Maternity Leave: The Problem of Working Mothers

In her book From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820-1980 Lynn Y. Weiner explores the development of working mothers as an abnormal occurrence in American society. Her research helps to explain some of the reasons why maternity leave may not be a pressing concern for legislators or businesses to tackle. Weiner argues that at the heart of the issue is that women’s work outside the home has been constructed as simply a bonus income for a household. This framework allows women’s work to be dismissed as unnecessary, self-indulging, and problematic. Because working girls and working women have continued to be seen as atypical, workplace and childcare accommodations have yet to be made to meet the needs of parents and children in a world of increasing numbers of working mothers.

One of Weiner’s arguments regarding how this attitude toward working women and mothers developed is how it originated with working girls. She examined the contemporary literature reporting on the lives and status of working young women stating: “Most commentators agreed that acquired characteristics-such as debilitation resulting from overwork-could be transmitted through heredity to children, and hence the work life of young women though temporary, could permanently damage their future lives as mothers.” Factory work often was dangerous, and as this was paired with the risk of affecting motherhood it was extra threatening to society.

factory girl.jpg
One of Lewis Hine’s images of a factory girl

As part of the various reports coming out about factory working young women, there were also differing views on how to remedy the state of working women. Weiner discusses the differences: “Conservatives argued that women could and should return to their proper sphere at home, reflecting assumptions rooted in the domestic ideology of the mid-nineteenth century.” This is still an argument by those who support traditional family roles and believe the best way to deal with maternity leave is for women to quit work and care for children at home. Weiner says that, “radicals on this issue, like earlier feminists, encouraged women to participate in any kind of work they desired and proposed that women not be barred from traditionally male occupations.” This resembles ERA language in seeking equal treatment before the law and in the workplace.  “Progressives took a middle view. They accepted the fact that women were working, but proposed that domestic influences and protections be extended into the work and living environments of self-supporting women.” As we discussed in class, progressives pushed for legislation that protected women and gave them a special status apart from men. But views on how to work within the limitations that maternity brings while getting greater equality has taken many forms over the past century.


Weiner, Lynn Y. From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820-1980.  University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


3 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: The Problem of Working Mothers

  1. Should maternity leave today have more time off? Should BYU be more willing to help women who have children at home, for example letting them work from home? My old coworker left BYU for a job that allowed her more time with her children because BYU had very strict rules.


  2. The conservative solution to this issue (that women should just return to the domestic sphere) sounds familiar to what we hear today about women complaining about online harassment. Rather than address the problem, women are just told to retreat back to domestic life.


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