Sheila Rowbotham on 'Motherhood': The Mother Function

This is an extract from Sheila Rowbotham, (2010) Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century, London, Verso, pp. 115-124. Reprinted with kind permission from Verso.

The push towards seeing motherhood as a social activity in which intervention was possible contributed to a growing self-consciousness about how to mother. Carrica Le Favre’s Mother’s Help and Child’s Friend (1890) combined advice about bathing babies and letting fresh air into rooms, with exhortations about the importance of ‘moral sunshine’ in making for ‘domestic happiness’. She stressed that women’s rights involved responsibilities, and aimed to reconcile women to motherhood by raising the ‘esteem’ in which it was held.[1] The message of such mothering manuals, anxiously perused by the enlightened, was that motherhood was a skilled activity which had to be learned.

Calls on women to seek alternative ways of mothering proved particularly popular in the United States, where self-help health movements proliferated and ‘mind-cure’ flourished. Alice B. Stockham, a feminist interested in spirituality and free love, followed up her 1896 alternative sex manual Karezza with her 1911 Tokology, covering pregnancy, childbirth and infant care. Stockham mixed common sense with mind control. Pregnant women were advised to avoid ‘tight lacing’, to take thermal baths, to adopt ‘fruit diets’ and deep breathing, to have massages, walk upstairs, stride up hills, do gymnastics and, when the baby was born, to breastfeed.[2] Stockham exhorted them to live active, socially useful lives, and in the event of ailments or pain, to abstract their thoughts. She concluded Tokology with the assertion that the ‘mind, the real self’ determined life. Hence Stockham’s advice to would-be mothers was: ‘Learn to subordinate the body.’ Both parents, in her opinion, needed to ‘lose sight of selfish interest, and strive to the utmost for all conditions that shall favour the highest good of offspring, “for to be well born is the right of every child”.’[3] Moses Harman’s phrase was thus to enter that modern and popular genre – the childbirth advice manual.

The utopian promise of the ideal offspring lurked behind all these proposals for better mothering. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ideal future, the children are all mysteriously ‘eager, happy, courteous’.[4] This faith in harmony extended even to infants; an optimistic Rosa Graul promised that anarchist co-operatives would foster exemplary babies. Precociously aware of how much they all were wanted, ‘they were wonderfully good babies.’[5]

In the early twentieth century, the Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s exaltation of the fulfilling aspects of motherhood exerted an international influence. Key’s conception of expressive mothering combined social demands for childcare provision and state payments for mothers, with the individualistic assertion of a woman’s right to fulfil her potential as a person. Key argued that women’s difference from men should be the basis for the reform of motherhood, and that women’s subordination was founded on their economic dependence on individual men. Her mystical celebration of mothers, elaborated in The Century of the Child (1900) and Love and Marriage (1904), redefined how to mother, and delineated how mothering could be endowed with new values.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman adopted a contrasting perspective, though she too wanted to change how mothering was seen and what it entailed. Gilman believed that the individual home confined women, and that they could make much better use of their mothering skills by moving outwards into society. In Moving the Mountain (1911), Gilman outlined the conditions necessary for her new motherhood.

a. Free, healthy, independent, intelligent mothers.

b. Enough to live on – right conditions for child-raising.

c. Specialized care.

d. The new social consciousness, with its religion, its art, its science, its civics, its brilliant efficiency.[6]

Gilman was searching for opposing social values to a competitive, male-dominated capitalism. She located these not in an ideal of existing mothering, but in the potential it contained. In her ironic utopian work Herland (1915), Gilman depicted an all-female community which had established a maternalist co-operative haven based on nurture. Three male visitors, accustomed to the struggle for existence and the confinement of mothering within the domestic sphere, were deeply puzzled:

We are used to seeing what we call ‘a mother’ completely wrapped up in her own pink bundle of fascinating babyhood, and taking but the faintest theoretic interest in anybody else’s bundle, to say nothing of the common needs of all the bundles. But these women were working all together at the grandest of tasks – they were Making People – and they made them well.[7]

