feminism

Her Body is Not Her Own

Posted on

Piggy and Cherries – Self Portrait – oil on canvas by Kelly L. Taylor

I came across this paper I wrote for my final college English class in 2013. Here is an excerpt of the paper, punctuated by some of my self portraits. The man (I mean the lazy sloppy overbearing toxic piece of shit) I was seeing at the time (and eventually dumped) mocked me for being a feminist.

The Divorced Mother, Her Body is Not Her Own

Anna, in The Good Mother by Sue Miller, transforms into a sensual, expressive and content woman with Leo, her new lover, after years in a stifling marriage, but happiness and independent actions such as these do not go unpunished, even in Anna’s mind. Anna is quickly reminded of the limitations our society imposes on mothers. Her body is not her own, not really. The constricting label of mother is strongly imposed on Anna as society comes down on her for daring to express herself in alternative ways.

Why do we, as strong capable women, with brains and bodies and voices, allow society to dictate who we are? Our bodies, desires, and choices become subject to public scrutiny at the moment we give birth. Why is it not OK for women to continue to be themselves? Why must Anna’s identity be limited to simply being Molly’s mother? Why must Anna forsake her multi-faceted identity which includes musician, lover, and friend for the solitary role of mother? Can’t we balance the many facets of who we are and simultaneously be recognized as good mothers with the ability to make sound choices for ourselves and our offspring?

Anna has struggled all her life with negotiating her own identity and desires.  Under the rule of her family, enduring the scrutiny of her mother and aunts, and subjected to her ex-husband Brian’s uptight inhibitions, Anna never quite felt comfortable in her own skin. Anna never felt at ease with all the intricate aspects that make up Anna until she meets Leo Cutter.

Like an uninhibited angel, Leo appears in Anna’s life. Leo inspires Anna to be herself and express herself freely. Anna begins to live her life in a way that seems natural and right to her, although apparently in contradiction to many of the ideals of mainstream society. Anna is blissful with Leo until “social reality intrudes: Brian accuses Leo of sexual misconduct with Molly and sues Anna for custody of Molly” (Rosenfelt and Stacey 81.)

The Good Mother is the journey Anna takes in discovering herself and her body and what she is willing to give up of her newly embraced identity in order to keep her daughter. “With erotic and maternal needs now in conflict, Anna scarifies her love for Leo in the struggle to keep Molly. But to no avail.” (Rosenfelt and Stacey 81.) Although Anna offers to give up everything when faced with losing the fulfilling life she has established with Molly, she is still punished for being herself, for attempting to be more than just a mother.

Self-portrait with Sock Monkey – oil on canvas by Kelly L. Taylor

 The limited definition of mother leaves no room for individuality, or the many facets of a woman’s complex personality.  The role of mother severely limits a woman’s opportunities immediately with the birth of her child. The divorced mother is especially restricted by her role.

 The definition of the acceptable mother is the one who is married, puts her family before herself and lives a life of servitude to her husband and children – one who agrees that it’s “…taboo to take seriously the idea that women may well come to see mothering as one element in life, not its defining core” (Snitow 41.) Education and career goals, along with any form of self expression, are discouraged. A mother is allowed to be herself but only after her duties are fulfilled.

 The ideals of our patriarchal society are the structure which girdles women into these narrow definitions of mother. Ann Snitow, in her book Feminism and Motherhood: An American Reading asks, “Do we want this presently capacious identity, mother, to expand or contract?” (43) Patriarchal society fights against such expansion with restrictions that are deep-rooted and upheld through generations. This societal structure allows a small group of men with money and privileged positions in society (and the women who conform and support them by imposing their judgments) to maintain control. Our judicial system mirrors this structure.

This privileged group makes the rules and the others are expected to behave properly: don’t question, don’t rebel, don’t be fully yourself. Your body, actions, mind, and voice can be expressed within the framework of these constraints. “Ourselves and Our Children of 1978…says such things as: ‘we, as women, grow up in a society that subtly leads us to believe that we will find our ultimate fulfillment by living out our reproductive function and at the same time discourages us from trying to express ourselves in the world of work” (Snitow 37.) We, as women, are made to believe that we’re free to express ourselves but shamed into believing that nudity, sex, and art (any uninhibited expressions) are bad. Only marital sex seems acceptable.

Marriage seems to ensure your privacy since you apparently abide by the rules. Women are expected to conform to proper behavior with an acceptable partner. If you live by the rules: cook, clean, reproduce, and don’t seek fulfillment outside of this, you avoid scrutiny and negative judgment. One who fails to conform faces prosecution. “The Good Mother suggest[s] important connections between fictional and actual assumptions the legal process makes about the sexual conduct of women, particularly mothers” (Sanger 1341.) With divorce, one loses the right to privacy. The divorced single mother’s body and, unjustly, her sex life become public domain and are frequently used against her.

