Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Teaching Motherhood in History

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Teaching Motherhood in History

Article excerpt

When I tell people that I regularly teach a course on the history of motherhood, there is almost always a flicker of genuine interest and surprise, not only from academics but from neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and relatives, especially the mothers. Do mothers have a history? This seems to be the usually politely unspoken question. It stems from a larger one that has plagued women's history since the second-wave feminists put the field on the map in the 1970s: Do women have a history? Recently, one of the students in my general survey course on modern U.S. women's history told me of her experiences as a student teacher in one of the local schools: A young male colleague of hers, when told about this class, commented, "Must be a short course!"

As this essay will show, the founding mothers of the modern field of U.S. women's history clearly identified the larger possibilities of their enterprise: the prospect of uncovering women's "private" experience in the past, as well as women's untold contributions to the record of "public" human achievements, from invention to diplomacy. But an examination of the challenges of understanding and teaching the history of motherhood provides a particularly useful angle on the extent to which the promise of uncovering private experience has yet to be realized. I base this examination especially on my two most recent experiences teaching a course called History of Motherhood in the United States at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (in 1999 and 2001), as well as on my broader experience teaching various women's history courses since 1995. Part of what follows is an explanation of key obstacles to examining the private dimensions of women's history. Through a review of historiographic traditions, I will show how male-- centered assumptions about history, as well as feminist ambivalence about motherhood, have complicated the enterprise of searching for mothers in history. The legacy of these assumptions contributes to students' confusion about the meaning of private life in history. However, I also explain here why my experience with this field of privatized history has convinced me that the enterprise is full of promise and well worth the effort for students, teachers, and scholars.

Historiographic Traditions and the Problems of Locating Mothers and Motherhood in History

As with many aspects of women's history, such as access to male-- defined politics in the achievement of suffrage and the "pleasure and danger" of sexuality, in the twentieth century students of the history of motherhood are confronted by paradox (Vance). In this case, they become aware that women's capacity to bear children and their historic responsibility to be primary caregivers have been crucial to the rationales for barring them from public activities and public and private power. Yet too in some cultures, arguably even our own, motherhood has been the basis of particular kinds of female empowerment, both private and public. The Million Mom March of May 2000, for example, had deep historical roots in its use of maternal rhetoric for the empowerment of children, mothers, and families, and in its emphasis on values of nurturing and protection.1

The paradox is especially intense in this class because students come to realize that through most of history, cultural sources, across cultures in fact, describe women as made for motherhood, essentially mothers by virtue of being born female. And yet the lack of scholarship on and sources about the actual experiences of women doing what they were told to do remind us of how devalued this role has been in our culture, so devalued as to be an utter novelty in a college classroom, especially in a history course. It may sound like a truism but history is still largely what men did, and now, what women did as they fought to achieve access to tools traditionally accessible only to men, such as literacy, formal education, suffrage, and economic power. …

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