A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Didn’t Your Mother Teach You to Speak Like a Lady? A Review of Rhetorics of Motherhood

A Review of Rhetorics of Motherhood by Lindal Buchanan 2013; Southern Illinois University Press (Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series)

Jessie Richards, University of Utah

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/motherhood (Published: June 1, 2015)

I was raised in a white, upper-class, two-parent, heterosexual household within a strict religious culture that revered motherhood as a “sacred calling." My religious culture explicitly advocated distinct separation of gender roles—women were encouraged to stay home to raise children. As a result, I knew very few women who worked in careers outside of the home. As I engage with Lindal Buchanan’s book, Rhetorics of Motherhood, I am compelled to self-reflexively explore how my cultural commonplaces influence, and are influenced by, my reading of her text, and this is what Buchanan seems to intend. As Amber Kinser writes in the foreword, “few of any ilk are immune” to the power of the ideological code of motherhood and its rhetorical manifestation, the Mother (xiii). As Buchanan notes, enactments of maternal ethos are contingently and transactionally constructed, never separate from intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.  Thus all of us (readers, scholars, mothers, women, people) are connected within the code of Motherhood, which makes Buchanan’s analysis important and timely in the ever-changing fields of rhetoric, feminist studies, and communication.

Buchanan’s book begins with the premise that “motherhood invokes a shared cultural code and generates powerfully persuasive resources that reinforce gender stereotypes and diminish women’s complexity, dimensions, and opportunities” (xvii). By “code”, Buchanan refers to a Foucauldian notion of discursive formations and truth regimes that encode Motherhood with cultural scripts, creating an “abbreviated version of the entire system” of gender, within which the code of Motherhood is discursively embedded (Buchanan 6). Thus, the code of Motherhood brings a discursive system to bear upon “subjects, social practices, and texts” (6). Buchanan uses the Motherhood code to lay the groundwork for her provocative look at how the Mother is invoked for different purposes and with varying effects. And, as she takes care to point out, the ideological differences between various Mother cultural codes are intersectionally striated within race, class, sexuality, disability, and other fluid subject positions; meaning, the ideological Mother plays a variety of roles in subject formation within systems of power.

To examine how Motherhood is discursively deployed, Buchanan explores three connected yet disparate case studies that show how the code of Motherhood is operationalized to a variety of effects. All three case studies explore how Motherhood or “The Mother,” as a rhetorical construction, are appropriated. The first case study explores Margaret Sanger’s appropriation of maternal ethos; the second case study explores how Diana Nash’s appropriation of the Mother produced different effects than Sanger’s. The first two case studies, then, are, as Buchanan claims, different sides of the same coin—one a successful appropriation, the second an unsuccessful one. The third case study explores how the law appropriates the Mother in legal discussions of fetal personhood and provides suggestions for how the pro-choice movement might advance its arguments through maternal appeals.

Thus, Rhetorics of Motherhood adds to ongoing discussions in feminist scholarship about the role of individual mothers and the ideological, rhetorically constructed Mother in the cultural imaginary, such as Amber Kinser’s Motherhood and Feminism, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices, among many. This book also resonates within feminist legal scholarship about women’s reproductive rights, such as Dorothy Robert’s Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty and Celeste Condit’s Decoding Abortion Rhetoric.  What Rhetorics of Motherhood adds to the ongoing conversation in feminist scholarship is a look at how the code of motherhood is discursively operationalized in different rhetorical settings. Buchanan’s application of theory to real-world contexts, such as Sarah Palin’s 2008 run as a vice-presidential candidate, in addition to the three case studies she investigates, is an example of what much of rhetorical scholarship is missing—the link from theory to practice (praxis). Buchanan explores how the ideas/ideals of motherhood reposition all of us within intersecting cultural codes wherein we engage in a push and pull of definitions, connotations, invocations, and representations. She provokes readers to think about their own relationship within, and as constitutive to, the code of Motherhood.

As previously mentioned, the book is organized into case studies, which comprise the middle three chapters. Buchanan’s first chapter functions as an introduction to the literature and lays the groundwork for why an investigation of how Motherhood is appropriated is important to larger conversations about gender and discourse. She draws upon Roland Barthe’s theories of signification to show how cultural codes are formed, and employs Richard Weaver’s notion of “god and devil terms” to position “Mother” and “Woman” on opposite sides of a continuum. Hence, through this first chapter, Buchanan argues that “Mother” signifies a “God term” and “Woman” signifies a “Devil term,” which then allows her to make the argument that Margaret Sanger and Diane Nash (the central figures around which two of her case studies focus), move rhetorically between the two terms along the continuum. One of Buchanan’s central arguments, which becomes an essential thread throughout the book, is that “due to its role in subject formation and collusion with the gender system, the Mother is easy to invoke but difficult to resist” (7). Accordingly, Buchanan’s first two case studies show how appropriations of Motherhood can have a variety of influences on, and are influenced by, the cultural imaginary, policy, and a rhetor herself.

