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Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014

Review of Lindal Buchanan’s Rhetorics of Motherhood

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Angela Petit

Buchanan, Lindal. Rhetorics of Motherhood. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2013. 170 pp.

In Rhetorics of Motherhood, Lindal Buchanan explores the “code of motherhood” (5), offering excellent insight into the ways that this cultural-discursive code has both enabled and inhibited American women’s access to public space over the past century. Buchanan’s introductory chapter, Theorizing Motherhood in Public Discourse, establishes her text’s main arguments, historical context, and methodology. Buchanan correctly observes that “the Mother is easy to invoke but difficult to resist” (7), and yet her introduction emphasizes that this irresistible rhetorical move comes with a price. Invoking the Mother enables a female rhetor, male rhetor, or group that aligns itself with motherhood to access public space. Nevertheless, this rhetorical move risks confining women to the role of Mother and, thus, removing from them the full range of discursive possibilities (and power to effect political change) available to rhetors not restricted in this way. Despite this risk, Buchanan states that she will “adopt a both/and approach to motherhood in public discourse” and examine how the “topos” of motherhood “produces rich rhetorical resources capable of advancing women and their civic agendas while simultaneously reinforcing limiting stereotypes and inequitable gender relations” (14). Buchanan’s balancing of the pros and cons of rhetorics of motherhood is evident throughout her text and is one of the book’s signature strengths.

Buchanan’s introduction states that her book will examine rhetorics of motherhood in action, analyzing three cases in which these moves both limited and empowered women’s public voices. However, before she begins these discussions, Buchanan succinctly covers material that readers will need to understand her analyses. Thus, the introduction surveys the historical context of American motherhood, tracing its evolution through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of biological sex, sexual desire, the mother/child relationship, sensibility (sympathy, empathy), and private/public space. Buchanan observes that these factors “collectively reconfigured cultural beliefs about women’s destiny, character, and worth” (18). Having contextualized these cultural beliefs, Buchanan also surveys research by feminist rhetoricians and historiographers on rhetorics of motherhood. Discussing the work of select feminist scholars, Buchanan comments that these studies highlight “motherhood’s collusion with the dominant system of gender and whether or not that relationship taints maternal appeals” by affirming women’s traditionally lower position within the dominant gender system (13). The skeptical stance of feminist scholars toward rhetorics of motherhood opens a path for Buchanan’s necessary discussion of “intersectional difference” (19) and the ways that maternal appeals reify white, middle-class American motherhood as the norm, at great cost to the countless women who do not fit this mold.

Finally, Buchanan’s introduction explains the methodologies she uses to interrogate the rhetorics of motherhood. Buchanan’s method is a rich one, combining historical and archival materials with theorists who range from Susan Miller and Roland Barthes to Richard Weaver. Of particular importance to Buchanan’s method is Weaver’s concept of god terms and devil terms. Buchanan asserts that within American discourse, the Woman functions as a devil term that carries with it associations of childlessness, self-centeredness, sex and sensuality, immorality, irrationality, and hysteria (9). Meanwhile, the god term Mother is linked with culturally positive associations such as children, home, love, protection, morality, self-sacrifice, and altruism (9). Presenting the Woman-Mother dynamic less as a binary than a continuum, Buchanan is able to explore how female rhetors’ placement along this continuum affects their ability to enter public space and their reception (positive or negative) within spaces typically reserved for male rhetors. Combining rhetorical theories with feminist scholarship, studies of difference, historical research, and ideas taken from studies of culture and ideology, Buchanan’s sophisticated methodology offers her audience the grounding they need to read the rest of her book, which examines rhetorics of motherhood in three distinct cases.

The first case Buchanan presents is that of Margaret Sanger, a profoundly influential figure in twentieth-century American history who still elicits powerful reactions among Americans. Sanger is regarded by some as the literal savior of women who were forbidden by law from accessing information about birth control and, thus, had little control over not only family size but, in some cases, their economic survival, health, and even lives. On the other hand, Sanger’s reputation has been tainted by her movement’s ties to early twentieth-century eugenics and radical socialism. In the chapter From ‘Wild Woman Writer’ to ‘Mother of Two’: Margaret Sanger, Birth Control, and Ethos Repair, Buchanan focuses on a small but significant period of Sanger’s career (1914-1917). In 1914, Sanger faced charges related to her birth control advocacy, then illegal under the 1873 Comstock laws. After 1914, Sanger worked diligently to transform her public image from that of wild, radical woman to a “mother of two” who successfully “aligned contraception with motherhood, transforming its radical, immoral associations into righteous, respectable ones” (26). Buchanan demonstrates how Sanger used writing and visual imagery (photographs, film) both to rehabilitate her own ethos and to reposition birth control from the realm of the supposedly sensual, immoral Woman to the domestic sphere of the moral, revered Mother.

