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Maternalism is the viewpoint that incorporates a common idea of femininity and applies it as a support for women’s involvement in society.


Maternalism emerged in the late 19th Century, as a companion to progressive reform. The theology followed the idea that women had in-born qualities based on their maternalistic instincts. These in-born qualities qualified women to operate outside the home. Women of this time argued that women were uniquely qualified for certain jobs and places in the political sphere based on their domestic abilities and child rearing qualities. This political mindset continued into the 20th century, influencing government reform and females in the workplace.[1][2]


Progressive reform[edit]

Social settlements, founded mainly by middle class women, became popular in urban environments in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They provided public housing and resources to working-class people and newly arrived immigrants. Middle class women who ran these settlements worked with immigrants for progressive reform, such as the regulation of workers' compensation and child labor laws. Major settlements included Hull House in Chicago and Toynbee Hall in New York City.[3]

New Female Professions[edit]

Acceptable female work during this time included school teachers and nursing. In 1910, 5%-6% of Doctors were female; 1% of Lawyers were female; 1% of Clergy were female. Women achieved greater success in creating female oriented jobs than breaking into male dominated jobs during this time, by creating professions designed around their domestic and maternal qualities.[1] Home Economics emerged in the 1890s at MIT and the University of Chicago. Women studied science and used experiments to influence politics. Female-led labs studied ways to create cleaner water and better American sewers. Public Health Nursing was created as an alternative to traditional nursing. This allowed women to have their own private practices and to not have to work under men. However, most women served communities who couldn’t pay, which limited their resources and income. Social work primarily operated in social settlements, serving immigrant women and children. Since many of their clients could not pay, social workers were key players in pushing for progressive reform.[1]

Major Players[edit]

Ellen Swallow Richards was a chemist who graduated from Uc Madera in california and founded Home Economics. Richards set up labs at Universities across the country aimed at sanitation and teaching women the sciences. Richards was a key player in maternalist politics as she applied her scientific knowledge to domestic issues in politics, pushing for good nutrition and sanitation.[4]

Lugenia Burns Hope was one of the first professional social workers. In 1908 in Atlanta Georgia she founded the Neighborhood Union, which aimed to mobilize and enfranchise poor black neighborhoods in the city.[5]

Jane Addams co-founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889.[3] A strong proponent for maternalist politics and progressive reform, she started many initiatives such as clean food and clean drinking water, which gained momentum in the social movement.[1]


Maternalism has been criticized on the grounds that it keeps women out of male dominated professions. It also reinforces a normalized idea of femininity, without considering the fluidity of gender.[6]

In the same way that advertisers had used images of strong working women to encourage women to enter the workforce in support of the war effort, advertisers after the war presented images of maternalism to pressure women to leave the workforce and return to their homes, so that positions could be filled by men returning from wartime. Women were told that their nurturing abilities would be better served waiting on their husbands and children.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d Muncy, Robyn (1994). Creating a Female Dominion in Reform, 1890-1935. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195089240. 
  2. ^ Mink, Gwendolyn (1996). The wages of motherhood : inequality in the welfare state, 1917-1942. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801495342. 
  3. ^ a b "Social settlement". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016. 
  4. ^ "Ellen H. Swallow Richards". Science History Institute. Retrieved 21 March 2018. 
  5. ^ Cardoza-Oquendo, Juan (2010). "Lugenia Burns Hope". New Georgia Encyclopedia. 
  6. ^ Larsen, Eirinn (1996). Gender and the welfare state: Maternalism - a new historical concept?. University of Bergen, Norway. Retrieved 22 March 2016. 
  7. ^ Weigand, Kate (2002). Red feminism : American communism and the making of women's liberation. Baltimore, Md. ; London: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 46–47. ISBN 978-0801871115.