From Marginalized to Powerful Mothers: Politics of Acknowledgment of Lesbian Identity

Najoua Stambouli

It is conventionally believed that heterosexuality forms one of the ideals of the traditional ideology of motherhood in the Western society. In “Women in the Family: Companions or Caretakers?”, Diane Leonard and Mary Anne Speakman claim that “the experience of motherhood is closely bound up with the construction of heterosexuality and of heterosexual marriage as the norm, and of the designation of motherhood either without men or outside marriage as deviant” (qtd. in Croghan 243). In traditional thought, indeed, to be heterosexual, married and monogamous guarantees family unity as well as the balanced development of children. It is commonly assumed that the institution of heterosexuality ensures the social, gender, and psychological well-being of a child.

Yet, the traditional institution of motherhood, including the institution of heterosexuality, is challenged by the feminist school which sought to reconstruct the maternal profile. “Traditional, or in academic parlance, patriarchal motherhood” (O’Reilly 2) is countered by feminist mothering which “redefine[s] the identity and role of mothers” (O’Reilly 12). Feminist mothering “transform[s] the meaning of family to include lesbian families” (O’Reilly 12) and the identity of the mother to include the lesbian. In this respect, it would be noteworthy to shed the light on the way lesbian motherhood forms an aspect of feminist mothering and how they fit together as an alternative to traditional motherhood. Indeed, as feminist mothering is defined as the set of practices that challenge the standards of traditional motherhood, then, lesbian motherhood, which resists those norms of heterosexuality and the idealized myth of the nuclear family, becomes an act of feminist mothering. Lesbian motherhood is considered as part of feminist mothering because “it creates new nonpatriarchal families” (O’Reilly 20). In “Planned Parenthood: The Construction of Motherhood in Lesbian Mother Advice Books”, Kristin G. Esterberg argues that “lesbians are consciously- and creatively- constructing new family forms, apart from the constraints of biology or the narrowness of the nuclear family” (O’Reilly 79). It is maintained that feminist mothering allows women to mother with autonomy and guards them against feelings of subjugation, oppression, and guilt. As a category of feminist mothering, lesbian motherhood “make[s] mothering less oppressive and more empowering for mothers” (O’Reilly 20).

Building on the belief that “feminist mothering must first and primarily be concerned with the empowerment of mothers” (O’Reilly 16), my paper, which studies feminist poetics on lesbian motherhood, aims to highlight the potentiality of feminist mothering in general, and lesbian motherhood in particular. My research draws mainly on Adrienne Rich’s lesbian feminist perspectives that seek to acknowledge the lesbian identity, to value new family structures, and to empower culturally and socially diminished mothers.

Rich’s poetic and prosaic texts represent the image of a marginalised mother who strives by all means to challenge the traditional institution of motherhood, particularly institutionalised heterosexuality, and to endow her position as a lesbian woman and a mother for three sons with potential and autonomy. As a self- identified lesbian feminist activist, Rich rebels against the conventional standards of the ideal mother and marks the shift from the institution of motherhood to the experience of mothering. Her radical feminism and postmodern feminist perspectives set her in a genuine process of transformation and emancipation. Rich’s insights about maternal sexuality become a source of social and political change, part of which is manifested in the way her postmodern works redefine maternal roles and identity and “denaturalize the nuclear family and celebrate non-normative versions of motherhood” (O’Reilly 14). In From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (2004), Andrea O’Reilly considers the extent to which “Rich’s analysis, now commonplace in academic circles, entered the realm of popular or material culture in the US” (14). In contrast to Rich, the confessional American poet Anne Sexton did not publicly endorse the identity of a lesbian or feminist activist, yet she dared to handle the cultural and topical taboo of lesbian sexual identity in few of her poems. This may spotlight her ambivalence toward her sexual identity as well as her entrapment by the ideal of the nineteenth-century middle-class heterosexual mother. Before investigating these two poets’ struggle for self-consideration and empowerment in their literary works, it would be important to explore Rich’s feminist discourse and major processes of acknowledging the lesbian community.

