Transforming the Race-mother: Motherhood and Eugenics in British Modernism
Harbin, Persephone Emily
This project argues that British modernism was directly informed by the theories of eugenic race-regeneration that gained popularity at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. In particular, the central figure of the eugenic mother, or “race-mother,” influenced the portrayal of maternal figures in modernism and offered a locus through which modernist authors could critique this construction and enter into debates about artistry and national regeneration. I begin by defining and contextualizing race-motherhood, a concept which united racial purity, imperialism, social service, and literal and metaphoric good breeding. I discuss the participation of little-known women, such as Victoria Welby, in the eugenics movement, and I argue that New Woman authors, such as Emma Brooke, Menie Muriel Dowie, and Olive Schreiner, challenged male-centered eugenic discourses through the creation of narratives centered on eugenic motherhood. The modernist authors I discuss -- Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce -- are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the symbolic and political power of eugenics. Mina Loy actively endorsed eugenic motherhood; she desired a eugenic love child that would represent the fusion of masculine Futurism and feminist poetry. Like Loy, Woolf rejected Victorian models of femininity and sometimes endorsed eugenic feminism in her essays. However, in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she remained deeply skeptical about the regenerative power of biological motherhood. The power of the race-mother (in the form of Mrs. Ramsay) proves to be insufficient, and the female artist must replace biological creativity with artistic creativity. James Joyce makes a similar move in Ulysses: although his artists are male, they figuratively give birth in “Oxen of the Sun” with the aid of a midwife who replaces the mother. Thus, modernist authors reference the symbolic construct of the race-mother in order to both criticize and appropriate her power for the creation of art.