Maternalism refers to an attitude that "exalt[s] women's capacities to mother and extend[s] to society as a whole the values of care, nurturance and morality", meaning to improve the quality of life of women and children.
To improve the conditions of women and children these policies attempted to reconcile the conflicting roles placed on women during this time period. As single mothers were responsible for both supporting their families and raising children, government assistance would reduce the probability that they could be charged with neglecting their "home duties." In addition to supporting the creation of social welfare systems, another concept of maternalism includes nationally-funded insurance against illness, accidents, disability, and old age.
Maternalist movements during 1880-1920 in France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States successfully integrated women from the domestic sphere into the public sphere because of their authority as mothers. Although maternalism did not change the patriarchal structure of politics, women gained political and professional authority in the realm of child and maternal welfare. Religious emphasis on charitable work initially allowed women’s movement into the public sphere, based on women’s traditional roles as caretaker and nurturer. The rapid expansion of social welfare programs in France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created the opportunity for women to become professional caretakers. Maternalism was not a single specific movement and did not include a stable set of actors; there were disagreements among women along the lines of class, race, ethnicity and religion, destabilizing the maternalist movement. Economically advantaged women had the time and opportunity to create policies that supposedly would improve the lives of working-class women, but the groups disagreed on what those policies should be. Condescension within maternalism ensured that there would be continued divides along class and racial lines. A similar movement in Sweden, which started later in the 1920s was unsuccessful because of the delayed development of the middle class and reduced emphasis on morals.
Maternalist policies have helped to encourage women's paid work, support women's care giving work in the home, guard women and their families against poverty, and differentiate among women based on ethnic/racial classifications and class status after the Cold War. Although maternalism did not directly support suffrage, feminists used maternalist policy for authority, and appeals to justice and democracy. Some scholars prefer to distinctly separate feminist activism and maternalism, even though they were often intertwined during the 1880s-1920s.
Issues by country
There have been reforms in the United States that attempted to bring about a more maternalistic government with varying degrees of success. Jane Addams would begin a maternalist movement in order to improve the health, education and welfare of American children. Under the banner of “social housekeeping,” professional reformers encouraged wives and mothers to make the world into a safer and cleaner place to live. Addams wanted to create a new meaning of motherhood through cultural ideology that championed the emotional and social value of women’s attachment to children and family. To maternalist activists, the gateway to women’s political empowerment is revealed by engaging women in sentimental fervor over the innocence and vulnerability of children rather than challenging male dominance. This mentality was evident in the National Congress of Mothers, established in 1897, which promoted the spread of maternal influence and pointedly rejected furthering women’s rights.
Maternalist activists in the nineteenth century initially avoided politics to preserve their stance as moral and pure, primarily Christian, women. Although maternalist organizations like the National Congress of Mothers rejected equal rights policies, their “empowerment of mothers though education and organization” directly led to the creation of maternal policy. The idea of a maternal public policy emerged in the United States following the landmark decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States in Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908). This case upheld the constitutionality of a law that limited the maximum working hours of women, reversing the previous decision made by Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which setting maximum working hours for men was held to be unconstitutional. The decision in Muller was based on a scientific and sociological study that demonstrated that the government has a legitimate interest in the working conditions of women as they have the unique ability to bear children.
With the establishment of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912, voluntary welfare organizations started becoming privatized national associations. The first chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau was Julia Lathrop, personally chosen by President Taft. The appointment of a female chief and the development of the bureau gave women the political clout and resources necessary to promote subsequent American maternal and child welfare as a continuation of women’s work with private welfare organizations. New policies were influenced by settlement philosophy, recommendations of female physicians, and maternalist activism; a shift from the previously male-dominated economic focus. The Children’s Bureau was not active on the federal level but instead mobilized the traditional grass-roots women’s infant health movement in rural areas and small towns. The emphasis on the mother’s well-being, not prioritizing the child, was an important step in the feminist movement. Historians have considered the American maternalist policy to be beneficial to its welfare state. By conceptualizing the source of women’s political power as an extension of their domestic roles, maternalistic reformers have succceded in institutionalizing a class-bound ideology of mothering that set the standard for future social programs based on the "family wage." Maternalist polices have reduced the American infant mortality rate from 30% in urban areas from 1900 to a significantly lower amount by 1930. Although maternalism has been depicted as a distinct branch of first-wave (or early) feminism, there remains some debate about whether the objectives of maternalist reformers with women's rights were successful or not.
However, the 1996 welfare system reform has characterized the end to the "traditional" maternalist strand of U.S. social policy that dates back to the 1910s and 1920s. The introduction of the Earned Income Tax Credit has ushered in a more employment-based strand in the social policy of the United States. The EITC had practically eliminated a social right, made mothers virtually indistinguishable from fathers, and expanded the role of the free (capitalist) market in the provision of income and care. Contemporary historians, however, have seen the 1996 welfare reform as a historical break in transitioning from supporting motherhood to commodifiying women's labor. Up until 1996, families were key sites of intervention through which the American welfare state was erected, especially through single women as mothers—not wives. Due to a lack of welfare policies available to poor men, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ (TANF) policies of promoting legal marriages have positioned poor women as nodes connecting the state to poor men while structuring the poor women as breadwinners, mothers, and wives simultaneously.
