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British Association for American Studies


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 4


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 15, Autumn 2009

The ‘Baby-Mother’ and American Women Writers of Colour

Charlotte Rhodes
© Charlotte Rhodes. All Rights Reserved

Over the past thirty years, feminist scholars have continually stressed the importance of revising, re-evaluating and re-printing women’s literature. Too much of it gets ‘lost;’ too much of it falls out of print. And too much of it remains unstudied or banished to the realm of the ‘Women Writers’ course. One of feminism’s most influential works of the past thirty years, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, addresses many feminist concerns, particularly those surrounding the notion of ‘Otherness’ and women’s literature. However, The Madwoman in the Attic was written by white women, primarily about white women, and is not readily applied to the creative works of working-class women and women of colour.

Within the feminist community there are different ethnic and social groups all yearning for their own cultural voice—for a specific literary tradition made up of women from a similar racial or cultural background. This need for a voice ‘of one’s own’ (to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf) is expressed, for example, in the language of African- American author and critic Alice Walker, and the Hispanic writer, Sandra Cisneros. In Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street the young Hispanic narrator describes her need to tell the stories of her neighbourhood as an ‘ache’.[1] Whereas Walker, in her collection of essays, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, articulates a ‘need’ for black, female precursors.[2]

This article will begin by examining the complicated relationship contemporary women writers of colour have with white feminism. In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens Walker states that she has been influenced by white women writers and black women writers alike.[3] However, she rejects a monolithic notion of a ‘woman’s voice’ arguing that black female women writers need black female precursors.

In the first chapter of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens Walker says, ‘It should be remembered that, as a black person, one cannot completely identify with a Jane Eyre, or her creator, no matter how much one admires them’. Charlotte Bronte’s nineteenth-century novel Jane Eyre (1847) is considered a major predecessor to contemporary feminism. One of the main reasons why Jane Eyre has been so influential within feminist circles, however, is because of the character of the madwoman confined in Rochester’s attic, whom Gilbert and Gubar identified as a metaphor for the social and intellectual incarceration of white women. Hence, when Walker explicitly articulates a need for a role ‘model’ as influential as Bronte, but for black women, she is also implicitly articulating a need for a trope as influential as ‘the madwoman in the attic’, but for black women. In Search of our Mother’s Gardens is a work concerned with finding literary precursors for black women. This article, consequently, is concerned with finding a trope to represent the woman of colour’s unique literary experience.[4]

Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is a novel that protests against the domestic roles that Hispanic cultures advocate for their women. The House on Mango Street is very much a novel about what Gilbert and Gubar describe as women’s ‘parallel confinements in texts, houses and maternal female bodies’. The confinement of women is as pertinent a theme today as ever; Gilbert and Gubar state that ‘anxieties about space seem to dominate the literature of both nineteenth-century women and their twentieth century descendents’. However Gilbert and Gubar argue that women experience their confinement in ‘houses’, which is not necessarily the case for the contemporary working class woman, who is restricted just as much by poverty as she is by patriarchy.[5]

If The House on Mango Street can be described as a novel that protests against the domestication of women and the creative suppression of women, it can also be described as a novel that protests against white feminist literary criticism. Cisneros calls her novel The House on Mango Street, but then goes on to tell the stories of women who live in three-storey flats and in crowded houses, to illustrate how difficult it can be for a poor, Hispanic woman to relate to Gilbert and Gubar’s world of ‘attics’, ‘houses’ and ancestral halls.

The first section of this article, therefore, entitled ‘The Legacy of Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic’, explains one of feminism’s most famous feminist tropes, before examining what aspects of the trope are relevant to the works of contemporary women of colour and what aspects are less relevant. Contemporary women of colour are just as keen as Bronte to break out of what Gilbert and Gubar describe as ‘male houses and male texts’. However, there is the problem of the generic ‘house’ and the generic woman that this implies.

Gilbert and Gubar’s use of terms like ‘houses’, ‘attics’ and ‘all women’ seem to be advocating a monolithic notion of patriarchy, and this provides the basis for the discussion in the following section entitled ‘Ghost Stories’. Here it is revealed how one of Gilbert and Gubar’s arguments fails to consider race as well as class. This particular argument, which is explored in detail, is an example of what Adrienne Rich describes as the ‘white solipsism’ of white feminists, because Gilbert and Gubar do not see a black woman’s race as significant to their argument.[6] The ‘white solipsism’ of white feminism is just one of the factors that contributes to the silencing of women of colour’s voices.