In her next chapter, Motherhood, Civil Rights, and Remembrance: Recuperating Diane Nash, Buchanan highlights another important twentieth-century activist. A central figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, Diane Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), “emerged as a leader of” the Nashville sit-ins of 1960, led Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, and “guided many of [the SNCC’s] direct-action desegregation efforts in the South, endeavors that often led to her imprisonment” (66). Nash was also committed to a “jail-no-bail policy” that asked civil rights activists not to post bail but remain in custody to draw public attention to unjust racial policies in the American South (63). So committed was Nash that, in April 1962, she abandoned her temporary release on bond for a conviction of “contributing to the delinquency of minors” so that she could serve a two-year prison sentence in Mississippi (67).

What attracts Buchanan to Nash’s fight for civil rights is that, when Nash surrendered herself to begin her sentence, she was four months pregnant. Analyzing Nash’s own statement on her choice to enter prison and subsequent accounts by others of her imprisonment, Buchanan notices that Nash gave very little rhetorical attention to her condition and emphasized instead her support of jail-no-bail policy. Buchanan details how others commenting on Nash’s imprisonment ignored her true strategy (to support jail-no-bail) and commented almost exclusively on her position as a mother. These observers portrayed Nash as the noble Mother sacrificing herself to create a better world for her child and all African-American children. However, according to Buchanan, this positioning of Nash ultimately removed her from her central role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement to the margins of that history. Buchanan argues that while Sanger was able to use the code of motherhood to secure her position in public space, the portrayal of Nash as the Mother “facilitated her marginalization in official accounts” of civil rights history (85). Thus, Buchanan shows motherhood’s “paradoxical capacity” to help women enter the public sphere or exclude them from this space (85).

Buchanan’s third case is titled Changing Constructs of Motherhood: Pregnancy and Personhood in Laci and Conner’s Law. This chapter recalls the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson by her husband Scott and, in particular, addresses the fact that Laci was eight months pregnant at the time of her murder. Buchanan adds that, in 2004, Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA) in response to the deaths of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, already named Conner. While Sanger’s and Nash’s cases can arguably be considered historical, the Laci and Conner Peterson case is part of recent cultural memory for many Americans. In keeping with the case’s currency, Buchanan focuses on how emerging “medical and imaging technologies, including ultrasound and intrauterine photography,” are altering concepts of pregnancy and motherhood in the “public imaginary” (88). Through these changes, Buchanan can demonstrate that the “construct” of motherhood is “culturally specific, historically variable, and contextually bound” (88). Buchanan masterfully analyzes a complex case in which several cultural codes and rhetorical devices (motherhood, personhood, visual rhetoric, technology, media, and politics) converge. This nexus of interests highlights that concepts of motherhood and the language we use to talk about motherhood and reproduction are changing as we move into a new century.

Buchanan’s Rhetorics of Motherhood has much to recommend it. In a relatively compact volume, Buchanan covers three historical moments in enough depth to trace the ways that discourses of motherhood affected women’s access to public space over a century. Buchanan’s three cases are distinct, each compelling in its own right. Nevertheless, Buchanan’s text is strikingly coherent, as she weaves key concepts and methodologies from her introductory chapter throughout each case. Thus, motherhood’s status as an evolving rhetorical, cultural, and ideological construct is discussed in each chapter. Buchanan also uses her concept of Mother/god term and Woman/devil term throughout her text to explore ways that a woman’s position on this continuum affects her ability to speak and, more importantly, be heard in public. Finally, as she promises in her introductory chapter, Buchanan acknowledges throughout her text that rhetorics of motherhood are both beneficial and harmful, at times offering women legitimacy in public while, at other times, shutting down their public voices.

To some extent, the analyses of Sanger and Nash are more closely linked to one another than either is to the final chapter on UVVA. As Buchanan shows, both Sanger and Nash employed maternal rhetorics, though, in Nash’s case, she was more the subject of others’ maternal appeals. Through Sanger and Nash, Buchanan can detail how rhetorics of motherhood enabled one activist-rhetor, Sanger, to rehabilitate her public ethos and succeed in her public campaign, while these same rhetorics practically erased another activist-rhetor, Nash, from her central role in a major American movement for justice. The chapter on the Peterson/UVVA case is not as seamlessly connected to the two previous cases. Still, in addition to its own merits, the Peterson/UVVA chapter reveals how rhetorics and policies related to motherhood have changed, especially from Sanger’s time, when access to even the simplest forms of birth control was illegal. In her concluding chapter, Buchanan offers ideas for future research, including more in-depth studies of intersectional differences and motherhood, analyses of historical periods beyond the twentieth century, and explorations of motherhood outside the American experience. These projects would be valuable contributions to the work that Buchanan has begun in “unveil[ing] the network of power relations” in which all women must compete for access to public space (124).

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