CLIO TALKS BACK: “Motherhood Beyond the Home,” a guest post by Marilyn Boxer

Clio Talks Back is pleased to introduce a guest blog by historian Marilyn J. Boxer, professor emerita of history and former provost at San Francisco State University and author of many works in women’s history and women’s studies, including When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America. The issues she raises are just as pertinent today as when she originally wrote it. 

‘Motherhood and apple pie’ represent commonly invoked values in American society. Every year on the second Sunday in May, we honor mothers with a national holiday. But how much do we really know about motherhood?

Until fairly recently, the answer was, very little. A T-shirt from the 1970s reads, ‘Every mother is a working mother.’ For years following the emergence of women’s studies in that decade, historians filled library shelves with studies of women in work roles ranging from aviator to zoologist. But little appeared about women’s work as mothers. Even as new fields of study developed in the history of family and the history of childhood, the subject of motherhood was left to poets and psychologists.

But, if motherhood itself is universal, it is fair to ask where mothers fit in the grander scheme of things, of politics and institutions, citizenship and authority, ethics and economics, law and justice. Only in the 1980s did women historians begin to make motherhood a topic of research.

By now we know a good deal more about how mothers of many nations lived and worked in pre-industrial societies, where they could readily combine economically useful work at home with family responsibilities, and in the modern industrial world that tears asunder women’s roles in production and reproduction. We know that concerns about motherhood fueled politically charged movements to encourage, even to force, some women into mothering, while preventing others from giving birth. Motherhood sometimes was a basis for granting privileges denied other women.

In ancient Rome, for example, laws allowed mothers of three or more to escape lifelong male guardianship. During the French Revolution a mother of four proposed equal rights for those women who had given citizens to the state. A century ago, American women campaigning for the vote compared mothers’ jeopardy in childbirth to the dangers faced by soldiers on the battlefield. Some talked of a ‘birth strike’ as a means to protest World War I. Others in wartime pledged support for the patriotic causes of their nations.

In the same era, Austria decreed 16 weeks of maternity leave, before and after childbirth, with full pay. After World War I, governments in France, Italy and Russia bestowed medals on prolific mothers. Successful drives for ‘dependent mothers’ pensions’ in Chicago in the 1910s became a precursor to the Social Security Act two decades later.

What don’t we know about motherhood? Here are just a few of the unanswered questions: Why has breastfeeding been such a charged topic, ranging from laws in the 18th century mandating that mothers suckle their own infants to a trend against it in the early 20th? How have arrangements of household space facilitated or hindered mothering, and what schemes have women proposed to change them? How have women interpreted images of motherhood, from idealized madonnas in art and legend to murderous mothers such as Medea? How have mothers used their power of naming the newborn? Do mothers vote differently from childless women? Do fewer mothers than non-mothers kill themselves? How did attacks on mothers – the ‘momism’ of the 1930s and 1940s that accused mothers of ‘smother-love’ – affect the personal and political choices of women, men and legislators? How do national economic and political priorities affect mothers, and vice versa?

Since 1998 the Association for Research on Mothering centered at York University in Canada has fostered research and discussion on how motherhood affects all women’s lives, whether or not they are mothers themselves. The association has hosted conferences on topics such as the meanings of mother-love, mothering and public policy, mothering and sexuality, and the changing role of mothers in the 21st century.

While some of the most private aspects of motherhood may never be known, far more material on mothering exists than has yet been explored. Once the veil or privacy fashioned in the 19th century to shield intimate relations from public view is drawn aside, sources appear in abundance – personal letters, private diaries, court records, medical reports. Art and literature likewise reveal much, when those sources are studied for knowledge about mothering.

When we talk about Mother’s Day, we might bear in mind not only the value of motherhood but also its history. Not surprisingly, the celebration of mothers became popular long before the study of motherhood. It began in the United States. On the second Sunday of May in 1905, Anna Jarvis’s mother died. Her distraught daughter set up a shrine to her mother’s memory in her home. Three years later Jarvis set out to create a memorial to all mothers. Thanks to the still-mourning woman’s persuasive appeal, her church in West Virginia declared the anniversary of her mother’s death that year to be Mother’s Day.

With assistance from the Sunday School movement and from prominent Philadelphians, such as department store owner John Wanamaker and food magnate H. J. Heinz, the Jarvis campaign flourished. A U.S. senator from Nebraska introduced a resolution to recognize Sunday, May 10, as Mother’s Day. By 1914 both houses of Congress called for a nation-wide celebration, and President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday.

The commemoration soon spread across this land and into other countries. In the early years the strongest support came from Protestant churches exalting self-sacrificing mother love. Catholic and Jewish groups soon followed suit. Even the iconoclastic Mark Twain pledged to wear a white flower in memory of his mother for the rest of his life. During World War I patriotic groups celebrated mothers’ wartime sacrifices. Flowers and greeting cards soon followed, encouraged by industries quick to exploit the new holiday’s commercial potential.

Mother’s Day could also be misappropriated. Teddy Roosevelt used the occasion to express his fears of ‘race suicide’ if native-born American mothers had too few babies. During the 1930s Nazi leaders turned the day into an opportunity for promoting their ideas about ‘racial hygiene.’ German mothers, they decreed, should be honored as the ‘refuge of the Volk,’ that is, those mothers whose ‘blood’ entitled them to serve as mothers of the ‘Aryan nation.’ In 1935 Hitler moved the German holiday to August, to coincide with his mother’s birthday.

More recently, race-based motherhood has served as a rallying cry during nationalist conflicts in Eastern Europe. But motherhood also evokes peace, love, and untiring devotion to duty.

As a parent and a historian, I often reflect on how my own experiences as a mother mesh with my understanding of the social and cultural environment in which I have lived. Now, after many years in the classroom, I am revising my courses to include materials about motherhood in the past. I think it is important to understand the origins and variety of maternal experiences, to distinguish what is unique to myself from what is common experience, what is constant from what is changing in mothers’ lives.

We should teach the history of motherhood in our schools. Maybe if we studied more subjects from the points of view of mothers and the history of motherhood, all of us, both men and women, could make better choices about public policy, and about family and work, and about the conflicts that so many of us face in these most important roles of our lives.

This article was first published in Newsday, Sunday May 11, 2003, and is reproduced here by permission of the author, who is a founding contributor to the International Museum of Women.