Thus the following section entitled ‘Silences’ looks at how African-American women’s voices in particular have been silenced. Here the article focuses on Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens in which Walker suggests ways to tackle the silencing of one’s foremothers. She emphasises the importance of acknowledging the African-American oral tradition and the survival of black women’s creativity, despite historical oppression. She argues that it is the contemporary black woman’s duty to provide her ancestors with a voice by embracing the oral tradition and by rediscovering forgotten black women writers.

Because Gilbert and Gubar’s trope of ‘the madwoman in the attic’ fails to address the multiple oppressions that affect the woman writer of colour, the next stage of the argument attempts to identify a new trope or figure—a figure that can adequately represent the woman writer of colour’s biggest challenge: building a cultural tradition out of silence. Within the creative works of Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison are characters exhibiting traits of ‘baby-mothers’ or ‘baby-women’. The article argues that these baby-mothers and baby-women are manifestations of the relationship contemporary women writers of colour have with literary silence. Hence, the following section entitled ‘A Baby-Mother is Born’ demonstrates how the figure of the ‘baby-mother’ is applicable to African American women writers like Alice Walker, who are concerned with building a cultural tradition out of silence.

In ‘A Different Kind of Baby-Mother’ the argument moves on from Walker and Hurston to examine how the ‘baby-mother’ trope also applies to Esperanza, the heroine of The House on Mango Street. However, Esperanza is a different kind of ‘baby-mother’ to Walker: she creates a literary tradition not out of forgotten writers, but out of oral stories which have been passed on to her from her mother and the other women on the street. Like Walker, Cisneros is keen to include oral stories within her literary inheritance, but this raises the obvious problem of how to reconcile an oral tradition with the written word. Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye and Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street attempt to overcome this problem by employing child narrators.

The article concludes with a return to Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. It is no coincidence that Walker ends this work by describing her baby daughter as maternal: it is proof that images of ‘baby-mothers’ surface in the creative and critical works of women of colour to resist silence and separation.

The Legacy of Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar argue that the madwoman who haunts the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre is not only a double for the protagonist, but a double for the author, too. They argue that there are two plots in Jane Eyre: the story of Jane and the story of the madwoman. This doubling provides the backbone for other regency and nineteenth century novels by women. Novels, like those by Jane Austen, for example, are often constructed around two plots: the story of the heroine and the story of the ‘Other’ woman. The former may tell the story of a younger woman in pursuit of a husband, while the latter tells the story of a woman who is marginalised by her age, health, marital status or cultural origins. It is this ‘Other’ plot which is important to Gilbert and Gubar; it is here where the nineteenth century woman writer explores her ambivalent feelings towards the pen(is). The figure of ‘the madwoman in the attic’ therefore becomes a feminist trope—a representation of the woman writers’ frustration and anger with being trapped inside what Gilbert and Gubar describe as ‘male texts and male houses’. The madwoman’s inarticulate grunting symbolises the difficulty the nineteenth-century woman writer had with expressing herself through a language with a heavy masculine bias, and within patriarchal ideologies and constructions.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) the depressed protagonist is confined to an attic nursery by her physician husband and is ‘forbidden’ to write. She is kept in an ‘ancestral hall’ and her creativity is repressed.[7] Full-blown madness quickly ensues. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the nineteenth century writer experiences herself as ‘sick’, since a woman’s desire to write is seen as a perversion by her male contemporaries. They go on to argue that ‘to heal herself…the woman-writer must exorcise the sentences which breed her infection in the first place’. She must break out of ‘male houses and male texts’.[8]

Contemporary women writers of colour seem keen to break out of patriarchal constructions and many do not subscribe to boundaries, binaries or standard rules of grammar. The Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, for example, rebels against the western concept of authorship as ownership in her novel Ceremony. As a writer, Silko casts herself in the role of reporter rather than prime mover, informing us that she is telling the story through a medium, what she calls a ‘thought-woman’: ‘I am telling you the story/ she is thinking’.[9] Similarly, Cisneros’s heroine from The House on Mango Street, Esperanza, intertwines her own stories around the other women’s stories by reporting their speech, as opposed to using speech marks. Cisneros’s refusal to separate Esperanza’s voice from the ‘Other’ voices in the text undermines western, patriarchal notions of originality and hierarchical ownership of the narrative.