Anna gets to know herself and becomes aware of her body again. “And when I swung my legs out of bed in the mornings, they seemed immense and curved” (Miller 82-83.) She gets a job, buys new clothes, makes a new, single friend (Ursula) and considers playing the piano again. Anna recognizes the change in herself, “…I was aware of feelings, of an appetite that I hadn’t known in a long time. A divorcée. Yes. I liked that” (Miller 82.)

She believes that she has escaped the stagnant life she had with her husband, is now an adventure. She imagines her daughter Molly as a kind of a Robin to her Batman.  She leaves the cushy suburban institution and moves to Harvard Square – a mecca, of sorts, for art and self expression. And she dares to fall in love. “It felt like the beginning of a voyage” (Miller 103.) Anna begins to live contrary to the expectations of her family, her ex-husband, and society.

Women are expected to reproduce, but only if they’re married, only under acceptable conditions. When Babe, Anna’s favorite aunt, refuses to conform to these standards, she loses control over her own reproduction. As a young woman, Babe becomes pregnant by a boyfriend who does not meet the family’s standards. She is shipped off to Europe to secretly give birth and relinquish the baby for adoption. Once they took away Babe’s child, they lost the one thing they could have controlled her with.

After losing her child, Babe lived how she wanted, embracing her independence and, in turn, solidifying her position as the family outcast.  Despite being a rebellious vixen, Babe was an idol for Anna. It was probably because Babe was so different from the rest of the family that Anna felt such a strong connection to her. Anna reminisces about Babe: “she bent her head and gently kissed first one, then the other of her bare knees…never, even later in her most overt wildness, did she seem more aberrant to me, more separated from what I understood my family to be, than in that moment of tenderness to her own body” (Miller 128.) Babe, as one who embraced her identity and celebrated her own body, was a constant and complex inspiration for Anna.

Self Portrait (Asheville) – oil on canvas by Kelly L. Taylor

Anna exemplifies divorced mothers in our society. Like many other divorced women, Anna faces unfair biases because of her unconventional ideas of family, love, and marriage. Anna’s identity is solely dependent on being a mother and, therefore, her body is not her own. The expectations imposed on Anna’s body are enforced simply because she is a mother, and therefore not allowed to be an individual, a lover, a musician, or to think of anything except her child every minute of the day. It seems Anna is so profoundly impacted by these expectations that she imposes these restrictions on herself.

While still married, Anna started to entertain ideas of independence as she contemplated divorce: “The divorce seemed to me a fine, brave thing to do. I had a sense of being about to begin my life, of moving beyond the claims of my own family, of Brian, into a passionate experiment, a claim on myself” (Miller 10.) Post-divorce, Anna remembers Babe, her favorite aunt, only five years older than her. They were inseperable like “two sore thumbs” (Miller 38.) Babe was the ultimate inspiration for freedom. When forced to stay home by her father, Babe “would pace around” like a caged animal and “she made everyone nervous, and we were all just as happy, in truth, to have her gone” (Miller 40.) Later Anna reads Babe as “less a model…than a cautionary tale” (Miller 44.)   

Women who provide a loving, nurturing, and healthy home for their children do not deserve to have their children taken away simply because some people feel they don’t deserve to have love in their lives. Anna’s struggle is not uncommon. The Good Mother  “address[s] the experiences in the United States today of single women without children, of working mothers…and of single mothers. They feature the loneliness of women without families, the frustration and exhaustion of mothers who also must or wish to work, and the anxiety of single mothers trying to reconcile heterosexual adult relationships with maternal responsibilities” (Rosenfelt and Stacey 79.) Anna, and women like her who are rejected by ex-husbands, are considered worthless by the courts and sentenced to live lonely martyr’s lives of only serving their children. They risk losing their children if they don’t submit to these roles.

In this case the authority of the patriarchal society over the female body wins. Anna is a mother and that means her body is not her own. Although Anna seems to have given up on her aspirations of being fully herself, being in love, and being happy, other women will continue to question these expectations and challenge the injustices “about women who enjoy non-marital sex and are punished for it” (Sanger 1339.) As more women challenge the system, instead of submit to it, we can begin to expand the definitions of woman and mother and break the barriers that restrict us and dictate who we are and who we can be.

Shipwrecked with You – Self Portrait – oil on canvas by Kelly L. Taylor

Contact me if you need to see my cited works page for this paper. 😉