The “Traditional” Mother

What is the role of a mother? What is her relationship to her children? To her husband? To society? Once she has children, how is her life suppposed to change? These questions are difficult to answer, and many believe that there is no good or final answer to them.

Carl Degler’s At Odds is an impressive combination of women’s and family history that addresses and analyzes how American women, men, and families have defined the roles of women in society. In the book, Degler argues that the “traditional” family that we often refer to today emerged in the early 19th century. This “traditional” family’s purpose is to bears and raise children. Children are an emotional investment, rather than an economic asset. The mother is the primary child-rearer. Degler focuses on developments that contributed to increased independence and autonomy for women within the context of the nuclear family. For some families, the roles of women and men have shifted as time has worn on. Degler concludes, however, that the majority of women have decided (some out of personal conviction, and some out of social pressure) to build their ever-shifting role as a woman outside the home around this “traditional” role as the primary provider of emotional security for children.

Here are the main  points that Degler argues are descriptive of what we refer to as the “traditional” family:

  1. Marriage is based on mutual admiration and affection between partners.
  2. The mother has the primary role in providing emotionally for the children.
  3. Family resources (both physical and emotional) are to be mostly spent on offspring, and childhood is seen as a distinct, important, and cherishable stage of human life.
  4. It is a family that is smaller than the family of the 18th century.

Degler begins by putting forth a brief but convincing chapter, arguing that the changing role of courtship around the turn of the 18th century influenced the functions of the marriages it produced. Couples were increasingly permitted to marry their partner of choice. They were allowed to spend more time developing a sense of admiration for the person, and parents were more concerned about the happiness of their offspring than the social or economic standing they might find in marriage. These changes in courtship, offered women more of a choice in the matter – thus providing greater autonomy in marriage.

According to Degler, the very perception of what a child was changed over the course of the 19th century. It was at this time that childhood became a separate and distinct part of a human’s life – separated from adulthood. Children became an emotional asset rather than an economic one.

A mother’s role in relation to the child evolved as well. One of the most surprising things to find in the book was that, in the 16th and 17th century, it was the father who was said to be the most important figure in child-rearing literature. Indeed, most of this literature was directed at him. But in the late 18th century, the mother received the direction. And throughout the 19th century, she was encouraged more and more to have a deep emotional connection with the child – a connection that had been lacking in all of this literature (be it aimed at fathers or mothers) in previous centuries. She was supposed to be more involved in the children’s lives than the father.

Degler confirms that men recognized women as the dominant child-bearers with excerpts from several diaries and letters. Then he balances this conclusion with cited examples of women who, while recognizing their more direct role, still wanted to involve the father in child rearing. He provides journal entries and letters that reveal that many women accepted their roles as the main child rearer. He gives a few examples of medical and physiological explanations used to warrant calling the mother the primary rearer. Four pages of block text are devoted to how breastfeeding was seen as essential to the motherly role; and how that reinforced and reflected a newfound emotional relationship between mother and child. He also mentions, “Some physicians in authoritative positions believed that “the uterus was the central organ of the [female] sex, around which all other facets of a woman’s life necessarily revolved.” Thus, her ideological role as caretaker and mother was reinforced by her anatomy and physiology.

The author could have most likely rested his case after the first few examples of evidence – maybe a few statistical figures and some important journal entries. But, as in many other chapters, he requires the reader to push through more of his extensive evidence. The reader is convinced of his conclusion by about halfway through the chapter. But Degler offers relevant evidence that is, although a little bit more boring to read, entirely convincing. Where he can, he leaves virtually no room for the reader to doubt his conclusions.

Degler discusses the increased awareness of contraceptive devices after the Civil War. He argues that women were “highly influential in the decision to practice birth control.” This was partially because they wanted increased autonomy, but not exclusively. Because of their increased interest in providing emotional support to children, they decided that having less of them would allow women to better provide for the children. In other words, they needed birth control to more effectively fulfill their newfound role as nurturing mother in her own sphere.

In a chapter entitled Women’s Sexuality in 19th-Century America, Degler concludes that there were men, women, physicians, and politicians asserting that women were less interested in sex than men. Investigating  this  “alleged lack of sexual interest” in women, Degler ultimately concludes that the reason for these assertions was to give women greater autonomy within the family. Sexual restraint and repression was demanded from men to both reduce the birthrate (perhaps not the most reliable method of birth control) and give women a more deciding, individual role in the marital sex life.

Abortion was actually opposed by feminists in the 19th century. Many women still had abortions, but it was taboo to address it publicly until the 20th century. Physicians who offered abortions could not say so outrightly. They had to discreetly hint at their available services in their advertisements. Abortion was not primary objective of women’s rights promoters in the 19th century. But in the 20th, it would be one of the feminists’ main goals because it was the “last legal denial of women’s individuality.”

Degler concisely discusses both the encouragement of women to move into the workforce and the fight for suffrage in a way that provides for two different types of feminists: individualistic and social. Individualistic feminists encouraged women to move outside of the home because women, as individuals, deserved to seek fulfillment outside the home. Social feminists encouraged women to move outside the home in order to expand the influence of their natural ability to nurture and provide moral instruction. Yes, women increasingly worked outside the home, but, for the most part, they found jobs in domestic service, sewing, education, etc. These vocations were simply Individualistic feminists fought for suffrage for the sake of suffrage, or individual right to autonomy. Social feminists fought for suffrage because they believed important reforms pushed forth by women would be the result.

Finally, Degler discusses second-wave of feminism. Talking about women in the workforce, he says, “During the 1950’s and 60s, “more women than men took jobs.” Also, more women with dependent children moved into the workforce. Further, in the 1960’s, there were more wives in the workforce than single women. However, “The more dependent the children, the less likely the mother was to work.”

With this last statistic, Degler shows us that “Women continued to structure their work around what they perceived as their family responsibilities.” His conclusion is that by 1980, the pattern for women working outside the home is evidence that women were, for the most part, deciding to adjust their working to their families, and not vice versa.

The conclusion of the book discusses the implications of the increased autonomy and independence of women in America. It notes that the fears of neither the feminists or the anti-feminists came to full fruition. “Women’s work in the main is still shaped around the family, while the family is still shaped around the work of men – as has been the case since the first [feminist] transformation.” Degler says that the family is the “antithesis” of a capitalistic market economy in that it promotes selflessness cooperation. One does not have to merit acceptance into the family as they need merit to be accepted in a capitalist economy. The family has always been a constant in American life – even if the roles of individuals within the family have shifted. Women are “at odds” with their quest for individuality and autonomy and their effort to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers. He believes that the family is too embedded in American culture and society for it to leave. Tensions between society’s expectations on women’s domestic roles, and their expectations on women’s public or market roles have not, and will not, cause a disintegration of the nuclear, husband-wife with kids model we strive for.  “For a majority of women,” says Degler,  “tension has not resulted in rupture.”


Degler, Carl N. At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

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One thought on “The “Traditional” Mother

  1. In this class we have talked a lot about how every culture assumes that its norms are “natural” and “right”. This source seems to also make that point– and to note that the way we view womanhood, motherhood, women’s roles, has changed throughout the ages– something we seem apt to forget and would do well to remember.

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