History, Impact today

Maternal Ideal – The Changing Definitions of Motherhood

Maternal Ideal

Before the 18th century, marriage, rather than motherhood, was considered woman’s crowning achievement.

The production of heirs by women who had married into the aristocracy was considered more important than what later came to be defined as motherhood, or any notion of the maternal ideal. The definition of maternal ideal developed in the 18th century included such criteria as

“all-engrossing tenderness, long term maternal breast feeding, personal supervision and education of young children, complete physical restriction to domestic space, absence of sexual desire, withdrawal from productive labor”.

This is according to author and literary scholar Toni Bowers in her book “The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture, 1680 -1760”. The book uses a stunning array of art, including plays, novels, songs, paintings, and even social propaganda, to illustrate motherhood and the maternal ideal. In this way, she successfully demonstrates how the changing definition of motherhood reflects the political and economic conflicts of the times. This is no less true today than it was in the 18th century.

Motherhood and Politics

Just how much are women and mothers still politically affected by the outmoded and contradictory maternal ideal of motherhood that was formulated in the 18th century? According to one article on the Politics of Motherhood, the United Nations recommends that at least 30% of elected officials be women in order to accurately reflect women’s political concerns. In Canada, considered fairly progressive in terms of women’s rights, only 16% of mayors are women. Further, elected officials do not enjoy health insurance which covers maternity leave. Current statistics for the United States show that women make up only 19.4% of Congress, despite comprising 50.8 of the population.

Australia comes a bit closer to the U.N. recommendation, with the number of women in Parliament at a little less than one third, although less than on fifth of ministers are women. Similarly, Britain recently achieved an all-time high of 29%. Other countries rankings also show disparities in political representation for women. Just as women are consistently under-represented in government, women in history are similarly under-represented.

Changing Maternal Ideal

It would seem that her argument that Western civilization and the present and future role of women in history continues to be limited by the conflicting idealistic images of mothers and the maternal ideal created in the 18th century is a valid one. In addition to current statistics demonstrating political inequities, there are also a number of other ways in which women and mothers continue to be marginalized by Western societies.

According to one review of the book “Politics of Motherhood” for Bower, literature dealing with women in history both reflects and serves the interests of the ruling classes, rather than shaping social ideology. In Bowers analysis, Queen Anne’s unsuccessful attempts to produce a living heir transform the definition of motherhood and maternal ideal to one of failure and a loss of personal and social power.

One of the conflicting characteristics of the maternal ideal of motherhood that she points to is the one in which women are expected to simultaneously be powerful mother figures and compliant, subservient wives.

Motherhood and the State

Another article, while examining the current state of marriage and family in Western civilization, clearly demonstrates the role of the state in perpetuating traditional family life for its own purposes, both economic and military. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1950, married couples represented 78% of the population, while in 2010, that number was only 48%.

Much of this decline is attributed to the influence of individualism combined with consumer capitalism. Additionally, social programs began to replace the family unit for both economic and social support. Children began being educated by the state, rather than by their mothers at home.

The alarming statistic that 40 percent of single-mother families live in poverty is attributed by some to a decline in morality. However, there are few examples of women in history that haven’t suffered economic hardship as a result of their failure to marry well. Those who argue against feminism point out that children living in two-parent homes typically perform better academically and are more likely to succeed in life.

This increase in academic performance can be attributed to an increase in both supervision and economic resources. However, rather than raising the wages of single working mothers to match those of the men which formerly provided for and controlled the family by controlling the finances, they suggest a return to the former paradigm.

Mothers Defining The Maternal Ideal

Like the paradigm of the 18th century, it is still implied that women who wish to escape economic and social control are selfish to put their own needs above those of their children, and are therefore bad mothers. Further, not only are they portrayed as bad mothers, but bad wives and members of society who are contributing to the downfall of Western civilization as well.

Modern day mothers are subject to many of the same conflicting social demands and the current idea of maternal ideal. All mothers, and fathers, would do well to recognize the impossibility of those conflicting demands in order to avoid being dehumanized by them. After all, parenting at its best is just the opposite, a process of humanization.

Maternal Ideal
Mrs. Robert Shurlock, Henrietta Ann Jane Russell and Her Daughter Ann, by John Russell, 1801
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