Placing Women at the Center: A Conversation with Honor Moore

April 23, 2021   •   By Na Zhong

BEFORE SHE DIED of cancer in 1973, writer and social activist Jenny Moore bequeathed her unfinished writings to her eldest daughter, Honor. Although Honor Moore had written and would continue to write about her mother, an effort that culminated in the 1974 Broadway play Mourning Pictures, she didn’t feel ready to take on her mother’s own writings back then. Inspired by second-wave feminism, she went on to publish three collections of poems, two works of memoir, and a biography, The White Blackbird (1996), which tells the struggle of her grandmother, the avant-garde painter Margarett Sargent. An unwavering feminist, Honor Moore has most recently co-edited Women’s Liberation!: Feminist Writings That Inspired a Revolution & Still Can (2021), an anthology of works that formed the “beating heart” of the women’s movement.

It took Moore over four decades to confront her mother’s manuscripts and pick up the conversation they were having before death cut it short. Her 2020 book Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury is her effort to revive and understand a vibrant, brilliant woman’s journey of self-discovery through the radical act of writing.

From our respective quarantines, Honor Moore and I spoke over FaceTime about mother as muse, the craft of memoir, the project of consciousness raising, and the revolutionary idea of “placing a female character at the center of her story.”

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NA ZHONG: Can you tell us a bit about how the idea of Our Revolution came to you?

HONOR MOORE: My mother left me her unfinished writing — 10 cartons — when she died in 1973. At the time, I was in my 20s and just becoming a writer, and so I felt a bit burdened — was I supposed to deal with my own writing or with hers? I had looked at her writing a little when I wrote The White Blackbird, and somewhat more for my 2008 memoir The Bishop’s Daughter. But it really wasn’t until I was writing about her that I went deeply in and came up with the idea of including her writing in italics, weaving it through. At first, I was nervous about that, but as I worked on the book, I realized what a flexible idea it was, because it meant that I could do just two or three words in italics or a whole page, but whichever I did, the reader would know the italics came from her. The New York Times reviewer had written of The White Blackbird that it was “a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter.” I remembered that as an idea, but I wanted in this book to be sure the reader didn’t feel intruded upon when my mother’s voice came in, and I think I succeeded — certainly in part because I’d been putting disparate things in my poems for years and knew how to do it.

I’m interested in the symbolic meaning of writing for women. In Elena Ferrante’s novels, female characters are also writers. It seems to me that women who write as a way to express themselves haven’t really appeared in literature until very recently. And I wonder why that is so and what meaning you think it has.

First, I want to say that writing women do appear in the Brontë novels — Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë. But I think you are correct that they haven’t been present in contemporary novels. For Victorian novelists, as for us now, a woman writing is an evocative idea, the idea of another voice, of being able to come into your own voice, out of the “we” of family, of a marriage. You do it in writing first, because it seems impossible to do so in person.

Like Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and Vivian Gornick in Fierce Attachments, you write about the deep intellectual and emotional attachment between mothers and daughters. Do you think a similar attachment exists between sons and fathers? Were you inspired by any specific mother-and-daughter relationships, other than your own?

My very first published poem was called “My Mother’s Moustache.” It’s about facial hair, which functions as an image for the bond between mother and daughter — the facial hair that the daughter inherits. The last line of the poem is “the surfacing memory, my mother’s moustache.” I have always written about my mother, and she was alive when I wrote “My Mother’s Moustache,” but it was published in 1974, after she died. After her death, I began to write poems about her dying — it was a way to connect with her. Those poems became a play called Mourning Pictures, a play in poems.

I continued to write about her, out of grief. Out of the love that becomes evident at the end of Our Revolution. We didn’t get to have that love really, it was only just starting when she was diagnosed. In that way, I feel a similarity between me and Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, the longing for the mother figure. Mrs. Ramsay isn’t a writer, but she’s a mother of a lot of children. And she is a creative force, a creative spirit. I haven’t read Fierce Attachments since it came out, but I can still feel the presence of Vivian’s mother.

When I was starting to publish, I wrote a piece called “Mother as Muse.” I do think that, for many women writers, one’s mother is one of one’s muses. There was a book called My Mother Myself that came out during the 1970s feminist years. And there was a lot of talk about mothers and daughters as a primary relationship, which contradicted the truism that mothers and daughters always fight. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland is a lot about her relationship with her mother but also her bond with her sister. But with Our Revolution and Fierce Attachments, you have books that are the story of a mother and daughter. You can also read To the Lighthouse as the story of the mother/daughter relationship between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsey — Mrs. Ramsey is central to the first section of the book, and Lily to the third section, and the landscape is of women’s lives. The generational struggle of daughters aspiring to be more than their mothers were able to be is a subject both of Our Revolution and of Fierce Attachments. And of To the Lighthouse.

You’ve written about your father, your grandmother, and your mother. In a 2019 essay you wrote for LitHub, you talked about the difference between writing about your father and your mother. The Bishop’s Daughter, you say, “came in one fell swoop in the three years following [his] death,” but that capturing your mother “was like pulling an endless thread from some long ago sewing basket.” This image is both intimate and unexpected; it’s feminine but also mythological, in a sense. Can you elaborate a little on the difference between writing about your father and your mother?

I like the image. I had come to this realization that a woman’s life is not just one fell swoop but a sequence of little fell swoops, that the narrative of a woman’s life is made up of a sequence of different lives. First, you’re a girl, and that’s one whole story. Then you’re a wife, and then you’re a mother, and then you’re maybe something else. In the 19th-century image I refer to in the book, a Currier and Ives print called “The Life and Age of Woman,” the climax of a woman’s life, its apex, comes when she’s the matron holding the keys to the house. What I’m saying is that my mother had reached that stage, but it was the beginning of a new life she didn’t get to live. Now, of course, many women aren’t bound into marriage in the same way.

That’s interesting because, although men also have to go through different stages, they don’t ever seem bound or trapped by those identities. They are viewed as intact individuals, rather than divided into pieces. Women, on the other hand, have to do a lot of piecing together.

Every time I came to a new section of the book, I thought, Oh, it’s like starting all over again. Which is how it is in life. It’s like, Oh, my God, now what?

Writing about one’s mother can bring so many discoveries about oneself, as you mention in the book. Can you give us some examples of your self-discovery during the process? 

I was very interested in my mother’s portrait of me as a little girl — in her book, she wrote, We never knew where she got that sense of herself. She described me as very self-possessed. And that was interesting, as a kind of external discovery. In terms of interior discovery, I learned that I had more in common with my mother than I had thought. I think I gained more confidence as a writer writing this book, because it felt like the completion of a huge test that began when I was young.

Another discovery was, Oh, my God, I turned 70 during the writing of this book, and I’m really not going to become a mother. And then it occurred to me that in some way I had actually become my mother’s mother, because she died at 50. And if she stayed 50, and I passed her to become 70, then I could be her mother. This is less a discovery about myself than it is about time occurring in more than one dimension. We think of time as one thing happening after another, but physicists talk about time as one dimension. So, it doesn’t really matter that this thing happened in 1945, and that thing happened in 1946. It’s all sort of one thing. I think it’s the kind of discovery that comes with age, which is very mysterious. It’s actually true that you can start losing your sense of yourself as distinct from your mother and then think, Well, maybe it doesn’t matter who is who.

When you first started writing about your mother, it was from the outside. But in Our Revolution, you are writing about her from the inside, with the help of her raw materials. Do you feel any difference?

I would say the difference is that when I was young — when I started writing about her, and then writing right after she died — I was mourning my mother. I was writing about her as my mother, and I didn’t have the perspective to see her as a separate person. So, in a sense, I was writing about my interior. I think psychiatrists would say that I was then writing about an “introject,” an internalized version of my mother, as a way of mourning the loss of her. This book, however, is a kind of journey of discovery of my mother as a separate person, with a separate inner life, which I was able to discover. I don’t think I would have had the capacity to discover her inner life when I was younger, because I didn’t know my own inner life.

I think two ways you learn about your inner life are through heartbreak and writing. Through having a miserable love affair, and through writing a book. At a certain point in my life, I decided it was better to write the book than to have the miserable love affair, that all that imaginative energy — is he going to call, is he not going to call?; imagining what the person is doing, when you’re waiting for him to call — would be better spent writing.

I asked you once why you had chosen to write nonfiction and poetry instead of fiction. At that time, the key word you offered was “privilege,” which has always intrigued me. I want to understand a bit more about how privilege affected your choices as a writer.

I can answer the question in a few ways. There’s one way in which I was writing poems in the “I” voice, which was a kind of memoiristic voice. So, it was natural for me to enlarge that effort in memoir. A lot of poets, when they write prose, write memoir and nonfiction. They don’t write fiction. It’s an interesting thing.

I had a conversation the other day with the biographer Ellen Chesler, who’s read all of my books, and she said that I didn’t need to write fiction, because my stories were so “unbelievably interesting.” And also, I had so much material. I can trace my family back before the American Revolution. I don’t call what we are “an old family” because every family is an old family. What comes with the kind of privilege I grew up with often means that the records are there. Americans who made fortunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries had a kind of inflated sense of themselves, and when they made their mark, they often wanted to record where they came from as a way of gaining legitimacy in the New World. I think that is what people in my family did, and I wrote about that in The White Blackbird. I also had a clear sense that people like my family have been fictionalized since the beginning of American fiction, but the way Henry James and others wrote about that class of white privileged people and how they evolved in this country made was a portrait that didn’t feel quite true to me. I wanted to dig beneath that surface.

So, take someone like my grandmother, a “crazy” rich woman who becomes an artist: it’s easy to fictionalize that, but it’s not going to be accurate, because people have ideas about rich people — as Fitzgerald wrote, the rich “are different from you and me.” Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s different to have enormous privilege, but we’re all human. So, I wanted to tell a kind of intimate, real story. If you think about my father, a bishop who was a closeted bisexual man, well, that could be fictionalized. But that wouldn’t bring in the kind of knowledge I had about him, and how his sexual conflicts were part of his inner life, affecting who he was, as a priest, a bishop, and a preacher, and shaping other things he did, what kind of father he was. And then, this book: many thousands of women read The Feminine Mystique and changed their lives. It did ignite second-wave feminism, but I considered my mother unlike anybody else. So, I felt that it would be really interesting to write about her, since I remembered her saying, “That book changed my life.” But what was her life before she read it? Before she got the permission to call herself an “I” instead of a “we,” and what was her life after that? What was she thinking?

In the early 1970s, when the idea of privilege began to come up in political discussions, I felt that it was a dehumanizing idea. It was something I wanted not to act on or identify with. Now it’s returned as an idea, and I still think it can be dehumanizing. What I would say now, 50 years after I first heard the term, is that I’m interested in the oppressive aspects of privilege, how the experience of privilege limits one’s sense of the world and people unlike oneself. That’s what I mean by the dehumanizing nature of privilege.

One of the most memorable things about this memoir is the narrator’s voice. Sometimes she retreats into the background, but at other times she’s not afraid of being visible. It makes me laugh when the narrator says, “I’ve been trying to get my parents married for months!” It’s such a brilliant line, which creates another kind of tension and immediately tells you who the narrator is. How did you make this decision when you were writing?

I was writing along and that’s the way I felt, and I thought it was funny. I would be walking around, and someone would ask, “How’s the book?” And I said, “I am so tired of trying to get my parents married.” It was fun when my mother as a college student was writing a story, and I got to be her writing teacher, commenting. They were kind of natural places. I often don’t like it when writers bring themselves into the narrative, but the scene where I am on the massage table, and I have a kind of hallucination of myself inside my mother’s womb, that really happened, and I thought the character who was me, the narrator, might tell that story in life, so why not do it on the page.

Does your sense of the reader change how you tell the story?

I’m always wanting to conspire with the reader, to get the reader to be in it with me. A million years ago, when I was starting to write The White Blackbird, I asked my agent, “Do you think people will like this book?” And she said, “If you bring her to life on the page, they will; if you don’t, they won’t.” When I was writing about Margarett, I used to think, You know, she’s not Michelangelo finishing the Sistine Chapel, she’s not Edna St. Vincent Millay writing “Renascence.” In a certain way, who cares? I care. How can I get the reader to care?

I always like stories. I love a book that you can totally get into. What’s the point of it, if the reader doesn’t leave the planet for a few hours? In terms of distance from the reader, I would say, as little distance as possible. But also, I’m aware when I want to change things for the reader. If there’s a really intense part, and I want to give the reader a break, I might have a space break, or I might change the scene or the place. What comes into my mind is the section in Our Revolution when my mother goes out to lunch with her former governess in Manchester when she’s pregnant with me. I liked having that pleasant scene when otherwise she’s very anxious about being pregnant. That’s a poetry thing — you can manipulate language to get people to feel relaxed and not put the book down.

The book has a circular structure. At what stage did it occur to you to start with your mother’s accident in the early chapters and then come back to it toward the end?

Again, it’s about wanting to grab the reader into a story about someone unknown. So, with The White Blackbird, I was thinking, What can I do? And the first sentence is, “You will have a bosom like your grandmother’s, my mother says.” So, immediately, I am identified with my grandmother, and the reader sees that my mother is a little hostile to my grandmother and a little hostile toward me. Plus, it’s provocative. Then, in The Bishop’s Daughter, the prologue starts with him preaching in St. John the Divine and then talks about him at the end of his life, including a glimpse of his bisexuality. I had a friend who said she might reveal that until later in the book, but I decided not to, because in a memoir that would be coy. In other words, it’s a memoir, and the reader knows the writer knows this fact about the character. So why should the memoirist withhold it? It doesn’t make dramatic sense.

Then, when it came to my mother, it was like, what was the thing about her? She died at 50. And what was it about that? It was a catastrophe. I thought that a reader would get immediately taken in by that, and so I made that sentence the first words of the book. Also, in the theater, there’s a thing called the overture. The overture does not give away the entire musical, but it does give you a little snippet of melody, and you like it and want more of it, so you keep going. That was the rationale. It’s circular in the sense that you do come back to the accident. But you know about it, so I don’t have to go through it. Everybody knows about it by then, but now, because you’re with her, you know it’s painful. Also, I get to use a thing she often said. “My mother had a word for this,” I wrote, “It was the end of an era” — which I couldn’t have done if you didn’t already know that it was a catastrophe. This book’s ending came to be as I was writing, as it did The White Blackbird, which ends with a dream I had the night after I finished it. At the end of Our Revolution, I write to the reader, “There is […] so much more I could tell you, but I think of one of my mother’s expressions: Don’t overdo it.” And then I make my mother my addressee, by shifting the “you” to her. That happened in the writing. I didn’t think about it. By that time in the writing, I was so free that I got a little dramatic and full of sentiment.

It feels very natural because it echoes with the title Our Revolution. She has to be a “you” to be included in “us.”

That’s so interesting. Because I had no idea that I was going to call it “Our Revolution” until I had already written that. 

When you were writing the memoir, you were also co-editing the anthology Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings That Inspired a Revolution & Still Can, which came out recently. What was it like to work on the two projects at the same time?

I kept wondering what had possessed me to do two big books at the same time. I underestimated how much work the anthology would be — 90 writers! But reading all those essays that formed my feminism kept me focused on the larger subject: how the lives of a particular mother and daughter were both liberated and constrained as women by the particular times they lived through.

You must have participated in many activities at the beginning of the second-wave feminism. Can you tell us what it was like?

I was in California when the famous 1970 march down Fifth Avenue took place in New York. I did go to a lot of peace marches and Civil Rights marches, and I went to various women’s demonstrations. I say in the introduction to Women’s Liberation! — the anthology I’ve co-edited with Alix Kates Shulman for the Library of America — that my activism was more about writing and teaching women’s poetry workshops than marching, but I was reading everything. We all were. One of the things about our era of feminism was that there was a lot to read. A lot of it happened on the page, which is why I wanted to do the book.

How did you find yourself as a feminist?

I was at Vassar, seeing a rehearsal of the Open Theater, and afterward, a woman turned to me and said, “In New York, they’re doing this thing called ‘women’s liberation.’” That was all it took for me, because it was a time of liberation movements and talk — black liberation and the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement and the liberation of Vietnam, what we were learning about the Chinese revolution. That was the lingua franca of the time.

But women were always running the mimeograph machines and the guys were the leaders, and that didn’t feel right to me. What was my movement? That was a question that I unconsciously had; I felt but couldn’t articulate that in a certain way I wasn’t free. And so, when I heard the phrase “women’s liberation,” it was like, Oh, my God, yes! It was immediate. I’m a shy person; some women I know heard the phrase on the radio and immediately called the number — I wouldn’t have done that. But when I was in New York in 1969, I eventually found feminism and a consciousness-raising group and things to talk about and think about. But identifying as a feminist took, like, half a second.

You have mentioned that feminism allowed you to consider yourself a writer. What were the other effects your awakening had on you?

I think it definitely freed me to consider not having children. Because, in consciousness-raising groups, we immediately started talking about what we were compelled to do as women in the society. And we realized that we actually might make other choices — we could choose whether to marry, whether to have children, what kind of work we wanted to do, whether to work. The thing for middle-class white people was that the husband works and the woman stays at home and takes care of the kids and does the cooking. We realized we didn’t have to do that. We were changing that. We were changing the world, making a revolution for women, so that we could write. And then, there were various poets, like Adrienne Rich and Sonia Sanchez, they were the first ones for me, who were writing these very strong poems from the point of view of themselves as women. I had started to write a play when I was in drama school, and the protagonist, the “I,” was a man in a wheelchair. There was a man in a wheelchair around the drama school. But the point is, that is quite an image of what I thought of myself — a crippled man.

How is the history of feminism taught in the US?

At the very beginning, there was something called women’s studies that was invented in about 1970. It was invented because there was a history of women that wasn’t being taught — there’s a 1970s book by Gerda Lerner whose title says it all, The Majority Finds Its Past. And there were new approaches to sociology, to thinking about women in society. Now it’s called gender studies, which is a kind of reaction against women’s liberation, but also an attempt to focus on the differences that gender controls. Then, in the 1980s, there was a reaction against feminism, and a veering off into theory, French feminist theory at a certain point. There are many women I know who read feminist classics, but I’ve also had students who know nothing about second-wave feminism whatsoever. But we’re in a new moment of feminism now — the election of Trump in 2016, which inspired the Women’s March, and then #MeToo.

What you’ll see when you read Women’s Liberation! is how very radical and multiracial the second wave’s beginnings were. There was a real effort to demonize feminism, to depict it as an all-white, all-middle-class movement, which it wasn’t. Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash tells that story. There was a piece in The New York Times last summer about the descendants of the original suffragists, and some of them are women of color. That hasn’t been taught, because there was an interest in keeping women separated from each other to weaken the impact of the movement.

One of the things I was reminded of collecting all these essays and manifestos is what an impact writings by radical women of color had on my own feminism. Think about how the media writes about conflicts among women. They’re always presented as a great and fatal divide. But actually, ideas evolve and develop through discussion, even conflict, and it’s a sign of a movement’s vitality when people argue over issues and ideas. If I hadn’t read in 1970 the Statement on Birth Control by Black Women’s Liberation Group of Mount Vernon, New York, I wouldn’t have necessarily known that, for black women, birth control was already politicized as genocide which complicated discussions about birth control. But the statement also argues that a woman should have control her own body and her own birth control.

How should women understand and negotiate with each other?

What we did was that we formed small consciousness-raising groups, which met once a week. We would say, Okay, everybody, the topic is your relationship with your father. So, you would have 10 or 12 women in a room, going around the circle, and each would talk about her relationship with her father. And what would emerge was that one father wouldn’t let his daughter wear lipstick, one would make her cut her hair, one wouldn’t let his daughter dance. But what did we all have in common? Well, our fathers had power over us. So, what does that mean politically? That one group of men have power over a group of women, their daughters. Or you’d talk about housework: how is housework divided in your family? And you went around the room and everyone talked about that. And what would emerge would be some truth about housework and how it served the status quo and what we wanted to change as women.

As far as relationships between women were concerned, we were very aware that women competed with each other, and so we analyzed it: Why should two women fight over one man? Or why should a woman fight to get another woman’s job? We tried to build solidarity among women. Part of that was having these groups, where you felt free to share in a deep way about what was going on. In a certain way, it’s not unlike what goes on in the best writing workshops.

I remember in consciousness-raising groups, there would be the “beautiful” woman and also the woman who didn’t think of herself as beautiful. The woman who was overweight, the woman who was too skinny, there were all different kinds of women. But when we came together, we found that we were all under a lot of pressure to have the same body. And the gorgeous blonde woman with perfect skin and a perfect figure talked about how her mother trashed her about her breasts. Then it was clear how insane the whole thing was. How it didn’t have to do with reality.

In a way, reading the anthology feels like listening to all these feminists having a discussion.

In the book, there’s an essay about how to start a consciousness-raising group, and also an essay about the history of abortion rights. On one hand, the book is a discussion, but it’s also meant to be a handbook or source for someone like you who’s asking questions that an earlier generation actually struggled with, and that you have no idea anyone else ever considered, let alone struggled through.

It’s an almost miraculous time now. Attitudes toward feminism completely turned on a dime when Trump was elected. Suddenly it became very cool to be a feminist, to call yourself a feminist, to write about feminism, to cover the subject in The New York Times, where for decades the movement and its thinking were either distorted or not covered at all. There were decades when I would never say in a class that I was a feminist or would think twice before I said it. I remember 10 years ago, when I published Poems from the Women’s Movement, there was a group reading, and my whole class came. One of the students — she must have been in her late 20s — said to me after the reading, “We have to start a revolution.” And a wave of exhaustion hit me. I thought to myself, Been there, done that. But what I said was, “Yes.”

It’s so easy to allow women to be passive in their own stories, because it’s what we’re used to. It’s not only the “I” voice, the “I” at the center of my own story, but it’s also placing the female character at the center of her story. And that’s a kind of revolutionary idea.

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Na Zhong is a New York–based writer, translator, and host of the podcast show Talking Literature.