Making Sense of Mom: The Ideology of 20th Century American Maternalism

In recent weeks, controversy over Yale law professor Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article and subsequent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother pointed to the continuing importance of motherhood in the American mind. Chua’s article ostensibly argued, in a fairly essentialistic manner, that strict Chinese mothers were more or less superior to permissive western matriarchs. Needless to say, hackles from numerous communities arose in opposition, with Chua suggesting that the Wall Street Journal published the account without giving her a chance to edit the column and focused on the book’s most controversial aspects. Clearly, though over the course of the 20th century, ideas about motherhood have changed, it remains a topic worthy of controversy. Chua’s “insights” at least turn older racial constructions on their head. If discourse around white middle class motherhood often disparaged non-white mothers, Chua’s assault on the stereotypical “American mom” (a figure still largely connected to whiteness) established a new hierarchy in which white middle class practices are seen as deficient.

American motherhood remains one of the tenets of national belief. However, as Rebecca Plant illustrates in Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, the ideology upon which motherhood rests has not remain fixed. Rather, argues Plant, the existence of “Mother Love” or moral motherhood in earlier eras, notably in the pre-war period gave way to a new ideal of maternalism that removed motherhood from the public sphere as a form of sacrifice, resituating it as an aspect of women’s personal character in the postwar era. While undeniably, strains of misogyny echoed through the discourse rejecting “Mother Love,” Plant goes to great lengths to illustrate the complexities of developments that did not stem wholly from the antipathy that some men held toward women. Instead, Plant traces the decline of moral motherhood and the creation of a new maternalism that “both reflected and facilitated white, middle class women’s gradual incorporation into the political and economic order as individuals rather than wives and mothers.” (2) While Mom focuses predominantly on how this change affected white, middle class women’s conceptions and experiences of motherhood, Plant makes significant insights regarding the role race played in the ideology of motherhood. However, though by no means equal, changes in the ideology of motherhood served as a broad leveler of the ideal for all mothers. By the mid twentieth century “mother blaming” no longer reinforced the cultural authority of middle class mothers at the expense of poor or nonwhite women. Instead, post WWI “mother blaming,” Plant argues, lowered “the status of mothers across the board.” (14)

For Plant, the decline of moral motherhood in the interwar period focused on a rejection of four “long standing precepts” that had come to encapsulate the latter stages of Victorian maternalism, namely “the belief that the mother/homemaker role was a full time, lifelong role, incompatible with the demands of wage earning; the notion that motherhood was not simply a private, family role, but also the foundation of female citizenship; the conviction that mothers should bind their children (especially their boys) to home with ‘silver cords’ of love in order to ensure their proper moral development; and the assumption that motherhood entailed immense physical suffering and sacrifice.” (2) Though acknowledging that aspects of these beliefs persisted, Plant suggests that far fewer Americans subscribed to them by the late 1960s. She argues that moral motherhood dissolved in the face of early 20th century “scientific motherhood” endorsed by Progressive reformers. The 1920s saw an assault on the Victorian model of motherhood that targeted the sentimentality and piety associated with the Victorian figure as manipulative, hypocritical and insipid. Still, despite the onslaught, moral motherhood remained a potent force well into the 1930s.

Plant suggests that the importance of this insight relates to how historians have interpreted the post WWI anti-maternalist discourse that grew so prevalent. While “gender conservatism” and anti-feminism played important roles, few historians Plant argues, have considered the importance of moral motherhood. Moreover, if often conservatives have been thought to be guilty of critiquing American motherhood, liberals who “espoused progressive views on race, social welfare, and other issues” arose as its premier critics, seeing in old line maternalism outdated and outmoded ideals. To the contrary, social conservatives emerged as American motherhood’s primary defender suggesting liberal critiques “devalued women’s domestic roles.” (5)

Conservatives and others saw in “Mother Love” or moral motherhood not so much the individual as the institution or as Plant summarizes, “a fundamental pillar of the nation’s social and political order.” (5) Traditionalists saw in this form of motherhood a transformative property for mother and son alike. “Mother Love” allowed wayward women the chance to redeem themselves as virtuous while their new virtue in turn impacted their sons and daughters (though as is to be expected sons drew far more attention in this regard).

