Modern Motherhood: An American History by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves
Over the past two decades, motherhood has exploded as a site of study within gender studies, and Jodi Vandenberg-Daves’s work Modern Motherhood provides a compelling, rich synthesis of the current state of the field. Weaving together various threads in the story of the emergence of modern motherhood in America, she offers a compelling new look at the socio-cultural, historical, political, religious, and economic factors that coalesced to create our current conception of motherhood. Her work archives the changes to women’s role in childhood, childcare, attitudes toward motherhood, and shifting notions of the family to create a complete picture of motherhood in America. While her work draws on a wealth of existing scholarship on women, mothers, and families, including Linda Kerber, Mary P. Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Andrea O’Reilly, Jan Lewis, Rima Apple, Ann Hulbert, and many others, it is unique in its comprehensive approach to answering a central question—how did the modern mother come to be?
Modern Motherhood traces the historical and cultural narratives surrounding the emergence of modern motherhood in America, from the colonial views of mothers’ roles, to the emergence of Republican Motherhood in the late seventeenth century, to the transition to moral motherhood in the nineteenth century, and finally to the culmination of these trends in the scientific motherhood of the twentieth century. She explores how changes to everything from economic systems to reproductive practices to ideals of marriage and family life contributed to the evolution of ideas about what makes a woman a mother. While much of her work draws on existing research and scholarship in the field and the focus is not on producing new historical evidence or archival work, the real strength of Modern Motherhood comes from Vandenberg-Daves’s ability to weave together the various threads of family, gender, economics, politics, and science to create a rich tapestry depicting the rise of the modern mother.
Vandenberg-Daves acknowledges in her introduction and throughout the text that an exploration of the emergence of modern motherhood would benefit from a greater understanding of how motherhood historically looked for those mothers who were not white middle and upper-class women. However, as she points out, much of the historical [End Page 157] records left by women in American history come from this very group, so the examination of the mothering practices, expectations, and experiences of women of color, immigrant groups, and women from other socioeconomic groups remains a challenging endeavor. As Vandenberg-Daves puts it in her introduction, “This book represents a significant representation of ‘what we know’ about the history of mothering and motherhood” but “frustrating silences in history” remain (5).
Nonetheless, she consistently interrogates how whiteness and class privilege affect motherhood, and in fact much of her work is concerned with the way that upper and middle-class women, imbued with a growing moral influence derived from their roles as mothers, used this moral power to police and intervene in the mothering practices of marginalized groups. This often created a conflicted relationship between them, whereby the women in the marginalized groups might receive material help in terms of health, income, and child care, but often at the expense of privacy and autonomy in their mothering roles.
Particularly compelling are her chapters on scientific motherhood, the twentieth century version of motherhood that emerged out of the growing influence of “experts” and reverence for modern medicine and its ability to offer answers, safety, and security for mothers concerned about the health and well-being of their children. While scientific motherhood and the influence of doctors, non-mother experts, and quantifiable outcomes have often been seen as a departure from mothering traditions and practices of the nineteenth century, Vandenberg-Daves convincingly shows how scientific motherhood grows out of the moral motherhood and political maternalism of the sentimental nineteenth century.
Modern Motherhood deserves to be read both by scholars familiar with the current literature on motherhood, who will find her ability to provide new insights and reorganize pieces of the puzzle of motherhood compelling, and by general readers seeking a comprehensive introduction to the history of motherhood in America.