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Modern Motherhood

Modern Motherhood: An American History

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Modern Motherhood
    Book Description:

    How did mothers transform from parents of secondary importance in the colonies to having their multiple and complex roles connected to the well-being of the nation? In the first comprehensive history of motherhood in the United States, Jodi Vandenberg-Daves explores how tensions over the maternal role have been part and parcel of the development of American society.Modern Motherhoodtravels through redefinitions of motherhood over time, as mothers encountered a growing cadre of medical and psychological experts, increased their labor force participation, gained the right to vote, agitated for more resources to perform their maternal duties, and demonstrated their vast resourcefulness in providing for and nurturing their families. Navigating rigid gender role prescriptions and a crescendo of mother-blame by the middle of the twentieth century, mothers continued to innovate new ways to combine labor force participation and domestic responsibilities. By the 1960s, they were poised to challenge male expertise, in areas ranging from welfare and abortion rights to childbirth practices and the confinement of women to maternal roles. In the twenty-first century, Americans continue to struggle with maternal contradictions, as we pit an idealized role for mothers in children's development against the social and economic realities of privatized caregiving, a paltry public policy structure, and mothers' extensive employment outside the home.Building on decades of scholarship and spanning a wide range of topics, Vandenberg-Daves tells an inclusive tale of African American, Native American, Asian American, working class, rural, and other hitherto ignored families, exploring sources ranging from sermons, medical advice, diaries and letters to the speeches of impassioned maternal activists. Chapter topics include: inventing a new role for mothers; contradictions of moral motherhood; medicalizing the maternal body; science, expertise, and advice to mothers; uplifting and controlling mothers; modern reproduction; mothers' resilience and adaptation; the middle-class wife and mother; mother power and mother angst; and mothers' changing lives and continuous caregiving. While the discussion has been part of all eras of American history, the discussion of the meaning of modern motherhood is far from over.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6380-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Reading cultural pronouncements on mothers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we might think that no force on earth was more noble or more powerful than the mother. In 1795,New York Magazinetold American mothers that, quite simply, “the reformation of the world is in your power.” Several decades later, the Reverend William Abbott flattered American mothers that their influence outweighed that of “all earthly causes.” We know, of course, that women could not vote at the time and therefore had limited direct impact on the larger public world. Still, Sarah Josepha Hale insisted, “If the future...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Inventing a New Role for Mothers
    (pp. 11-31)

    To understand the historical significance of modern motherhood, it helps to take a brief look backward to the essentially premodern world of mothers in the English colonies. Ideas about mothers as unique moral guardians only emerged at the time of the American Revolution. Before that, the nation’s Puritan ancestors, who left us the most voluminous records about seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century family life, held starkly different views. For them, mothers had no special place in the moral and spiritual education of their children. Fathers were considered the morally stronger of the two parents. According to one Puritan minister, “Persons are often...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Contradictions of Moral Motherhood: SLAVERY, RACE, AND REFORM
    (pp. 32-48)

    By the time the enslaved Harriet Jacobs reached the age of sixteen, she had been trying to ignore her master’s sexual overtures for years. She later became involved with another white man, whom she hoped would purchase her from her master, Dr. Flint. But Flint threatened Jacobs and vowed never to sell her. Jacobs did not have the right to her own person, and, when she eventually became a mother, her slim claims to her children haunted her throughout her life. When her first child was born “sickly,” Flint “did not fail to remind me that my child was an...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Medicalizing the Maternal Body
    (pp. 49-74)

    “I was not surprised,” Peggy Nicholas wrote to her daughter in 1828, “nor would I have been grieved, to hear that you were again in the family way; but I must acknowledge [that] to hear that your confinement [birth] was to take place next Month, dashed me not a litle [sic].” She confessed, “I had hoped that you had got into a confirmed habit of an interval of two years, that there was no doubt of your continuance in this, and that [there] might be some reasonable guide in calculating your number.” Despite these concerns, Peggy’s daughter Jane bore thirteen...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Science, Expertise, and Advice to Mothers
    (pp. 77-102)

    In 1918, Julia Lathrop, director of the recently formed United States Children’s Bureau, received a letter from a heartbroken mother, a “Mrs. W.D.,” explaining that she and her husband had lost their only child at the tender age of four months. Mrs. W.D. lamented, “My baby was sacrificed thru mere ignorance,” even though she had studied child care while pregnant, had consulted experts, and had kept a sanitary home. “Money or efforts were not spared to save him. I soon found that not only mothers of large families knew nothing about the scientific care of babies, but the best Doctors...