Using Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers as a starting point, Plant recenter’s Wylie’s work, encouraging scholars to reconsider previous interpretations that dismissed the text’s message as little more than misogynistic babble. Clearly, Generation of Vipers was a problematic source; Plant herself describes the book as part “Menckenesque satire, a hellfire sermon, a primer in Jungian psychology, a work of wartime propaganda, an autobiography, a lurid novel, and a science fiction fantasy.” (20) Nonetheless, one particular chapter in Wylie’s book evoked the familiar figure of the Victorian matron, instilling in the figure a sinister aura that resonated with the larger public. Wylie’s diatribe undermined the idea that women were inherently morally superior beings, an ideal that proved at once limiting and liberating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For Plant, Wylie represents the culmination of grievances, built up in the interwar period that led to the rejection of the “late Victorian matriarch.” Critically, the most responsive group to Wylie’s provocations were white , middle class women, who while condemning Wylie for his attacks on American mothers also praised his assault on “momism.”

Wylie’s “momism” attack appealed to misogynists and Progressive women alike, as the latter strove to be seen individuals rather than wives and mothers. Social scientists and psychologists, who believed “momism” to be detrimental for women and children, joined in support. For many, Generation of Vipers served as a stinging critique of “organized womanhood rather than an attack on feminism per se” (25). The work of women’s organizations had come to be associated with the coercive power of the state. Wylie and others no longer saw such groups as self sacrificing and moral, but instead selfish and clawing. For liberals and others, these women as embodied by the aforementioned Victorian patriarch, supported a continued sexual inequality and paternalism that rankled many men and women alike. Even Betty Friedan harnessed aspects of Wylie’s argument, for as Plant notes, iconic feminists of the period viewed Wylie’s critique as a means to undermine the “toll of sexual inequality” in which women could only marshal political and social power through the domestic sphere. Though Wylie did not endorse women’s developing careers, he did promote an increased presence of women in the workplace. Published in 1942, Generation of Vipers barely preceded the explosion in WWII female employment and the resulting gradual increase in the following decades.

One wonders to what effect the role of women in the 1930s affected Wylie’s views. From the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, women exerted a distinct influence over culture, serving as a sort of “gatekeeper”; as men were distracted by “the business of conquering the continent and developing its resources,” women emerged as “agents of civilization.” By the 1930s, Wylie portrayed this gatekeeping as “vulgar and prurient.” Women, suggested Wylie, trafficked in low brow mass culture. This was best represented by his criticisms of daytime serials and soap operas. While seemingly absurdist to the modern reader, debate over the effects of these soap operas proved lively in the 1930s and 1940s.This raises a question. If women’s organizations’ connection to government undermined their position in society for some, one might reasonably ask what part did an increasingly interventionist federal government play in these developments. Obviously, the New Deal and WWII led to the creation of a more activist government, economically and socially, creating a welfare state that sought to expand purchasing power, which under the economic Keynesian policies of the day functioned to boost national economies. As Lizabeth Cohen has illustrated, in both the Depression era and WWII, women’s consumerism established moral authority as integral to the general welfare of the nation’s citizenry. “Women used their existing organizational strength to advocate for consumers, in the process establishing new authority for themselves as guardians of the public welfare,” Cohen observes in her book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. (34) Wylie’s observations and the reactions of women at the time suggest a complicated interplay: the government entrusted women with purchasing decisions while satirists, pundits, and social scientists scorned the cultural productions that many women enjoyed. In some ways, Wylie enjoyed the backlash against such entertainment as more than a few women chose to identify with what Plant labels “masculinist literature,” rather than the overly sentimental radio serials of the day. Yet these appropriations remained imperfect. The rise of a therapeutic culture, in which men like Wylie occupied positions of authority, left many women unable to articulate their objections to the momism critique, thus the championing of masculinist literature operated as a sort of pre-feminine mystique act of protest.

Plant tackles such paradoxes. Part of the problem with maternalism in the interwar period rested on the fragmentation of its meaning. Female prohibitionists, militarists, pacifists, and even many fascist nations articulated some form of maternalism to justify their actions. This lack of coherence led some observers to view maternalists as opportunistic at best and “proto-fascists” at worst. Though maternalistic rhetoric never fully faded from public life in the post WWII era, the interwar period revealed the tensions that undermined the previous foundations of maternalism, namely the protection of America’s mothers and children that many activists and reformers had organized around. Nor would American motherhood serve as the ultimate symbol of the nation’s values.

