Image by Claire Miskimmin

Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer (1913-1970), a rising star in the 1930s, is remembered today more for her unfortunate life story than for her once promising career. Talented and beautiful, Farmer was also wilful, troubled, and self-destructive.

At 22, Frances Farmer moved to New York City to pursue stage acting. She ended up signing a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and starring in 15 films instead. Farmer originally wanted to be a journalist and even got her degree in the field, but her mother encouraged her otherwise. Farmer decided to go with it when the contract came but always intended to be on the stage instead of the screen.

After a period of increasingly erratic behaviour, she was declared legally insane and institutionalised in 1944. Released in 1950, she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Since her death in 1970, however, she has become something of a cult figure, the subject of three books, three movies (the best known of which is the 1982 film Frances, starring Jessica Lange), several off-Broadway plays, scores of magazine articles, and a song, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" by Kurt Cobain, which includes this line: "She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground."

The standard version of the Frances Farmer story goes like this: An idealistic young actress challenges the hypocrisy of her world and becomes the victim of a spiteful mother, a vengeful Hollywood, and a cabal of callous and arrogant psychiatrists. Together they force her into a state mental hospital, where she is brutalised by electric shock and other barbaric treatments; raped by orderlies, fellow inmates, and soldiers from a nearby Army base; and eventually lobotomised. Her rebellious spirit finally shattered, she leaves the institution an atomised half-woman, only a shadow of the vibrant artist she had once been.

Whatever the true story, it has been eclipsed by the mythology. With the medical records closed and all the principal players long dead, little can be said with certainty about what really happened to Frances Farmer. Still, two things seem clear: the behaviour that landed her in an insane asylum half a century ago would scarcely raise an eyebrow today; and yet, had she not been institutionalised, she might well have been long forgotten.

Although she’s dead, something of Frances remains in her incomplete tale. There she stands, in the shadows, in the wings. She takes one last drag on her Kent, exhales, and, trailing a thin blanket of ash, steps onstage into our various incorrect versions of her life.

She’ll come back as fire

To burn all the liars

Leave a blanket of ash on the ground...

Words by Cheryl Gault

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Cheryl and Lyndsey x

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I am a hopeful mother.

Mothers come in all versions, it is as wide a question as could be. I hope i’m a good mother, but i’m painfully aware that it’s not as simple as that. My new experience of motherhood has been relatively normal and beautiful, sad, euphoric, hard and joyful.

I am a working mother.

Work: activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.

Before I had a baby my work was one of the most important things in my life. I work at a major contemporary art gallery in the exhibitions department and it’s part of my role to extract meaning and interpret difficult subjects within contemporary artworks. It’s what I always wanted to do and I have spent a large part of my life working to get to do it. The work is immensely rewarding and has exposed me to so many fascinating conversations, ideas and people from all over the world.

If I use the tools and framework to understand art (which has taken years to learn, including two degrees) to look at the concept of motherhood, or more particularly my relationship with the concept of motherhood, I struggle. No matter how hard I try, or which way I phrase it I simply cannot interpret or explain the day to day reality of becoming a mother. I doubt I should even use this framework to do this, but I can only use what I know. I sit in front of the same laptop and look out the same window as I do when working, so how do I separate this out? It’s still me, looking at art, looking at my life, trying to work it out as I type. Here I am, another woman, another mother, futilely figuring out how to ‘have it all’. (I put this in inverted commas because who really wants it all?) I read it all the time, coming up again and again in articles, books, podcasts, conversations. How to have it all and not feel like you’re failing at everything. I don’t have the answer, I don’t believe anyone does… maybe something about believing in yourself…

I am a new mother.

To start with, the reality of actually giving birth to a baby shocked me. It was traumatic, terrifying, and mentally numbing. I was in the hospital for three days after the birth, scared to fall asleep, scared to be left with my new baby and scared to go home. Some things didn’t go right, but ultimately I was gifted, I had this little boy who was mine. The nitty gritty tale of life with a newborn followed. We didn’t sleep much, but we helped each other, it was hard but we were in love with ‘the three of us’. I found the first year tough, I don’t have any advice about it, nipple cream didn’t even work for me, it’s a hard time. Somehow you just eventually find yourself on the other side of a year and things start to become recognisable again.

I am a growing mother.

So back to normal-ish life. When I am lost for words, I tend to look around me to see how others cope, how they interpret things and I can’t think of anyone better than artists to do this.