French social reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century focused on the working class as victims of oppression, which led to policies in order to make child care compatible with wage labor. The impetus for maternal and child welfare policies was concerns about France’s declining population growth, especially after World War I. Single mothers were the original projected recipients of these benefits but the policies later expanded to include married working-class women. Paid maternity leave and crèches (child care facilities) were provided as mechanisms to incentivize and improve reproduction.
Although women primarily maintained mutual aid societies for maternal welfare in the late nineteenth century these organizations and the resulting social reform were facilitated by men and employers. Until the 1920s almost all the maternal and child-welfare work that women participated in was voluntary and unpaid. The hegemonic position of the Catholic Church prevented women from creating successful secular welfare programs, but the Catholic tradition also encouraged women’s voluntary activity, bringing them into the public sphere. The French maternalist movement was not gender empowering, but it did create a precedent for women to shift their domestic duties into the public sphere, created a basis for professional work, and gave them authority regarding matters of motherhood and child welfare.
German centers for medical advice were used as alternative healthcare for groups not covered under insurance policies in the late nineteenth century (particularly for children, mothers with young children, and pregnant women).
Concern about infant mortality and a declining birthrate led to an increase in maternal education as part of municipal health services and social reform in the early 1890s. An increased demand for skilled welfare workers allowed women to participate in this new social-service profession; social work ultimately became an “exclusively female profession.”
Egalitarianism and “social motherhood” were at the center of the new women’s movement in the late-nineteenth century. “Social motherhood” is the concept that women’s motherly influence should expand throughout society as an alternative to the “masculine world of rationality and self-interest”; suggesting a moral reform of society instead of a focus on emancipation, equal rights, opportunities, and wages. Social-work education was provided in separate schools, allowing the bourgeois women to have an alternative to the male universities. This education also accentuated the class divide in the German women’s movement and further established social-work as a “female occupation”. Eventually maternalism evolved into promoting a wide range of social programs including the socialist reconstruction of the state and suffrage.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, British suffragists and anti-suffragists both supported women’s moral responsibility towards child welfare even as they disagreed about participating in politics and each claimed to be the true embodiment of women and mothers. Anti-suffragists envisioned children’s welfare as an expansion of domestic and housekeeping duties.
During the Victorian era, women were especially active in the local government “as leaders and rank-and-file members of voluntary societies that addressed every conceivable social problem.” Their contribution to social welfare has been understated in history, as most records were written by male bureaucrats and politicians in the central government. Although voluntary organizations allowed men to begin careers in the government, for Victorian women these organizations were one of their only ways to engage in public life and social policy. Maternalism allowed women to become political actors but they were also limited because it emphasized their perceived differences from men. These voluntary organizations, run primarily by women, eventually were used by the British government to implement social-welfare measures. During 1906-1920 most major child-welfare policies mandated personal visits, which were facilitated typically by professional and voluntary women.
Notable proponents of maternalism include:
- Koven, Seth, Sonya Michel (1993). Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. New York: Routledge.
- Barney, S. L. (1999). Maternalism and the Promotion of Scientific Medicine during the Industrial Transformation of Appalachia, 1880-1930. NWSA Journal, 11(3), 68-92.
- "Eirinn Larsen: Feminist Scholars define Maternalism and Maternal Policy". UIB. Retrieved 2011-05-02.
- Michel, Sonya (2012). "Maternalism and Beyond". In Marian van der Klein. Maternalism Reconsidered: Motherhood, Welfare and Social Policy in the Twentieth Century. Berghahn Books.
- "SSRN-From Public to Private Maternalism? Gender and Welfare in Poland and Hungary after 1989". SSRN. Retrieved 2011-05-02.
- Brandeis, L. D. (1907). The Brandeis Brief. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from http://www.law.louisville.edu/library/collections/brandeis/node/235
- "MMO: Morality or equality?". Mothers' Movement. Retrieved 2011-05-02.
- Skocpol, Theda (1995). Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States. Harvard University Press.
- Woloch, N. (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.
- Klaus, Alisa (1993). Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- "MMO: Another Mother's Movement". Mothers' Movement. Retrieved 2011-05-02.
- "Farewell to Maternalism". Repec. Retrieved 2011-05-02.
- "Not Just Maternalism: Marriage and Fatherhood in American Welfare Policy". Oxford Journals. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- Sachbe, Christoph (1993). "Social Mothers: The Bourgeois Women's Movement and German Welfare-State Formation, 1890-1929". In Koven and Michel. Mothers of a New World. New York: Routledge.