Here, Plant engages in one of the book’s keenest insights, an examination of the Gold Star Mothers’ pilgrimages of the early 1930s. This government funded program paid for mothers of deceased WWI veterans to travel to Europe and visit the gravesites of their fallen sons. Unfolding in the heart of the Great Depression the Gold Star Mothers’ pilgrimages not only provide a window into white middle class maternalistic rhetoric but also reveals how race intervened. Gold Star Mothers embodied the idea of motherhood as a civic duty, as important to the nation as the military itself. War mothers differed from Progressive maternalists in two key ways. First, war mothers emphasized their sacrifices in rearing and sacrificing their sons for military duty, while Progressives suggested women contributed civically by raising American citizens. Second, war mothers focused on the “emotional and symbolic aspects,” favoring elderly women who no longer practiced the kind of reforms of progressives who sought to improve conditions for poor, working class, and rural moms. However, though the federal government’s support of war mothers had been meant to provide a service to less financially capable mothers, by the end of the program it served as a symbol of American prosperity and benevolence. Donna Alvah’s Unofficial Ambassadors, which focused on the role of military families in Cold War era policies abroad, points to similar developments in the post war era. For Alvah, American dependents, mothers and children played an important role in Cold War diplomacy through their interactions with occupied peoples, their access to American goods and technology, and their dissemination of American “ideals.” When compared to the economic conditions of occupied peoples in West Germany and Okinawa, the material benefits these families enjoyed abroad served as a symbol American prosperity and wisdom. The larger point here remains the critical role that women played in advancing U.S. foreign policy interests. Plant’s observations and Alvah’s conclusions help breakdown the part played by gender in twentieth century foreign relations.

Undoubtedly, this remains an area worth more consideration, but Plant, Alavah, Laura Briggs (Reproducing Empire) and others provide a growing historiographical map of twentieth century foreign policy and its relations to gender. Considering the work done by Amy Kaplan, Allison Sneider, and others on the role of gender in nineteenth century manifest destiny and U.S. imperialism policies/debates, the past fifteen to twenty years have been fruitful.

Still, Plant’s Gold Star example also illustrates the complexity of this process when race intervenes. Amazingly, when one considers the prejudices of the day, the Gold Star Program included African American women. Yet Black women found themselves predictably segregated from their white counterparts. Moreover, they enjoyed far better accommodations when in France than stateside. The government found itself in an awkward position as it tried to resolve contradictory impulses. Though the mothers served a patriotic function, advertising American “munificence,” the U.S. government also felt a need to maintain the “racial construction of the all-American war mother,” a construction that frequently, if not always, excluded black women. The government’s inability to “treat the black pilgrims as ladies” resulted in negative reaction within the Black press, which Plant points out felt slighted on two levels. “It is impossible to say which outraged the black community more – the violation of the women’s rights or the social slight against them, for the gendered construction of citizenship made the two offenses indistinguishable,” she writes. (69) Black war mothers who took the opportunity went out of their way to deflect these criticisms by emphasizing that the program did treat them like ladies. This failed to appeal to large segments of the Black community who submitted that these mothers had failed. Black mothers were expected to instill and nurture racial pride in their children, and by accepting the Gold Star Program in its segregationist orientation these women had undermined that process. The Chicago Defender listed the names and towns of the first group of pilgrims in 1930 with the headline, “Their Sons Died for Segregation.”

White liberals took issue with segregation as well, but for different reasons. Liberals conflated racism with feminine snobbery, thus, they seemed less concerned with institutional racism and more so with being small minded and “undemocratic.” The Gold Star Program encountered trouble as the depression deepened and it became clear that WWI veterans themselves had not been adequately compensated, leading some veterans to lash out at war mothers. This combined with a feeling that war mother rhetoric trafficked in fascism and a popular culture critique that transformed the war mother’s role. If soldiers had earlier fought to defend “the American war mother,” cultural productions questioned this formation, portraying war mothers as “self aggrandizing figures” from whom their sons needed defending. Though the interwar shift still held to aspects of the earlier “moral mother” ethos, critiques in popular culture, as already discussed with Wylie, pointed to a shift that deepened following WWII.