The issue of lesbian identity in feminist theory is debated by the American lesbian feminist activist Adrienne Rich in her groundbreaking essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). In this paper, Rich questions the belief that the majority of women are naturally or innately heterosexual and that heterosexuality is the only accepted sexual orientation. The article expresses the lack of inclusion or acknowledgment of lesbianism, which is regarded as a marginalised phenomenon and which consequently, forces women into compulsory heterosexuality. Rich enquires about what makes the lesbian community a marginalised minority and questions “how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life-partners, co-workers, lovers has been forced into hiding and disguise” (Rich 131). She calls for a new clarity in personal relationships and urgent visibility for lesbian minority. “The radical feminist movement gave Rich a vocabulary with which to attack patriarchal and heterosexual culture” (House 125) and support the marginalised lesbian community.

As a feminist activist who uses her literary works as a means of social change, Rich proposes and defends her politics of de-minoritisation of the lesbian identity which are manifested in the two concepts of “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum” (Rich 135). By “lesbian existence”, she “suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence”. By “lesbian continuum”, however, she argues that all women are originally located along a lesbian continuum. Indeed, “if we consider the possibility that all women [. . .] exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not” (Rich 136). In this respect, Rich believes that all women are originally and intrinsically lesbian and “take[s] the step of questioning heterosexuality as a ‘preference’ or ‘choice’ for women” (Rich 135). If women keep moving in the lesbian continuum, they are lesbian. If they deviate from the continuum, they become heterosexual. “Through her notion of a ‘lesbian continuum’, Rich attempts to collapse the difference- that is, the dualistic dichotomy- between heterosexual and lesbian women” (Yorke 78) and to define all female -female relationships as naturally and innately lesbian. She views heterosexual women’s attachment to other women in the bonds of friendship or love as part of the lesbian continuum.

Equally important, in Rich’s view lesbianism becomes more spiritual than physical. “The ‘lesbian continuum’, in which Rich defines lesbianism in terms of a woman-identified consciousness, [is] demoting and sometimes ignoring the physicality of lesbianism as a sexual practice” (Chalmers 20). Accordingly, from Rich’s postmodern feminist perspective women’s lesbian relationships are not necessarily impassioned and governed by sexual lust and desires. Indeed, lesbian ties could express friendship, comradeship, and partnership. A sister’s love for her sister and a mother’s love for her daughter are parts of the lesbian continuum. Rich calls for the liberation of the repressed and marginalised lesbian relationships as they form a source of women’s potential:

Woman identification is source of energy, potential springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality. The denial of reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other. (Rich 139)

The lesbian woman, culturally perceived as deviant and transgressive, becomes in the modern and postmodern literary works an epitome of the feminist mother which emerges in the twentieth century as a challenge to the traditional mother and the traditional institution of heterosexuality. Though the experience of motherhood is closely bound up with the construction of heterosexuality and of heterosexual marriage as the norm and of the designation of motherhood either without men or outside marriage as deviant, some of Rich’s and Sexton’s poems verge from those traditional norms and bring up new meanings to the experience of motherhood and marriage. Even though their poems of the 1950’s reveal the life of white, middle-class, heterosexual couples, Sexton’s and Rich’s later poems such as, “Mother-in-Law” (1981), “Sibling Mysteries” (1976), and “Rapunzel” (1971), deconstruct the image of the conventional mother through revealing the mother’s lesbian identification. The image of the lesbian mother is tackled in modern American poetry as a form of the “empowered mother” (O’Reilly 7) who rejects the bias of compulsory heterosexuality and acknowledges lesbian existence as a form of union and love with other women that does not threaten the mothering role and their relationship to children. Still, the mother- child relationship in their poems ignores the physicality of lesbianism as a sexual practice and represents it as part of the lesbian continuum. Challenging the prevalent discourses of heteronormativity, Rich and Sexton use their lesbian voices and their lesbian language to defend a women’s right to have her own sexual identification, to create a sense of belonging to the mainstream heterosexual culture, and to broadcast the image of the lesbian mother as natural and powerful.

