Rhetorics of Motherhood

Review by Sarah E. S. Carter


"We accept the notion that there is indeed value to be recognized and appreciated in the lives, words, participation, leadership, and legacies of women." (Royster & Kirsch, 2012, p. 18)

In Chapter One, "Theorizing Motherhood in Public Discourse," Lindal Buchanan sets up the case studies to follow in the next three chapters by emphasizing the importance of women and mothers utilizing topos in public discourse. She presents Sarah Palin in her run for vice presidency and examines the benefits and constrains of motherhood's multiple layers. She explains how in rhetoric, specifically public discourse, an emphasis is typically placed on the abstract versus the literal, and she defines and explains the first (denotation) and second (connotation) order of signification (p. 3), drawing on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. Sarah Palin was able to attract a large audience that felt a connection to her because of her role as a mother, but because she placed such a big emphasis on this role, she lost other audiences. The power of connotation is thus evaluated to express how society sees/feels so much more than what is literally presented to audiences and Palin's motherhood rhetoric is a perfect example of this.

This introductory chapter explains how certain discourses, specifically political ones, affect women as public figures more greatly then men—women who were unknown can suddenly become known or vice versa because of their choices as women and mothers in a rhetorical setting. It is clear that society views mothers and women as separate, but to have evidence such as the case studies provided, elicits a call for more investigation in how society assesses and determines these views.

A fine line exists between being a woman and a mother, and so Buchanan created a table that expresses her own ideology and what she believes society's ideology is of a woman versus a mother. She bases this breakdown off of Richard Weaver's notion of god and devil terms (p. 8) and assigns Mother as the god term and Woman as the devil term, thus creating the Woman/Mother continuum. She used negative associations such as "self-centeredness" to describe woman and positive associations such as "self-sacrifice" to describe mother (pp. 7–11). It is not entirely clear what justifies this categorization of terms for the continuum she creates; however, she hopes "it can illuminate motherhood's rhetorical construction, circulation, and consequences for women" (p. 14). Buchanan presented strong evidence in her three case studies to support her claims for the Woman/Mother continuum.

Buchanan made an interesting connection in this chapter between gender and motherhood and their placement in society. She asserts the significance of a woman's role as a mother and the intersectionality motherhood creates. Even as motherhood exerts pressure on women and their lives (p. 22) so does it create a connection and additional outlet to which women who are not mothers do not have access. Buchanan closes out this introductory chapter with a positive outlook that from her research will come additional studies that will begin to disrupt the oppressive systems of gender; she does not state a clear direction; scholarship could easily transpire towards possibly considering men as mothers. Buchanan defines the code of motherhood as it "restricts… through its embedded and inequitable gender presumptions" (p. 5) and is siutated within a "larger discursive formation of gender and so reiterates its governing constructs of male and female, masculinity and femininity" (p. 6).