Mothers Without Borders: A Tribute to Surrogacy

May 9, 2021 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Today I’m thinking of all those who “mother” — beyond those who have born biological children. Think Mother Teresa, for example, or Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, known for their communal living and celibacy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Consider also the works of Irena Sendler, biologically childless, but celebrated in Tilar Mazzeo’s book. Sendler smuggled hundreds of children out of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto in the 1940s.

Tilar J. Mazzeo’s bestselling story of Irena Sendler’s work with Polish children in Warsaw’s ghetto during Hitler’s regime

And south of Warsaw, within in the Italian commune Nomadelfia, Irene and Norina, two “mothers by vocation” also nurtured war-orphans — many of them Jewish — rather than bearing biological children. From 1941 onward these Italian women labored to help children in need.

Irene, the first “mother by vocation” at Nomadelfia, with one of the many adopted children she nurtured. Used by permission of Nomadelfia.

These women drew from the social power of Roman Catholicism. Sendler even taught the Polish children Roman Catholic prayers to hide their Judaism. Although her attitude toward Roman Catholicism differed from Irene’s and Norina’s, their approaches to mothering those in need did not.

Their stories, and others in history and literature, speak to women’s sense of agency. They tap into diverse images of motherhood that meant and continue to mean much. They call attention to controversial issues surrounding surrogacy as it crosses beliefs about religious practices and cultural boundaries. At the same time, they point to problems of aloofness associated with beliefs in biological and spiritual superiority. Above all, they remind us of the values of surrogacy, even with its fraught connotations.

Norina, a “mother by vocation” at the Italian commune Nomadelfia, with adopted children, on the cover of her autobiography. Used by permission of Nomadelfia.

The word “surrogacy,” now charged with social values and psychological meanings, only became overtly associated with motherhood in the mid-twentieth century. Before that, defined simply as a “substitute,” a surrogate could refer to a replacement for anything from butter, to morphine, to God. The word often connoted a person who had been “appointed” officially to fulfill a role in place of another.  By the 1970s the term conjured up Freudian associations among literary scholars who wrote, for example, of Henry James and Stephen Crane being “mothered” by their sisters. Not long after, with advances in medical technology and the rise of sperm and egg donors, surrogacy took on additional meanings. By 1979, a Scientific American article asked whether eventually “rich women might pay poor women to carry their children?”

Since then, the debates have become more complex. Rights of biological donors and arguments among medical ethicists populate the pages of scholarly and popular venues. From late 2019 alone, articles range from Gillian Telling’s “Inside the Lives of Surrogate Moms” in People (November 2019) to essays on surrogacy in South Australia, India and Israel in academic journals.  

The debates weaving through recent accounts and those of decades long past center upon diverse images of mother figures. While some figures evoke public celebration, others elicit scorn.

Mother Teresa, for example, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and founder of the religious order, Sisters of Charity, is known for her work among the poor in Calcutta. She is celebrated for labors that began in the 1940s, long before her death in 1997. Her work as a mother meant serving all who needed nurturing. But how many know of her opposition to birth control and abortion? While not surprising for a Roman Catholic, the views may unsettle some who celebrate Teresa.   

Of course, the title “Mother” which Teresa earned harkens back to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Although her sexual purity was lauded early in Christian history, her stature as divine has been debated. It was the center of attention when Pope Pius IX’s 1854 definition of Immaculate Conception appeared). A lesser-known debate about divinity surrounded Mother Ann Lee, who came to an early death because of her controversial lifestyle. She founded the United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers.

According to the Testimonies published by her followers, Lee suffered injuries at the hands of scoffers and abusers in rural Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War era. Rather than serving the poor quietly like Mother Teresa, Mother Ann raised a ruckus. Rather than following a carpenter husband as Mary did, Ann led her husband. She convinced him to leave behind all thoughts of her biological childbearing. Born to a blacksmith in England, Ann had married early in life, and a string of pregnancies followed. None of her numerous children survived early childhood.

Title page of the Shaker Testimonies, which tells the story of founder Mother Ann Lee. Google Books.

Not long after, Lee’s mystical visions showed her that this sex stuff was not Divine. Her preaching against “carnal relations” landed her in dung piles and prison. And another vision — of America as a promised land, with spiritual fruit ripe for the picking — led her to New York with a handful of followers. Preaching her gospel of celibacy, she “gave birth” to new believers. Young seekers left their parents and spouses left their partners to join Mother Ann’s new family system. She was accused of “breaking up the family union.” Often, though, entire families would join, setting aside their past lifestyles to be a part of this communal movement.

