Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva

The power of women in shaping human beings is central to nearly all conceptions of mothering. In the Judaeo-Christian conception, the woman alone devotedly, unselfishly and wisely gives herself to the task of reproducing new generations. Regardless of her own personal needs, socio-economic conditions or husband/partner, the mother must always subject herself to the ideal.

These views are very familiar. But what sort of mothering do these ideas produce? For some writers of both conservative and feminist perspectives, women hand on misery to women and humanity through their mothering.1 Yet women also hand on joy to women, and to humanity, through mothering. As individuals, women appear trapped between misery and joy, between full-time motherhood and the rejection of motherhood.

More diverse and flexible views of mothering have existed and do exist. Redefinition, recognition and the transformation of ‘the mother’ are part of the history of women. And the history of women in western cultures has been structured around very powerful twin stories. One refers to the separation of the public and private sphere, the other to the consequences of capitalism. Put together, the glorification of domestic womanhood and motherhood has been presented in these stories as historically linked to both the deterioration of middle-class women’s public power and the degradation of working women’s living conditions as a consequence of industrialization.

I argue in this chapter that the view that the present status of women has deteriorated from a past golden age, when they had greater status and an authentic productive function, has had a strong influence on how motherhood and mothering are currently conceptualized. Interpretations of the historical transformation of mothering in feminist discourses have adopted the dominant

accounts of women’s history and accepted the implicit premise of the degradation of mothering. They assume that mothering has been progressively socially devalued, and that there was a time when ‘mothering was better’, or, alternatively, that mothering has always been essentially the same: with women subjected to it and controlled by men.

The thesis of the degradation of mothering is part of the socialist tradition. It builds on earlier work on conditions of women’s work (Clark 1919; Pinchbeck 1930), on interpretations of the rise of the ‘cult of domesticity’ (Hall 1979, 1980), and more generally on labour-process theory of the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, Braverman (1974) developed a powerful and influential analysis of the ‘degradation of work’ in capitalist societies. This was embedded in a nostalgic view of a pre-capitalist past when workers had control and autonomy over their labour.2 For Braverman the essence of the degradation of work lay in the loss of workers’ control of the process and product of their labour due to the separation of conception and execution. The parallel thesis of the degradation of mothering emphasizes the increasing subordination of mothers’ practices to the prescription of male experts’ rules and male-designed welfare policies, with the consequent loss of mothers’ autonomy, power and control of their own mothering.

This chapter discusses the theoretical and empirical assumptions of the thesis of ‘the degradation of mothering’ and focuses on a historical analysis of major changes in Britain since the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in employment, sexuality and child care, to highlight both transformations and continuities. It also discusses the implications of romanticizing the past and examines the implications of the uncoupling of mothering and the ‘female’ for feminists.

The chapter concentrates on Anglo-American literature and the history of the white middle and working classes. The accounts of the transformation of mothering are therefore limited to this particular western context. Although many trends and relationships analysed here also appear in other societies, an analysis of mothering in France, China, Egypt or Brazil would involve different issues and connections. Yet the general thesis of ‘the degradation of mothering’ could appropriately be explored in various historical contexts.


People are made by other people and bodies are necessary in order for people to be made. This is a universal truth. But the extent to which different people and bodies are involved in this making and the significance of such involvement differ widely.

While mothering has changed historically, there is a powerful continuity in matters of gestation, infant dependence, and the emotional and physical development of infants (Ruddick 1980: note 14). Yet these continuous elements have been perceived in changing ways in different political, technological and socio-economic contexts.

For example, people are born from women’s bodies. Yet, not always and everywhere does this turn women automatically into mothers. Solinger (1994) shows that in the United States in the 1950s, white unmarried women who gave birth were positively regarded as non-mothers if they gave the child for adoption. Similarly, since the 1980s, with the advent of new reproductive technologies, women have given birth to ‘other people’s’ children after gestating artificially implanted fertilized eggs (Stanworth 1987) and have not been regarded as mothers. Reproductive technologies have increasingly challenged the social construction of biological motherhood. A woman paid to gestate and give birth to a child for another woman who supplied the egg but who cannot go through a pregnancy herself may not be regarded as a ‘biological mother’. On the other hand, a woman who is unable to produce her own eggs but has another woman’s egg-donated or purchased—implanted into her womb may be regarded as a ‘biological mother’.

However, the biological ties of women and the children they bear have very often and almost universally given rise to the status of motherhood. In virtually all societies, motherhood is an institution with social recognition, rules and legal status. But motherhood can be given up. Mothering can either be attached to motherhood, shared between the mother and other persons, or done in the place of the mother. Motherhood is female, mothering need not be.

