Maternity Leave: Early Reforms


Women making teddy bears in a factory 1915.

One of the early movements aiming to aid working women and their children was in the progressive reform of day nurseries in the late 1910’s. Anne Durst in her article “Of Women, by Women, and for Women”: The Day Nursery Movement in the Progressive-Era United States explains the motivation for a greater focus on helping working women saying, “Disturbed by stories of children left alone by day, troubled by impoverishment among families headed by working women, or eager to participate in the growing social reform movement, Progressive-era women organized day nurseries in many American cities.” The industrial age brought more opportunities for women to work and urbanization also increased costs of living. These factors left working mothers especially vulnerable without many options of how to both survive and take care of their children.

As middle class women reformers began to organize and develop day nurseries, there were internal conflicts within the movement over who was worthy of their help. Some of these critiques still echo into the maternity leave debates today. Some felt according to Durst that they were responding to “changing family needs” of the time. Others, however, resisted those changes and were highly concerned with maintaining the social order of a father who provides and a mother who stays home with children. Therefore, “Families headed by wage-earning mothers were held in grave suspicion, and, according to this view, warranted careful scrutiny and intervention before being considered “worthy.” Although it has changed overtime, that suspicion still exists among those who believe that women should remain in the home unless it is absolutely necessary for them to work. Consequently, providing maternity leave services only makes working more convenient for women and therefore more challenging to that traditional ideal of a male breadwinner.

Despite the continual push for the traditional ideal, there are many who simply cannot fit that mold. Durst summarizes one working mother’s story:

When the author married, she thought that “her collar starching days were over. But my husband was taken ill, and before I realized that he was sick I was a widow with a two-year-old daughter to support.” After maintaining herself for a short period by working in a friend’s grocery store, she remarried, only to be widowed a second time, now left with two young children to raise alone. “Before the baby was one month old,”she recalled, “I was back in the factory. You see I have really done my best to fulfill what the ministers and others often tell us is the true destiny of a woman to be a wife and a mother.”

This story illustrates the distress of those who desired to fulfill societal expectations, but were unable to due to extenuating circumstances. From the early work of day nurseries, the early seeds of reform and aid to working mothers and the opposition they faced as patterns for what has continued today.


Durst, Anne. “Of Women, by Women, and for Women”: The Day Nursery Movement in the Progressive-Era United States.” Journal Of Social History 39, no. 1 (Fall2005 2005): 141-159. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 23, 2016).


One thought on “Maternity Leave: Early Reforms

  1. it is disheartening that the fight for maternity leave has been going on for so long and it still seems like America is far behind everyone else in regards to helping mothers. Hopefully there can be federally mandated laws put in place to help mothers no longer have to face the stress of leaving their baby after a few weeks to go back to work.


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