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"Disarm! Disarm!".

Modern Motherhood: An American History

By Jodi Vandenberg-Daves

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014, 341 pp., $37.95, hardcover

The title of this book tickles my irony bone. After I had my daughters in 1963 and 1965,1 became the first woman ever hired in my large university department--where I knew better than to ever say a word about my children to my colleagues. I also knew better than to talk about my job to the women in my neighborhood, who were all stay-at-home moms living out the premise of modern family togetherness. I never made home-made brownies, and it always seemed as if there was something to hide, something to be ashamed of, something to compete over, in my life as a mother. In 1976, when I first read Adrienne Rich's breakthrough book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, I began to understand why, in something I'd chosen to be a central part of my life, I so often felt like a failure.

As Jodi Vandenberg-Daves amply shows in her massively researched update of Rich's original premise, selling maternal behaviors as "modern" has for two centuries been a highly effective way to produce maternal anxiety. But it has not been the only one. Until an eyeblink ago, motherhood in this country was overwhelmingly defined and regulated not by mothers themselves but by church and state, by the medical and psychiatric establishments and the popular press, by legislation and by the economy, by custom and by institutions--including the institution of slavery. At the same time, as Vandenberg-Daves also demonstrates, there has always been a countercurrent of women, including the enslaved, the poor, and the immigrant, taking their destinies into their own hands.

She begins her account in the colonial period, when wives and children were economic assets; all women were expected to become mothers; all children had to have their innate sinfulness disciplined out of them; all children, servants, and slaves (especially in Puritan New England) were socialized into a religious worldview; and all behavior was policed by men. It was a practical time when nothing was wasted. Breast milk was often used medicinally to treat eye problems, earaches, and other ailments, as well as to speed childbirth, and sucking a woman's breast was thought to cure many an adult illness.

By the end of the American Revolution, the idea of "Republican motherhood" elevated women's "reason" as the means of making virtuous sons, but shortly thereafter "moral motherhood" dovetailed with the nascent ideology of separate spheres for men and women. In this construct, men belonged out in the public rough-and-tumble world of enterprise and money making, while women graced the home and were pious, noble, tender, and self-sacrificing, swaying their families through gentle persuasion. As nineteenth-century romanticism took hold, children stopped being little sinners and started being innocent creatures needing to be sheltered from labor and sexuality.

The sentimentalizing of motherhood applied, of course, only to white middle-class women and those who attempted to climb into their category. However, an important consequence of this shift in the cultural definition of motherhood was the idea that if women belonged to the morally superior gender, they were entitled to education and to a voice in public policy making. Later generations would carry these implications forward to the suffrage movement, the settlement house movement and social work as a woman's profession, and organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union--all supported by high-minded maternalist rhetoric. The reforms of the Progressive Era, including child labor laws and the creation, in 1912, of the Children's Bureau--mostly staffed by women, which distributed invaluable information and advice to often newly literate portions of the population and was responsible for federal funding for public health nurses and well-baby clinics--ultimately emerged from this same source: the belief in the moral righteousness of the maternal.

As early as the 1820s and 1830s, "a motivated group of northern middle-class women, both white and African American as well as a few brave southerners, seized on the horror of slavery as an affront to moral motherhood/' writes Vandenberg-Daves. Accounts of babies and children torn from their mothers became a powerful fuel in the abolitionist cause. Appeals to the feelings of American mothers are a refrain in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and throughout abolitionist literature. And in 1870, Julia Ward Howe penned the first Mother's Day proclamation:

   Our sons shall not be taken from us to
   unlearn all that we have been able to teach
   them of charity, mercy and patience. We
   women of one country will be too tender to
   those of another to allow our sons to be
   trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the
   devastated earth a voice goes up with our
   own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"


That the privileges and comforts of moral motherhood were unavailable to African American, Native American, immigrant, and impoverished women is a major theme in Vandenberg-Daves's book. Discussing the sexual abuse of female slaves, the purpose of which was to produce more "property" for their masters, she offers accounts of how women of color strove to protect their children--hiding them, doing extra work for them, in rare cases saving to purchase their freedom, and above all developing traditions of "other-mothering"--shared care of the young by siblings, relatives, neighbors, elders, which remains alive in African American families to this day. At the same time, southern white women before and after the Civil War were quite willing to entrust their babies to fetishized black "mammies." One of the more bizarre episodes Vandenberg-Daves describes is an attempt in the 1920s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the US Congress to create in Washington "a monument to 'the black mammy,"' which failed in part thanks to the outrage of the black press.

