Central America. Recently, I spoke with Mexican journalists who still feel the book’s relevance. One young woman described the traumatic experience of becoming a mother alone during the pandemic, then the relief she felt in what she called the “radical honesty” of my story of the knots of motherhood. She described horror felt about the decision of our Supreme Court by many women in South and Central America, where feminism is changing political and personal consciousness as the movement did in the United States in the 1970s. Many there are struggling to understand how America — still in some ways viewed as a democratic ideal if not a reality — can have prohibited the voices of women, turning choice into a crime. I was deeply moved by the continued relevance of my work, but also made aware by these courageous young women of how crucial our voices are — the voices of women everywhere. For the voices of mothers in the United States have never been only about women having and caring for children. Biological mothers join other voices across the arts and professions; women who choose not to be, or cannot be, biological mothers; adoptive mothers and step-mothers; women, including mothers, who reject the classic myth of ourselves as perfect givers, always choosing service to others over service to ourselves, angels of love or she-devils of murderous capacity; women and girls who have been raped by family members or strangers; girls and women who choose to reject the identity of woman altogether; the voices of maternal men, especially but not only biological fathers.
Here, then, is the voice of my thirty-year old self writing, a voice that continues to have resonance over forty years later:
Now, the Court has added to these ingrained lies the equivalency of abortion with murder.
This seed of maternal guilt and shame, that we will with the slightest misstep make our children crazy, or criminal, or ill, is the most common fear shared with me by readers over the years, a stream of relief expressed in the possibility that what has been called individual pathology, including chronic conflict about so much of what we do and feel, from pregnancy to giving birth to raising a child — the knot of motherhood — is actually a natural part of one of the most demanding and overwhelming forms of love. When, or if, to continue a pregnancy, to give birth or to choose not to be a mother or not to be a mother again is one of the most complex decisions in life. By criminalizing our choices, the Court has ruled to control our bodies, to silence our thinking and feeling selves.
When I became a mother, I also became something else brand new. Though I did not know it immediately when I held my first newborn child in my arms, that new self would require a complex fabric of learning and awareness that has been transformative. In 1969 and again in 1973 I became the white/Jewish mother of Black sons. As I began the maternal work of raising my children, living in close connection with my husband’s African American family, I listened and studied about how race and racial identity are embedded in all issues of public policy, in all struggles for freedom and against oppression, in decisions about where one lives, or shops, or attends school or work, of what to be proud of as I learned more about freedom movements in American history, what to be deeply ashamed of, and what to fear for the bodies I love: I began to comprehend the social, political and psychological problem of whiteness.
As the great writer James Baldwin put it, writing about American racism and the history of American slavery: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” I hear the words of Adrienne Rich: “[P]olitics was not something out there, but in here, the essence of my condition.” And of the philosopher, Sara Ruddick: “The maternal act of storytelling [is] a politics of remembering.”
When I reread The Mother Knot today, I hear the voice of a young woman trying to learn how to be a mother while she is longing for a mother herself, the voice of a mother with many privileges who nevertheless experiences confusion, loneliness, sometimes debilitating anxieties and anger along with devotion, attention, and passionate love. I imagine young women, in a society that offers few supports, struggling to choose to be mothers, then trying to be good mothers against a tight social fabric of terrible odds; women and girls choosing not to be mothers doomed, as many were in my own youth, to death or the risk of death.
I can think of three times when historical forces, personal experience and new intellectual awareness came together to form a radical challenge to my identity:
- When I dispelled the illusion that we are wholly conscious of everything we feel and all the motivations for our actions and choices.
- When I understood the cruel and damaging blindness of white perspectives on American history and culture I came to call “the whiteness of whiteness” in my memoir about being the white mother of Black sons.
- When I became aware of the dangerous historical and personal distortions in cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity in part through the experience of motherhood.
“How much it takes to be a writer …” Tillie Olsen writes in her essay “Silences,” a meditation on gender and women writing. “We must have much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions.”
Or Audre Lorde, the poet and writer who taught us so much about the courage required and the necessity for true stories, while reminding us of “the fear of being visible, scrutinized, judged, even perhaps the elemental fears of pain and death.”
We may extend these words not only to writers but to all people.
Recently I read words from Vincent Harding, a leader of the American Civil Rights movement, quoted by the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, about how the yearning for freedom flows through history “like a river, sometimes powerful … and rolling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, streaked and running with blood.”
A dangerous winter is emerging in this country. It is felt by progressive people here and in many places across the globe where the ideal of liberty is still a commitment and a hope. One essential piece of holding onto that hope is the courage to write and speak with radical honesty.