Mommy-Issues aims to add to the conversation around motherhood, so we felt it was important to gain a better understanding of what that conversation actually is and how it has continued to develop. Beginning in the 1900s and spanning to 2020, we compiled a brief account of how motherhood has been represented, talked about, and experienced within the United States. This account is in no way a complete history, but rather a collection of major political, medical, and cultural moments that have directly impacted the way American society engages with motherhood.
The 1900s marked the transition from “moral mothering” of the 19th century, when women were encouraged to follow their instinct and act as virtuous leaders from within the home, into the era of “scientific mothering.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, for every 1,000 live births, there were around 8.5 maternal deaths and nearly 16.5% of infants died before the age of 1. Infant and pregnancy-related mortality paired with the advancement of scientific and psychological research and thought led the general public to turn to science-based parenting techniques.
The Care and Feeding of Children (1894) by Emmett Holt, an early pioneer in the field of pediatrics, became the go-to child rearing book until the late 1920s. The book advised mothers to let babies “cry it out” rather than picking them up to soothe them, keeping to strict schedules, encouraged spanking, and discouraged breastfeeding.
In the 1900s, around 1 in 5 children worked. The “concern over idle youths” and community degeneracy was a frequent defense in the promotion child workers, and many who benefitted from the cheap labor argued that “ labor benefited children by helping them avoid the sin of idleness” (source).
It became clear, however, that these concerns applied only to families of lower income, i.e. those who needed extra income were forced to put their children to work, while the wealthy families allowed their kids more childhood freedoms.
For low income families, “home workshops” were popular, as they allowed mothers to care for their children, keep up with the then typical 40 hours a week of cleaning and shopping (source), and provide the household with an additional wage. As children grew older they were often expected to help the family with these in-home jobs. (source).
did you know?
The first Mother’s Day was observed in 1908
While birth in the 1900s often took place naturally and in homes, the 1910s brought women a few more options. Birth from home attended by a doctor or midwife remained popular, however, in 1914 the first maternity hospital was introduced and “Twilight Sleep,” an injection of morphine and scopolamine, began to gain traction. This injection, while slightly reducing the pain of childbirth, essentially caused amnesia, erasing the woman's memory of pain as opposed to actually eliminating the pain . During this process, mothers were routinely strapped to their delivery beds, as the pain and the effect of the narcotics often resulted in thrashing, hysteria, and hallucinations. Decades later women began to remember the trauma they experienced during these procedures and nurses spoke up about the poor treatment the mother endured.
World War I - Jul 28, 1914 – Nov 11, 1918
Throughout the early 20th century, the influence of Fruedianism redefined the way mothers were perceived and expected to act. While previously commended in the 19th century for providing a source of guidance and affection, the 20th century viewed “Mother Love” as undesirable and emasculating .
In 1916 The Mother and Her Child by William S. Sadler and Lena K. Sadler was published. The book recommends touching a child as little as possible as to not spoil them with affection, letting children cry to ensure strong lung development, and states that a child should not interfere with a mother’s routine life.
On October 16th, 1916 the first birth control clinic was opened by Margaret Sanger. Due to legal threats she was forced to close the clinic, but founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 -- and what would later become Planned Parenthood.
did you know?
The Golden Age of Radio begins
August 18, 1920
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote (stand alone fact)
1920 Harlem Renaissance
Zora Neale Hurston, a leader in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote of racial struggles and black identity from a women’s point of view, focussing one of her most influential works, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) on the experience of Janie Crawford, a black female character . Underlying tones within Hurston's work arguably outlined a stance that, “Children and men, especially husbands, are something to grow beyond if women are to obtain emancipation” (source).
did you know?
The number of women employed increased by 25% due to the positions they held during the WWI
did you know?
The process of divorce became less difficult and the number of divorces doubled
To give birth in the 1920s was to likely experience every new “medical revolution” in childbirth, be it a necessary intervention or not. Dr. Joseph DeLee, considered the father of obstetrics, argued that birth may be a pathological process,
Since an ideal delivery was believed to be a rarity, common measures taken during twilight sleep deliveries were forcible dilation of the cervix, administering of ether, cutting episiotomies, the use of forceps, extraction of the placenta, and medication to contract the uterus.
The scientific parenting era that began in the 1900s continued throughout the 19020s, and was reinforced by popular behaviorists. The most notable of which was John B. Watson, an American psychologist/behaviorist who’s book Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) replaced Emmett Holt’s The Care and Feeding of Children (1894) as the go-to source for child rearing advice. Best known for hisLittle Alber experiment, Watson has been deemed a controversial figure. His theories aroundBehaviorism influenced his opinions on parenting, believing that emotional disorders were not inherited, but rather completely formed by treatment in early life, “all of the weaknesses, reserves, fears, cautions, and inferiorities of our parents are stamped into us with sledge hammer blows”. To avoid instilling emotional trauma in children, Watson cautioned parents against using pacifiers and encourage emotional distance as, “mother love is a dangerous instrument." .