But in fact the gracious middle-class "domestic hearth" was a fiction for most American women in the nineteenth century, as a large majority of mothers "toiled in homes with few accoutrements, in the homes of others as domestic servants, or in fields or factories," remarks Vandenberg-Daves, or doing jobs like taking in laundry.

Meanwhile, what the author describes as the "medicalization" of the maternal body was shaping attitudes and practices around women's health and fertility, as science was replacing (or supplementing) religion as the arbiter of behavioral norms. Fertility, especially in middle-class families, was declining. "Experts" were taking over, and this meant "a new view of conception and abortion in which women could not be trusted to regulate their own reproduction," says Vandenberg-Daves. In the mid-nineteenth century abortificants were marketed as health products, and even the Catholic Church held that human life began with "quickening" (the moment when a pregnant woman begins to feel the fetus's movement), but in the 1870s state laws began criminalizing abortion. By 1900, all but one state had banned the practice, with the support of the American Medical Association. As the AMA's Committee on Criminal Abortion explained, a woman who shirks maternity

   becomes unmindful of the course marked out
   for her by Providence, she overlooks the
   duties imposed upon her by the marriage
   contract. She yields to the pleasures--but
   shrinks from the pains and responsibilities,
   and, destitute of all delicacy and refinement,
   resigns herself, body and soul, into the hands
   of unscrupulous and wicked men.


Some controversial but widely circulated mid-nineteenth century books offered specific advice on spermicides and other means to regulate fertility, but the Comstock Laws of 1873 put an end to that; it became illegal to disseminate information about birth control or abortion. Margaret Sanger went to jail protesting these laws, and the Children's Bureau operated under a tacit gag rule despite receiving floods of letters from married women desperate for information to help them limit the size of their families.

At the same time, and again with the support of the medical establishment, as well as with the rationale of eugenics, women deemed "unfit" to be mothers were often subjected to forced sterilization. Between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s, "an estimated 63,000 people were surgically sterilized," says Vandenberg-Daves, about 61 percent of them women, and most under the orders of institutional or state authorities. In 1927 the Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell upheld forced sterilization in Virginia, and by the 1940s two-thirds of the states enacted sterilization laws. Here too, the cultural spillover continues to this day: women are categorized as good or bad mothers by social workers and the legal system--and, perhaps more sadly, mothers continue to castigate themselves as not-good-enough, no matter how many soccer games they drive their kids to. Damned if we are neglectful, damned if we are overprotective, damned if we sacrifice children for careers, damned if we do the opposite, women are, one might say, natural targets.

Vandenberg-Daves describes a particularly virulent form of scapegoating mothers in the 1940s: Philip Wylie's best-selling Generation of Vipers (1942) invented the term "momism" to attack mothers, unfortunately liberated by modern technology from useful tasks, for dominating and castrating their sons with their sentimental smother-love. Other writers gleefully followed suit. In an age saturated by Freudianism, moms could now be blamed for juvenile delinquency, neurosis, lack of combat readiness in soldiers, alcoholism ("mom in a bottle"), homosexuality, and rape. Books such as Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, by Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham (1947); Their Mothers' Sons: The Psychiatrist Examines an American Problem, by Edward Adam Strecker (1951); and Maternal Overprotection, by David M. Levy (1966) attributed a host of social ills, and mental illness, to offensive mothering. Too little mothering was as sinister as too much. The psychologist Bruno Bettleheim convinced more than one generation that mothers were responsible for autism. And FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that Communists and other subversive types were raised by "neurotic" mothers. "Matriarchal" black mothers caused their sons to be too aggressive, or else too submissive. The term "backlash" had not yet been invented, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to interpret all such attacks on mothers then and now as a response to women's increasing social, economic, and sexual autonomy.

