CLIO TALKS BACK: Debating the Role and Responsibilities of Mothers in Early 20th Century America

Anna Howard Shaw
Concern about falling birthrates in the 1890s provoked a number of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to speak out against women’s higher education and women’s participation in the industrial labor force, as well as women’s ostensible self-indulgence. Married women, especially mothers, they said, should be at home, not in the workforce or out running about, organizing mothers’ clubs and “interfering” in public affairs.

In the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) addressed the issue as a featured speaker for the National Congress of Mothers, held in Washington, D. C., in March 1905. He asserted that women were not doing their duty to the nation. “The primary duty of the woman,” he insisted, “was to be the helpmeet, the housewife, and mother” – not a breadwinner; that was the husband’s role. Objecting to the notion that families should limit themselves to two children, he proclaimed that the result would be “race suicide.”

Women’s rights advocates quickly countered Roosevelt’s remarks. Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919), a trained physician and a licensed minister, presided over the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1904 to 1915. In June 1905, at the NAWSA annual convention, she directly answered the president. Here is an excerpt from her speech:

When the cry of race suicide is heard, and men arraign women for race decadence, it would be well for them to examine conditions and causes, and base their attacks upon firmer foundations of fact. Instead of attacking women for their interest in public affairs and relegating them to their children, their kitchen, and their church, they will learn that the kitchen is in politics; that the children’s physical, intellectual, and moral well-being is controlled and regulated by law; that the real cause of race decadence is not the fact that fewer children are born, but to the more fearful fact that, of those born, so few live, not primarily because of the neglect of the mother, but because men themselves neglect their duty as citizens and public officials. If men honestly desire to prevent the causes of race decadence, let them examine the accounts of food adulteration, and learn that from the effect of impure milk alone, in one city 5,600 babies died in a single year. Let them examine the water supply, so impregnated with disease that in some cities there is continual epidemic of typhoid fever. Let them gaze upon the filthy streets, from which perpetually arises contagion of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Let them examine the plots of our great cities, and find city after city with no play places for children, except the streets, alleys, and lanes. Let them examine the school buildings, many of them badly lighted, unsanitary, and without yards. Let them turn to the same cities, and learn that from five to a score or thousand children secure only half-day tuition because there are not adequate schoolhouse facilities. Let them watch these half-day children playing in the streets and alleys and viler places, until they have learned the lessons which take them to evergrowing numbers of reformatories, whose inmates are increasing four times as rapidly as the population. Let them follow the children who survive all these ills of early childhood,until they enter the sweat-shops and factories, and behold there the maimed, dwarfed, and blighted little ones, 500,000 of whom under 14 years of age are employed in these pestilential places. Let them behold the legalized saloons and the dens of iniquity where so many of the voting population spend the money that should be used in feeding, housing, and caring for their children. Then, if these mentors of women’s clubs and mothers’ meetings do not find sufficient cause for race degeneracy where they have power to control conditions, let them turn to lecturing women. It is infinitely more important that a child shall be well born and well-reared than that more children shall be born. It is better that one well-born child shall live than that two shall be born and one die in infancy. That which is desirable is not that the greatest possible number of children should be born into the world; the need is for more intelligent motherhood and fatherhood, and for better-born and better educated children.

Teddy Roosevelt with babies
Spoken over a century ago, Shaw’s remarks remain all too pertinent to conditions that still exist in many areas of the world in the twenty-first century. Clio notes that it was primarily through the efforts of organized motherhood that the conditions Shaw describes above were finally addressed. Standards for pure water, food, public sanitation, playgrounds, school safety, etc., all resulted from the public efforts of empowered American women (some of whom could already vote in their states but not in national elections) who were concerned for the future of their own families and those of their neighbors. We can all appreciate the lesson provided by this historical example: mothers taking action can (eventually) get results!

Sources: The longer texts by President Roosevelt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw can be consulted in “Nationalism and ‘Race Suicide’ in the United States,” in Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, vol. 2: 1880-1950, ed. Susan Groag Bell & Karen M. Offen (Stanford University Press), pp. 136-143. The original source references are provided there.