Gilman argued for new conditions for mothers, while suggesting that mothering carried values which were relevant to men as well as women, and could be translated into a universal social alternative. Like Key, Gilman combined individual fulfilment with social reorganization and a vision of community. Her ideas were influential in Britain as well as in America. In the Daily Herald in 1912, Mabel Harding dismissed ‘early Victorian platitudes about a woman’s place being the home, and her only true vocation that of wife, mother and housekeeper’. She asserted, like Gilman, that the home was not ‘encompassed by four walls, no longer is a woman confined to her own narrow circle’. Instead a woman now had duties to the ‘bigger family of the city and the state’.[8]

Motherhood, for and against, aroused strong passions. While some radical women believed that changing motherhood was a crucial element in improving women’s lives and position in society, others were wary of highlighting biological or cultural difference; they considered that concepts of a gendered citizenship for mothers undermined a universal right based on a common humanity. Moreover, amidst all the talk about socialization, it was unclear whether the aim was to enhance or minimize mothering as an aspect of women’s lives. For some women adventurers, it was simply a trap. In 1892, Lizzie Holmes’s sister, the American Populist and Secretary of the Kansas Freethinkers’ Association, Lillie D. White, advised women to ignore ‘wifely and maternal ties and burdens’ and to ‘unlearn...any duties of any kind to gods, men or communities’.[9] Writing in the International Socialist Review in 1911, Georgia Kotsch, from the radical West Coast wing of the Socialist Party, considered that ‘the mother function’ and the ‘mother instinct’ were the ‘last citadel’ of masculine psychology’s way of managing women.[10] The anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre similarly repudiated the mother instinct and defended the childless.[11] A 1912 contributor to the Freewoman deplored the way women tended to go to pieces intellectually when they became mothers.[12] ‘Beatrice Hastings’ (Emily Alice Haigh), who wrote in the avant-garde New Age, also held motherly nurture in contempt. Ticked off by a proponent of breastfeeding, she exploded, ‘I don’t care a tacking-thread whether women feed their children or not’.[13] She wanted a bohemian, independent identity and sexual freedom.

The American socialist feminist Harriot Stanton Blatch tried to cut through the polarities and the passion by arguing that the key question was how to balance work and mothering.[14] Similarly Ada Nield Chew carefully distinguished between domesticity and mothering in the Freewoman in 1912: ‘The confusion arises from the fact that the maternal part is mixed up in some minds inextricably with what are regarded as equally sacred duties – duties to houses and clothes, to pots and pans and to food. We can never think clearly about this matter till we accustom our minds to regard women as individual human beings.’[15] In 1915 the Greenwich Village bohemian socialist and feminist, Henrietta Rodman, stressed the creative benefits of mothering: ‘The baby is the great problem of the woman who attempts to carry the responsibilities of wage-earning and citizenship. We must have babies for our own happiness, and we must give them the best of ourselves – not only for their own good, not only for the welfare of society, but for our own self-expression.’[16] Yet this enthusiasm for expressive motherhood did not imply constant contact: ‘The mother of the past has been so busy with her children that she hasn’t had time to enjoy them... The point is not how long but how intensely a mother does it.’[17]

The problem was how to achieve the desired equilibrium. In practice, women’s personal solutions ranged from leaving children with relatives or servants to living communally and sharing childcare. But by World War One a few middle-class American feminists and reformers were raising the sexual division of labour, both in their own personal domestic arrangements, and as a social issue with policy implications. The consciously modern Crystal Eastman wanted fathers to be involved with looking after the children, though her proposition of ‘marriage under two roofs’, whereby the man and woman lived in separate places when children arrived, suggests that sharing childcare would have presented difficulties for the unconventional semi-detached couples.[18] The connection between changing childcare and changing both men and women’s work was acknowledged in 1918 by 300 delegates from social reform organizations at the Women’s Legislative Congress in Chicago, who argued for a shorter working week ‘so the father can give personal care to the child’.[19]

