Date of Award

Fall 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Catherine Keyser

Second Advisor

Tara Powell


My dissertation considers depictions of mothers in the works of four southern women writers published between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. During this period there was a conservative backlash to the progressive second-wave feminist movement. The tensions that women experienced between the ideas of feminism and the traditions in the South that women should aspire to motherhood above all other enterprises and should enact motherhood as selfless servants to their children and husbands are apparent in the fictional works examined in this study.

I consider texts by Doris Betts, Gail Godwin, Dorothy Allison, and Kaye Gibbons to explore a collage of women’s experiences with southern motherhood through the mothers, both successful and unsuccessful in their motherhood enactments, that these authors imagine in their fiction. These four authors examine white motherhood from a variety of standpoints including social class, working versus non-working mothers, mothers who flee, and mothers who let their children suffer through their ambivalence toward the motherhood project. The texts also consider the power of the community to police the actions of the mother, including the determination of the acceptability for a woman to defer childrearing to an alternative parent.

The mothers imagined by Betts, Godwin, Allison, and Gibbons find motherhood to be a space that can empower women with the thrill of creating life and nurturing a child or, just as easily, crush them with the weight of unwanted expectations and responsibilities. These four authors, considered together, indicate complexity in women’s attitudes toward the institution of motherhood during this historical period that is far from the monolithic idea of southern motherhood informed by the heteronormative traditions of the American South.