In Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Motherhood and Feminism (Syracuse University Press, 2012), Joanne S. Frye struggles with issues of divorce, single motherhood, and the value of meaningful work. In her Prologue, Frye articulates that this is a “story of pain and guilt, but also of joy, small pleasures, felt accomplishments, survival, and love” (xv). Her memoir encompasses all of these, as promised, and yet it does so much more in addressing the hungers that so many women have beyond motherhood and marriage.
A Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, Frye intricately weaves the voices of many women writers, including her own, on the topic of motherhood and female identity. Sharing her understanding of motherhood with women like Tillie Olsen, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, and countless others, her memoir becomes a womb of maternal portrayals that provoke an in-depth analysis of the institution of motherhood. More so, it offers a fresh perspective of life as woman attempting to move against our understanding of traditional gender expectations that we have to come to know and to which we subscribe, willingly and without much thought.
Having married young to an older professor who wooed her with foreign music, food, and a shared affinity for Kafka, Joanne S. Frye’s story begins with the volatile nature of her marriage. Although her relationship begins, like most relationships, with great passion and mutual adoration, Frye’s marriage soon begins to stifle her. With the birth of her first daughter, Kara, Lawrence and Joanne make their first home as parents on a farm complete with chickens, cows, and farming. With only one car that her husband used to get to and from work, Frye’s experience as a new mother is limited to the restrictive and isolating nature of motherhood and farm life.
Impressively vivid are Frye’s descriptions of this part of her life, which ironically functioned to isolate her role as wife and mother outside her pursuits of becoming an academic. Her dissertation on Virginia Woolf at a standstill, this isolationism cemented her husband’s control over her, her actions, her mothering, and her voice. While farm life rendered her less of an academic and more of a domesticated woman, her husband’s role included the academic, but also resolutely defined his position as breadwinner and protector. Her own needs and desires oppressed, she withstood years of unequal treatment, unprovoked rage, criticism of her mothering, and controlling behavior from the man she had once loved but now felt numb towards. According to Frye, “It was as a wife, not as a mother, that I felt entrapped” (50), and it is this sense of being trapped and lonely and silenced that pushes her to finally take her girls and leave a marriage that diminished her to nothing more than a subservient farmhand, an object to his subject. Her willingness to leave her marriage with nothing more than a car seat and two little girls, with the knowledge that she would find a job and she would make it as a single mother, affirms Joanne S. Frye’s determination and strength. Her conviction is evident when she says, “unprotected by traditional family structure, freed from that structure…I am a mother…but also a woman struggling to understand who I am” (xv).
The latter part of Frye’s memoir, is not as visually descriptive as her life on the farm, but it is equally relevant to every woman’s struggle in claiming an identity outside of motherhood. It is obvious throughout that this smart and clear-headed woman is in love with her daughters, but with intense levels of candor, she voices the complexities and societal pressures women feel when they want more than just being mothers. Frye points out this distinction: “I knew that I did not want to be only a mother and that I would not accept the idea that as a mother I had to relinquish my ‘solitary self’—or my sexual self” (43).
Biting the Moon introduces us to a woman who acts with feminist conviction before she even calls herself a feminist—before she establishes a successful Women’s Studies program in her college. She is an academic and a writer, a mother and a divorced woman; most importantly, she is a woman on a journey of finding her self and her voice outside of patriarchal institutions that attempt to limit and restrict her roles and her potential as a self. Living outside the norm of traditional marriage, she finds love, identity, and she most thoughtfully disentangles the complexities that come with motherhood and self-actualization.