Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood
By Joanne S. Frye
Syracuse University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Marilyn Bousquin
Remember when the words motherhood and feminism were antonyms? Remember when mother and academic were antonyms? When English departments did not offer courses in women’s literature and women’s studies did not exist? If you said “no” to these questions, you can thank women like Joanne Frye, author, academic, and founder of the Women’s Studies program at the College of Wooster.
Frye came of age in a traditional household during the 1960s, and entered graduate school in the late sixties. In 1968 she married a professor of German, Lawrence Frye. The more selfish her new husband became, the more selfless she felt—a spiral that triggered Frye’s long inquiry into her identity as female and that drives her new memoir, Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood.
Frye gave birth to her first daughter in 1971. “Older by then than Rachel Vinrace in Woolf’s first novel,” Frye writes, “I nevertheless had that same quality that so irritated her aunt Helen—lack of color and outline, nothing hard or permanent or satisfactory.” Now a wife and mother, Frye worked on her dissertation on Woolf’s novels in snatches of time.
Meanwhile, the growing women’s movement gave Frye reason to “examine honestly my own life.” Not yet a feminist, she nevertheless responded to a 1972 Redbook challenge: “How do you feel about being a woman? How has the Women’s Liberation movement affected your life?” She wrote an essay declaring her desire “to live positively toward all my human values in a life determined by my own personal choices, not by a frustrated juggling of sexual roles.” Ms. magazine hit newsstands in 1972 and further shaped Frye’s feminist views. She finished her dissertation in 1974, left her marriage in 1975, two children in tow, and landed a job in the English department at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
To escape “the threat of a life constructed for me by others,” Frye overcame not only the daily challenges of single motherhood, but also her own psychological challenges. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “Human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Replace grace with consciousness and you have Frye’s transformational arc. Feminism challenged her female conditioning which did not relent without a fight—an emotional backlash, if you will—as she wrestled a new perspective for herself. At times the ensuing self-doubt brought on tears of rage and despair. During one such episode her then two-year-old daughter asked, “Saying ‘Fuck,’ Mommy? Are you crying, Mommy? Are you sick, Mommy?” Yes, change is painful.
For years Frye kept motherhood and her scholarship in women’s literature separate. In the early 1980s, however, her quest for identity took another turn. While preparing a lecture on the feminist writer Tillie Olsen, one of Frye’s daughters fell ill. Tending her child, Frye thought about Olsen’s short story “I Stand Here Ironing” and realized that motherhood was integral to her own perspective on literature. This awareness redirected her lecture which became “decidedly born of my own experiences as a woman, as a mother.” Frye’s newfound feminist motherhood informed her later books of literary criticism, Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women & the Novel in Contemporary Experience and Tillie Olsen a Study in Shortfiction.
Biting the Moon is structurally complex. Frye’s quest assumes two parts, 1968-1976 and 1976-1989, separated by a section about her ex-husband’s 1994 suicide. This break in chronology serves her subject: the suicide interrupts her story much the way it disrupted her family’s life. Segments of metawriting—Frye writing about writing Biting the Moon—further splice the narrative. At times jarring, this structure mimics the push-pull quest for identity (and time) that dogged Frye’s writing. In places, Frye tends to overwhelm her narrative with seemingly tangential information, minor characters and events in her life, but this remains a small quibble given that Frye, a pioneer, fully realizes herself as a mother, a feminist, and a literary critic.
Biting the Moon promises solace for literary mamas in want of a role model who, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, “rowed against wind and tide.” My regret? This memoir was not on my nightstand when my son was young. No matter. It’s here now, testimony that motherhood plus feminism equals grace.