Nevertheless, the trope of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ lacks relevance in the contemporary, socially and ethnically diverse world of women writers for the following reasons. Firstly, the woman writer of colour does not formulate a secondary plot for ‘Othered’ women: ‘Othered’ women are the central protagonists. Secondly, although the contemporary woman writer of colour is still dealing with houses that belong to men, she is dealing with different kinds of houses (and, by extension, different oppressions). Esperanza’s house in The House on Mango Street may be ‘a Daddy’s’, but it is not an ‘ancestral hall’.[10] The space of the attic may address patriarchal confinement, but it is a middle/upper class space and fails to address the class position of women of colour.

Ghost Stories

Gilbert and Gubar’s generalisation about ‘houses’ is representative of the way they generalise about women, and it is not just the subject of class that they fail to consider. In the chapter entitled ‘Captivity and Consciousness in George Eliot’s Fiction’, Gilbert and Gubar completely erase race from their argument. In it they discuss the character of Cassy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Cassy, a mixed-race concubine gets revenge on her tyrannical owner, Simon Legree, by donning a white sheet and pretending to be the ‘ghost’ of his dead mother. However, despite noting that the chapter they are discussing was entitled ‘An Authentic Ghost Story’ by Stowe, Gilbert and Gubar fail to address why ‘a ghost story’ might be significant within the context of black women’s history. Instead, they find the fact that Cassy is wearing ‘white’ to be of more significance; perhaps because this turns her into another ‘madwoman in the attic’.

Despite Stowe calling the chapter ‘a ghost story’, Gilbert and Gubar argue that Cassy is ‘manipulating a familiar fiction: a madwoman herself, she plans to liberate herself…by exploiting the story of the madwoman in the attic’. Furthermore, they use the term ‘all women’ when arguing that ‘the black woman dressed in white also illustrates the bond between ‘all women’ who are enslaved by what Stowe has depicted as an overwhelmingly patriarchal slave economy’. Not only do Gilbert and Gubar miss the significance of the black woman being a ‘ghost’, in their determined efforts to argue that the story is really about a ‘madwoman in the attic’, they also manage to present a story about a black slave woman as a story about ‘all women’, about white women. The black woman’s ‘ghost story’ is subsequently silenced; her ‘ghosts’ remain.[11]

Cassy’s ghostly existence is highly significant for the contemporary woman of colour, however, because ghosts have recently been identified as metaphors of cultural invisibility.[12] In The House on Mango Street, many of the women have a ghostly existence. Women are confined in flats, staring out of windows or at ceilings, waiting. Their unfulfilled dreams ‘haunt’ Esperanza. In the vignette ‘Edna’s Ruthie’, Esperanza says, ‘I can’t understand why Ruthie is living in Mango Street if she doesn’t have to…but she says she’s just visiting…But the weekends come and go and Ruthie stays’.[13] Marin is similarly ‘waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.’[14] In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the child narrator tells us that ‘the only living thing in the Breedlove’s house was the coal stove’ locating the protagonist, Pecola, and her parents in the land of the living dead (the land of the culturally invisible).[15] Jago Morrison argues in Contemporary Fiction that in Toni Morrison’s Beloved the baby-ghost is ‘a past that will not lie down to sleep, a reminder of a history that no one wants retold’.[16] The strong prevalence of ghosts in the works of women of colour suggests that they are fighting a different battle to the white feminist: patriarchy is not the only ‘ghost’ that needs exorcising.


