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The mothers we’ve had and the mothers we are

Her Mothers by E.M. Broner Hardcover, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $7.95, 245 pp.; Paperback, Berkley Medallion, $1.75, 240 pp.

Reviewed by Susan Hersh Sachs

“Mother, I’m pregnant with a baby girl and you will be proud of her.”
“Why?”
“She is pleasant to the customers, respectful to her parents, distant from her friends.”
“An ideal daughter.”

When we read these lines we are already well into this experimental novel on female role models. Beatrix Palmer is an unqualified success as a writer, but as the mother of a 17-year-old runaway daughter, she doubts her success as a woman. Trying to understand her daughter by exploring her own daughterhood, she recalls the maternal criticism that tormented her and her girlfriends. She realizes that all mothers are, in fact, trying to raise ideal daughters.

If this is so, we need ideal mothers; and if our biological mothers cannot serve as role models, perhaps our historical mothers can. So Beatrix Palmer researches our Historical Mothers: Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Forten. She discovers that these enabling, self-demeaning women cannot serve as our role models, either.

Beatrix goes searching in Israel, beginning with our Foremothers. Of Sarah, the first Jewish woman, she writes that all the Egyptian soldiers “took their pleasure with her while Avram sat outside of the tent, drinking their water, eating their provisions…. counting his newly gained sheep, oxen, asses, camels.” After describing Rivka, Rachel and Leah, all exploited by their men, she cries, “Who named you my mothers? Who named this a matriarchy?”

Her stories of modern Israeli women show them also totally victimized, primarily by fathers disturbed at the daughters’ successes. But the archetypal victims are the survivors of Nazism, “The Tattooed People. The Experimented-On People. Still, they live.”

Beatrix ultimately comes to view herself a survivor, affirming at the end that, despite being deprived of ideal female images, a woman must be “unafraid.”

Susan Hersh Sachs has written for Sh’ma and Studies in American Jewish Literature. She is currently teaching a course for 11- and 12-year-old girls on Women in Orthodox Judaism.