Mothering the Race

Mothering the Race : Women's Narratives on Reproduction, 1890-1930

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From Reconstruction through the Progressive Era, African American and white women were encouraged to view motherhood as a national racial imperative. Tracing the diverse strategies by which women writers and activists responded to this imperative, "Mothering the Race" examines fictional portrayals of motherhood as they reflect and contribute to broader public debates about race, reproduction, and female agency. Allison Berg argues that the most extended and explicit depictions of motherhood in the early twentieth century seek to present mothers as active agents rather than passive instruments of reproduction. This agency comes at a price, however, and is continually constrained by fixed gender roles and social expectations. Pauline Hopkins reclaims the joys of black motherhood from the brutalizing effects of slavery, while Edith Summers Kelley explores the tensions between artistry and maternity for a Kentucky tenant farmer.Novels of sexual awakening by Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton depict motherhood as personally limiting but racially necessary, while Nella Larsen's bleak picture of maternity reflects the frustrated desires of a biracial New Woman.
Berg places these and other fictional representations of maternity in the context of debates over birth control, feminism, and eugenics, revealing motherhood and race as key tropes for discussions of social progress and decline. Beginning with speeches delivered at the 1893 World's Congress of Representative Women, and continuing with close readings of literary and nonliterary texts, Berg shows how the notion of 'universal' motherhood fostered cross-racial conversations even as it reinforced racial hierarchy. In an epilogue that brings us to the present moment, Berg demonstrates how two recent films, "Beloved and One True Thing", reveal the persistence of racially specific notions of motherhood and the social order they support.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 200 pages
  • 151.4 x 237.2 x 20.3mm | 426.38g
  • Baltimore, United States
  • English
  • 025202690X
  • 9780252026904

Review quote

"Explores narratives about reproduction written by both African American and white women. The author also used the work of feminists and socialists such as Fannie Barrier Williams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Grimke, and Margaret Sanger to discuss the novels' social environment and political background... Berg's point of view is fresh, and her book should interest readers in women's and feminist American literature." -- Choice ADVANCE PRAISE: "This is a richly contextualized exploration of the politically charged meanings of motherhood in the public sphere. Berg shows very clearly how the experience and representation of maternity were fissured by race and class while also allowing us to understand the historical power of appeals to a notion of universal motherhood." -- Rita Felski, author of The Gender of Modernity "A thoughtful and intelligent contribution to our understanding of the cultural history of motherhood. Berg offers a nuanced account of women's social and cultural position as inflected by class and race." -- Stephanie A. Smith, author of Conceived by Liberty: Maternal Figures and Nineteenth-Century American Literature
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