By the 1920s, progressive child-rearing theories in Britain were also beginning to count fathers in. However, when it came to the crunch, old habits died hard. Leonora Eyles described this graphically in the mid- 1920s. When baby wakes and cries:

‘Feed him,’ says father, and turns over dragging most of the clothes with him. Mother, afraid of a row, and distressed at spoiling the breadwinner’s night, feeds him. And in an hour’s time he wakes again, and is sick. Usually by this time both mother and father are wet and uncomfortable. Mother sleeps with one eye open, so that father shan’t be disturbed. And next day she gets up at the call of the alarm clock, red-eyed, fuzzy-headed, nervy, tired to death to begin the new day.[20]

Some supporters of childcare provision implied that mothers were not up to the task. Children, it was thought, would benefit from seeing less of their biological mothers. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s conviction that isolated individual mothers in the home were so backward and inefficient that they held back their children, led her to argue for collective forms of childcare outside the home. She believed that once small children were in contact with trained and enlightened carers, they would find alternative role models with a wider view of life and society.[21] In Women and Economics (1898), Gilman criticized the attitude of ‘absolute personal ownership’ towards children, making the rights of children another plank in her platform for change in the home.[22] In 1912 the American socialist Georgia Kotsch advocated collective responsibility for childcare on similar grounds, stating that under socialism ‘the rearing of the children’ would not ‘be left to the haphazard chance of the individual mother’, but be recognized as a specialized activity.[23] Kotsch, echoing Gilman, firmly told mothers they had to acknowledge their children’s rights as individuals to the best form of upbringing. This meant accepting that they were not always the best carers. Mothers for their part had a duty to ‘employ time’ hitherto devoted to their babies in other ways. ‘That baby which you call yours is not wholly yours,’[24] Kotsch informed them.

In the same year, Ada Nield Chew put the case for nurseries in a less authoritarian style. She proposed ‘beautiful baby gardens, quite near to the homes of the parents’, so babies could get the best of both worlds, adding, ‘A baby loves and thrives on a sunny mother, and the company of other babies is as dear to its baby soul as is the company of other children as they grow older.’[25] Chew regarded the nursery as an opportunity for small children to associate, as well as helping mothers. However, leading Labour Party women Marion Phillips and Averil Sanderson Furniss endorsed nurseries in 1919 because they gave ‘children a better training both for mind and body’ than working-class mothers could. In their view, it was ‘not good either for mothers or children that the little ones should always be under the care and within the sight and hearing of their mothers’.[26]

Women adventurers were divided on how children should be cared for and educated. While one wing emphasized the need for rigid training by applying method and system in raising the perfect offspring, others favoured libertarian approaches which derived from anarchist practice and from progressive educational theory. Louise Michel, the anarchist survivor of the Paris Commune, had established a free school in London when she was released from imprisonment; a teacher there, Agnes Henry, equated kindergarten educational theory with anarchism.[27] Learning through observation and ‘doing’, along with the cultivation of the senses, were being advanced by progressive educationalists in many countries as alternatives to training, discipline and rote-learning. Such ideas were influential in both America and Britain. In *Moving the Mountain *(1911), Gilman conceived a utopia of baby gardens and child-centred communities where none of the children wore glasses, because ‘Much of the instruction was oral – much, very much, came through games and exercises; books, I found, were regarded rather as things to consult, like a dictionary, or as instruments of high enjoyment.’[28]

Margaret McMillan’s centre for children in South London constituted a hybrid, combining Louise Michel’s anarchist ideas of spontaneous development with the educationalist Édouard Seguin’s enthusiasm for garden schools, plus a dash of regulatory social hygiene.[29] Her approach influenced both the state nurseries in Britain and the progressive school movement. In 1926 Dora and Bertrand Russell took their children to McMillan’s ‘open-air nursery’, and applied her approach in the school they started. The Russells, who had studied the theories of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Piaget, as well as the psychological work of Freud and Adler, thought that children should not become bookish and academic too early. In Dora’s words, ‘There is a period of doing, feeling, observing the world’. They decided the Montessori material was too rigid, preferring ‘the McMillan style of providing the child with all kinds of materials by means of which it would find its own way’.[30]