A framework that distinguishes between motherhood and mothering is helpful because each refers to a basic set of issues despite their common basis and intermeshed elements. I understand mothering to be a more useful concept for an analysis of historical changes in women’s social relationships to children as it widens the definition of a mother to encompass the active endeavour of caring labour.

Why has mothering been so closely identified with motherhood?

They have both been associated with women in the context of a persistent male domination of society. In discussions of the degradation of mothering this is generally linked to two major concerns: men’s increasing capacity to control mothering, and the progressive devaluation of mothering.

A number of influential analyses of historical developments connected to motherhood and mothering in the United States and Britain (Block 1978; Hall 1979, 1980; Cowan 1983; Ferguson 1983, 1989; Perry 1991) assume that women have been marginalized with modern capitalism. This conviction that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ has been repeated in women’s history (Vickery 1993).

The argument is that when home and workplace occupied the same space women made a substantial contribution to the family enterprise. Then, some time between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century, diligent middle-class women metamorphosed into idle parasites and hard-working poorer women were burdened with more and more tasks under greater male social surveillance and control. Both middle – and working-class women became secluded in isolated homes, increasingly doing as they were told. In the twentieth century the middle-class mother also became ‘proletarianized’ (Cowan 1983; Rothman 1994).

Feminist analyses have relied on these narratives of the saga of the bon vieux temps and ‘their sorry demise’ for historical accounts of social and economic change in women’s lives (Vickery 1993). This conventional explanation of female subordination has important implications for views of mothering as an increasingly devalued activity within capitalism and patriarchy. But such narratives need to be questioned.

These ideas rest on a particular interpretation of the past. For instance, Ferguson (1983, 1989; cf. Block 1978 and Perry 1991) has proposed three historical phases in developments in mothering in the United States. In the first period (1620-1799) women had very little power over mothering because of the identification of motherhood as a natural consequence of the female body saturated with evil lust. Patriarchs held authority to control sinful desires and affections privately and collectively. In the second period (1799-1890) a new ideology of motherhood appeared combined with the cult of domesticity. Motherhood thus became a ‘moral vocation’ requiring specialized skills. In the third period (1890s onwards) motherhood became devalued. New tasks emerged, and new definitions of standards in child care and housekeeping were set by male experts.

Women also became wage workers, and working mothers became overburdened by employment and housewifery/motherhood.

How accurate is this narrative? What are the implications of such assumptions and interpretations?

Similar assumptions are shared by many different writers but are set in rather different chronologies. The ‘key historical moment’ for the declining role of women as workers and as mothers—or the turning point when a pre-capitalist Utopia ceased to exist—ranges from the seventeenth century for Clark (1919), Hall (1980) and Ferguson (1983, 1989) to the early nineteenth century for Cowan (1983). Ferguson (1983, 1989), Block (1978) and Perry (1991) demarcate a period of a rising role for women as ‘moral mothers’ and argue a strong thesis of the subsequent ‘degradation of mothering’. There is a powerful implication of nostalgia for the past. Such a nostalgia is shared even by accounts that place the missed golden past in different chronologies, particularly in the assertion that in much earlier periods women had more status in the household. For instance, Cowan (1983) argues that there has not been a period of high status for the housewife and mother since industrialization began. Hall’s period of the ‘moral ideology of mothers’ is placed within an overall trend of women’s marginalization within capitalism (Hall 1979, 1980) (see Table 1.1).

Moreover, to assume, as Ferguson, Block and Perry do, that the ideology of mothering created around the cult of domesticity was a

Table 1.1 The accounts of women’s marginalization

The transformation of mothering

period of women’s empowerment seems misplaced. For Hall and Davidoff, the cult of domesticity in the eighteenth century continued to be based upon a rigid sexual division of labour splitting men from women. The space that women controlled—the private sphereremained wholly subordinate to men (Hall 1979, 1980; Davidoff and Hall 1987). The redefinition of the position of women in the family, upon which ‘moral motherhood’ was based, was clearly conservative. If material conditions enabled some women to forego employment and willingly dedicate themselves to mothering, paid employment was still important for many others. Women’s control over reproduction was largely confined to the middle class. The ideal of domesticity was based upon the role of women assisting men and this pattern continued into the twentieth century.

Have the problems involved in motherhood and mothering worsened since a presumed egalitarian pre-serpent Eden time?3 Does the degradation trend continue? What have been the more recent characteristics of the ‘degradation of mothering’?