Two years ago I worked with the artist Clare Gallagher. She was exhibiting in the gallery with a show called VERGES. The show was photography documentation of nature breaking through manmade structures. After this exhibition she went on to create a widely recognised and successful photographic series called “The Second Shift”. ‘The Second Shift’ documents the labour of household tasks and childcare (mostly by women, but that’s a different conversation) in addition to their paid employment. It’s beautiful, messy, transcendental, and gloomily normal, but most of all, I felt it was reflective for me and my own visual experience. My life is both expected and not so, it’s what I thought, but both more and less. To me, Gallagher’s work actively merges work and love. The details of life that are both mundane and sublime, angry and resigned. The detail in the photographs is extraordinary, work is work, home is home, one is the other and nothing can ever be perfect but it can be beautiful, which makes perfect sense.

I have not separated out my work in all its forms from motherhood in all its forms. I am lucky to work in a field where it’s possible for me to be somewhat reflective. Motherhood now informs how I cope with situations, how I juggle daily life and how I approach writing, working and living. Artists such as Clare Gallagher illustrate to me the lack of divide between versions of myself. Being a mother in reality encompasses my entire life, it’s not something I separate out, to do when I go home, and equally it informs my paid work. I am this one person, with different titles.

I am a learning mother.

I come at motherhood from an angle of openness. I want to feel deeply, I want to discover something about myself that I didn't know, I want to learn, I want to give. In ways this has led to me taking it all in, on some days perhaps too much. All the love, all the guilt, all the fear. I question myself endlessly, how can I possibly protect my perfect tiny child from the world? My imagination is brightly coloured, I can go anywhere with it, sometimes into complex places, often into scenarios that will never come to pass. The grounding force since the birth of my beautiful boy continues to be the relentless drive to care for my little baby, love him fiercely and give him the wonderful experience of life. I have learnt in becoming a mother that somehow we (him and I) will survive with overwhelming love and that all this time will inevitably pass. For me, it’s perhaps less about having to ‘get through’, but more about my purpose, this new person is an extension of who I am. The cord was cut but I am tied and bound. It is now part of who I am to get up in the morning, to feed, to change, to play and simply continue to live, as beauty will come with this life and with this work.

What kind of a mother am I?

I am my baby’s mother. I am me.

Words and images by Mary Stevens

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Cheryl and Lyndsey x

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Here at Máthair we have been very quiet, we have been consciously listening, reflecting and educating ourselves. We started this blog as a safe inclusive space for mothers/pregnant people to share and tell stories. The power of storytelling is something we feel very passionate about, especially in current days. We believe stories create magic and a sense of wonder at the world. Stories teach us about life, about ourselves and about others. Storytelling is a unique way for children to develop an understanding, respect and appreciation for other cultures, and can promote a positive attitude towards people from different lands and religions. We have decided to share some short stories about incredible women from all over the world in the hope to educate and inform, not only other people but ourselves too. First up is my daughters new favourite dancer, Katherine Dunham - Choreographer and Anthropologist. 

We hope you enjoy, much love Cheryl and Lyndsey

Katherine Dunham

(1909 – 2006)


Despite a strict upbringing, Katherine was a creative and enterprising child. At the age of twelve she published a short story in W. E. B. Du Bois’s monthly magazine, and at fourteen she produced, directed and starred in a performance to raise money for her church. Dancing, though, was her true love, and she studied modern dance and ballet in her childhood. Everything changed for her after she attended a lecture on black culture at the University of Chicago. She learned that much of the black culture in America – the music, folklore and dances – had all begun somewhere in Africa.

Katherine wanted to find out how the roots of African culture had spread around the world, so she began studying anthropology, focusing on dances from the African diaspora. Throughout her career she found a way to balance studying dance, teaching it and actually performing it. In the early 1930s she formed the Ballet Nègre, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States, and the Negro Dance Group, a school to teach young black dancers about their heritage.

In 1935 she received a grant from the Rosenwald Fund and prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct an ethnographic study of dance in the Caribbean. She travelled to Jamaica, Martinique and Trinidad but truly connected with the culture in Haiti.

After Katherine returned to the United States, she founded the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre. The dancers toured and performed and taught movement to artists, dancers and actors. Her classes were extremely popular due to her unique methods. She combined traditional African and Caribbean movements with ballet and modern dance in an innovative way that was soon canonised as the Dunham Technique. It's still taught in dance classes today, and she is referred to as the Matriarch of Black Dance.

She was also a social activist and continued to fight against racism and injustice all around the world throughout her life. She once refused to hold a show after finding out that the city's black residents had not been allowed to buy tickets for the performance. She was a ground breaking visionary and her legacy of spirited dance, cultural acceptance, and social justice lives on.

Words by Cheryl Gault

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