In the early years of the twentieth century, progressive theories about child development were part of a wider challenge to educational methods mounted by the American John Dewey. Influenced by Hull House, Dewey linked education to a wider social awareness and stressed learning through ‘doing’. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gave this approach a gendered slant. In The Home (1903), she pointed out that children learn not only through formal teaching but through example. In order to break the pattern by which girls perpetuated the isolation and restricted outlook of the mother, they needed to experience a different upbringing.[31] In Moving the Mountain (1911) she envisaged that education could minimize gender divisions: ‘from infancy to adolescence – all through these years of happy growing – there was nothing whatever to differentiate the boys from the girls! As a rule, they would not be distinguished!’[32]

Anarchists were especially critical of the authoritarianism in existing schooling. In 1892 Lizzie Holmes described schools as fostering ‘blind obedience’. She wanted an alternative which would encourage ‘the development of the human faculties, the rounding out of individual character... [and] the opening of the way to fresh and fullest activities’.[33] Anarchists regarded education as a process of drawing out spontaneous capacity, and recognized the value of play and closeness to nature. Voltairine de Cleyre imagined boarding schools in the countryside, linked to farms where children could ‘learn in free contact with nature’.[34] In 1909 Goldman echoed Lizzie Holmes’s approach, declaring that ‘if education should mean anything at all, it must insist on the free growth and development of the innate forces and intelligence of the child’.[35]

Both anarchists and socialists stressed the need to create a new culture. Annie Davison remembered her non-sectarian father sending her to the Partick Socialist Sunday-school in Glasgow, as well as to the anarchist one where she learned about fellowship, internationalism, the rights of labour, love, truth and justice.[36] The American working class created a similar counter-culture which prefigured new relations of fellowship; each wave of radical immigrants brought their own customs. In the Finnish socialist halls, children not only learned formally, they experienced a big alternative family and called all the adults ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’.[37] Implicit in the alternative culture of the socialist and cooperative movements was the idea that the upbringing of children was a social responsibility. Though not setting out to change gender roles, this radical culture did imply that both mothering and fathering could change.

‘Modern’ feminists of the 1920s were beginning to argue that new mothering required not simply the practical participation of men, but a new form of fathering. In The Right to Be Happy (1927), Dora Russell made the case for a democratic, shared parenting: ‘If we are to admit rights of parents at all, then those rights must be for father and mother, if both desire them.’[38] Along with other 1920s modern women, she searched for a cultural solution to fixed gender ideas about women’s peculiar propensity to care for children. ‘What is needed for mutual happiness seems to be not a decline of paternal or a mere intensification of maternal feeling, but the “fusion” of paternal and maternal “feeling”’.[39] She would find in her own life with Bertrand Russell that democratic parenting presented problems if a couple separated; power between men and women in society at large was not equally weighted. Moreover, though she wanted to reject the existing confi nes of the motherly role, Russell also wanted to validate mothers. She sought to overcome the tension by defining a new ‘maternal feeling’ which would be a self-conscious, rather than instinctive, force. ‘Women are rediscovering the life of instinct in the light of scientific knowledge. But when they return to it they do so in a mood quite unlike that which tradition would teach them.’[40]

For Dora Russell, and for the American ‘moderns’ like Suzanne La Follette and Crystal Eastman, ‘the new motherhood’ required state resources and legislation along with economic independence and changes in working time. It also involved a new culture of sexual freedom and gender equality. They campaigned for practical reforms while trying to keep the way open for new definitions of mothering and fathering. However, their outlook was precariously situated, for the possibilities of transforming social relations were being assailed economically and politically. The most basic needs of women as mothers would be under threat in the depressed years of the 1930s.