    (pp. 103-128)

    Between the 1890s and the 1930s, the foundations of the American welfare state began to take shape. The United States created a small governmental safety net, for not only mothers and children but also workers. In that era workers were culturally defined as male, although the female ranks were growing. By international standards, the United States had a sparse welfare structure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the inadequate social policy accessible to mothers and, of course, the people who lived with mothers. The origins of the American welfare state contained grand designs indeed, and reformers’ notions of mother-informed...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Modern Reproduction: THE FIT AND UNFIT MOTHER
    (pp. 129-149)

    As late as 1940, the most popular form of “contraceptive” in the United States was the antiseptic douche, a profoundly unreliable method. With the Comstock laws still in place, douches were covertly advertised, not labeled as contraceptives, and packaged by multiple companies in an unregulated marketplace. Some versions contained very little besides water and salt; others were unsafe, sometimes even deadly.¹ Despite a century of declining birth rates and all the progress made in infant and child health and in the prevention of maternal mortality between the 1910s and the 1930s, most women still could not reliably control their fertility....

  11. CHAPTER 7 Mothers’ Resilience and Adaptation in Modern America
    (pp. 150-170)

    Remembering her years with her children in the early twentieth century, Mrs. Nishimura, a first-generation Japanese American (issei), told an interviewer, “My happiest time was then, when my children were small. I was poor and busy then, but that might have been the best time. It was good to think about my children—how they’d go through high school and college afterwards.” Similarly, an African American mother reminisced, “I tell you I feel really proud and I really feel that with all the struggling that I went through, I feel happy and proud that I was able to keep helping...

  12. Figures
    (pp. None)
  13. CHAPTER 8 The Middle-Class Wife-and-Mother Box
    (pp. 173-209)

    Between 1941 and 1945, the United States participated as a combatant in World War II. Mothers were expected to sacrifice on the home front, and Americans sentimentally honored the sacrifice of mothers’ sons to the larger cause. Meanwhile, the nation encouraged less traditional roles for women and mothers, asking them to adapt their domestic roles with greater labor force participation to keep industrial production moving while men were at war. At the close of the war, however, many Americans grew fearful and reactionary, as they tried to come to terms with the developments of a turbulent decade and a half...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Mother Power and Mother Angst
    (pp. 210-246)

    As a spirit of rebellion swept the nation in the 1960s and 1970s, many who considered themselves experts on women and motherhood were not sure what was hitting them. Women who were supposed to have “adjusted” to their wife-and-mother roles were launching a widespread feminist movement. They were simultaneously demanding access to the public world and criticizing the American family for infantilizing and restricting them. Betty Friedan’s best-selling bookThe Feminine Mystique, the formation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, and young women’s 1968 protests against the Miss America pageant’s objectification of women were only widely visible pieces...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Mothers’ Changing Lives and Continuous Caregiving
    (pp. 247-279)

    In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle famously criticized a popular sitcom character for choosing to be a single mother. Murphy Brown, he claimed, was “mocking the importance of fathers.” Quayle’s tirade against a fictional character proved a bit embarrassing. It made headlines and fueled countercritique that, at a time of waning support for the first Bush administration, made sense to many Americans. Diane English, creator ofMurphy Brown, quipped, “If the Vice President thinks it’s disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child, and if he believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 280-286)

    Reflecting the focus of current historical research, this book has necessarily been preoccupied with mothers’ relationships to the experts, political ideologies, social policies, and the labor force. Seen through this lens, the modernization of motherhood has been about control, rationality, science, psychology, an expanded role for the state, and a social policy structure that leaves much to be desired for caregivers. This plethora of public forces deeply impacted what the culture defined as a private role. Meanwhile, government has been willing to take on new regulatory roles in educational, health, and family law, and even to provide some small subsidies...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 287-320)
  18. Index
    (pp. 321-342)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 343-344)