Social Change of Motherhood

Early Feminism and Social Change of Motherhood

Motherhood was just left out by early feminists

… or at least did not complain of the burden as it would later on.

The care of children in their infancy is one of the grand duties annexed to the female character by nature .(…) We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves.’

Mary Wollstonecraft said. The eighteenth-century English writer was regarded as one of the founding philosophers in feminism,  and is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

“A woman as a slave to every situation to prejudice, seldom exerts enlightened maternal affection. The formation of the mind must be begun very early with affection tempered by reason. (…) To be a good mother, a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands.”

It was not the first feminist that said the words,

“An independent mind improved the abilities to raise children

She emphasized the importance of education of women in general and she believed that further education and an independent mind improved the abilities to raise children. She clearly leaves the child minding to women because of –what she calls- the naturalness of the female character. Later feminists would not disagree and brought along the social change of motherhood roles.

Social change of motherhood roles

Most of the women active in early century feminism were married mothers. From their writings we see no issue in motherhood. Most of them did not see the boredom or tiresomeness where future feminists would at times complain about.

‘It fills up all the gaps of life just in a way that is most consoling, most refreshing

says Margaret Fuller. Fuller is another women’s rights advocate and active in early feminism. She was an American journalist and critic. By the time she was in her 30s, Fuller had earned a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female, and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College. Her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was published in 1845.

Feminism : Social Change of Motherhood

The emancipated mothers belonged of course all to the upper class. Servants and nannies did most of the tiresome and boring tasks that are part of raising children. The mothers would see their children one or two hours for tea in the play or drawing room or library. The emancipated lady brought social change of motherhood roles. Mothers were obviously loved by their children. When mother came it was ‘playtime’ or appraisal time’ or ‘time for a kiss on the front head’. Motherhood fills indeed the gaps of the day.

We understand why motherhood was not an issue for this feminist.

An educated woman, of active, methodological habits, blessed with good servants, as good mistresses generally are, finds an hour a day amply sufficient for her housekeeping. Nothing is gained by spreading it over a longer time.’

Emily Davies wrote in 1866 in The Higher Education of Women. However from the Victorian Gazette we see that not only feminists but indeed all mothers were not supposed to be all day with their children.

A professional woman spending a short time a day in the superintendence of her nursery and enjoying the society of her children, would find it a means of rest and refreshment.

A short day was enough. Apparently no instinct or natural impulse would make women unhappy if they stayed away from their children for most part of the day. The bond that tied mother and infant together was seen differently and far more pragmatically.

Slow process of feminism with heavy impact on motherhood

When women got the vote early in the twentieth century they did not vote in large numbers or for very different topics than did men. An average election in New York early 1920’s would have one third of the women have seen voting. They would vote similarly as their husbands and they did not vote for typical female issues or any other concerns different of the men’s issues. The vote did not bring the social change of motherhood .

As with voting, women did not go to work in great numbers immediately after the laws on equal pay and laws against discrimination at work. Women gradually started working throughout the twentieth century.

There was a backlash in the eighties and a percentage of the women going out to work returned home again. These backlashes are typical for each period where sharp advances have been made and seem to correct the general growth line a little bit. Susan Faludi, an American humanist and author, made that very clear in her book Backlash in 1991. Faludi is part of the very early Third-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism seeked to avoid the over-emphasis on the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. She describes each of the backlash periods we have known throughout the last 130 years of women ‘s liberation. But in the nineties the evolution of women going out to work picked up again.

Social Change of Motherhood
Motherhood by Thomas Hawk, CC

April 21,2015  |