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  • Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America
  • Steven Mintz
Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. By Rebecca Jo Plant (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. ix plus 250 pp.).

Over the first half of the twentieth century, cinematic depictions of motherhood underwent a radical transformation. Highly sentimental portrayals of mothers as paragons of wisdom and self-sacrifice gave way to Depression-era representations of mothers who sustained their families in the face of hardship, followed by much more negative imagery. Beginning with Now, Voyager (1942) came proliferating images of cold, overbearing, emotionally abusive and manipulative mothers who were sources of their children’s psychological problems. With Mildred Pierce (1945) came the first of many films that questioned the value of maternal self-sacrifice.

Not a social history, this important book offers instead a history of shifting discourse. Yet as Plant persuasively argues, this shift carried profound implications for the way that middle-class women perceived and experienced motherhood. Letters indicate that individual mothers drew upon dominant discourses to understand their own circumstances. Plant’s book provides the backstory for the changing representations of motherhood in popular film and situates 1960s controversies over feminism in a strikingly new cultural context.

Plant structures her argument around two landmark best-sellers, which, superficially, could not be more different. Philip Wylie’s 1942 best-seller, Generation of Vipers, contains a scathing, misogynist attack on emaculating “momism,” while Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) is a clarion call for women’s liberation from an identity defined by chores and childcare. Linking the books, Plant argues, are “anti-maternalist” strains of thought that took root among the cultural avant garde, social scientists, and the psychological professions in the wake of World War I.

Starting in the 1920s, a late Victorian “maternalist” ideology that invested motherhood with profound moral and familial significance, and which sanctioned women’s involvement in civic and reform causes, came under widespread attack. Whereas maternalist thought cast women as upholders of civic virtue and moral order, anti-maternalist ideologies associated women with repressive moralism. Literary modernists, reacting, in part, to women’s Progressive era efforts to regulate morality, railed against the “insipid sentimentality” and the censoriousness and sexual repressiveness associated with Victorian constructions of motherhood. Meanwhile, many younger women rebelled against rigid and anachronistic Victorian strictures on proper maternal behavior. At the same time, influential social scientists decried the “parasitic” idleness of the modern mother, while leading psychologists, influenced partly by Freudian psychoanalysis, demystified maternal self-sacrifice, deeming it a disguised form of narcissism and possessiveness, and claimed that intense mother-son intimacy contributed to male effeminacy. [End Page 274]

Drawing on a wealth of archival and published sources, this book sheds a fascinating light on issues large and small. For one thing, Plant shows that maternalist modes of thought persisted far longer than previous historians assumed; women peace activists, for example, retained maternalist perspectives from the 1930s well into the 1950s. Her book also complicates the use of labels like “conservative” and “progressive.” Many proponents of anti-maternalism were liberals on issues related to race, labor, and social welfare policy; yet their arguments contributed to the decline of social maternalism which played a crucial role in the abolition of child labor and enactment of mother’s pensions and the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infant Protection Act.

Plant not only demonstrates that Philip Wylie’s critique of female idleness and consumerism and his critique of mother love received a far more positive reception than previous scholarship suggested, but shows how other contemporary thinkers, from Talcott Parsons to Karl Menninger and even Mary Beard embraced aspects of his anti-maternalist critique. She also reveals how Wylie’s misogyny was rooted in a “profound self-loathing over the perceived … sexual indeterminacy of his body” (p. 23). Particularly impressive is her discussion of how maternalism, which fueled female volunteerism and associational activities throughout the 1920s, became increasingly associated with conservative and patriotic women during the 1930s. A key example involves a largely forgotten episode in the early 1930s, when the federal government sent more than 6,600 “Gold Star Mothers” to visit the European graves of sons killed in World...


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pp. 274-275
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