Refusing Mothers: The Dystopic Maternal in Contemporary American Women's Literature
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In this dissertation I argue that despite the liberatory promises of mid-century American social justice movements, women's literature in the late 20th and early 21st centuries treats motherhood as a dystopic and economically marginalized subject position. In genres as disparate as science fiction and gang narrative, authors Octavia Butler, Yxta Maya Murray and Suzanne Collins engage problematic ideologies of maternal love, asserting, through their renderings of fictional maternal characters, that mothers are powerless in contemporary society. This pessimism contrasts with the view of woman of color (WOC) feminist writers of the 1980s, who participated in social justice movements by asserting their own politics and including mothers in their liberatory vision. Audre Lorde's biomythography Zami (1982) is emblematic of their optimism, which imagines a regenerative possibility for mothers. I begin this dissertation with an exploration of Zami in order to ask how and why later texts appear to unwrite this transformative potential of the maternal as envisioned by earlier WOC feminists. Thus, Lorde serves as a lens through which I examine the increasingly despairing attitude of women writers toward the maternal. I argue that the shared focus on the maternal among such dissimilar writers demonstrates that in American women's writing, mothers are a crucial literary subject across sexual, gendered, racial and ethnic lines. By drawing on critical race theory, WOC feminism, queer theory, and maternal theory to examine interlocking formal and thematic elements--unreliable narrators who sanctify motherhood, reworking of the sentimental, the ironic use of both saintly and devouring mothers--I expose writers' dystopic reworking of the meanings of motherhood. The breadth of texts I read prompts an interdisciplinary approach, with close attention to socio-historical context; thus reading Butler's ironic black superwoman in Lilith's Brood gains coherence when placed in the light of 1960s Black Nationalism, which traded on the trope of a Black Matriarch in order to blame women for black social ills. I argue that maternal oppression is essential to the nature of women's identity in contemporary American women's literature, wherein being human for women includes the expectation to be a mother, in often brutally oppressive contexts.