History, Topic of the Past

How The Social Value Of Women And Mothers Has Changed

maternal construct

The Changing Social Value of Women

“Women’s maternal role has a profound effect on women’s lives, on ideology about women, on reproduction of masculinity and sexual inequality, and on the reproduction of a particular form of labour power. Women find their primary social location within the sphere of social reproduction”

Nancy Chodorow

The Introduction of Reproductive Rights and the Maternal Construct

As early as the 1920’s early feminists who helped found the modern women’s movement formulated three basic elements which they felt were necessary for women to achieve equal rights. Those elements were civil marriage, divorce, and abortion. Later, birth control would be added to this list of political demands that feminists have worked tirelessly to achieve.

Reproductive rights began to be included as an element of basic human rights beginning with the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran, which states that

“Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children”.

In 1969, the UN General Assembly in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development elaborated further by stating that

“The family as a basic unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children and youth, should be assisted and protected so that it may fully assume its responsibilities within the community. Parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”

The Maternal Construct Before Reproductive Rights

Historically, society’s shifting views on the ideology of motherhood had been reflected in the types of social programs created to support those views. The impact of social programs, or the lack of them, on society, is a substantial one. Feminism has played a large role in re-inventing the maternal construct and women’s role in society, which before the introduction of reproductive rights, had been created and maintained largely by religious organizations, including the Catholic church.

In early 20th century Europe and most parts of the world, the ideology surrounding the role of women in society was based on two basic premises navigate to this web-site. The first premise was that women were emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically, inferior. Therefore, it was believed that their survival was completely dependent upon men. Their primary value lay in their ability to give birth, and in exchange for their financial support, men claimed ownership of their sexuality, which included any children they produced. In this way, men were better able to ensure that that their possessions, and power, would be passed to their “rightful” male heirs.

The second premise of the maternal construct was that maternal instinct, and therefore the ability to be a good mother, could only be acquired by giving birth within a societally sanctioned heterosexual marriage. The social message underlying this belief was that women had to choose between their sexuality and motherhood. Those who became pregnant outside marriage were viewed as having chosen sexuality, which rendered them incapable of being good mothers. It was considered women’s duty to control not only her own sexuality, but that of men as well.

The Effect of Social Programs on the Maternal Construct

Industrialization was a contributing factor to a sharp rise in the number of single mothers. With migration to larger cities, smaller communities lost the power of peer pressure that often contributed to men marrying women when they became pregnant. The Catholic Church was among one of the first organizations to develop and implement social programs for single mothers.

Despite the fact that these women were often the victims of economic and sexual exploitation by the employers upon whom they depended for survival, they were viewed as sinners deserving of punishment. In addition to suffering the loss of their babies, which were put up for adoption, many of these women were also subjected to a lifetime of forced labor and physical abuse.

Other organizations provided less punitive and more therapeutic assistance to those considered “fallen women” which often included victims of incest or domestic violence and women forced into prostitution to survive. Anglican facilities called “penitentiaries” in Victorian Britain were among those that offered shelter and support to women who, not being considered fit mothers, had lost all value to society.

The Hull House Settlement in Chicago, modeled on Toynbee Hall in London, was begun by Jane Adams in 1889. Similar settlements, such as the Kozma Street settlement in Hungary, that provided a number of social services for women and children, were established in Europe. These programs helped change the prevailing maternal construct by demonstrating that unmarried women were in fact capable of being good mothers. However, many believe that this change resulted in male control being replaced by that of the state.

Science, in the form of brain research and modern birth control methods, has played an important role in changing the maternal construct. However, the history of forced sterilization points to the potential for abuse of its power by the state, which demonstrates the need for continued feminist activism to prevent such abuses. Science, combined with activism, has helped women demonstrate their true social value, completely independent of the maternal construct that once defined it.

maternal construct
Mrs. John Garden, Ann Garden and Her Children, John and Ann Margaret, John Hoppner, 1796
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