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Another Mothers’ Movement, 1890 to 1920

page three

The power and problems of maternalist reform

Historians consider the maternalist reform movement instrumental to the development of the modern U.S. welfare state. But by conceptualizing the source of women’s political power as an extension their domestic roles, and by advocating public policies favoring the family’s sole dependency on the wages of a male head of household, maternalist reformers also succeeded in institutionalizing a class-bound ideology of mothering that set the standard for future social programs based on a gender-biased standard of the “family wage.”

Infant mortality— which, according to estimates, was as high as 30 percent in poor urban communities in 1900— declined rapidly after 1930. How much the work of the Children’s Bureau and maternalist reformers contributed to this reduction has been questioned by scholars who observe that overall improvements in urban sanitation systems and public health regulations were probably far more effective in preserving the lives of babies than the Bureau’s national campaign to mass educate mothers in the basic of infant care and feeding.

Although “maternalism” has been portrayed as a branch of early feminism, there remains some debate about whether the objectives of maternalist reformers were entirely compatible with the women’s rights agenda. Certainly, the maternalist reform movement opened a new path for women’s political empowerment, and many (but not all) leaders and organizations associated with the maternalist cause were also outspoken supporters of women’s suffrage. But because maternalism valorized women’s selfless care-giving and called for social recognition of women’s rights based on the power of maternal influence to shape the character of future generations, it may be problematic to view classic maternal activism as a true form of feminism.

Nevertheless, the maternal reform movement during the Progressive Era deserves a place in our historical awareness of women’s activism— both for the capacity of the maternalist ethic to engage a population that at the time was formally disenfranchised from the mainstream political process, and for the unprecedented number of social reforms secured with the support of women’s voluntary organizations.

Social and cultural conditions at the end of the 19th century presented certain women with a unique opportunity to seize the moment as their own. Although the political presence of women’s voluntary groups faded significantly after the first quarter of the 20th century, many woman reformers who were attuned to the maternalist ethic continued to work for social progress, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins (FDR’s secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a position on a presidential cabinet, and one of the principal authors of the Fair Labor Standards and Social Security acts).

If there is a larger lesson to take away from the success of maternal activism during the Progressive Era, it may be that contemporary mothers’ activists should be wary of the temptation to rework the valorization of motherhood into a platform for social action. But we should never be ashamed to emulate the extraordinary resourcefulness of our foremothers who banded together over one hundred years ago to advance their own maternal cause, or dismiss the power of their determination to shape a better world.

mmo : march 2004

Selected reading on mothers' activism in the Progressive Era:

Nancy F. Cott
The Grounding of Modern Feminism
Yale University Press, 1987

Robyn Muncy
Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935
Oxford University Press, 1991

Molly Ladd-Taylor
Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare and the State, 1890-1930
Illini Books, 1995.

Theda Skocpol
Protecting Soldiers and Mothers:
The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States
Harvard University Press, 1992

Related articles on the MMO:

Morality or Equality: Maternal thinking and the social agenda

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