Modern Motherhood: An American History

Modern Motherhood: An American History

Modern Motherhood: An American History

Modern Motherhood: An American History


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 Motherhood travels 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.


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 Magazine told 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 citizens of our republic are to be worthy of their rich inheritance, they must be made so principally through the virtue and intelligence of their mothers.” Hale edited an early American women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years, and her views on the role of mothers in shaping society were significant.

The idea here was that mothers had a unique and singular influence on their children. Their child-rearing mattered not only in the development of their children’s individual character but also in the preservation and advancement of what was good and noble in the young nation’s civic and religious life. The bond between mothers and children was sacred. Gentle and pure mothers guided innocent children, who were malleable to feminine guidance and inspiration. “Why does an infant love its mother better than any other friend?” asked an anonymous mother who wrote to The Mother’s Magazine, which answered: “Because her voice is gentlest, her eye beams with fondest affection; she soothes his little sorrows, and bears with his irritability with the tenderest and untiring patience. These silken threads are harder to burst than the iron chains of authority.” In early nineteenth-century women’s magazines as well as in messages from the pulpit and from other cultural commentators, a new middle-class family ideal emerged. Mothers would nurture, as their feminine nature suited them, and they would be appropriately confined to the domestic “sphere” of the home. Fathers, venturing into “the bustling affairs of . . .

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