The silencing of Cassy’s story is only one example of how black women’s stories are silenced. Many women’s stories never get written in the first place, owing to factors such as lack of time, money and space. Furthermore, a history of illiteracy and slavery has also left a devastating trail of silence, which every African-American woman writer now has to contend with. In In Search of our Mother’s Gardens Walker says that despite a history of illiteracy and oppression the ‘creative spark’ has been kept alive through the generations nevertheless. It is therefore the young black woman’s duty to provide her foremothers with a voice.[17]

According to Walker, a lack of role models can also be a hindrance, adding that one of her stories would never have been written had she not discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s work. In her first chapter, Walker retells a story that was passed down orally to her by her mother. This story was about Walker’s ‘mad aunt’, who was cured by ‘powders and spells’. During her research on voodoo for the story, Walker discovered the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, a precursor who provided the ‘historical underpinning’ needed to authenticate her mother’s story.[18]

When literary works do get written they can still be subsequently sidelined. Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, fell out of print before it was ‘rescued’ by Walker. Thus, for Walker, the creation of a black female literary tradition is as dependent on the writing down of our mother’s oral stories as it is on the rediscovery of black women writers.

In In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, what becomes ever more apparent, as we read, is a black woman’s deep-seated longing to be nurtured within a tradition of black women writers and storytellers. The following section, therefore, attempts to find a trope that can define how women like Walker build a literary tradition out of silenced women’s voices.

The Search for an Alternative Figure for Women of Colour

Having established the limitations of the madwoman in the attic trope, it seems necessary to identify an alternative figure—one that can define the woman writer of colour’s literary and historical experience. This figure, or trope, can be found within the creative works of Toni Morrison and Cisneros. Their novels contain characters with a capacity to embody a certain set of characteristics simultaneously, characters who are both baby and woman, baby and mother, or foetus and woman.

In Morrison’s Beloved, for example, the boundary between ‘mother’ and ‘baby’ progressively collapses as the novel develops. Before the baby-ghost Beloved even arrives on the scene, Morrison provides us with an image of a pregnant (maternal) yet crawling (babyish) Sethe, in the passage where she is encouraged by the white girl—Amy—to crawl along beside her. The first time Sethe sees Beloved she is infantilised, ‘the moment she got close enough to see her face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity…Not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight year old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had an emergency that unmanageable’.[19] Seeing her mother and her daughter provokes the same reaction in Sethe: fear. Very early on in Beloved ‘baby’ and ‘mother’ become emotionally entangled. Ironically, in this novel, it is the literal estrangement between mothers and daughters that fiercely intertwine ‘mother’ and ‘baby’ conceptually. The severing of ties between mother and daughter in novels about slavery leads to representations of what I call ‘baby-women’ and ‘baby-mothers’.

Initially, Beloved’s physical appearance blends womanly attributes with baby attributes:

Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested—good lace and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat.[20]

However, her womanly features by the end of the novel transform into maternal (albeit horrifying) characteristics. Sethe, by contrast, regresses into a childlike state, and as Beloved’s supernatural powers become stronger, the distinction between ‘mother’ and ‘baby’ is lost:

Then it seemed to Denver the thing was done: Beloved bending over Sethe looked the mother, Sethe the teething child…It was hard to know what she (Beloved) would do from minute to minute. When the heat got hot, she might walk around naked or wrapped in a sheet, her belly protruding like a winning watermelon.[21]

The earlier image of a pregnant Sethe is replaced with an image of Beloved’s ‘protruding’ belly. This article argues that it is Beloved’s refusal to be silenced that is responsible for the continual switching between mother and child positions. Moreover, Beloved’s refusal to be estranged from her mother results in the ultimate destruction of the mother/ child binary—Beloved and Sethe become ‘baby-mothers’, exhibiting characteristics of babies and mothers at the same time. Vivid images of a ‘baby-mothers’ gradually surface in Beloved to resist silence and separation

The separation of mothers and children during slavery can be compared to Walker’s separation from her black literary foremothers. This is why the figure of the ‘baby-mother’ in Beloved can be read as a manifestation of the contemporary woman writer of colour’s relationship to her silenced and estranged literary foremothers: the creation of a literary tradition from the silenced voices of the past also entails breaking down the boundary between ‘mother’ and ‘baby’. The problem of silenced precursors means that the relationship between foremother and contemporary is not as simple as that of mother to daughter: both precursor and successor can only find their voice by becoming ‘baby-mothers’. In the next section I use the example of Walker’s discovery of Hurston to explain how the figure of the ‘baby-mother’ is able to recover a literary tradition out of silence.

