Motherhood, Activism, and Social Reform. (American Thought)

By Woyshner, Christine | USA TODAY, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Motherhood, Activism, and Social Reform. (American Thought)


Woyshner, Christine, USA TODAY


MOTHERS are sometimes the least likely candidates to spearhead social movements. However, a closer look reveals more than meets the eye. On my way to work each day, I pass a billboard promoting the platform of the Million Mom March organization. The black-and-white photograph depicts a diverse group of women, all staring at the onlooker. Some have their arms folded, others have their hands at their sides, but not one has a hand raised in response to the query, "Anyone not in favor of stricter gun laws raise your hand." With the rise of youth violence, the billboard makes it clear that if you are not in favor of stricter gun laws, you are acting in opposition to all that mothers represent.

The members of this national grassroots organization are not the first mothers to take a stand. Throughout U.S. history, women--whether or not they were mothers--have used Americans' collective sentiment and ideology regarding mothers and motherhood in social reform. Essentially, this belief holds that mothers are selfless, caring, and nurturing people. They bear the physical pain of labor and tend to their offspring. They are considered to be a youngster's first teacher. Some individuals even believe that mothers possess an instinctual proclivity for children's needs. Such notions are part of Americans' collective consciousness, and mothers' influence is reinforced with the commonplace usage of such aphorisms as "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

Indeed, mothers appear to be more active today than ever. In addition to working full- or part-time jobs, they volunteer at houses of worship and schools and are involved in political campaigns. Then there are the national crusades, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Million Mom March, which borrowed its name from the African-American movement. It would be facile, if not paradoxical, to assume that with the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, mothers have become more politically active and outspoken. In fact, a much-more intense period of maternal activism occurred a century ago. While females today enjoy more rights and greater freedoms (suffrage being the most obvious), mothers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were organized, vocal, and effective, if only for a short period of time.

The origins of political motherhood can be found after the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, when the Founding Fathers were faced with a central concern regarding the education of the citizenry. Within the framework of popular sovereignty, how could order be maintained within a free society? One popular solution was the notion that it would become women's responsibility--and not that of the masses--to educate the nation's sons for the role of virtuous citizen. Since that time, the notion of mother as civic guardian has remained.

Over the course of the 19th century, the effects of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization created new roles for men and women. Their spheres of activity, particularly of the white middle class, became more circumscribed, with males belonging to the public world of work and females increasingly relegated to the home. Such clearly defined gender roles necessitated that women--if they were to have a public role at all--use their motherhood as a lever in establishing rights and fomenting social change.

During this time, based on assumptions about the importance and purity of mothers' love, middle-class women were barraged with advice literature which told them how to be ladies and mothers. Catharine Beecher, a popular writer of this era, argued for the importance of women's domestic sphere, despite their lower status in the new democratic nation. Accepting rather than challenging gender roles, she claimed that the separate duties of males and females better served the work that society was to undertake. Beecher's position was effective in allowing women to leave the home for paid employment in at least one respect.

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