Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born was first published in 1976, when I was one year old. Hence it is not the feminism of my generation, but the feminism which my generation was destined to deride. As a postgrad student I’d have taken one look at that book and asked why, if second wave feminists thought biology was not destiny, were they writing about bodies at all? Weren’t we more than walking wombs? Thus I only picked it up five years ago, by which time I’d reached forty and was pregnant with my third child (both shameful acts of biological essentialism, I know). Reading it felt like a slap in the face. “Ha! You thought this shit would never happen to you, but look, it has!”
What Rich writes about intergenerational tensions and the ways in which women disidentify from both their bodies and other women is remarkable, and tremendously relevant today.
“No wonder,” writes Rich, “that many intellectual and creative women have insisted that they were ‘human beings’ first and women only incidentally, have minimized their physicality and their bonds with other women. The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”
Biology isn’t real, sex is a construct, if you really hated femininity you wouldn’t be a woman at all – all of these current beliefs seem to me already captured in Rich’s words. She goes on to describe how “patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons”. Of course. We’d rather be “individuals with a cervix” since not all of those are women; some of them are people.
Rich describes herself looking at her own mother and thinking “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently”. Who hasn’t thought that, if not about domestic life, then about the feminism itself? After all, if the previous waves hadn’t messed it up so badly, we’d all be free today:
“For it was too simple, early in the new twentieth-century wave of feminism, for us to analyse our mother’s oppression, to understand ‘rationally’ – and correctly – why our mothers did not teach us to be Amazons, why they bound our feet or simply left us […] Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her. But where a mother is hated to the point of matrophobia there may also be a deep underlying pull toward her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.”
You have to believe the women who went before you got it wrong – and that you are fundamentally different – otherwise what’s to stop you ending up in the same place? Where a Karen is hated to the point of Karenphobia there may also be a deep underlying pull towards her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.