Maternalism has three meanings. First, it refers to social practices grounded in women’s concern for children, especially when those practices extend beyond the home into community and/or political arenas. Maternalism has been used particularly to describe the activities of Progressive era social reformers who shaped the emerging welfare states’ policies concerning mothers and children. It has also been used to describe the activities of many women’s clubs, associations, organizations, and social movements, from the nineteenth century to the pre sent, that aim(ed) to improve the quality of children’s lives. Second, maternalism refers to discourse that highlights women’s connection to and responsibility for children and that emphasizes differences (which may be conceived either as biologically based or as socially conditioned) between men’s and women’s contributions to family and society. This discourse animates many of the social practices listed above, but it can also infuse institutions or systems, such as the welfare state itself. Maternal discourse often intersects with class, racial, national, or religious interests. Third, maternalism is sometimes used to describe feminist theory that critiques the cultural devaluation of mothering and that articulates the contributions of maternal practice to social and political life.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, feminists, women reformers, and women club members generally took for granted that women’s responsibilities included mothering and other domestic tasks. By contrast, feminists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s treated mother hood as a socially and historically specific institution requiring critical analysis. By the 1990s, feminist historians and social scientists had produced a substantial body of research on the (mostly) middle class Progressive era women whose work laid the foundation for welfare states in North America and Europe. In the United States, these reforms included the establishment of mothers’ pensions, child labor laws, juvenile courts, protective legislation for women workers, public health nursing for mothers and infants, and the Children’s Bureau.
Whether or not they had children of their own, these Progressive era reformers viewed themselves as enacting maternal responsibilities in relation to and on behalf of other women and their children. Using maternalist discourse, they not only argued for reforms in other women’s and children’s interests, they also defended their incursion into occupational and political arenas from which women had been excluded. Before women won the right to vote, and thus the right to participate directly in the political process, maternalist discourse was a powerful tool for mobilizing women and a persuasive defense of women’s political activity. The reformers’ use of this discourse, however, sometimes embodied a paradox. On the one hand, by defining (middle class) women’s involvement in political arenas as municipal housekeeping, they challenged the ideological separation of private and public realms. On the other hand, the welfare policies they fought for tended to reinforce the ideology that mothers’ primary responsibilities revolved around home and children. Although the intent was to help, the result was often intensified scrutiny of poor, working class, and immigrant mothers’ practices and employment (Skocpol 1992; Koven & Michel 1993; Gordon 1994; Ladd Taylor 1994).
Historians and social scientists have paid particular attention to the ways in which maternalist reformers succeeded or failed in forging connections among women of different classes, races, and ethnicities. For example, white women’s reform associations frequently (but not always) excluded African American women reformers or disregarded black communities’ circum stances and needs. This treatment, along with government programs’ racial discrimination, led African American women reformers to create private institutions in their communities, such as day nurseries, schools, and health clinics. Furthermore, while middle class white women reformers tended to discourage working class women’s employment, middle class African American women reformers were more accepting of working class mothers’ waged labor (Gordon 1994; Ladd Taylor 1994).
Scholars have also studied how maternal practice and discourse have functioned in a wide range of grassroots organizations and social movements across time and place. Women have fought against environmental hazards such as toxic waste dumps near schools, against the state’s use of their sons and daughters to fight wars they do not support, and against state sponsored torture and disappearance of family members. They have fought for welfare reform, for decent, affordable health care, housing, childcare, and education, and for peaceful alliances across various borders. It is important to note, however, that maternal politics can pit mothers and children of different social groups against one another, that maternal activism can be found anywhere along the political spectrum from left to right, and that maternal discourse can be used not only to legitimate but also to disguise political aims (Jetter et al. 1997).
For instance, Tamara Neuman (2004) argues that, starting in the 1970s, Kiryat Arba women used maternal discourse to downplay the political nature of their efforts to expand Israeli settlement in Hebron. And Alexis Jetter et al.’s The Politics of Motherhood (1997) includes articles about how women have employed maternal rhetoric in the service of white supremacist and race hate movements in the United States and Europe. Yet, an important theme in the literature on maternal activism is that what begins as a concern for one’s own or one’s com munities’ children sometimes develops into a broader struggle on behalf of other children (Jetter et al. 1997).
In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist scholars also theorized mothering as a particular form of social practice that has been unjustly devalued, both culturally and scientifically. Sara Ruddick’s 1980 article, ”Maternal Thinking,” as well as her subsequent work, has been central in feminist revisioning of mothering. She coined the term maternal thinking to describe three values or intellectual capacities that may arise from the everyday work of caring for children, whether it is performed by men or women. First, she argues that children’s demand for preservation and protection can produce the value of ”holding,” of trying to keep the child safe while knowing one cannot always control the environment. Second, she suggests that children’s demand for physical, emotional, and intellectual nurturance may lead to the intellectual capacity to understand complex and unpredictable change, both in children and in oneself. Third, children’s demand for moral and social training, so that they may be accepted as members of their community, requires that the mother cultivate openness to the child’s potential, including the child’s potential difference from herself and from others in her community. Ruddick acknowledges that maternal thinking can lead mothers to defend their own children at others’ expense. Nonetheless, she argues that maternal thinking can be mobilized beyond one’s own children into a broader politics of resistance, including global peace politics (Ruddick 1995).