1929-1933: The Great Depression
By the 1930s nearly 75% of all birth occurred in a hospital attended by a physician with an obstetrics specialization. Twilight Sleep was being used for nearly every delivery, both at home and in the hospital.
The 1930s ushered in the beginning of a new parenting era: child-centered parenting. The research of pediatrician Arnold Gesell helped normalize what had previously been thought of as unacceptable outbursts (temper tantrums, etc.). Gesell reframed these behaviors as harmless developmental stages as opposed to the result of bad parenting or bad kids.
Sep 1, 1939 – Sep 2, 1945: World War II, the US officially entered in 1941
In the early 1940’s the “idealization of the mother” was under attack. From psychiatrists to influential opinion-makers, the maternal figure was framed as becoming one of the biggest threats to America. In his book Generation of Vipers (1942), Philip Wylie criticizes numerous aspects of contemporary American culture and coins the term “momism,” defined as, “excessive attachment to or domination by one's mother.”
As the US entered WWII in 1941, women were tasked with picking up essential jobs in factories and the defense industry. Within a year, marketing campaigns had shifted from depicting women as fragile homemakers to women as heroic workers and empowered, industry leaders.
While wide-reaching, the campaign was directed mainly towards white women. While some minority women were able to find jobs in factories, many struggled to find positions alongside white women within the defense industry. Post-war, black women were fired at a higher percentage, and thus, forced to resume low paying roles as maid, cooks, and domestic servants.
By 1946 the campaign to get women out of the workforce and back into the home was well under way. Terrified that the men returning home from war would come back to unemployment (and thus, lead the US into a recession), campaigns and propaganda promoting concepts of the nuclear family swept the nation . Veterans were promised an America that was just as they left it.
1946: The baby boom, post-WWII families head to the suburbs,
traditional gender roles are promoted again
Conveniently aligned with the national push to get women back into the role of the housewife, evidence from scientists Anna Freud, Dorothy Burlingham, and John Bowlby emerged that showed “children who were deprived of individual caregivers during the early years suffered emotional and cognitive damage.” (source) The research was well founded, however, their work had a significant effect on the stigmatization of working mothers and helped to back up the social pressures being placed on women to return to the primary caretaker role.
A drastic shift occurred in the perception of a mother’s role in the late 40s-- from the villainously involved and dominating mother figure painted by Wylie and other influential voices, to, potentially, a villainously uninvolved parent, “Instead of suffering from ‘too much mother love,’ children without access to their mothers on a twenty-four hour basis were thought to be victims of maternal neglect and rejection.” (source)
1946: Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare
For 52 years after its release, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare reamined the second-best-selling book, next to the Bible (source). As American pediatrician, Dr. Spock wrote to moms that, “you know more than you think you do,” formally ushering in a more flexible, affectionate, and intuitive era of childcare . Though occasionally criticized for “propagating permissiveness,” the book was rapidly adopted and became the parent's new go-to source.
By the 1950s, giving birth in a hospital was the norm and Twilight Sleep deliveries were on the way out. Women from previous decades began to recall memories from their Twilight Sleep deliveries and spoke of the traumatic conditios. Nurses who had been present confirmed the often poorly monitored procedures. These testimonies, paired with rising chemopohea led to the method’s decline by the 1960s.
Did you know?
Fetal ultrasounds were invented
The efforts that had begun in the 40s to transition women out of the workforce and back into home continued, and were generally fulfilled, throughout the 50s. The widespread promotion of the nuclear family occurred for two main reasons: 1) the push to readopt traditional gender roles post-WWII 2) the “capitalist society over communist society” propaganda that was in relation to the Cold War.
Television and the Representation of Women and Mothers
Television and it’s rapidly increasing popularity (surpassing radio as the go-to mass-media platform) provided yet another outlet for the promotion of the nuclear family ideal. Shows that aligned with this ideal became extremely well-liked (source).
Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver is a particularly good example of the 1950s “archetypal” suburban mom. June is often dismissed now as a one dimensional character due to her iconic uniform of high heels, perfect hairdos and pearl necklaces, however, she is anything but. While she engages with stereotypically “femenine” hobbies such as flower arrangement, cake decorating, needlepoint, and social events with her female friends, it's also noted throughout the show that June has a college degree, is quite athletic, and is undeniably quick witted. conversation with her son, Beaver, provides an interesting insight:
June: “Well, Beaver, today girls can be doctors and lawyers too, you know. They’re just as ambitious as boys are.”
