Maternity Leave: Women’s Magazines and Redefining the State’s Responsibilities to Mothers

In 1921, Congress passed the Maternity and Infancy Act which provided resources to help improve infant mortality rates and the illness/mortality rates of women in childbirth. Jennifer Burek Pierce in her article  “Science, Advocacy, and “The Sacred and Intimate things of Life”: Representing Motherhood as a Progressive Era Cause in Women’s Magazines,” argues that it was women’s magazines that created a group consciousness politicizing the issue of motherhood. This awareness was created as advocates worked to pass the Maternity and Infancy Act legislation. Pierce explains:

In the case of the Maternity and Infancy Act, coverage by women’s magazines communicated the significance of shared efforts to secure legislation that had the potential to change women’s lives. These magazine stories acknowledged that the fears and losses women experienced in giving birth were not only personal matters but were shared by women across the country.

These magazines were powerful drivers for change. During the 1910’s there were still beliefs that motherhood was a private matter to be dealt with personally. As one congressman of the times rejected state intervention on behalf of mothers, arguing it would be, “totally antagonistic to the American idea . . . that motherhood is the fruition of love and not of science.” The idea that motherhood is the “fruition of love” seems to imply at this time that the suffering and consequences associated with the task should be endured by the individual undertaking such a responsibility. In order for maternity leave policies to develop either through private businesses or by state mandate, there needed to be a shift in thinking with a belief that mothers need special outside support in some circumstances. Magazines like Good Housekeeping and the Woman’s Journal which showed pictures and told stories of a shared motherhood suffering and concern raised such awareness that these issues needed to be dealt with on a larger scale with government intervention. Below on the left is one example Pierce uses to demonstrate propaganda in women’s magazines to raise mother’s struggles as an issue the nation should care about. On the right, the  caption reads “Madonna–As modern workers of the Children’s Bureau often find her. This particular one is from the mountain district of Georgia.” This photo and statement relate the idea of common motherhood in the phrase “as modern workers often find her,” as well as a sense of day to day concern with her simple dress and serious expression.


The Maternity and Infancy Act was able to pass with needed support. Despite the help it offered women and infants, it also created problems for future reforms. As Kirsten Barker explains in her article “Birthing and Bureaucratic Women: Needs Talk and the Definitional Legacy of the Sheppard-Towner Act” this act worked to tie pregnancy with the label “medical.” As she explains, welfare decisions are based in defining needs and meeting those needs. When pregnancy and delivery became labeled as medical needs, women’s access to services beyond medical care became restricted (i.e. time off for maternity leave).  This also placed the care of pregnant women under the “medically (and male) dominated U.S. Public Health Service” rather than the female-dominated Children’s Bureau. Therefore this act and the public consciousness it raised helped women gain needed intervention for issues of maternity, yet simultaneously tucked these issues into a restricted category with limitations on further support.

Through the Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921 and the magazine’s which supported it we see women in the early 1910’s-1920’s laying foundations for maternity leave policies. However, as noted, this legislation also led to setbacks that still affect how maternity leave is largely ignored in American policy today.



Pierce, Jennifer Burek. “SCIENCE, ADVOCACY, AND “THE SACRED AND INTIMATE THINGS OF LIFE”: REPRESENTING MOTHERHOOD AS A PROGRESSIVE ERA CAUSE IN WOMEN’S MAGAZINES.” American Periodicals 18, no. 1 (March 2008): 69-95. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost(accessed December 3, 2016).

Barker, Kristin. 2003. “Birthing and Bureaucratic Women: Needs Talk and the Definitional Legacy of the Sheppard-Towner Act.” Feminist Studies 29, no. 2: 333-355. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost(accessed December 3, 2016).




4 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: Women’s Magazines and Redefining the State’s Responsibilities to Mothers

  1. The way the media addresses women on social issues is always a fascinating topic. I feel like today we see these types of situations where a push for social change occurs happening through social media rather than magazines, but the concept is the same. Communication helps us to raise alarm to problems we see in society and create movements to address those problems.


  2. Is there different maternity policies in every state? I fee like abortion is talked more about then maternity leave issues does society not think maternity leave if an issue?


  3. Are the national medical bureaus still male-dominated–hence why the US is one of two nations in the world that still doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Did this contribute at all to the movement towards formula-usage instead of breast milk in any way?


  4. I think it is truly awesome how the written word can influence change and foster togetherness within American women, especially through the use of magazines. It’s a shame to see the magazine/print industry kind of diminishing…but still fascinating to look at it throughout history and how it has motivated women to work together, gain connections, and share common experiences.


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