A feminist psychotherapist argues assiduously that mothers’ attachment to their children and concern for their safety has been manipulated by society to keep women from full participation in the world outside the home.
Smith, herself the mother of two, draws on her own experiences and those of mothers she has interviewed, as well as the writings of other feminists, to support her gender-inequality thesis in a skillfully written text. Becoming a mother, she points out, means accepting the task of keeping another human being alive and safe, and this creates a heightened sense of vulnerability. She finds in Greek myths and such plays as Iphigenia in Aulis and The Bacchae illustrations of this vulnerability and of the harsh consequences of female rebellion. Smith then turns to perusal of books of advice for mothers, beginning with A Token for Mourners, written by a Puritan minister in 1674, and ending with The Baby Book (1993), by William and Martha Sears, a doctor-nurse/husband-wife team. She traces the emergence of medicine in the 19th century as the source of maternal guidance, reinforced in the 20th century by voices from the world of psychology and psychotherapy. All these counselors, Smith finds, play on mothers’ fears and use threats of child harm as a means of social control. News reports, television dramas, and magazine stories heighten maternal anxieties and feelings of guilt; the marketplace profits by offering products to lessen them. “The world has developed a quiet, elegant, and effective way of controlling women, while maintaining inequality,” says Smith, who urges changes to create political, economic, and social equality. The best mother, she argues, is a free woman who has the opportunity and the support to participate fully both in the larger world and in mothering.
Earnest presentation likely to find a secure place in the canon of women’s studies.