Through this exchange it’s clear to the viewer that June acknowledges and supports the notion of ambitious and capable women in the workforce. Most interestingly though, June herself, a college graduate with a well rounded past and obvious career potential, has made the conscious decision to embrace the life of a homemaker and caretaker. Perhaps, June’s acceptance of women’s empowerment, yet her choice to pursue life as a housewife was intentionally constructed to persuade the newly enfranchised female workers of the 1940s to make similar decisions.
With all of this said, it’s important to note that the nuclear family and homemaker ideal was geared mainly towards middle and upper-class white women. Minority and lower class women lacked representation due to the particularly “white-washed” nature of the 1950s and often did not have the economic privilege of choosing a domestic lifestyle regardless (source).
Did You Know?
1957: Decoy: Police Woman aired, the first television show built around a female protagonist
By the 1960s, 99% of Americans were opting for an in-hospital delivery. Medical breakthroughs around fetal heart rate monitoring during labor helped significantly reduce maternal and infant deaths. Generally, childbirth was shorter than it is today, however, this was due to the fact that most doctors cut episiotomies and used forceps . Only 20% of women chose to breastfeed and paid maternity leave was given to just 16% of working mothers .
The 1960s brought child-centric parenting, or, the “child’s liberation” era, that replaced outdated strictness from the decades previous. This new parenting style worked under the belief that the mother’s role was to provide the ideal environment for a child to develop within (source), with the child as the individual, and the mother exclusively as the supporter.
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May 9, 1960: The FDA approves the first commercially produced birth control pill
Did you know?
Color TV catches on rapidly in the mid-60s, by the end of the decade 95% of homes had a TV -- means TV becomes a massive tool for pop culture consumption (source).
1963: The Equal Pay Act is signed into law
Did you know?
Typically, full-time homemakers of the 1960s would spend around 55 hours a week on housework and domestic chores. (source).
The Feminine Mystique, the book often credited with bringing in the second-wave feminist movement, focusses on the dissatisfaction of the mainstream American women of the 1960s. The term “feminine mystique” refers to the misconception that a true woman should be fully fulfilled through marriage, child rearing, “sexual passivity,” and homemaker-- anything else is against the role, and thus, unfeminine. Friedan argues that this representation of female desire is fundamentally untrue and toxic, stating that the expectations women place on themself to receive fulfillment from these outlets causes, “the problem that has no name.”
- Betty Friedan (1963), The Feminine Mystique
July 2nd, 1964: The Civil Rights Act is passed
Did you know?
Throughout the Civil Rights movement, mothers of color helped advocate for better community resources and racial justice within their children’s schools, broadening the reach of new policies .
March 8th, 1965: The United States enters the Vietnam War
1966 National Organization for Women is formed
In the 1970s, parenting advice began to diversify. On one end of the parenting advice spectrum was James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline, a “religious-conservative” choice that supports spanking and rigid schedules (source). On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was the “mother’s liberation” era (the more popular approach of the decade), supported by books like The Mother's Almanac by Marguerite Kelly (1975) and Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five by Penelope Leach (1977). These books were written by women for women and lifted up the notion that women “don’t have to be perfect to be a mom.” . These books advocated for a go-with-your-instinct approach, claiming, “if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to put things right or make the best of those that are wrong.”
Childbirth in the 1970s almost always occurred in a hospital, and for the first time ever, a mother had multiple pain relief options. Epidurals became well liked and widely used, but because of their tendency to slow contractions, pitocin was also introduced to cause contractions and increase the speed of labor. Some mothers of the decade were in search of more natural childbirth options, thus, laboring techniques gained immense popularity-- from the Lamaze technique, to patterned breathing, hypnosis, and water immersion (source).
Gloria Steinham criticizes Dr. Spock
In 1971, famous femenist and political activist Gloria Steinem, publicly confronted Dr. Spock (author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare) after he delivered a speech, saying, "Dr. Spock, I hope you realize you have been a major oppressor of women in the same category as Sigmund Freud!" After receiving the criticism, Dr. Spock wrote in response, ''I agree today that a man has no business trying to tell women what their characteristics are, which ones are inborn, which are more admirable, which will be best utilized by what occupations.'' (source).
June 23, 1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments is signed into law, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational program.
Equal Rights Amendment
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was, and is, designed to guarantee all American citizens equal rights under the law and regardless of sex. Sex would become a suspect classification, meaing that under the law, there is a federal protection in place to prevent unconsitiutional discrimination (similar to race, religion, and national origin) (source).