A Baby-Mother is Born

When Walker rediscovered Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God she was able to establish a black female literary tradition by playing the role of ‘baby-mother’. In order for a silenced work to be reborn (in this case, reprinted), the contemporary woman writer (Walker) must give birth to it (adopt the role of ‘mother’). Yet the moment she gives birth to it she is herself reborn (taking on the characteristics of a baby) into a tradition of black women writers, a tradition that previously did not exist for her. In the same instant, and by the reverse logic, the precursor (Hurston) also becomes a ‘baby-mother:’ when the contemporary (Walker) allows her work to be reborn she must take on the role of ‘baby’. But the moment her work is reborn she is established as one of Walker’s foremothers. This event establishes the precursor and successor as equals within the tradition—reborn in the same moment, and mutually dependent on each other for a communal voice.

Of course, Walker’s tradition also included her mother’s stories. This brings us to Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street where the heroine’s literary inheritance consists not of silenced women writers but of oral stories, passed on to her by her mother and the women who live with her on the street. Alice Walker describes the ‘creative spark’ as something that is inherited—’handed on’ through the generations.[22] However, Esperanza absorbs it during her encounters with the women in her Hispanic neighbourhood. Her creative inspiration, then, does not come from a past writer but from the women that surround her on Mango Street.

A Different Kind of Baby-Mother

The House on Mango Street tells the story of a young, poor, Hispanic woman’s struggle to become an artist. The struggle to become an artist in a patriarchal world of ‘male texts and male houses’ is exacerbated by her class and race.

Virginia Woolf argues that we think back through our mothers if we are women, and Jacqueline Doyle argues that ‘for women like Alice Walker and Sandra Cisneros, these mothers include women outside the “tradition” as it is conventionally understood’.[23] For the heroine, Esperanza, this includes her own mother—’a smart cookie’ who ‘could’ve been somebody, you know?’.[24] Doyle argues that, ‘In the extended filiations of her ethnic community Esperanza finds a network of maternal figures. She writes to celebrate all of their unfulfilled talents and dreams and to compensate for their losses’.[25] Ironically, the women’s creative suppression becomes Esperanza’s creative inspiration. In the final vignette she says, ‘I like to tell stories’.[26] Esperanza writes down the ‘Other’ women’s stories as well as her own in an attempt to break the silence and establish a cultural tradition of ‘one’s own’.

Right from the third vignette Esperanza expresses a desire to break the matrilineal tradition of silence in her own family. In ‘My Name’ she discusses her great grandmother who was also named Esperanza and says ‘I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window’. Esperanza’s mother’s creative freedom is jeopardised by a Hispanic society that expects women to fulfil domestic roles, such as that of mother and housekeeper. Esperanza’s mother has four children to take care of, and in the vignette ‘A Smart Cookie’ we are told that ‘She used to draw when she had time’. Esperanza, therefore, protests against the domestication of women saying, ‘I have begun my own private war…I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.[27]

Minerva is a young mother who Esperanza tells us is ‘only a little bit older than me but already she has two kids …Her mother raised her kids alone and it looks like her daughters will go that way too’. Minerva belongs to a matrilineal tradition of single mothers where herself, her sisters and her mother simply do not have the time to devote to creative writing. However, Esperanza stresses that for the women of Mango Street the ‘creative spark’ miraculously survives. In ‘Minerva Writes Poems’ Esperanza says ‘when the kids are asleep after she’s fed them their pancake dinner, she writes poems on little pieces of paper’. Ruthie tells Esperanza that her library books are ‘wonderful, wonderful’ despite the fact that she cannot read them. And ‘Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university’. Esperanza’s own mother never made it to college because she did not have any respectable clothes to wear, ‘No clothes, but I had brains’.[28]

The women of Mango Street also suffer from lack of personal space: Esperanza has to share a room with her sister, and Ruthie, a victim of domestic violence, sleeps ‘on a couch in her mother’s living room’. In the vignette ‘A House of my Own’ (a playful allusion to Woolf) Esperanza describes her frustration with being trapped in what Gilbert and Gubar describe as ‘male texts and male houses’. However, she articulates her remoteness from Gilbert and Gubar’s world of attics and ancestral halls by reminding us that the house on Mango Street is more like a flat than a house. In this vignette Esperanza longs for ‘a house’ as opposed to a ‘flat’, one that is not owned by a man: ‘Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a Daddy’s. A house all my own’. The space of the flat, as opposed to the attic, is a space that renders the heroine doubly confined—by patriarchy and poverty.[29]

However, Esperanza shows her creativity and resourcefulness by taking something restrictive—her lack of ‘room’—and imagining it as a womb. In the vignette ‘Skinny Trees’ Esperanza compares herself to a set of ‘raggedy’ trees ‘planted by the city’ that ‘grew despite concrete’.[30] Esperanza overcomes the problem of lack of space by imagining herself as a foetus with the potential to grow within Mango Street, before breaking away from it. At the end of the novel Esperanza’s house is personified as a maternal figure who allows her to be reborn as an artist. Here, imagination is shown to triumph over literal and textual confinement.

