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Modern Motherhood

An American History

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves

Publication Year: 2014

 How did mothers transform from parents of secondary importance in the colonies to having their multiple and complex roles connected to the well-being of the nation? In the first comprehensive history of motherhood in the United States, Jodi Vandenberg-Daves explores how tensions over the maternal role have been part and parcel of the development of American society. 

Modern Motherhood travels through redefinitions of motherhood over time, as mothers encountered a growing cadre of medical and psychological experts, increased their labor force participation, gained the right to vote, agitated for more resources to perform their maternal duties, and demonstrated their vast resourcefulness in providing for and nurturing their families. Navigating rigid gender role prescriptions and a crescendo of mother-blame by the middle of the twentieth century, mothers continued to innovate new ways to combine labor force participation and domestic responsibilities. By the 1960s, they were poised to challenge male expertise, in areas ranging from welfare and abortion rights to childbirth practices and the confinement of women to maternal roles. In the twenty-first century, Americans continue to struggle with maternal contradictions, as we pit an idealized role for mothers in children’s development against the social and economic realities of privatized caregiving, a paltry public policy structure, and mothers’ extensive employment outside the home.

Building on decades of scholarship and spanning a wide range of topics, Vandenberg-Daves tells an inclusive tale of African American, Native American, Asian American, working class, rural, and other hitherto ignored families, exploring sources ranging from sermons, medical advice, diaries and letters to the speeches of impassioned maternal activists. Chapter topics include: inventing a new role for mothers; contradictions of moral motherhood; medicalizing the maternal body; science, expertise, and advice to mothers; uplifting and controlling mothers; modern reproduction; mothers’ resilience and adaptation; the middle-class wife and mother; mother power and mother angst; and mothers’ changing lives and continuous caregiving. While the discussion has been part of all eras of American history, the discussion of the meaning of modern motherhood is far from over.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Years go by while a person labors over a book like this, about six years in this case, a significant chapter in a lifetime. I am extremely grateful to those who supported me along the way, contributed ideas, and made the often solitary journey less lonely. This project has been generously supported by the University of Wisconsin...

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pp. 1-8

Reading cultural pronouncements on mothers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we might think that no force on earth was more noble or more powerful than the mother. In 1795, New York Magazine told American mothers that, quite simply, “the reformation of the world is in your power.” Several decades later,...

Part I. Roots of Modern Motherhood

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Chapter 1. Inventing a New Role for Mothers

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pp. 11-31

To understand the historical significance of modern motherhood, it helps to take a brief look backward to the essentially premodern world of mothers in the English colonies. Ideas about mothers as unique moral guardians only emerged at the time of the American Revolution. Before that, the nation’s Puritan...

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Chapter 2. Contradictions of Moral Motherhood: Slavery, Race, and Reform

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pp. 32-48

By the time the enslaved Harriet Jacobs reached the age of sixteen, she had been trying to ignore her master’s sexual overtures for years. She later became involved with another white man, whom she hoped would purchase her from her master, Dr. Flint. But Flint threatened Jacobs and vowed never...

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Chapter 3. Medicalizing the Maternal Body

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pp. 49-73

“I was not surprised,” Peggy Nicholas wrote to her daughter in 1828, “nor would I have been grieved, to hear that you were again in the family way; but I must acknowledge [that] to hear that your confinement [birth] was to take place next Month, dashed me not a litle [sic].” She confessed...

Part II. Modern Mothers

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Chapter 4. Science, Expertise, and Advice to Mothers

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pp. 77-102

In 1918, Julia Lathrop, director of the recently formed United States Children’s Bureau, received a letter from a heartbroken mother, a “Mrs. W.D.,” explaining that she and her husband had lost their only child at the tender age of four months. Mrs. W.D. lamented, “My baby was sacrificed thru mere...

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Chapter 5. Grand Designs: Uplifting and Controlling the Mothers

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pp. 103-128

Between the 1890s and the 1930s, the foundations of the American welfare state began to take shape. The United States created a small governmental safety net, for not only mothers and children but also workers. In that era workers were culturally defined as male, although the female ranks...

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Chapter 6. Modern Reproduction: the Fit and Unfit Mother

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pp. 129-149

As late as 1940, the most popular form of “contraceptive” in the United States was the antiseptic douche, a profoundly unreliable method. With the Comstock laws still in place, douches were covertly advertised, not labeled as contraceptives, and packaged by multiple companies in an unregulated...

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Chapter 7. Mothers’ Resilience and Adaptation in Modern America

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pp. 150-169

Remembering her years with her children in the early twentieth century, Mrs. Nishimura, a first-generation Japanese American (issei), told an interviewer, “My happiest time was then, when my children were small. I was poor and busy then, but that might have been the best time. It was good...

Part III. Mothers of Invention

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Chapter 8. The Middle-­Class Wife-­and-­Mother Box

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pp. 173-209

Between 1941 and 1945, the United States participated as a combatant in World War II. Mothers were expected to sacrifice on the home front, and Americans sentimentally honored the sacrifice of mothers’ sons to the larger cause. Meanwhile, the nation encouraged less traditional roles for women...

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Chapter 9. Mother Power and Mother Angst

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pp. 210-246

As a spirit of rebellion swept the nation in the 1960s and 1970s, many who considered themselves experts on women and motherhood were not sure what was hitting them. Women who were supposed to have “adjusted” to their wife-and- mother roles were launching a widespread feminist...

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Chapter 10. Mothers’ Changing Lives and Continuous Caregiving

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pp. 247-279

In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle famously criticized a popular sitcom character for choosing to be a single mother. Murphy Brown, he claimed, was “mocking the importance of fathers.” Quayle’s tirade against a fictional character proved a bit embarrassing. It made headlines and fueled...

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pp. 280-286

Reflecting the focus of current historical research, this book has necessarily been preoccupied with mothers’ relationships to the experts, political ideologies, social policies, and the labor force. Seen through this lens, the modernization of motherhood has been about control, rationality, science,...


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pp. 287-319


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pp. 321-341

About the Author

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pp. 343


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pp. 345-358

E-ISBN-13: 9780813563800
E-ISBN-10: 0813563801
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813563794
Print-ISBN-10: 0813563798

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 15 photographs
Publication Year: 2014