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  • Science, Advocacy, and "The Sacred and Intimate Things of Life":Representing Motherhood as a Progressive Era Cause in Women's Magazines
  • Jennifer Burek Pierce (bio)

Motherhood has a long tradition of sentimentality in the United States and an even longer tradition of politicization. These perspectives on motherhood created a tension that played out on the pages of women's magazines during the Progressive Era. During these years, reformers called attention to little acknowledged risks involved in childbearing. Dissonance between the real and the idealized was strongly reflected in coverage of the Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, a measure designed to reduce recently-documented death rates for pregnant women and new-born children.1 Advocates for the Act contrasted the number of preventable deaths and injuries resulting from childbirth with the nation's prosperity and benevolence in the face of other compelling needs.2 A continuing stream of articles about women's reproductive health, in tandem with reform efforts, focused public attention on what had been a personal matter. Motherhood, popularly understood as the individual effort of caring for one's own children and described before Congress as one of "the sacred and intimate things of life,"3 acquired a collective aspect that united women to lobby for government aid. As the maternal became political, women's magazines reflected a tension between popular romanticized notions of motherhood and personal realities of child bearing, changing the ways these periodicals engaged their readership.

Even as mass circulation women's magazines featured Jessie Willcox Smith's idyllic domestic images on their covers, their pages told stories of women's fatal hemorrhages and infections that cost the lives or health of their children. Conversely, specialty publications created to support political aims began to focus on mothering, a theme that had not been part of their discourse in preceding years. As they asked [End Page 69] their readers to reconsider the experience of motherhood, women's magazines published articles and images that engaged issues differently than they had before. Politics and the legislative process began to feature in mass circulation magazines, while advocacy-oriented titles came to acknowledge the emotional associations of motherhood in their pages. These alterations were neither instantaneous nor absolute. Instead, these editorial shifts constitute tangible evidence of the alliances women were forming in support of maternal health legislation.

Activism on behalf of the Maternity and Infancy Act brought together suffragists and club women, many of whom would have been in different political camps in the debate over suffrage. This convergence of their readerships' views meant women's magazines would, if not actually close the gap between differing editorial directions, then at least begin to resemble one another more nearly in their coverage of this issue. Simultaneously feminine and feminist in their reportorial stances, women's magazines advocated for legislation to redress the risks inherent in reproduction before pre-natal care, antibiotics, health insurance, or hospital births. Mass circulation and specialty periodicals alike during the 1920s promoted the issue of maternal health, each adapting their characteristic tenor to this new subject. This adaptation involved negotiating tensions among magazine identity, motherhood's cultural resonances, and women's recently gained right to vote. The effects of that negotiation varied by publication venue, with a popular title like Good Housekeeping ardently urging activism and the militant Woman Citizen softening its image, both invoking motherhood as a newly political matter. These periodicals aligned in their re-creation of maternity as a public and scientific matter, altering their own identities as they sought to change the conditions in which women gave birth and raised their children.

Motherhood and Magazines Transformed: Sites of Activism in Print

Women's magazines have been thought to mirror their times rather than beckon their readers toward more egalitarian futures, but this perspective is complicated by Progressive Era publications on maternal and child health. Most historiography of popular women's magazines has emphasized the conventional content of women's periodicals.4 A focus on children and family, albeit complicated by unacknowledged ideologies, is sometimes cited as exemplifying this orientation.5 Commonly criticized as alike in their presentations of sentimental, status quo, or consumer-oriented material, American women's magazines from the early twentieth...


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pp. 69-95
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