Famous and Infamous Mothers
Who is the most famous Mother in our culture? The most iconic.. the one portrayed always giving to her son selflessly, a vessel for his birth and nurture, even as he grew older, sacrificing all for his well-being?
No, I am not talking about the breastfeeding mom on the cover of Time magazine!
I am referring to Mother Mary, the one who lived and breathed only for her son, according to the gospels, and to Christian legend and doctrine.
Although far more revered and even worshiped in Catholicism, she is “there” in our culture as a standard that even until present times haunts women.
I just heard a woman tell me the other day, a woman younger than me, that her Catholicism made her feel obligated to stay with a husband she knew was dangerous to her, until finally he tried unsuccessfully to kill her by stabbing her five times in front of her sons, then 2 and 4. Extreme? Maybe.. but the troubling arc of the story is a core of the motherhood issue in the West.
One of the most excoriated mothers, in fact one of the most hated people on the planet, was Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, who famously disowned her younger son, William, before she, her son Jon and her granddaughter were all kidnapped and murdered violently. O’Hair was not a sweet lady. Of her son, who had become a Christian fundamentalist, she said:
"One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times...he is beyond human forgiveness."
Her son, who is a Baptist preacher and head of Religious Freedom Coalition, a conservative organization, wrote My Life as an Atheist, and said of his mother: "I used to ask people to pray for my mother's salvation. I don't do that anymore…. My mother was an evil person."
Somewhere in between these extremes is Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian and mother of 5 who became a martyr in the Civil Rights era when she was killed by KKK members while transporting marchers from Montgomery to Selma. She was excoriated during the years that followed, not because she was not a loving mother, but because she left her young kids at home with her husband and risked her life, putting a cause above her family.
Liuzzo is fascinating. Even during my early years in the UU church, when I read and heard about her, it was with the implication that she had just impulsively run off to Selma to get involved, rather recklessly driving for three days to get there. But, looking more carefully at her story, she had been a civil rights activist in the making since childhood, when she lived in the segregated south and witnessed first-hand the injustices dealt to African Americans. Her best friend in Detroit was a Black woman. She had found and joined the Unitarian Church there a year before her death, because it fit both her theology and her social justice beliefs.
A friend said of her:
"Viola Liuzzo lived a life that combined the care of her family and her home with a concern for the world around her. This involvement with her times was not always understood by her friends; nor was it appreciated by those around her."
As I look over the lists of Unitarian and Universalist women who were major contributors to the cultural, theological, and even scientific evolution of society, I am struck by how few of them had children at all, or, of those who did, how late in life they gave birth.
Poet May Sarton, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, Astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Louisa May Alcott, kindergarten and education activist, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, first Unitarian woman ordained, Celia Burleigh, even suffragist Susan B. Anthony … none had children.
Mary Wollstencraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women) had two very late (the first illegitimate), and died after giving birth to her second daughter at almost age 40, a daughter who became Mary Shelley. Margaret Fuller, Transcendentalist, early feminist, and editor of the Dial, also perished along with her infant son, at age forty. Even without children almost all of these women were questioned or criticized for not following the expected path of womanhood.
Julia Ward Howe gave birth to six children, and still managed to write extensively, poetry, essays, and both The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Mothers’ Day Proclamation of 1870.
But her accomplishments were done in spite of a husband who thwarted her at every turn. Of her husband, she said: "I have been married twenty years today. In the course of that time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books—poems—essays—everything has been contemptible in his eyes because not his way of doing things. . . . I am much grieved and disconcerted."
Although she tried to leave him, he insisted on keeping two of their children, at which point she wrote:
"his dream was to marry again—some young girl who would love him supremely. . . . I thought it my real duty to give up every thing that was dear and sacred to me, rather than be forced to leave two of my children. . . . I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make."
Olympia Brown, the first female minister (Universalist) did have children. But she also had a husband who encouraged and supported her work. Even so, Olympia Brown, whose husband “shared in all my endeavors,” still received criticism from her church in Bridgeport, CT after giving birth:
During her maternity leave for her first child, a faction at the Bridgeport church started agitating to terminate her ministry. As she writes in her autobiography: "although (or because) my parish gave me a vote of endorsement passed by a large majority, these enemies continued....calling in ministers from neighboring churches...promulgating the doctrine, 'what you need here is a good man.’
