It is easy to forget how groundbreaking Rich’s first prose book was, with its blend of research, personal experience, and theory, and its exposé of the patriarchal expectation that mothers be passive, silent, self-sacrificial carers ... Rich broke silences by admitting the deep ambivalences at the heart of mothering, the extraordinary love and secret fury ... I’ve long found personal resonance in Rich’s description of the struggle to be home with young children while also seeking to do intellectual and creative work. She writes of the agony of incessant interruption, and she writes frankly of the rage that can result ... What I didn’t expect in the rereading of Of Woman Born, however, was how uncannily similar Rich’s descriptions of the mid-century institution of motherhood would sound to my experience of pandemic ... Rich is a beacon of self-revision, self-correction: having written the tome on The Institution of motherhood, she ended up fracturing her own totalizing theory with a picture of the many institutions—gender, sex, race, class, education—that in intersecting ways debar women (and men) from a free and creative experience of parenting.
The autobiography [is] sketchy and scanty because of its subordinate (though controlling) position in the book ... In Rich, the rhetoric of violence is accompanied by a rhetoric of sentimentality, as though, in having chosen to ally herself with a female principle in opposition to a putative male one, she has adopted a language of uncritical deliquescence ... To find language better than that of greeting-card verse to express the sentiments of love is the poet’s task: the rest of us are not equal to it. In lapsing so often into cliché in this volume, Rich has failed her own feelings ... And yet, for all the impatience it provokes, the book has a certain cumulative force, not so much on account of its theorizing as because of its undeniable feelings and its unarguable social facts ... scattered throughout the book [are remarks], which are arresting and provoking ... Too often, the argument here collects only the evidence which seems attractive ... The selectivity of quotation throughout is a fault common to all ideologically motivated writing ... Its value lies in reminding us that different conceptions of motherhood are possible; that motherhood is not necessarily congenial in the same way to every woman; that the 'failures' of mothers in past generations were often socially caused; that infanticide and abortion are first of all crimes that society has induced women to perform against their own sentiments; that every mother, before she was a mother, was a woman with a body and a mind of her own ... it would have been preferable if the whole book had been as cogent as these remarks.
Insistently she argues for self-determination for all women, for a choice in having children, in observing the rituals of childbirth, in determining attitudes toward child care. Dynamic, woman-centered, frequently persuasive and even disarming, this is certain to spark controversy for its uncompromising stance and its more surprising, documented findings ... An enormous, improbable, deserving subject selectively researched and passionately presented.