March 2, 1998
Volume 50, No. 23
Message to our mothers: Happy Women's History Month
March is Women's History Month, a time when we celebrate the many unsung contributions of women to the world. Extraordinary revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Catherine McKinnon and Gloria Steinem are finally included in our classroom lectures and honored in our publications and media events.
As a college student in the '60s and one who seldom heard mention of these significant women in the academy, I particularly enjoy and relish the attention given to these exceptional role models and leaders. However, my thoughts also turn to another role model and leader not privileged with ceremonial attention in March-although she was born in March-and who is known only to the friends and family members who loved her. The story of Gilda, a fiery Italian woman and my mother, is unremarkable by conventional standards, and yet her impact on my life and the life of my daughter has been revolutionary in the most profound sense. It is perhaps ironic that in the celebration of revolutionaries and our heroines, we so often fail to remember and include other foremothers, the women who have birthed us and the ones who have nurtured our bodies and spirits through the years at the most fundamental level.
The story of our relationship with our mothers is an old one; sadly it is a story that has been framed by mythical and theoretical lens but rarely by the actual experience and language of the women themselves. Paradoxically, the choice to mother and the role of motherhood are eroticized in this culture, while at the same time the actual work done by mothers and their experiences of this work are systematically devalued and unnoticed.
The felt experience of the relationship with the mother and with the daughter is one that is seldom told. All that is available to us is an institutionalized set of "good mother" and "bad mother" myths that often serve as an impossible standard to which mothers and daughters must adhere and the means by which they evaluate each other.
As Paula Caplan has pointed out, the good mother myth makes all of our mothers' admirable efforts seem inadequate, simply because they're incomplete or flawed, and the bad mother myth exacerbates any of our mothers' deficiencies. When our mothers do not recall Marmie in Little Women or Claire Huxtable in The Cosby Show, we assume we lost the lottery and often begin to withdraw and demean her significance in our lives.
In the provocative best-seller Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher speaks of Western civilization's encouragement of the girl's separation from her mother in the service of psychological health. Girls and women, therefore, are expected to detach from their mothers and reject any resemblance to them. Rejecting their mother is to be "individuated" and liberated, while attachment to and love for her is seen as dependent and passive.
Consequently, important truths about our mothers and about womanhood are obscured, which in the end is profoundly destructive to all women. Adrienne Rich speaks eloquently to this when she predicts that without an enduring line of love between mothers and daughters through the generations, women will always wander in the wilderness.
One of the most moving experiences for me in my women's studies classes always occurs when we begin to explore specific developmental issues for women. An assigned task for each student is to interview the individual who reared her. Students write movingly about this experience. In describing an interview with her mother one student noted that as she began "to hear my mother's life for the first time, I think I saw my life more clearly." It is this sameness of our lives that is a fear for many of us, but this sameness is also a bond, a critical link to our past and a lifeline to the future. In knowing our mothers we know much about ourselves.
A popular poster circulates these days which says, "I am a woman giving birth to myself." Perhaps the poster suggests that we as women are rewriting the script, revising and redefining what it means to be a woman; but if we as women are giving birth to ourselves, who and where are our mothers and who are we? If we are finally leading actors on the human stage, might we not walk onto that stage with our mothers as partners and begin to deconstruct and reconstruct old forms? Is it not time to redefine the roles of mothers and daughters in our voices, recognizing that the definitions we have had are imposed and inaccurate-they have kept mothers and daughters from relating freely to one another and bear little resemblance to the abiding ties that exist between us. And is it not time to mother one another in a mutually supportive way?
Dance legend Martha Graham purportedly disliked the label of "revolutionary" often assigned her by her colleagues, choosing simply to describe herself as one who "just walked a little farther." To the women who have taught us about revolution and especially to those who have birthed and nurtured us: thank you for walking a little farther on our behalf and for enabling us to be where we are today. Happy Women's History Month, Gilda, my mother. Happy Women's History Month to each of us!
Patti Owen-Smith is an associate professor of psychology and women's studies at Oxford College and a member of the advisory board of the Emory Women's Center.