She resigned the following year, but lived on to serve very successful ministry in Racine, WI and to be a prominent leader in Women’s Suffrage. She was one of the few who lived to see suffrage passed and to vote for the first time at age 85.
Celia Burleigh’s husband urged her to enter the ministry.
"Unitarian as I am, I am yet a devout believer in a trinity, a trinity consisting of God, woman and man, and that the cooperation of these three is essential to the salvation of the race. I believe in love as the one vital force of the world, and that by means of love, acting through the souls of men and women, the world is to be saved."
What is most remarkable is how little motherhood and feminism have progressed since these early Unitarian and Universalist women fought for the rights of women, children, the poor, abolition of slavery, to end domestic abuse and to gain the vote.
From Vindication… 1792: Wollstonecraft states that currently many women are silly and superficial (she refers to them, for example, as "spaniels" and "toys) … she writes: "Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." She implies that, without the encouragement young women receive from an early age to focus their attention on beauty and outward accomplishments, women could achieve much more.
How far have we evolved? Yes, it’s true that women are “free” to pursue careers, but increasingly I see and hear a tension between successful working women, stay at home mothers, and working moms who feel they have no choice. Are we happier? Are we free? It is as if industrialization, commercialism, and the downward spiral of our economy have created a monster, taken us back to the dualism where we feel that as mothers we must either be the Virgin Mary, Madelyn O’Hair, or torn in-between like Viola Liuzzo. That’s to say nothing of women who choose not to have children or who are not biological mothers, and who, although they may have more freedom and flexibility, always remain slightly suspect.
Some recent books have explored this philosophical dilemma; among them is French intellectual and mother of three Elizabeth Badinter’s latest, The Conflict, just released in English. Badinter, who has nothing but condescension for what she calls postfeminist mothering, writes:
“The reverence for all things natural glorifies an old concept of the maternal instinct and applauds masochism and sacrifice, constituting a supreme threat to women’s emancipation and sexual equality.”
She refers to La Leche League women in America as the “ayatollahs of breastfeeding.” I look forward to her take on the Time cover. She argues for a kind of part-time parenting, almost a throwback to wet nurses and children being reared by caregivers, but note that she is one of the fifty wealthiest individuals in France, so perhaps a bit out of touch.
In fact, I think part-time parenting is what we have been trying for about the past twenty years, and I am not sure it’s working. If American children are the result, it’s not. They are overweight, troubled, doing poorly at school, diagnosed and drugged as elementary students, and increasingly lost and troubled as adults.
The jury is out on whether parenting differently, either more or less, might have altered this in any way, but one thing’s certain. Apple pie ain’t what it used to be, and motherhood ain’t either. That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anne Lamott’s article, Why I Hate Mothers’ Day.
Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents. (Meanwhile, we know the worst, skeeviest, most evil people in the world are CEOs and politicians who are proud parents.)
Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss. But in my experience, it’s parents who are prone to exhibit terrible self-satisfaction and selfishness, who can raise children as adjuncts, like rooms added on in a remodel. Their children’s value and achievements in the world are reflected glory, necessary for these parents’ self-esteem, and sometimes, for the family’s survival. This is how children’s souls are destroyed. (Anne Lamott)
I don’t hate Mother’s Day, but my feelings about it have changed. Now that I have a son who is not my biological child, I see that love is not the province of biology, that women and men can do well what has been called “mothering,” and that what really matters is care and compassion for one another, not genetics. I see that people can love one another regardless of any biological ties or duties and that that the accident of reproduction does not automatically provide happy-ever-after.
It is this love, the ever-expanding love of humanity, the love that does not cling or demand but sets free, allows, encourages, and honors, that will take us forward as humans. And all beings have access to that love.
"During the first two thirds of my life," Howe recalled, "I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. . . . The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances."