“The deliberate withdrawal of women from men has almost always been seen as a potentially dangerous or hostile act, a conspiracy, a subversion, a needless and grotesque thing.” Thus wrote Adrienne Rich in 1976’s Of Woman Born, her seminal exploration of the politics of motherhood. From the workers gossiping in the spinning circle to old wives passing down knowledge of contraception and abortion, women gathered in isolation have long been considered untrustworthy. What might they be saying? What could they be plotting? And how, above all, might they be controlled?
It’s a problem that’s never gone away, though the context has changed. Anxiety over women’s speech – fuelling violent backlash in the form of witch trials and scold’s bridles – arose at a time when, to quote Marina Warner, “women dominated the webs of information and power; the neighbourhood, the village, the well, the washing place, the shops, the stalls, the street were their arena of influence, not only the household”.
One could say things are different in 2018. Changing work patterns and the greater separation of public and private space have led to a fragmentation of female-led domestic communities. As the protagonist of Elisa Albert’s 2015 novel After Birth puts it,
Two hundred years ago – hell, one hundred years ago – you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. […] They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. […] Now maybe you make a living, maybe you get to know yourself on your own terms. […] And then: unceremoniously sliced in fucking half, handed a newborn, home to your little isolation tank, get on with it, and don’t you dare post too many pictures. You don’t want to be one of those.
She’s right. While the work of gestation, birth and mothering hasn’t gone anywhere, the gatherings that sustained it – and scared the hell out of men in the process – have disintegrated. Still, though. There’s always Mumsnet.