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Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965. (Reviews).

Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965. By Ruth Feldstein (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. ix plus 241 pp. $45.00/cloth $18.95/paperback).

In recent years, social historians have replaced the standard image of the 1950s as a period of conservatism with one that emphasizes resistance, expressed in the civil rights movement and burgeoning discontent with domesticity. Ruth Feldstein's important book builds on this scholarship and moves it in an exciting new direction. At the center of her analysis is a provocative question: why and how liberal ideas about race gained ascendance in an era when conservative ideas about domesticity and gender roles seemed so entrenched. While historians have conventionally answered this question by talking about the inapplicability of the "feminine mystique" beyond the white middle class, Feldstein argues forcefully that conservative ideas about gender and liberal attitudes toward race were interconnected. Examining a vast assortment of sources, from the writings of scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., to films, social welfare policies, news spectacles, and political manifestos, Feldstein c oncludes that gender--and, specifically, racialized conceptions of bad mothering--hold the key to understanding twentieth-century American liberalism and its relationship to race.

Like other scholars of American liberalism, but unlike most students of civil rights or feminism, Feldstein begins her story in the New Deal. The economic uncertainty of the Depression triggered a crisis in masculinity (once independent men needed government help to support their families), while the growing influence of psychology provided an explanation for men's deficiencies: bad mothering. Re-reading classic texts like Frazier's The Negro Family in the United States and John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town, Feldstein shows how liberal social scientists used psycho-social theories, and ideas about maternal failure, to underscore the emotional damage caused by racism and poverty, and to argue for a cultural understanding of race. They saw America's "race problem" as rooted in its culture, environment, and disorganized families; and racial differences were social and psychological, not biological or innate.

While New Deal liberalism was primarily economic, race dominated liberal discourse in the 1940s and 1950s, just as wartime anxieties about unfit soldiers (and, later, citizens who were weak and vulnerable to Communist influence) brought the discourse on maternal failure to an extreme. Many historians have examined and critiqued the period's venomous attacks on American "moms," but Feldstein reminds us that mother-blaming was not necessarily conservative. Rather, she argues, the bad mother was "a contradictory and even ironic figure" (43) who served both progressive and traditionalist political causes. For example, southern writer Lillian Smith drew on psychological images of white women as pathological mothers when she argued that U.S. race relations constituted a "white problem" rooted in prejudice learned at home. Smith's strong stand against segregation, and her insistence on the need to change racist attitudes as well as laws, helped to place race at the center of the liberal agenda, but her argument depended on reactionary ideas about motherhood and gender. The same was true of liberal social scientists who critiqued the damage racism did to black men by highlighting the inadequacies of their mothers.

In three chapters on the 1950s, Feldstein investigates the ideas about black and white motherhood that helped to shape Cold War liberalism, civil rights activism, and consumer society. Analyzing critiques of the affluent society by John Kenneth Galbraith and E. Franklin Frazier, the re-make of the 1959 film "Imitation of Life," and the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960-1961, Feldstein shows how, for both black and white Americans, ideas about femininity, consumption, and maternal failure were linked. The most vivid analyses in this section are not of written texts, but of cultural and political events that illuminate racialized representations of motherhood. Feldstein offers an especially penetrating analysis of Emmett Till's mother, who politicized the outrage over her son's murder by presenting herself as a respectable "good" mother, but was ultimately swallowed by the more powerful image of insolent black matriarch. For women activists, Mamie Till Bradley's anti-lynching campaign reveals both the possibilities and limits of the rhetoric of motherhood.

According to Feldstein, white and black motherhood fractured in the 1960s, as racial liberalism and gender conservatism disjoined. The divergence is captured in two classic texts that both drew on, and contributed to the decline of, liberal mother-blaming. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique promoted feminism by describing bored suburban housewives as maternal failures, while Daniel Patrick Moynihan's The Negro Family: A Case for National Action used mid-century ideas about the "tangle of pathology" in matriarchal black families to justify liberal welfare policy. Ironically, the controversy over the Moynihan report led many liberals to reject the psychological and mother-blaming frameworks that put race at the center of their agenda in the first place.

Motherhood in Black and White rests on a stirring insight about the interdependence of racial liberalism and gender conservatism, but its actual execution is somewhat less satisfying. While each page is packed with insights, some are packed too full. Feldstein juxtaposes very different popular, scholarly, and political narratives, but discusses them quickly, and it is not always clear why particular examples were chosen. The result is an argument that, while compelling to believers, is unlikely to persuade readers not already convinced. Even so, Feldstein's bold reappraisal of race and gender in twentieth-century American liberalism will likely set the terms of debate for many years to come. Students of U.S. women's history, race relations, politics, and popular culture must take Feldstein's provocative insights into account.
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Author:Ladd-Taylor, Molly
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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