The Maternal is Political

Today’s book review is part of a MotherTalk tour.  That means I got a free copy of the book and an Amazon gift certificate to review the book.  But, given the topic, I’m confident that I would have reviewed the book in any case.

The Maternal is Political, edited by Shari MacDonald Strong, is a collection of essays by women writers about "the intersection of motherhood and social change."  Some of the authors are famous, either as politicians (Nancy Pelosi, Benazir Bhutto), activists (Cindy Sheehan), or writers (Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen), but most of them are by women you’ve never heard of, talking about how their motherhood has affected their political activity.  In most cases, the essays are about how mothering has inspired them to take action, but some of them are about the struggles to balance the demands on their time from their families and their activism (the essay by Valerie Weaver-Zercher about "Peace March Sans Children" made me grin in recognition).

One of the things I liked about the book was the wide range of issues covered,  Several of the essays are about opposing war as a mother’s issue, but others touch on abortion, homeschooling, public schooling, religious freedom, disability, environmentalism, sexual harassment, adoption and more. Of course, I have some quibbles about the topics that are missing… I find it hard to believe that there’s not one about health care (Flea could have done a great job with that one) and in general, I think economic justice issues were under-represented.  (And yes, I should have submitted an essay… I can’t find it now, but I’m pretty sure I posted the call for submissions here when it came out.)

In spite of that long list of issues, the voices were different enough that the book never felt like a litany of complaints.  Anna Quindlen’s piece on being pregnant in New York made me laugh, and two essays made me cry — Cindy Sheehan’s anguished farewell to activism to "try to regain some of what I have lost… before it [the system] totally consumes me or any more people that I love" and Kathy Briccetti’s joyful account of her family’s second-parent adoption.

I also liked the recognition that there are many ways to be political.  A few of the writers were elected officials, and some engaged in politics by writing letters to the editor, going on protest marches, or submitting testimony to their state legislators.  But many of them were political in everyday ways — raising feminist sons and daughters, choosing to reduce use of hazardous chemicals and natural resources, speaking up about equality in personal encounters, standing up to a man harassing another woman (who is someone else’s daughter), helping out another mother by taking care of her kids when she’s in a crunch.  I think those examples may really help people who feel like they don’t have time to be politically active — or that nothing they do will make a difference — to think of ways to incorporate activism into their lives.

My one real complaint about the book is that there are two essays about personal relationships with people who are (gasp!) Republicans, but no actual Republicans — or even conservatives — in it.  I would have liked to read an essay by someone whose experiences as a mother made them an anti-abortion activist.  I would have loved to read an essay by Cathy McMorris Rodgers on the challenges and insights of serving in Congress as the mother of an infant with Down’s syndrome.  I don’t know if Strong made a deliberate choice to only include liberal voices, or if it’s a function of the way the call for essays was marketed, but I think it limits the audience for the book unnecessarily.

6 Responses to “The Maternal is Political”

  1. bj Says:

    Interesting insight about the lack of Republicans. I wonder why? It could just be a combination of bias (i.e. the liberals editing the book + the venues in which the essays were solicited). But, I also have to wonder if Republicans would be less willing to talk about these issues. Take McMorris Rodgers, for example. I suspect she would be unwilling to write about her son with Downs on the grounds that it is a private family issue. I too would be very interested in hearing about how her family intersects with her personal life. I’ve noticed that the mothers who struggle most with work-life balance are those with children with special needs. But, I suspect she wouldn’t talk about it.
    In addition, a former civil servant federal employee once said to me that he just couldn’t see how Republicans could be in charge of government, if we wanted government to do something (for example, FEMA, NASA, NIH, were you at HHS?). Liberals see the personal as political because we want government to participate in the personal (i.e. help children with Downs, or schools, or . . . ).
    (the exception, obviously is abortion, which drives many people to be significantly political. They should have been able to find an anti-abortion activist who could fit in the theme of this book).

  2. ShariMacD Says:

    Thanks for the review! I’m right there with you in wishing those voices also could have been included — and since there’s curiosity about which pieces were chosen and why, I wanted to comment about the process.
    I gathered the pieces for this project a number of ways: by posting the call for submissions in various places (some with a liberal bent, some frequented by people of all political inclinations), by soliciting pieces by writers I admire, by contacting publishers for permission to reprint pieces, etc. I originally envisioned including several specific voices/perspectives in the book, and many of them are, in fact, there; others (e.g., health care) just didn’t come in. Either no one submitted them, or I couldn’t find pieces that worked.
    The book definitely has a liberal bent, in large part, I’m sure, because I do. I did look for conservative voices and specifically tried to include an excellent piece by Mary Matalin, but couldn’t get permission from the publisher in time. The piece by Cindy Sheehan is also highly critical of progressives. Despite the liberal flavor, there was a real attempt not to be self congratulatory about liberal politics.
    The most important question for me while I was choosing pieces was: Is it good writing? I was looking both for strong, descriptive writing (craft) and complex, multi-layered ideas (content). I looked at several popular conservative columnists and decided not to use their pieces simply because they didn’t measure up one or both of these criteria.
    I agree that there are some voices missing and I’m not sure how to remedy this, short of editing another volume (and another . . . ). If I gathered 100 pieces on 100 different subjects, I’d still be scratching the surface. I think that’s a good thing.
    That said, I adore these particular 43 pieces and can’t imagine pulling together a group of stronger voices. My hope is that, as we mothers become more comfortable sharing our stories, we’ll write and speak and encourage one another even more than we already are, and eventually all of the important stories will get out there, in one form or another.
    Thanks again for the review, and for spreading the word about the book!

  3. Amy P Says:

    “I looked at several popular conservative columnists and decided not to use their pieces simply because they didn’t measure up one or both of these criteria.”
    I bet you could have looked a bit harder. There’s some very strong writing in Maggie Gallagher’s Enemies of Eros, and I bet she could have written something really good on her experience as a young unmarried mother and her recent work on marriage promotion. I bet Frederica Mathewes-Green could have whipped up something, as could Danielle Crittenden. Amy Welborn (a mother of five) is a less active blogger than when she used to be the NYT of the Catholic blogosphere, but she’s written acres of thoughtful blog posts, dozens of which would go nicely into the book.

  4. Karen Says:

    After the payola scandal, I suspect editors are unlikely to solicit work from Gallagher (and rightfully so — fraud should have consequences). But I would have loved to see something from Welborn included.

  5. Amy P Says:

    That’s really too bad–Enemies of Eros is an amazing, original, very deeply felt book.
    I was mentally running through a list of names of conservative women writers, and I was noticing how many of the iconic conservative female writers (Florence King and Kathy Shaidle, for instance) are not mothers. I was also noting the non-overlap between writers and activists. Shaidle’s an activist (used to be an anarchist punk peace activist and is now neck-deep in free speech issues in Canada) but King’s the very opposite of an activist, even though there’s a great deal of similarity in their rhetorical approach.

  6. Daisy Says:

    Covering multiple perspectives is important, especially in politics. And yes, parenting is political. Thanks for the review; the book sounds fascinating!

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