Feminism and the US women’s liberation movement, as we know it, began in the mid-19th Century. One might say it began in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19-20, 1948 when the world’s first women’s rights convention was held and an agenda for the movement was set. Or, perhaps, it really began when the first sparks of desire for a different life alighted within a girl (or a woman) and she eventually found that she was not alone.
The official timeline for women’s liberation is filled with laws, amendments, protests, and firsts of many kinds. It is also filled with many amazing, courageous women. Women that began as daughters, raised in a home that either encouraged that spark of hope and desire or tried to stifle it, only to make it grow brighter. The work that women have done in women’s liberation thus far has made fast progress when we consider the centuries of human history as a whole. Our daughters today have a world of opportunity only accessible in the imaginations and dreams of those first women liberators.
In modern day America, the landscape of women’s rights give rise to the questions: should a girl grow up to work, or should she grow up and stay at home with children? Should she try — as so many of us do now — to do both?
Many of you may agree that quite suddenly in our history of women’s lib, after the rush to get women into the workplace, we have come to the point in recent years where it has nearly become unconventional to not work. Dare I say, a new face of Feminism has become choosing to stay at home. And now, as staying at home has become a movement of its own, it has given rise to many other new faces of Feminism, all of which (as I see it) have a common thread: reclaiming and preserving motherhood. We can see this and participate in movements such as Lactivism, Intactivism, and vaccination education.
Concurrent to women’s liberation, another sort of movement began — an ideology referred to by historian Rima D. Apple as “scientific motherhood.” She defines it as “the insistence that women require expert scientific and medical advice to raise their children healthfully.”1 Toward the end of the 19th century and continuing through our present time, natural parenting as it was known — following the examples of generations of mothers within the family and a mother’s own intuition — was gradually abolished.
In the beginning, advertisements and other publications encouraged mothers to educate themselves and “to be actively involved in decision making about the health of their families.” However, as scientific motherhood progressed through the twentieth century, mothers were told they were to not only learn from the experts about the health of their child, but to follow the directions of the experts. Advertisements, journal articles and books all moved from informing mothers of health and wellness to outright devaluing their intuition and the advice of their mothers. As industrialization, modern technology, and a convenience-driven economy made head-way in the twentieth century, so too did the “experts'” advice.
While Apple’s article does not cover the relationship between women’s liberation and scientific motherhood, I think the correlation is easily made. Historian Molly Ladd-Taylor writes in her article “When the Birds Have Flown the Nest, the Mother-Work May Still Go On” about the role of the National Mother’s Congress (later known as the Parent-Teacher Association) through the twentieth century. The National Mothers’ Congress was very involved in parent education of the science of child development and frequently began programs asserting this agenda and passed out publications for it. Their grassroots movements began from a traditional point of view, where women belonged at home with children, and thus, intended to “professionalize motherhood by bringing science and education into child rearing.”2 Ladd-Taylor asserts that they simply wanted women to be more content to stay at home. The National Mothers’ Congress later progressed into a more liberal role with an active stance in women’s right to work outside the home.
I bring in this bit of information, however, to illustrate how Feminism became an unintentional player in the devaluing of motherhood. After all, our fight for liberation was to broaden our freedom and to prove our capability beyond the realm of motherhood, not to crush motherhood. It was to give ourselves a choice. Now, over a century and a half into both movements, as women have moved into the workplace and have struggled with the balance of work and home life, we have lost the link to a mother’s traditional knowledge of how to be a mother. Our separation from the traditional home life coupled with the need for guidance somewhere has left a large portion of mothers to become solely reliant upon the medical experts and, sadly, upon the manufacturing companies and their advertisers who sell the products we rely on to make working outside of the home possible.
I am not asserting that we have made the wrong decision in women’s liberation. I am not asserting that any woman is making a wrong decision in working outside the home. I chose to stay at home, but next year when my family moves to a new state and my husband begins his doctorate program, I will join the millions of mothers who work.
I am calling us, however, to continue with these new faces of Feminism. I am calling to all mothers — staying at home, working at home, or working outside of home — to reclaim motherhood. We had the incredible power to shift the traditions of centuries within 150 years of active protest and work. We harness the power to reclaim and preserve the maternal instinct that exists within all of us. The instinct that knows when medical advice may work and when it’s just not right for our children. The instinct that can find a balance between expert knowledge and trusting ourselves.
Choose to continue Feminism. Give our daughters and granddaughters a true choice of motherhood. Find an aspect (one of the many practices of traditional, natural parenting) that is important to you, educate yourself, learn about a movement if one exists, and connect with others that share your feelings. Reclaim your mothering instinct through these practices: trust it and follow it!
Acacia is a stay at home mama playing through life one moment at a time with her husband and two young sons. She is a natural parenting, cloth diapering, gentle disciplining, home schooling, wholesome foods eating, spiritually centered steward to this great Mother Earth.
- Rima D. Apple, Constructing Mothers: Scientific in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Mothers & Motherhood: readings in American History, ed. Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden, Ohio State University Press, 1997. P. 90 ↩
- Molly Ladd-Taylor, When the Birds Have Flown the Nest, the Mother-Work May Still Go On: Sentimental Maternalism and the National Congress of Mothers. Mothers & Motherhood: Readings in American History, ed. Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden, Ohio State University Press, 1997. P. 446 ↩