Other feminist theorists have resisted universalizing maternal practice. Patricia Hill Collins (1994) has been especially influential in theorizing mothers’ practices from specific social historical locations. Starting from the perspective of poor and working class women of color in the United States, Collins argues that these mothers, unlike their more privileged counterparts, must fight for their children’s survival, struggle to teach their children about their racial/ethnic identities in a racist society, and fight for empowerment in a society that has controlled their bodies and reproduction as well as their relationship to their children.
A major issue in both empirical and theoretical explorations of maternalism as practice and discourse is the link between maternalism and feminism. In cases where maternalism focuses on children’s needs while excluding mothers’ needs, extols a limited sphere of influence for women, and/or seeks the well-being of some children while harming others, scholars have tended to view maternalism as non-feminist, if not anti-feminist. By contrast, when material practice, discourse, and activism include mothers’ as well as children’s needs, integrate women’s rights and equality into the struggle, and build bridges across racial, ethnic, class, national, or other borders, scholars are more likely to define them as feminist (Gordon 1994; Ladd Taylor 1994; Ruddick 1995; Chase & Rogers 2001).
Nonetheless, given the vast historical and geo graphical diversity among instances of maternal ism (and of feminism), most scholars resist generalizations; consequently, study of particular manifestations of maternal practice, discourse, and activism has been crucial. In part because of the conflict and/or uneasy alliance between maternal and feminist practices, discourse, and activism, some scholars have chosen different terms than maternalism to describe instances where mothering and political activity intersect. Nancy Naples (1998), for example, uses activist mothering to describe the work of women community workers employed in Community Action Programs during the War on Poverty in the 1960s and 1970s. She uses this term to highlight the women’s view of political activism as integral to their mothering, to emphasize their membership in the communities on whose behalf they work, and to underscore the cross class, cross racial nature of their work.
Some contemporary scholars argue for moving beyond maternalism as a paradigm for understanding women’s relation to the family, the economy, and the state (Boris & Kleinberg 2003). In this context, some propose that a focus on carework offers a better analytical lens. Rather than highlighting women’s connection to children, this term draws attention to women’s caring as a form of labor, whether it is a labor of love or not, whether it is paid or not, whether it takes place in the home or in the workplace, and whether it is performed for children, adults, or one’s own or others’ family members. Research on carework explores how that work fits into the family-work nexus in workers’ lives, attends to the ways that work is positioned in the economy and organized by the state, and investigates how that work embodies or resists gendered and racialized discourses. Teresa Swartz (2004) offers a good example of how these aspects of carework intersect. She explores the complexities of foster parenting as (minimally) paid care work, performed for and regulated by the state, and performed by mostly working class women who use a gendered discourse of mothering. Research on carework covers many of the same issues as research on maternalism, but the latter emphasizes women’s connection to and responsibility for children and how that concern can lead to political engagement.
Another new concept that builds on the scholarship on maternalism is familialism. Haney and Pollard (2003) suggest that familialism is especially useful for understanding cases where there is no welfare state, such as colonial regimes and state socialist and communist regimes. They argue that various regimes and states, in different historical periods and geographical locations, regulate not only mothers’ but also fathers’ family responsibilities, and that these gendered forms of regulation have wide ranging consequences for family structures.
- Boris, E. & Kleinberg, S. J. (2003) Mothers and Other Workers: (Re)conceiving Labor, Maternalism, and the State. Journal of Women’s History 15(3): 90-117.
- Chase, S. E. & Rogers, M. F. (2001) Mothers and Children: Feminist Analyses and Personal Narratives. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Collins, P. H. (1994) Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood. In: Glenn, E. N., Chang, G., & Forcey, L. R. (Eds.), Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. Routledge, New York, pp. 45-65.
- Gordon, L. (1994) Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890 1935. Free Press, New York.
- Haney, L. & Pollard, L. (Eds.) (2003) Families of a New World: Gender, Politics, and State Development in a Global Context. Routledge, New York.
- Jetter, A., Orleck, A., & Taylor, D. (Eds.) (1997) The Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Left to University Press of New England, Hanover, NH.
- Koven, S. & Michel, S. (Eds.) (1993) Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. Routledge, New York.
- Ladd-Taylor, M. (1994) Mother Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890 1930. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
- Naples, N. A. (1998) Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty. Routledge, New York.
- Neuman, T. (2004) Maternal “Anti-Politics” in the Formation of Hebron’s Jewish Enclave. Journal of Palestine Studies 33(2): 51-70.
- Ruddick, S. (1995) Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, 2nd edn. Beacon Press, Boston.
- Skocpol, T. (1992) Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Swartz, T. T. (2004) Mothering for the State: Foster Parenting and the Challenges of Government-Contracted Carework. Gender and Society 18(5): 567-87.