Doyle argues that by the end of the novel the house ‘becomes an overtly maternal figure who collaborates in her freedom and creativity’.[31] The fluid nature of the maternal together with the way Cisneros temporarily endows Esperanza with foetal qualities, is enough evidence to suggest that a ‘baby-mother’ tradition is manifesting itself in this novel. It is very clear in the final vignette that Esperanza is enacting her own rebirth. Doyle argues that she is reborn as an ‘artist’. I argue, more specifically, that she is reborn as a ‘baby-mother’: an artist within a tradition of her own making. Furthermore, the way Esperanza reports the women’s stories, rather than isolating their speech within speech marks, suggests that The House on Mango Street is a book about tradition building: Cisneros seems more concerned with the communal voice as opposed to individual voices.

Cisneros dedicates her work ‘A las Mujeres/ To the women’. This allows us to perceive Esperanza as Cisneros’s ‘baby double’, because, like Cisneros, she too is dedicated to ‘the women’. In the final vignette ‘Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes’ Esperanza expresses her need to write ‘for the ones who cannot out’. Esperanza represents the ‘baby’ in the ‘woman’. Moreover, the boundary between the Cisneros (a woman) and Esperanza (a child/baby) collapses in the vignette ‘The Family of Little Feet’. Here Esperanza and her friends play at being women by ‘tee-tottering’ in high heels. We see an adult author speaking through a child narrator, who wears high heels (like a woman) and totters like a baby. By collapsing the boundary between ‘woman’ and ‘baby’ in this vignette, Cisneros also collapses the boundary between the heroine and the author.[32]

This vignette presents a picture of a ‘baby-woman’ and later presents a picture of a ‘foetal woman‘. The reason we do not find vivid images of ‘baby-mothers’ like those in Beloved is because this novel is primarily concerned with the way domestic roles (like the role of mother) silence Hispanic women, whereas Morrison is primarily concerned with the way slavery has silenced black women’s voices. When Gilbert and Gubar argue that women’s bodies ‘have been imagined as houses’, because they house children, they draw attention to the way patriarchal ideologies make motherhood inseparable from female identity.[33] Cisneros, therefore, avoids making ‘woman’ synonymous with ‘mother’ by emphasising the ‘baby’ in the woman and by personifying Esperanza’s house as maternal.

Although The House on Mango Street contains women who exemplify the characteristics of ‘baby-women’ as opposed to ‘baby-mothers’, it can still be argued that when Esperanza gives birth to her mother’s story both mother and daughter become ‘baby-mothers’. The same thing happens when Esperanza gives a voice to the other maternal figures on Mango Street. By writing down the ‘Other’ women’s stories Esperanza gives birth to them and assumes the characteristics of a mother. Once reborn that same woman is established as one of Esperanza’ foremothers. As she gives birth to them she too is reborn (characteristics of a baby) into a tradition of Hispanic women’s story telling. The ‘Other’ women of Mango Street lose their ghostly status by becoming ‘baby-mothers’ in the same instant. This event marks a specific moment in history where Esperanza and the women of Mango Street become part of a cultural tradition—a tradition that previously had only a ghostly existence.

Although Esperanza embraces the oral tradition she clearly feels a need for the written word. However, women of colour like Walker and Cisneros are still keen to include oral stories within their literary inheritance.

Reclaiming Infantilised Constructions of the Feminine

The difficulty of reconciling an oral tradition with the written word is only a problem in a world of hierarchical boundaries, however. Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye (1970) and Cisneros employ child narrators as a means deconstructing patriarchal constructions and hierarchical binaries (such as the binary that divides speech from the written word).