Some male writers on motherhood get good marks from the author. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care (1946) was my own bible as a young mother, and Grantley Dick-Read, whose Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth (1959) gave me the knowledge I needed to go through labor drug free, twice, are two of them. She does point out that Spock disapproved of mothers going to work (I ignored that, instead taking his advice that I should use my common sense). She also likes to quote husbands who are supportive of their wives. But most of the memorable quotations in this book are from the mouths or pens of women. "I fear no hell after death, for I've had mine on earth," says an unwed mother who has kept her child. "Let no man or girl deceive herself--hell hath no punishment like the treatment people give a 'fallen woman.'" "Every ad you see in magazines or on television shows this working woman who's coming home with a briefcase and the kids are all dressed and clean. It's such a lie," she quotes another.

The final chapters of Motherhood deal with the post-World War II and then the post-sixties periods. Among the many topics discussed are postwar optimism and the genuine pleasure (along with anxiety) many women found in conventional family life in this expansive time; Betty Friedan's challenge to these conventions; issues around reproduction and infertility; unwed motherhood, abortion and adoption; Roe v. Wade; the history of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, or welfare); the attack on motherhood and biology itself by certain radical feminists; the struggle for lesbian motherhood; breastfeeding; work versus family; the growth of grassroots women's community and national organizations fighting for reproductive rights, for equal employment opportunity and pay, for school lunches, for a world without war, for environmental sanity, and much, much more, all with a focus on the world women wanted their children to inherit.

The story of Lois Gibbs, the working-class white woman whose children endured years of horrific illness because their school was built on the toxic waste site known as Love Canal, and who organized the community and its kids to fight for cleanup despite the opposition of local business owners, is hugely inspiring. So is her frankness:

   For many years I had honestly taken pride in
   being the best mom on the block. My kids
   had the right sweaters for the right
   temperature. Their faces weren't dirty. I
   prided my self on being a responsible mother.
   And yet when it came to doing something to
   protect my children that was not within my
   norm, I was afraid.


Afraid until she became fearless. Gibbs's struggle precipitated Superfund legislation under President Carter. Less well-known is the story of Patsy Ruth Oliver, an African American mother of five in Texarcana, Texas, who along with her neighbors wrestled with government bureaucracies from 1980 to 1993 and finally won a buyout of their "thoroughly contaminated" neighborhood. Back in the 1970s, Operation Life, organized by Las Vegas hotel workers, used already existing legislation to force creation of job training and tutoring programs, day care centers, lunch programs, and a clinic that pushed Nevada from the bottom rung of medical care for children in America to the top.

Modern Motherhood is not a book to read straight through. Vandenberg-Daves has, she assures us, perused every study ever published on motherhood in America--and it shows. A plenitude of statistics and (for the twentieth century) poll results is, somewhat amusingly, an instance of the reliance on scientific so-called objectivity that the book in many places questions. The sheer quantity of information here is overwhelming. It can also become rather repetitive. The author leans hard on the idea that with some exceptions authority figures and institutions (mostly male) condescend to the women they profess to help. She also earnestly insists on making sure we know how poor women, immigrant women, and women of color struggle against the cultural and social demands for their passivity and obedience. There's a bit too much political correctness for my taste. I could wish more fiction and poetry had been consulted, to give the kind of complex penetration of human experience only fiction and poetry can provide. Where is Muriel Rukeyser? Where is Anne Sexton? Tillie Olsen is quoted once, yet where is Maxine Hong Kingston's piercingly ambivalent portrayal of Chinese-American mother-daughter relations? But if you have a particular topic in mind, the index is excellent. And whatever kind of mother you may be, or whatever kind of mother you had, you will find her, with her problems and her grief, her determination and her pride, somewhere in these pages.

Alicia Ostriker is a poet and critic, author of The Mother/Child Papers (1980; reprinted 1986, 2008), and an essay, "A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry" in her book Writing Like a Woman (1983). She teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Poetry Program at Drew University.
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Title Annotation:Jodi Vandenberg-Daves "Modern Motherhood: An American History"
Author:Ostriker, Alicia
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2015
Words:2505
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