Adrienne Rich epitomizes the modern figure that chooses to live as a lesbian feminist mother and “practices mothering from a position of agency, authority, authenticity, and autonomy” (O’Reilly 11). “Mother-in-law”, from A Wild Patience has Taken me this Far: Poems 1978-1981, is one of the poems through which Rich challenges heterosexuality which is one of the basic foundations of the traditional nuclear family. The maternal speaker embodies the image of the powerful mother who creates the family form that suits her own needs and desires in life. In the light of this poem, Rich directly acknowledges that her sexual preference is lesbian and not heterosexual. The maternal speaker’s direct acknowledgment of her lesbian identity is “a form of nonsaying to patriarchy, an act of resistance” (Rich 136). Indeed, Rich’s “Mother-in-law” provides candid and striking lines against the ideal of the heterosexual mother, “your son is dead / ten years, I am a lesbian, / my children are themselves” (45-48). The direct and bold declaration of her lesbian identity through “I am a lesbian” explains the metaphorical death of the husband, and hence, the death of heterosexuality. Rich’s revelation of her lesbian orientation in the early 1970’s forms a mere challenge to the notion of heterosexuality, at a specific level, and to the institution of motherhood at a broader level. The mother here emerges as an “outlaw from the institution of motherhood” (Rich 195) who chooses to live her own life as a single lesbian mother. By doing so, Rich brings forth changes to the contemporary family life and structure challenging the prevalent dominant ideals of the traditional family of the 1950’s. “As the dominant ideology of motherhood limits ‘good’ mothering to a patriarchal nuclear family, feminist mothering champions various and diverse family formations” (O’Reilly 19-20). Rich, lesbian, feminist mother of three sons relies on extended family ties, the mother-in-Law, to help with the demands of childrearing.

Through “Mother-in-law”, Rich seeks to demonstrate that her identity as lesbian does not affect her mothering practices. Her statement, “my children are themselves” ensures that her children are sexually and emotionally stable in spite of her lesbian sexual orientation. Here, Rich aims to demonstrate commonalities between lesbian and heterosexual mothers. Just like any other heterosexual mother, the lesbian woman could foster the well-being of her children, ensure their psychological stability, and guarantee their social acceptability. This is emphasised by “early research on lesbian parents [which] attempted to document that lesbian mothers are “normal” just like other mothers. Thus academic research attempted to document that children of lesbian parents were essentially no different from children in nonlesbian families and that lesbian mothers were ‘fit’ parents” (O’Reilly 76). Hence, a good mother in Rich’s belief could be also a lesbian mother. Through “my children are themselves”, Rich attempts to produce a new form of the good mother. In her view, a lesbian mother does not necessarily disrupt scripts of the good mother and good mothering. Rich’s lines emphasise O’Reilly’s view that “good mothers from the feminist perspective are drawn from all maternal identities and include lesbian [. . .] [and] single mothers” (11). Again, Rich’s poem serves to intensify the extent to which the feminist mother emerges as a mere challenge to the good traditional mother. “Mother-in-law” deconstructs the traditional belief that heterosexuality forms the ultimate sexual orientation that guarantees family stability and child growth and the heterosexual mother as the good parent who could ensure the social, gender, and psychological well-being of the child.

Rich’s “Mother-in-law” sheds the light on the pressures the lesbian mother may face in society including the idea of belonging and acceptability by others. As a lesbian feminist activist who experienced marginalisation in Western heterosexual society, Rich writes extensively about identity politics, and particularly, lesbian identity in order to find her own place in American culture. She seeks to overcome her fears as a marginalised mother in a society that is predominantly heterosexual. The dialogue between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law reveals the gap between two generations and two portraits of mothers; the good traditional mother who preserves the 1950’s idealised version of the nuclear family and the lesbian feminist mother who transcends the myth of the nuclear family and chooses lesbian single motherhood as an alternative life style. In spite of the gap between these two generations, Rich seeks to create a sense of belonging to the heterosexual community and to be accepted as a lesbian member.

Rich’s “Sibling Mysteries” (1976) from The Dream of a Common Language makes from a woman’s relationship to another woman; and especially, a mother’s relationship to her daughter, a source of innocent love, unity, and power. “The poem envisions a world of daughters, sisters, and mothers who enjoy deep rooted bonds” (Henneberg 48). Rich assumes that mother-daughter relationship is one of the “great original source[s] and experience[s] of love” (Rich 32). She “believes the women’s community she longs for and affirms is possible only if women achieve a positive acceptance of their primary relationship with their mothers” (Cooper 66). Rich in this poem uses a special vocabulary to put the mother-daughter relationship in an unprecedented fashion that very few other lesbian feminist poets dared to claim. Rich, indeed, tries to value and glamorize such a bond through the following lines, “the daughters were to begin with / brides of the mother”. These verses reflect Rich’s belief that female-female relationships, which are part of the lesbian continuum, are innately lesbian. It is from an early age that a woman, daughter, recognizes her strong love attachment to another woman, mother, which must be preserved and maintained all her life.

