Imagining Motherhood and the Past

Anxious Bench | 10/21/2019 | Staff
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Present day visions of motherhood may feel so askew that we might look in many directions–religion? the past? other places?–for correction.

The current issue of the journal Image carries an arresting art piece, “Motherhood: A Visual Contract,” aiming to find some use in religious imagery of motherhood from the past. The art and text from Israeli-born London artist Leni Dothan engage contemporary perplexities in ways that echo a noteworthy book from earlier this year, Sarah Knott’s Mother is a Verb. Both have historical approaches. The uses they hope to derive from history merit some joint reflection.

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Knott strives, with the elusive documentary evidence of women in the past, to frame current experience in light of the way it used to be for those with child. The book impresses on a number of levels, blending the historical and personal. The British Knott, associate professor of history and gender studies at Indiana University, has sharp eyes and apt words for the striking and strange in motherhood past and present. The book weaves tidings of her pregnancy and early motherhood around those of her sources. But its success at doing so invites questions about why history is the right tool to do what she aims. Does reckoning female involvement with children as active, rather than passive or invisible, help retrieve women from obscurity and the presumption of having accomplished little? Does seeing mothers’ struggles in the past help us see them more clearly in our own time? Does finding precedent for behaviors now deemed obvious help excavate them from the taken-for-granted and explain why we do should retain them—or should not?

A case could be made for affirmative answers to all of the above. But we might not rush to those answers too quickly.

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Reading Knott’s book, I kept recalling a feeling common to my own days...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Anxious Bench
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