As the 1950s progressed, it became clear the once sacred tenets of mother love had wilted under the scrutiny of popular culture, psychology, and social science. The very things that had once made mother love so healthy and natural now made it pathological. Psychologists portrayed motherhood as female “fulfillment,” thus, rejecting the self sacrificial ideal that had been central to mother love. Moreover, too much mother love was now seen as narcissistic and sexually perverse. Pundits and others expressed reservations over mothers in ways that would have been unthinkable in previous decades. Mothers were to employ more intensive care in their child’s early years, stepping back as the child developed. Too intense a relationship between mother and child caused sexual perversion such as homosexuality. As Plant notes, this further eroded the public’s connection to the Victorian maternal ideal. “Rather than ushering in a resurrection of the Victorian ideal of Mother Love,” she says, “the 1940s and 1950s witnessed its demise in mainstream American culture.” (88) Part of this transformation resulted from attempts by experts to exert greater control over child rearing. While commentators and experts certainly impugned mothers, they did so as a means to change American ideals regarding “maternal affect and behavior.” If feminists like Betty Friedan pointed to a “feminine mystique” as the reason for mid-century discontent, Plant complicates this idea. Noting that what served as the primary frustration for women was a “double bind” in which women were prevented “from construction their identities as autonomous individuals, and still prevented from competing on equal terms with men in the workplace and the broader political realm,” Plant points out that “they were now also discouraged from constructing their identities as selfless nurturers, whose sacrifices entitled them to certain rewards.” (116) Now the spread of a new therapeutic ethos promoted by experts and popular culture told women that the truly “feminine” was to reach fulfillment as an individual through motherhood.

In the book’s latter chapters, the importance of the discourse or social structure of motherhood and the birth process emerges as influential. Experts and others helped to create a discourse around both motherhood and pregnancy itself. Plant repeatedly illustrates how mothers seemed to craft experiential stories that adhered to many aspects of the previously mentioned discourse. In these sections, Mom combines aspects of Beth Bailey’s Front Porch to Back Seat, Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience” (which Plant references in her introduction) and Regnia Kunzell’s Fallen Women, Problem Girls. This is to say, Plant remains wary of accepting letters and correspondence as uniquely authentic and draws upon psychological and popular culture discourse regarding pregnancy and motherhood to illustrate how women explained their individual experiences within or related to these discourses. Like Bailey’s work, which examined how dating structures as established by etiquette manuals, popular culture, and psychology/dating experts influenced men and women’s identities and relationships, Plant explores how pregnant women themselves described the birthing process. Like the black Gold Star Mothers who attempted to craft the government’s treatment of them as “ladylike” as a means to accommodate criticisms, women often constructed their own memories of the child birth process in relation to the dominant discourse of the day. Though the proliferation of the “natural birth process” as promoted by professionals and experts on one hand granted women more agency in transforming the experience from a “potentially harrowing medical event” in which male doctors exerted nearly total control, to a “joyful experience – one they could understand and partially control,” it also incorporated a new ideal for motherhood that illustrated a tendency to “to turn a women’s performance of pregnancy and labor into a gauge of her mental health or a test that revealed the degree of her adjustment to femininity.”(143) Even women that suffered through “natural child birth” felt compelled to diminish this aspect of their experience out of fear for not measuring up to this new standard of womanhood. Betty Friedan’s stance on the issue of natural birth represents the complexities of these issues. Though supportive of women reclaiming control over childbirth, Friedan viewed the natural birth movement’s promotion of a “natural motherhood” warily.

Of course, this leads to a discussion of the arguably the most famous feminist of the past fifty years. Perhaps no book that includes a discussion of mid-twentieth century gender could ignore Betty Friedan. Plant explores Friedan’s appropriation of the Wylie’s “momism” critique. Though describing mid-century suburban mothers as similar to concentration camp survivors and employing many of Wylie’s arguments, Friedan also explored the “implications of momism” systematically. For Friedan, suburban mothers needed to be “liberated from their confines domesticity,” writes Plant. Friedan’s work proved polarizing as it managed to alienate segments of homemakers and working mothers but without a unifying set of grievances. If middle class Progressive era maternalism helped middle class white women paper over ideological differences, postwar anti-maternalism highlighted these conflicts, resulting in what Plant describes as a “profoundly divisive force.” For the UCSD professor, responses to Friedan’s critique allow for historians to think about the ambiguity and ambivalence that anti-maternalism seemed to encapsulate in the years to follow.