Esperanza, for example, with her raw, untainted creativity has no need for speech marks: ‘He never hits me hard. She said her mama rubs lard on all the places where it hurts’.[34] She has no desire to distinguish between voices, or to aspire to originality/ ownership. A lack of speech marks has two effects. Firstly, it collapses the boundary between speech and writing, and secondly, it subverts the boundary between the heroine’s voice and the ‘Other’ voices in the text. This second effect is of the most significance, however, because it gives equal weight and value to all the women’s stories. No story is secondary. No story is sidelined to the realm of ‘Other’. Every voice is precious.

In The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist’s mental breakdown is the result of her husband’s patriarchal prescription: he confines her to a nursery at the top of the house and forbids her to write. She is patronised, infantilised and creatively repressed. For Gilman, patriarchal notions of the infantilised Victorian woman are partly responsible for the protagonist’s literal and textual confinement. Thus, this nineteenth century story advocates that we move away from infantilised constructions of the feminine and treat women as mature and responsible beings.

However, if a silenced past can be reclaimed then so can Victorian notions of the child-like woman. Cisneros in Mango Street and Morrison in The Bluest Eye use child narrators and clearly feel a need to reclaim infantilised constructions of the feminine, seeing the child-like woman as having creative potential.[35] However, they reclaim it on their own terms and use it to deconstruct other patriarchal constructions. For example, Gilbert and Gubar say that ‘women have often been… imagined as houses’, a patriarchal construction that claims a woman’s body’s primary purpose is to ‘house’ children. Furthermore, Gilbert and Gubar say that woman is ‘conditioned to believe that as a house she is herself owned by a man’.[36] However, Cisneros, via her playful child narrator, inverts the ‘woman as house’ construction by giving Esperanza foetal qualities and her house maternal qualities. Rather than imagining woman as ‘house’, she imagines house as ‘woman’. Not womb as house, but house as womb. This is an example of a woman writer of colour using an infantilised construction of the feminine—’woman as foetus’—to deconstruct a patriarchal construction—’woman as house’.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison chooses a child narrator, Claudia, to relate the trauma of the onset of Pecola’s menstruation. She describes it with the grammatical and linguistic inventiveness that only a child could possess: ‘We trooped in, Frieda sobbing quietly, Pecola carrying a white tail, me carrying the little-girl-gone-to–woman pants’.[37] Pecola becomes a literal ‘baby-mother’ by falling pregnant with her father’s baby at a very young age.

In Maryse Condé’s novel, I, Tituba; Black Witch of Salem, Tituba’s mother, Abena, is raped on a slave ship when she is just sixteen years old. The pregnant woman is offered as a gift to a suicidal slave, Yao. When Yao first meets a pregnant Abena he says, ‘It seemed to him that this child’s humiliation symbolized the condition of his entire people: defeated, dispersed and auctioned off’.[38] In I, Tituba and The Bluest Eye, therefore, the figure of the ‘baby-mother’ is there, above all, to embody the pain of colonisation and rape. Hence literal ‘baby-mothers’ can pose a problem for any ‘baby-mother’ tradition.

Rebirth and Walker’s Maternal Daughter

Walker was left blind in one eye following an accident during her childhood, and at the end of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens she describes the time when her little girl held her face ‘maternally between her dimpled little hands’, and told her ‘mommy there’s a world in your eye’.[39] This resulted in Walker running from the room ‘crying and laughing’. The exhilaration Walker experienced here compares to the exhilaration she experienced when she discovered Zora during her research for her mother’s story:

In that story I gathered up the historical and psychological threads of the life my ancestors lived, and in the writing of it I felt the joy and strength of my own continuity. I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence that I am not alone.[40]

Walker is saying that the process of writing becomes more psychologically rewarding when a writer feels as though she is a part of something bigger than herself—she is a part of a tradition. However, her use of words like ‘joy’ and ‘strength’, together with ‘ancient spirits’, suggests that the discovery of Zora actually made her somewhat euphoric. Walker’s experience resembles, what Julia Kristeva describes in Powers of Horror as ‘jouissance’.[41]

