Rebecca Jo Plant's fascinating book, Mom: the Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, traces the experience and representation of motherhood in the US from the 19th-century moral mother in whose self-sacrificing love was vested the ethical development of her children to a new, modern emphasis on mothers as individuals whose goal was self-fulfilment, not self-sacrifice.
Plant examines how the ideology of maternalism, the idea that motherhood was woman's highest calling and most defining experience, was displaced. Between 1920 and the early 1960s, maternalism and individualism contested for the soul of American mothers. Throughout, she is careful to examine the dual nature of the changing ideology of motherhood that could both promote greater freedom for women and deny the respect that maternalism bestowed.
One of the most intriguing aspects of her account is the way in which she demonstrates that what contemporaries saw as attacks on women could also be embraced by incipient feminists as opening doors. The most striking example of this is her surprising discovery of letters written to author Philip Wylie, who viciously criticised American mothers in his 1942 collection of essays, Generation of Vipers. Wylie coined the term "momism" to identify mothers whose cloying love selfishly denied their sons independence and sexual freedom. Although widely seen as a misogynist, Wylie received letters from mothers who embraced his attack on momism. These women saw the liberating possibilities of a motherhood that focused on freeing children into an independent adulthood and that also freed mothers to define themselves in myriad ways as wives, lovers and professional women.
Wylie's attack on momism coincided with a critique, which emerged from the psychological profession in the 1940s and 1950s, that argued that "mother love" was often harmful to the development of mature men. It blamed mothers for everything from homosexuality to the defection of American soldiers in the Korean War.
At the same time, the medical profession chimed in to deny that childbirth was a painful death-defying experience for which mothers should be celebrated and respected. If childbirth was natural and medicine could make it painless, mothers had few claims on eternal love and devotion from their children for the sacrifice they had endured in giving birth.
Betty Friedan's 1963 work The Feminine Mystique, often credited as the stimulus for a new women's movement, castigated mothers for putting all of their being into one role and allowing themselves to wither intellectually in the process. The white, middle-class, college-educated informants who helped Friedan discover the "problem that has no name" had perfect homes, good husbands and well-behaved children, but were seeking something more to feel truly developed as individuals. Yet some women felt not set free, but berated, by Friedan's unsparing description of domestic life and maternity.
One of the most striking aspects of Plant's account is the way in which she uses letters to bring forth both sides of the anti-maternalist transformation of motherhood. Women wrote letters to Wylie, Friedan and to the journalists who reported on new psychological theories and medical understandings of childbirth. Some of these women felt liberated; others felt themselves attacked.
These documents are fascinating, and Plant's sensitive reading and recognition of the way in which anti-maternalism both liberated and denied women underscores the sentiments revealed in the letters she cites. And throughout, it is impossible to read Plant's account of the period up to 1960 without at the same time hearing voices from today. Today's political struggle between pro-life and pro-choice women rings with many of the same sentiments that characterised the women writing the letters Plant employs so effectively here.
Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America
By Rebecca Jo Plant
University of Chicago Press, 250pp, £24.00
Published 1 March 2010