In her first case study and second chapter, Buchanan analyzes the seminal but controversial feminist figure, Margaret Sanger, who advocated for women’s birth control in the early 1900s. She analyzes Sanger’s discursive rhetoric in magazine articles that Sanger wrote herself and in newspaper articles written about her. She also looks at the script for a film Sanger made about birth control that never made it to theaters because of its “illicit” content. In addition to written work, Buchannan analyzes the visual rhetoric that helped Sanger move between “woman” and “mother”. Pictures of Sanger with her two boys wherein she is pictured in a maternal manner, Buchanan claims, set her within a “respectable, maternal framework” (43). Buchanan’s main emphasis here is that Sanger purposefully moved between invoking the cultural code of “woman” and “mother” when her audience necessitated a shift, and that his movement was buoyed by her discursive and visual enactments of the code of Motherhood.

Unlike other scholars who have argued Sanger’s birth control advocacy was classist, exclusively promoting methods for privileged white women, or, on the other hand, others who downplay her use of eugenics rhetoric, Buchanan seems less concerned with the morality of Sanger’s work or passing judgment on her legacy and more concerned with exploring how she did what she did. That is, Buchanan writes:

Eugenics […] proved to be a mixed blessing for Sanger: On one hand, it offered her a language, framework, and set of objectives that resonated strongly with affluent white Americans but, on the other, required sacrificing the reproductive interests of women with little status or power. […] As Sanger’s goals for the birth-control movement changed between 1914 and 1917, so, too, did her construction of character and rhetoric. She tempered radical critique in order to attract and accommodate a diverse audience […] In the process of expanding her base, Sanger’s ethos and arguments were sometimes inconsistent, perhaps an unavoidable consequence of ‘mediating within and between’ multiple locations and audiences (Reynolds 333). (Buchanan 35)

Through an analysis of Sanger’s visual rhetoric Buchanan demonstrates how Sanger appealed to a particular type of women by invoking maternity and domestic commitments, both of which are wrapped up in a trope of maternal self-sacrifice. By showing how these rhetorical fragments become articulated together, Buchanan is able to argue that Sanger strategically and artfully shifted her ethos from “Wild Woman Writer” to “Mother of Two”. As Buchanan writes, “The verbal and visual rhetorics examined in this chapter trace birth control’s journey from a small, socialist enclave into the dominant public sphere, a journey that was in no small measure assisted by Sanger’s appropriation of motherhood” (61).

While Buchanan appears careful to avoid imposing moral judgments on Sanger’s appropriation of the Mother, the meaning of Sanger becomes a moral commentary when juxtaposed with Buchanan’s analysis of Diane Nash. In contrast to the previous chapter on Sanger, wherein Buchanan primarily highlights the benefits of invoking Motherhood, the chapter on Nash extolls the “dangers and disadvantages” of doing the same (66). Buchanan writes, “[…] interwoven strands reveal how motherhood, on the one hand, generated powerful persuasive means and, on the other, compromised Nash’s rightful place in cultural memory” (65). Thus, Buchanan uses the majority of the second case study to recuperate Nash’s legacy into the cultural memory, foregrounding her expertise, utilizing the phrases she constructed, and exploring the rhetorical methods she employed.  Buchanan explores how Nash, although a prominent civil-rights activist for non-violent action, was rendered invisible through her appropriation of the code of Motherhood. What this book implicitly argues, problematically it seems, is that the “success” of invoking the Motherhood code depends upon the publicity the rhetor receives by using it. If the goal of women appropriating motherhood is to effect social change or policy, then both Sanger and Nash were “successful”. However, if the goal is to be known in cultural memory, then Sanger succeeded where Nash failed. Sanger appeared to appropriate motherhood often at the expense of women of color, but her legacy is visible and strong, according to Buchanan. Nash, on the other hand, was also able to effect policy and social change but was not given due credit because she receded out of the public eye once she had children, leaving much of the “public” work of civil rights up to her husband. What it means to “succeed”, for Buchanan, in one’s appropriation of the Mother is ambiguous, but it does resemble certain masculinist, capitalistic ideas of public success. That is, “success” of the maternal appeals seems to be determined by public visibility above most anything else. Buchanan tries to avoid conclusions about meaning and focuses instead on Sanger’s and Nash’s rhetorical effects as they relate to ethos, pathos, and logos; but juxtaposing Sanger and Nash as two sides of the same coin creates the illusion of an equal comparison when the comparison cannot possibly be equivalent, nor can the two rhetors be measured according to the same definition of success.

