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Motherhood and Freedom in Women's Writing After 1970

Reeves, Kathleen. Motherhood and Freedom in Women's Writing After 1970. 2021. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Fifty years after a high point of feminist theories of reproductive work, motherhood remains fraught. Considering contemporary Anglophone writing about care alongside literature from the 1970s and 1980s, Motherhood and Freedom in Women’s Writing After 1970 claims that past feminist theories of reproductive work have yet to be fully reckoned with. I argue that Anglophone literature of motherhood elaborates an embodied, non-sovereign freedom which emerges socially and is based on interdependence rather than self-possession. This literature defamiliarizes care through formal innovation, encouraging and enacting a form of attention that generates a new, feminist reality. Chapter 1 considers care work, artistic work, illness, and embodiment in the writings of Bernadette Mayer and Anne Boyer, asking how literary form highlights or obscures the world-making properties of care. Chapter 2 discusses how 1970s and 1980s black feminist texts think about care outside the family after the Civil Rights movement, arguing that Meridian by Alice Walker (1976) and The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara (1980) articulate a notion of self-elaboration that is non-sovereign, anti-austerity, and intersubjective. In chapter 3, I consider how texts by Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti generate a feminist imaginary oriented around openness and possibility rather than choice. Chapter 4 argues that Octavia Butler’s novel, Wild Seed (1980), and Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Argonauts (2015), offer visions of embodied transformation that lead to new concepts of pleasure in motherhood. Motherhood and Freedom in Women’s Writing After 1970 argues that literature of motherhood reimagines reality with care at its center.

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