Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog
the motherhood papers

Morality or equality?

Maternal thinking and the social agenda

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

print |

“If we mothers agree that things aren’t the way we’d like them to be,
we owe it to our kids to make a change”

Enola Aird, Director of The Motherhood Project,
as quoted in The Ladies’ Home Journal, May 2003

“For many generations it has been believed that woman’s place is within the walls of her own home, and it is indeed impossible to imagine the time when her duty there shall be ended or to forecast any social change which shall release her from that paramount obligation… if woman would keep on with her old business of caring for her house and rearing her children, she will have to have some conscience in regard to public affairs lying outside of her immediate household. The individual conscience and devotion are no longer effective.”

Jane Addams, Why Women Should Vote, 1917 (1)

Eighty-six years after Jane Addams implored American mothers to apply their maternal sensitivity to the ballot box, her reflections on the perpetuity of women’s “paramount obligation” to home and family may be viewed as either archaic or disturbingly prophetic. Perhaps Addams could not foresee the churning of social forces in the latter half of the 20th century that led to such a dramatic shift in attitudes about women’s right to equality in both private and public life. However, when it comes to women’s primacy in the matter of care work, Addams was dead on -- we’ve yet to witness a meaningful transformation of our cultural understanding about who, precisely, owns the “duty” of attending to the health and well-being of the nation’s children and families. Today, as in Addams’s day, we rely on mothers -- above all others -- to perform this indispensable social function.

The asymmetry of who is held responsible for care in our society -- and the various consequences that flow from that imbalance -- are compelling factors in mothers’ latest quest for social change. Beyond that, the philosophy that drives the contemporary mothers movement is the product of a cultural climate that mingles the heady ambitions of the women’s rights agenda with a popular idealization of motherhood and family life that harks back to Jane Addams’s time. This situation will inevitably lead to friction as movement organizers work to build a broad coalition of supporters. One of the biggest ideological hurdles ahead for the mothers movement can be summed up by a single question: If we adhere to the notion that mothers make their most critical contribution to society by putting the needs of children and family before the fulfillment of their individual interests, is it moral for mothers to demand social justice on their own behalf?

Jane Addams was at the forefront of a Progressive Era (1890 – 1920) social movement to improve the health, education and welfare of American children -- a chapter of women-led activism historians have described as the "maternalist" movement. Under the banner of “social housekeeping”, professional reformers -- including Addams, Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop -- inspired millions of middle-class wives and mothers to concentrate their civic energies on lobbying for a cleaner, safer, more humane world.

Addams and her colleagues were intent on propagating a new political meaning for motherhood based on cultural ideology that championed the emotional and social value of women’s attachment to children and family. As men’s public interactions became increasingly defined by the impersonal conditions of market competition and waged work, women were venerated for safeguarding the moral outposts of charity, compassion and care. The maternalist reform ethic emanated from the popular notion that women -- and most particularly mothers -- were uniquely qualified to set their hands and hearts to righting the wrongs of an uncaring society. To maternalist activists, the gateway to women’s political empowerment lay not in breaching the status quo of male dominance, but in engaging women’s sentimental fervor over the innocence and vulnerability of children.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization during the second half of the 19th century generated a host of social ills that captured the attention of maternalist reformers, including urban poverty, the unchecked spread of communicable disease, exploitation of child labor, and high rates of infant mortality. By organizing through a nation-wide network of voluntary groups and social clubs, maternalist reformers coordinated a number of successful campaigns for policy reform which included state-funded pensions for abandoned and destitute mothers, reduced work hours for women, improved health and safety conditions for women workers, the establishment of a separate juvenile justice system, pure food and drug regulations, laws restricting child labor, compulsory school attendance, public kindergartens and the institution of a nationwide program to reduce infant mortality and promote child health.

Women’s individual and legal rights were not a high priority for the rank and file of the maternalist reform movement (which included members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Congress of Mothers, and the National Consumer’s League, among others), and reform leaders initially encountered resistance to their commitment to supporting women’s suffrage as part of the maternalist agenda. Maternalism -- as practiced by early 20th century reformers -- was not a fundamentally egalitarian philosophy. Its power to mobilize millions of homemakers was based on spinning the cultural zeitgeist about women’s responsibility for preserving the sanctity of the home into a greater and more glorious cause.

Feminist historians have argued that public policies and social services derived from the maternalist reform ethic operated to institutionalize white, middle-class standards of family life, which directly disadvantaged mothers from working-class families and those of color. For example, records indicate that the distribution of mother’s pensions (the precursor of Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and decisions to remove minor children from “unfit” homes were strongly biased against families of color, and that mothers in impoverished families were frequently excoriated by social service workers for seeking paid employment outside the home. (2)

In codifying cultural attitudes restricting women’s social agency to matters of hearth and home, maternalist activities ultimately reinforced the secondary political and economic status of all women. The maternalist ethic also prescribed culturally and economically appropriate behavior for fathers -- men were expected to go forth and earn a sufficient wage to support their dependent families. Key social programs in the U.S. -- which are still predominantly designed to protect the economic security of the traditional breadwinner/homemaker household -- can be viewed as a product of trickle-down from the maternalist mentality of the early 20th century.

By 1920, nationally-coordinated maternalist activism had experienced a significant decline. However, influential women continued to support a social reform agenda shaped by maternalist thinking, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, who during her tenure as FDR’s Secretary of Labor drafted both the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.(3)

next | 1 | 2 | 3 | notes | print |
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online