Nash, a woman of color, a mother, and a civil rights activist, moved within and about multiple fluid subject positions, and Buchanan’s awareness of the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in reading enactments and appropriations of Motherhood is a strength in this chapter; however, that intersectionality appears somewhat incidental to her analysis. Sanger was in a wholly different position of privilege than was Nash, and while Buchanan recognizes that a woman of color interpellates into the code of Motherhood differently than a white Woman might, this complexity is only temporarily explored and is, in effect by linguistic maneuvering, backgrounded in the comparison to Sanger’s rhetorical success. For example, Buchanan posits that Sanger’s success came from using maternal ethos to push controversy surrounding her into the background while Nash’s non-success came from “negative ramifications” about her desire to enter jail while pregnant and appropriate the Mother to appeal to her supporters (66). Both suppositions ignore the intersection of race and gender. Buchanan writes:

In the cases of both Sanger and Nash, the god term displaced the woman with very different consequences. Maternal ethos smoothed out Sanger’s potentially troubling past but overwhelmed Nash’s leadership, contributing to her historical marginalization. These distinct outcomes suggest the mutability and Janus-like quality of motherhood in public discourse, revealing its dual capacity to benefit and undermine women. (119)

But because only minor consideration is paid to the possibility of how race intersects the code of Motherhood in different ways for bodies that are raced, Buchanan somewhat flattens the complexity of Nash and Sanger’s race. Buchanan does employ Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework to examine how Nash is represented in texts about the civil rights movement. Buchanan quotes Crenshaw to explain how women of color are positioned “within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas”—eradicating racism and obliterating sexism (72). As Buchanan notes, civil rights groups “typically make gendered assumptions that normalize black male experience while [feminist] groups make racial assumptions that normalize white women’s experience”, effectively ignoring women of color’s “double burden”—intersections of race and patriarchy (72). But Buchanan mostly considers race in regards to how Nash might have been seen as disrupting or not disrupting normative gender roles and codes. The rest of the analysis remains strangely untouched by intersections of race and gender, although they cannot be extricated from one another. As I read these case studies, I am reminded again of my privileged position within the cultural code of Motherhood—I have a partner who is supportive, and I have financial resources to afford childcare, enabling me to work outside the home in a career I enjoy. I am thus also reminded that the imperative to reflect upon my assumptions about mothers and women, suppositions that are implicated in White, upper/middle-class feminisms, can never be left to rest; they must be continually interrogated. Perhaps a consideration of the privileges Margaret Sanger enjoyed on account of her class and whiteness that helped her reconfigure her maternal image would make a more complex analysis of the intersections between race, class, and gender within the code of Motherhood.

The book’s final case study on pro-life legal rhetoric and its use of maternal ethos reads as a complement to Buchanan’s analysis of Sanger. The juxtaposition is especially poignant since the rhetoric on fetal personhood is a direct refutation of the work Sanger has dedicated her life to—reproductive rights for women. In this case study, like the other two, Buchanan analyzes a variety of rhetorical fragments, including the language of legal bills (such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA)), statements made on the floor by members of both houses of Congress, appeals by victim’s mothers, and photographic appeals wherein the notion of fetal personhood and fetal rights is visually represented by bodily artifacts. As Buchanan writes, “this chapter examines how pregnant women and the unborn were imagined and personhood presented in congressional debate about the UVVA, a rich locus for charting motherhood’s current manifestation in public discourse” (89). Here Buchanan pulls together various rhetorical fragments that show how motherhood’s persuasive discourse is operationalized to great effect and affect in legislative and legal discourse.

Buchanan’s central argument in this case study is that proponents of the UVVA (mostly Republicans) were able to invoke maternal appeals that simply did not work for those against it (mostly Democrats). Even though both sides had women (the ultimate embodiment of maternal ethos) arguing its case, the language used by proponents of the law invoked an emotional maternal ethos. Words such as “mothers,” “human being in the womb,” and “unborn children” were more effective and affective than words such as “potential lives,” “pregnancies,” and “women”. Discourse that explicitly invoked Motherhood enabled legislators to construct a vision of two-person pregnancy, granting rights to the fetus, and restricting rights for women. Buchanan acknowledges that pro-choice advocates likely picked to battle the UVVA for the same reason pro-life advocates constructed the law: for its potential to undo Roe v. Wade. Buchanan uses her analysis in this case study to provide suggestions for how pro-life advocates might restructure their use of maternal appeals and invoke the code of Motherhood in a more rhetorically effective manner, similar to how Sanger reconstructed her maternal ethos.

The suggestions in the final chapter of this book reinforce the book’s commitment to praxis. Buchanan is acutely aware of the complexity of her topic, and she appears to be hopeful that thoughtful feminist scholarship can create collective “Foucauldian points of resistance, heightening awareness of the construction, circulation, and impact of motherhood and thereby contesting dominant systems of gender, knowledge, and power” (124). This book certainly contributes to that goal. Buchanan’s writing is thoughtful and deliberate; she is meticulous in explaining to the reader how she is making her arguments, what she has found, and where she is taking the argument next. Her explanations and reminders of common cultural theories, such as Barthes, Foucault, and others, make this an ideal read for those interested in rhetorical and feminist theory and cultural theory and analysis, as well as those interested in how methods of discourse analysis and rhetorical theory can enrich and inform one another. This book is an important work in our field and contributes to rhetorical theories of motherhood in new and provocative ways.

Works Cited

Condit, Celeste M. Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change. Champaigne, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Print.

Kinser, Amber E. Motherhood and Feminism: Seal Studies. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2010. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton. 1976. Print.

Roberts, D. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Random House. 2014. Print.

Royster, J. J., & Kirsch, G. E. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2012.