Photo: Schlesinger Library


  1. Carrica Le Favre, Mother’s Help and Child’s Friend, Brentano’s, New York, 1890, p. 139. ↩︎

  2. Alice B. Stockham, Tokology, L. N. Fowler, London, 1918, pp. 130–31. ↩︎

  3. Ibid., p. 333. ↩︎

  4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘Moving the Mountain’, 1911, in ed. Carol Farley Kessler, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1995, p. 161. ↩︎

  5. Graul, Hilda’s Home, in ed. Kessler, Daring to Dream, p. 197. ↩︎

  6. Gilman, Moving the Mountain, p. 161. ↩︎

  7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, Pantheon, New York, 1979, p. 69. ↩︎

  8. Mabel Harding, ‘Social Motherhood’, Daily Herald, 19 April 1912. ↩︎

  9. Lillie D. White, quoted in Sears, The Sex Radicals, p. 245. ↩︎

  10. Georgia Kotsch, ‘The Mother’s Future’, International Socialist Review, Vol. X, No. 12, June 1910, p. 1100. ↩︎

  11. De Cleyre, ‘They Who Marry Do Ill’, 1908, in ed. Glassgold, Anarchy!, p. 109. ↩︎

  12. ‘A Freewoman’s Attitude to Marriage’, Freewoman, Vol. I, No. 8, 11 January 1912, p. 153. ↩︎

  13. Beatrice Hastings, New Age, Vol. XII, No. 10, 9 January 1913, p. 237. ↩︎

  14. DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch, p. 216. ↩︎

  15. Ada Nield Chew, ‘Mother Interest and Child-Training’, in ed. Chew, Ada Nield Chew, p. 248. ↩︎

  16. Henrietta Rodman quoted in Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work, p. 114. ↩︎

  17. Ibid. ↩︎

  18. Crystal Eastman, ‘Marriage under Two Roofs’, 1923, in ed. Cook, Crystal Eastman, pp. 76–83. ↩︎

  19. Women’s Legislative Congress, 1918, quoted in Goodwin, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform, p. 143. ↩︎

  20. Leonora Eyles, ‘Sleep’, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, 14 April 1925, p. 14. ↩︎

  21. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Infl uence (1903), University of Illinois, Urbana, 1972, p. 97. ↩︎

  22. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898), Harper and Row, New York, 1966, p. 335. ↩︎

  23. Kotsch, ‘The Mother’s Future’, p. 1100. ↩︎

  24. Ibid. ↩︎

  25. Ada Nield Chew, ‘Mother-Interest and Child-Training’, in ed. Chew, Ada Nield Chew, p. 253. ↩︎

  26. A. D. Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips, The Working Woman’s House, Swarthmore Press, London, 1919, pp. 58–9. ↩︎

  27. Agnes Henry, in Augustin Hamon, Psychologie de l’Anarchiste-Socialiste, Stock, Paris, 1895, pp. 224–59. ↩︎

  28. Gilman, Moving the Mountain, p. 173. ↩︎

  29. Steedman, Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain, p. 96. ↩︎

  30. Russell, The Tamarisk Tree, p. 199. ↩︎

  31. Gilman, The Home, p. 258. ↩︎

  32. Gilman, Moving the Mountain, p. 173. ↩︎

  33. Lizzie Holmes, 1892, quoted in Margaret S. Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870– 1920, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 119. ↩︎

  34. De Cleyre, ‘Modern Educational Reform’, quoted in Paul Alrich, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1978, p. 218. ↩︎

  35. Emma Goldman, ‘The Child and Its Enemies’, 1909, quoted in Marsh, Anarchist Women, p. 119. ↩︎

  36. Annie Davison, in eds McCrindle and Rowbotham, Dutiful Daughters, p. 62. ↩︎

  37. Paul Buhle, The Origins of Left Culture in the US, 1880–1940: An Anthology, Cultural Correspondence, Boston, 1978, p. 45. ↩︎

  38. Russell, The Right to Be Happy, pp. 185–6. ↩︎

  39. Ibid., p. 185. ↩︎

  40. Ibid., p. 149. ↩︎


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