What has this meant for the ideology of motherhood today? One might point to anti-Iraq protester and war mother, Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan and others resurrected the Gold Star brand as an anti-war organization under the title “Gold Star Families for Peace,” notable not only for its criticism of the war but also its focus on families rather than mothers. Sheehan’s protest undoubtedly gained credibility because of her experience as the mother of a fallen son in Iraq. However, in today’s context, Sheehan endured right wing vilification that impugned her motives, including accusations that she lacked the requisite patriotism for an American mother. In a review of Sheehan’s 2005 book Not One More Mother’s Child for the Future of Freedom Foundation, Professor Sam Bostaph of the University of Dallas spent less time on Cindy Sheehan the mother, paying far more attention to Cindy Sheehan the “street fighter of anti-war rhetoricians.” Bostraph lionized Sheehan’s anti-war efforts pointing out that “her simple eloquence draws crowds. Those who stand with her see a leader and protector. Those who defend the war fear her outspokenness against it and the doubts that she raises among the general public. Consequently, they vilify her.” Sheehan’s example draws attention to the various transformations in the ideology of motherhood both for mothers themselves and observers. It is hard not to see strains of antimaternalism in right wing attacks on Sheehan, yet as Plant points out, in earlier decades traditionalists were exactly the ones to defend Sheehan’s position. Undoubtedly, the intersection of war, motherhood and a highly critical protest movement makes Sheehan not exactly a new model but one that complicates the ideology of motherhood in twenty-first century America.

Peg Mullen provides an even earlier example. The wife of a small town Iowa farmer, Mullen and her husband lost their son to the Vietnam War in February of 1970. Mullen, like Sheehan, did not retreat into a depressive shell but rather reacted with what one observer described as an “arid furied Medean grief, one in which anguish is indistinguishable from rage.” As a 2009 New York Times obituary stated matter of factly, “An angry mother is, of course, most dangerous to her enemies. Peg Mullen started calling the Pentagon relentlessly, demanding more information about the circumstances of her son’s death.” When the Pentagon sent a check for just over 1800 dollars for her son’s life, the Mullens used the check to pay for an ad in the newspaper publicizing their opposition to the war. When aides to Nixon returned her repeated correspondence, Mullen returned it with the message, “Send it to the next damn fool.” As New York Times correspondent Sara Corbett noted, Peg Mullen’s fury “spooled outward into the world.” One woman wrote to her declaring that it was time “for mothers to unite.” Mullen argued that women should bear their anger as publicly as their sorrow. “I always reminded them that their son belonged to them,” she wrote, “not the military.” When Nixon visited the state capital, Mullen was there protesting and for her efforts was clubbed by local policemen trying to pry her protest sign from her, which read “55,000 Dead, 300,000 Wounded — My Son, Just One.” Mullen greeted America’s second incursion into Iraq with similar disbelief. When asked about Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war efforts in Crawford, Texas, Mullen responded, “I would give my right arm to be there.” Eighty eight at the time, Mullen concluded, “I mean, somebody’s got to stop this thing.”

Both women’s entrance into the public eye rested on their roles as mothers of fallen sons, yet rather than their whole identity, it seemed to occupy only one aspect of their self image. Themes of sacrifice undergird much of their protest, granting their opposition greater weight, yet they straddled modern day conceptions of motherhood. Each appealed to their fellow mothers in ways that appeared patriotic to left leaning observers and an anathema to those on the right. Returning to the black war mothers of the original Gold Star Program, one wonders how different the reception would be for Sheehan or Mullen’s protests had they been African American. Whether today’s “war mothers” or Amy Chua’s reflections on Chinese motherhood, the ideology supporting mothers remains a vibrant and controversial issue, one clearly mediated by race. The intersection of race and class in both domestic and foreign policy debates illustrates both how complex and controversial modes of motherhood can be and their centrality to our own national identity.

Ryan Reft