Sexton’s “Rapunzel”, from Transformations (1971), could be considered as an extension to Rich’s “Sibling Mysteries” mother-daughter sentimentalised spiritual love story. Through the fairy tale of Rapunzel, Sexton attempts to make mothers’ choice of daughters as comrades and life partners much more real and visible. It could be assumed that like “Sibling Mysteries”, “Rapunzel” seeks to deconstruct the well-established traditional belief of the “heterosexual romance […] as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfilment” (Rich 139) and attempts to represent the mother-daughter tie as mothers’ new quest and interest. Part of the poem depicts a homophobic world governed by mutual love and understanding. Using Rich’s terms, the poem draws a picture of an “alternative world” (124) where “the tradition of women bonding against their husbands and fathers” (House 124) prevails.

Interestingly enough, through “Rapunzel” Sexton attempts to put lesbian mothering in a new context. She seeks to revolutionize such a concept through making from lesbian relationship between women, and in particular, mothers and daughters a site of invincible power and eternal youth. Indeed, the opening lines of the poem, “A woman / who loves a woman / is forever young” (1-3) intensify the extent to which lesbian mothering confers to mothers the agency to love and care and endows them simultaneously with eternal youth. Sexton also uses different stunning metaphors to emphasise the image of the powerful lesbian mother. The comparison of the mother and the daughter to “two clouds” that are ”glistening in the bottle glass”, ”two birds” that are ”washing in the same mirror”, and two ”pond weeds” evoke images of nature, femininity, and power. The words ”clouds”, ”glistening”, ”washing”, and ”pond weeds” pertain to the lexical register of water, and accordingly, relate the couple to this natural element which is considered as ”a symbol for the feminine aspect of being” (Jackson xxi) and an epitome of female power. It is from antiquity to modern times that water has been associated with female potential. In Unveiling the Secrets of the Feminine, Etta D. Jackson postulates that water is ”the feminine power and creator behind every created thing” (xxii). Other depictions in the poem serve to highlight the power inherent in lesbian relationships. The fairy tale heroes of lesbian love are described as ”strong” and ”good”. Using an assertive tone, the maternal speaker contends, ”we are strong / we are the good ones”. On the whole, Sexton’s “Rapunzel” attempts to idealise lesbian romance and to consider ”woman identification [as] a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power” (Rich 139).

In brief, Sexton’s and Rich’s understudy poems embody the image of the feminist mother stressing by that the fact that feminist mothering forms one of the dominant cultural ideologies of the twentieth and twentieth-first century Western culture. Their poems describe mothers’ growing self consciousness and their readiness to go beyond the limits and to change reality. Their images of lesbian mothers highlight the extent to which feminist mothering, which functions as a counter practise to conventional motherhood, endows them with power and agency. Still, what is innovative in modern American poetry is that their works portray “lesbian mothers as ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’, ‘just like other mothers’ and represent them as forging new terrain, experimenting with social forms, [and] reinventing the family” (Podniek and O’Reilly 19) without affecting the child’s psychological development.


Primary Sources:

Rich, Adrienne. A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981. New York:

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1978.

—-. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. New York: W.W. Norton &

Company, Inc, 1978.

Sexton, Anne. Transformations. N.p : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.

Secondary Sources:

Chalmers, Sharon. Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan. London: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Cooper, Jane Roberta. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951-81. N.p:

The University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Croghan, Rose. “Sleeping with the Enemy: Mothers in Heterosexual Relationship”. Ed.

Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger. Heterosexuality: A Feminism and Psychology Reader. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1993.

Henneberg, Sylvia. The Creative Crone: Aging and the Poetry of May Sarton and Adrienne Rich. N.p : University of Missouri Press, 2010.

House, Veronica Leigh. Backward to your sources, Sacred Rivers: A Transatlantic

Feminist Tradition. N.p: Proquest Information and Learning Company, 2006.

Podniek, Elizabeth, and Andrea O’Reilly, ed. Textual Mothers / Maternal Texts:

Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea, ed. Feminist Mothering. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

O’Reilly, Andrea, ed. From Motherhood to mothering: The legacy of Adrienne Rich’s of

Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Jackson, Etta D. Unveiling the Secrets of the Feminine Principles. Bloomington: Author House, 2008.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1997.

Electronic Sources:

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Signs 5 (1980) : 631-660

%d bloggers like this: