An Exploration of Motherhood and Sexuality in Late-Twentieth Century African-American Literature

Open Access
MacNealy, Courtney Shane
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Christopher Dean Castiglia, Thesis Supervisor
  • Janet Wynne Lyon, Honors Advisor
  • Janet Wynne Lyon, Faculty Reader
  • Toni Morrison
  • Sula
  • womanhood
  • motherhood
  • sexuality
  • Moynihan Report
Throughout history, women’s bodies have been viewed as either pure or impure; they carry both the potential for mothering and the potential for seduction. Society has categorized females, based on how they have used their bodies, as either the Madonna or the prostitute; in literature we have seen the Victorian “Angel of the House” versus the femme fatale. As patriarchy has perpetuated the notion that women’s primary function is reproduction, women have been expected to reserve their sexuality solely for this purpose. Engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, or inside of marriage without procreating is, therefore, inadmissible. This has created the contention that motherhood and sexual agency cannot coexist. A woman’s sexual behavior, or lack thereof, has formed her entire identity, and been the basis for her acceptance or rejection by her community. Females who conform to the patriarchal ideal of a reproductive, nurturing mother are construed as “good” by their community, while those who choose to remain childless and/or sexually active are construed as “bad.” This is exemplified by the female characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula. This thesis will demonstrate that in the novel, the women who become mothers and abstain from sexual activities are, despite tremendous flaws, deemed natural and good, while the women who exhibit sexual agency are ostracized as unnatural and the “Other.” Furthermore, it will look at the effects of the mothers on their children and themselves, arguing that the “good” women are destructive, while the outcast females produce more positive results.