Tombstone of Shaker Mother Ann Lee, Wikimedia Commons, By Doug Coldwell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In literary history, US authors of the staunchest Protestant heritage picked up on Lee’s controversial status and pilloried the Shakers. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one who could not understand their celibacy. At the same time he acknowledged Mary’s larger-than-life presence as an ideal for women — but with a twist. Hawthorne held up the adulterous Hester of his Scarlet Letter as equal in beauty to the great “Madonna.” But Hester’s biological motherhood and sensuality earned her this title.

Award-winning author Toni Morrison depicted mythic mother-figures in most of her fiction. Likely she would have celebrated Mother Ann. In Paradise (1995), for example, Mary Magna reigns over an isolated convent in rural Oklahoma. This “Great Mary” watches over women within what was once a bootlegger’s mansion — one person’s dream of paradise — offering them solace, love, comfort and community. She symbolizes what any woman might become — regardless of marital status, class or race.

Upon Mary Magna’s death, Consolata reigns as the new mother-figure. Rescued as a child from the slums of a port city, and named for the consolation she both received from and provided to Mary Magna, Consolata now plays the surrogate role to needy women. Her mothering leads others to rebirth in the chrysalis of the convent. But outsiders have different visions of what a household and a mother should be. As with Mother Ann, enemies of the Oklahoma convent destroy what they oppose.

Morrison’s novel, set in the 1970s and earlier, does not touch upon medical ethics in surrogacy. But it underscores the ugliness and outright errors of beliefs in biological superiority about race and about motherhood. It reminds us of how far the controversial images of mothering extend. From rural Oklahoma through points in Italy, India and beyond, women for centuries have sought to help people in need. Whether Mary Magna, Mother Ann of the Shakers, or Mothers by Vocation in Nomadelfia, women have reached out to touch, cradle and nurture others who need love and, sometimes, guidance.

These accounts speak to the ongoing needs for mothering. Don’t many deserve to be called mothers?

Surrogacy and American Women in Italy

The three American women central to my book, Engaging Italy, bore no children of their own. Yet two, Caroline Crane Marsh and Emily Bliss Gould, served as surrogate mothers throughout their years abroad—a topic I consider in the book. Today, consider this snippet about Gould:

When Emily and her husband, James Gould, left New York for Rome in 1860 — for the purposes of providing a suitable, sunny climate for her health — she was just shy of forty. Like many women of her era and social status, Gould lived with the vague diagnosis of being “invalid,” a health condition that may have prevented pregnancy. Whatever the cause (perhaps her husband, a former naval physician, was responsible), the “childless” Gould soon found a new calling with those she labeled her “poor babes.”

Not to be stymied by age, she embraced a role of surrogate motherhood.  By 1870 she had established a school and orphanage in Rome. Gould’s dedication to the project drove her to an early death in Perugia in 1875. Dying at what appears to have been the peak of her work, Gould was all but deified in print as a larger-than-life mother-figure and martyr. The Istituto Gould in Florence stands today as an offshoot of those early labors.

Emily Bliss Gould in Italy, ca. 1870, from Leonard Woolsey Bacon’s A Life Worth Living (1879)

Gould’s story of surrogate motherhood deserves to be told for the many courageous steps she took as she struck out on a new path while living abroad. Gould demonstrated that her life abroad was about more than consuming good food and wine. Yet her fundraising for the school and orphanage among supporters in the US embodies a crossing of cultural and religious borders that speaks of “American exceptionalism” to some. Gould, like many other US citizens, often deem “Others” needy of what they have to offer. Gould offered Protestantism, along with literacy, sewing and printing, to impoverished Roman Catholics. Gould, and many women before and since, have served as surrogate mothers, stepping across cultural boundaries to help in what small ways they can.  For her sincerity toward motherhood, if not for her lack of cultural self-awareness, she should be celebrated.

Learn more about Gould, Marsh and other women in history and in Italy by subscribing to my All Things Italy monthly newsletter here. (Of course, you can order a copy of Engaging Italy as well). And, share a link to this celebration of mothers with any friend you think may be interested.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to send me feedback or questions.

Etta Madden