In the 1970s, political debate broke out over the ERA. Many women’s rights activists fought for the amendment, while prominent conservative voices fought against it. Of those conservative voices, potentially the most influential was that of Phyllis Schlafly. A conservative lawyer and author, Schlafly warned women that, if passed, the ERA would force women into war, strip them of their rights to child support and alimony, and shatter the moral and heterosexual foundation of the country . She cautioned that the opportunities women could access through marriage (for many women of the time, their only opportunities were through marriage) would deteriorate, “The women’s libbers are radicals who are waging a total assault on the family, on marriage, and on children.” (sournce) Schlafly’s aggressive opposition eventually led to a successful campaign against the ratification of the Equal Right Amendment.
- Phyllis Schlafly
Jan. 22, 1973: 7-2 Roe v. Wade decision is made by the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring a woman’s legal right to an abortion (source)
Learn more about the current state of the Equal Rights Amendment!
April 30th, 1975: The Vietnam War ends
1979: Pregnancy Discrimination Act in enacted, forbidding descrimination related to pregnancy within any aspect of employment (source)
With the establishment of The National Association of Childbearing Centers in 1983, the decade opened up even more childbirth options to women. Midwives, home births, and birthing centers began to gain more popularity (source), however, hospital births were still the norm. Prenatal health was prioritized as Medicaid expanded to give women better access obstetric care .
Did you know?
1984: What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, becoming one of the most iconic parenting books of all time.
Did you know?
As of 1980, 30% of wives said their husbands did “no housework at all,” in contrast to only 16% of wives reporting the same thing by 2000
Critique on The Feminine Mystique
From Margin to Center (1984) by Bell Hooks supplies a well-founded critique on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique of the 1960s. Hooks reframes the book as a product of the outdated, classist, racist, heteronormitive second-wave femenist movement. She argue that the book is self indulgent by nature, with college-educated, married, upper-class white women claiming they want “something more,” (referring to a career) yet never stepping back to think of who will be taking their place in the home-- more often than not, it was lower-class and non-white women (source).
Television and the Representation of Women and Mothers
Clair Huxtable of The Cosby Show is possibly the best example of the 1980s shifting role of the mother figure. As one of the first working moms on TV (source), Clair’s character helped to change the perception of motherhood, embodying the “you can have it all!” mentality. She was the disciplinarian of her family, providing structure and support while also flourishing in a full time career.
Did you know?
Home computers and mobile phones mark the entry into a period of rapid tech innovation hitting the mainstream.
In 1986, outside of the realm of sitcoms, The Oprah Winfrey Show first premiered. Considered one of the most influential women on television, Oprah Winfrey led the program to become one of the highest-rated daytime talk shows in American history.
Did you know?
The number of parenting books published in 1997 was five times the amount published in 1975
Third-wave feminism picks up in the early 1990s,
Childbirth in the 1990s diversified dramatically. For the first time ever, a mother’s wishes for her delivery outweighed a doctor’s opinion, introducing an aspect of control, empowerment, and choice that had previously not existed (source). Natural methods were more often promoted and the popular belief was that if the mother is comfortable with her delivery method, the process would go far more smoothly (source). In terms of medical advancements, amniocentesis, a way of testing for genetic abnormalities through the drawing of amniotic fluid, was developed and put into use. Fetal ultrasounds to check the gender of the baby had become routine .
Did you know?
Friends is, unsuspectingly, one of the most progressive shows of the 1990s surrounding underrepresented topics within motherhood, including same-sex parents, surrogacy, single moms, adoption, and infertility
September 13th, 1994: The Violence Against Women Act is signed into law, providing funding for programs that assist victims of gender related violence (domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, stalking, etc.)
While the 1980s focussed on lifting up working mothers, the 1990s was the beginning of the working mom v. stay-at-home mom dispute. The percentage of working women was at its peak in the late 90s (source), and tensions rose between those who believed in the superiority of stay-at-home mothering v. those who believed it was more beneficial to have a career outside of the home.
By the 2000s, hospital births were common, but significantly less popular than decades previous. More and more, women were in search of holistic alternatives. Nearly 30% of all deliveries at this time were C-sections and maternal death rates began to increase. Though the risk was still relatively low (13 deaths per every 100,000 women in 2004), the rising statistic caused widespread panic. Research emerged around the health concerns of elective C-sections and medical professionals began limiting the number of procedures performed. (source).
With the 2000s, popular culture saw a rise in female celebrities using their voice to talk about their pregnancy experiences. In 2003, actress Brooke Shields, opened up about her postpartum depression and how antidepressants helped her get through the emotional journey after the birth of her daughter. Tom Cruise spoke out against her decision to use antidepressants during an interview telling the TV host, “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.” Shields defends her decision, “I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression,” in an op-ed piece that she wrote for the New York Times. She goes on to say that his comments are a “disservice to mothers everywhere” and emphasizes the importance of opening up the conversation about postpartum depression (source).