In The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature, Marianne Noble argues that Kristeva’s arguments on the pleasures we derive from horror can be applied to the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century. She says that ‘Representations of horror can produce what Kristeva calls a jouissance, because they invoke the possibilities of reintegration with lost parts of one’s original wholeness, understood as a mother’. Kristeva argues that in order to establish an identity for oneself each child has to undergo a process known as ‘abjection’. This involves separating themselves from all the things that threaten the ego, including the mother. When readers are subjected to horror—something that disturbs the boundary between self and Other—they experience pleasure (jouissance) because they are reminded of a time when they were boundlessly connected to the mother—’the privileged signifier for totality’. Kristeva says that the mother represents the ‘world’ for the infant. Noble argues that ‘the link between horror and an ecstatic expansion of the self’ is as fundamental to horror as it is to sentimentalism, because ‘in identifying with another’s pain, readers experience an expanded sense of self…that resembles the jouissance’. When Walker describes the ecstasy she felt when she rediscovered Zora, she is describing feelings of ‘totality’ and ‘expansion of self’. This ecstasy is possible because she has undergone the painful separation from her foremothers that Kristeva ascribes to abjection.[42]

Walker uses the word ‘maternally’ to describe a moment in which her daughter held her face in her hands. This word acknowledges that the relationship between mother and child is fluid and interchangeable, and the process of rescuing a foremother from silence is also dependent on this fluidity. Although Walker never explicitly identifies herself as a ‘baby-mother’, the emotions aroused in her by Hurston and her daughter are the direct result of experiencing herself as a ‘baby-mother’.

However, we cannot ignore literal baby-mothers like Pecola and Abena. They do not evoke feelings of ‘joy’ or ‘strength’, and because they are such tragic figures it may seem unethical to argue that they are manifestations of anything other than pain. Nevertheless, within the critical and creative works by women of colour, the figure of the ‘baby-mother’ is a manifestation of the contemporary woman writer or critic’s relationship to her forgotten foremothers. The figure of the ‘baby-mother’ takes on many guises, but she ultimately provides us with a means of comprehending how the contemporary woman writer of colour recovers a cultural voice of ‘one’s own’ from silences.

University of East Anglia


[1] Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p. 110.

[2] Alice Walker, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens (London: Women’s Press, 1984), p. 83.

[3] As a university lecturer Walker taught Kate Chopin’s The Awakening alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

[4] Walker, pp. 8, 4.

[5] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination [1979] (Yale: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 89, 83.

[6] Jacqueline Doyle, ‘More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street’, MELUS, Winter 94, Vol.19, Issue 4, p. 5.

[7] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 3, ed. By Nina Baym et al. (New York: Norton and Company, 2003), pp. 833, 832.

[8] Gilbert and Gubar, pp.76, 85.

[9] Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 1.

[10] Cisneros, p. 108.

[11] Gilbert and Gubar, p. 534.

[12] Avery Gorden, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (University of Minnesota, 1997), P. 17. Gorden argues that ‘to write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities…is to write ghost stories.’

[13] Cisneros, p. 69.

[14] Ibid., p. 38.

[15] Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye [1970] (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 27.

[16] Jago Morrison, Contemporary Fiction (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 24.

[17] Walker, p. 240.

[18] Ibid., pp. 11, 13.

[19] Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987) (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 51.

[20] Ibid., p. 51.

[21] Ibid., p. 250.

[22] Walker, p. 240.

[23] Doyle, p. 10.

[24] Cisneros, p. 90.

[25] Doyle, p. 10.

[26] Cisneros, p. 109.

[27] Ibid., pp. 11, 90, 89.

[28] Ibid., pp. 84, 69, 31, 91.

[29] Ibid., pp. 69, 34.

[30] Ibid., p. 75.

[31] Doyle, p. 11.

[32] Cisneros, pp. 110, 40.

[33] Gilbert and Gubar, p. 88.

[34] Cisneros, p. 92.

[35] A reviewer from the Los Angeles Times is quoted on the front cover of the Bloomsbury 1991 edition of Mango Street, as saying ‘Cisneros writes from the heart of a child – bluntly an truthfully…Everyone needs this book.’

[36] Gilbert and Gubar, p. 88.

[37] The Bluest Eye, p. 22.

[38] Maryse Conde, I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (London: Faber and Faber, 2000),

p. 5.

[39] Walker, p. 392.

[40] Ibid., p. 13.

[41] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)

[42] Marianne Noble, The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (New Jersey: Princeton, 2000), pp. 7, 69, 71.