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Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves.

April 15, 2014

Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves. Rutgers University Press, May 2014.

An impressive and strongly recommended history of how motherhood has changed in America, delving into shifting cultural ideals and expert opinions, into the economic factors and government policies that shaped the institution, and into the actual experiences of mothers from a variety of classes and races.

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves has given us a much-needed overview of how women have been defined by and have experienced motherhood—and how historically all women have been thought of as mothers. Drawing from Adrienne Rich’s influential book Of Mother Born, she narrates how motherhood has changed both as an institution and as an experience. For her, motherhood includes, but has never been limited to, the private interaction of a mother and her child.  That relationship is imbedded within ideological and economic factors that decisively affect it. Her book interweaves private and public factors making it a wide-spreading and complex narrative, yet one easily read by the general public.

Vandenberg-Daves begins her account by describing how moral authority in the home shifted from fathers to mothers in the early nineteenth century.  Women gained power within the family, at the cost of an increased financial dependency on men.  After discussing the contradictions of this idealized motherhood, she explains that it never fit the lives of women who were slaves or in poverty.  Even for financially secure white women it broke down as women sought to limit how often they gave birth and as they became employed outside their homes after the Civil War.

In the twentieth century, motherhood is part of a larger public story of industrialization, urbanization, and the rising prosperity of many, but not all, American families after World War II.  Such economic factors helped define the realities that mothers were forced to address. Increased involvement of doctors, government policies, and TV shows had their impacts on reproduction and child-rearing. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism lead to an explosion of changes that affected the options for mothering. A few feminists put motherhood at the center of their thought, as Vadenberg-Daves shows, but sadly many of us were focused on fighting ourselves free of the restricted lives we had seen our mothers live. We were into mother-blaming and “giving birth to ourselves.” It was a confusing time, and this is the weakest of the book’s chapters.  None the less, major changes occurred.   Motherhood became less tied to marriage.  With the ability to control reproduction and earn a living, singleness and childlessness became accepted options. While controversial, single and lesbian motherhood became realities. For a time government assistance eased the strains of mothers in poverty.  And then opposition to the empowerment of women became strident and governmental assistance dried up.

Vandenberg-Daves does not limit herself to this somewhat familiar white middle-class story.  She devotes large portions to her book to the ways in which African American women developed styles of motherhood that were opposite the white ideal. African American slave mothers had virtually no control over their children who could always be sold away from them. Later, as sharecroppers and domestic servants, they developed ways of caring for their own children while working for the families of others. Often this involved sharing mothering tasks with “othermothers.” Immigrant mothers and all who were poor adapted in similar patterns. As more and more white middle-class women enter the workforce, our lives have come to resemble this combination of employment and motherhood.

When I wrote my dissertation in the 1980s on the history of motherhood, there were only a handful of scholars who had researched the topic. In the past thirty years, such research has mushroomed. Vandenberg-Davis has done a masterful job of weaving that research into a clear and assessable narrative for both academic and general readers.  She clearly follows the traditional scholarly requirements for accuracy and documentation.  She is at her best presenting opposing arguments fairly. Although her sympathy is obviously with the mothers whom she describes, she refuses to demonize those whose ideas and policies harmed them. Her book aims at providing a summary and structure for other people’s research rather introducing new data.  Its comparison of how motherhood varied by class and race, as well as over time, it is a major contribution to scholarship and public understanding.

One of the merits of this book is that it tells history from a perspective different than the traditional focus of nation states engaged in politics and war. While Vandenberg-Daves doesn’t ignore such topics, they are not front and center in this book. She proves that historical narratives need not be organized along traditional political patterns. Although she focuses on the particulars of American history, much she relates is relevant for readers in other nations where similar stories have evolved and in those regions where Americans and Europeans have sought to enforce their family ideals.

As I read, I envisioned using this book in a Women’s History class. While it would need to be supplemented with other materials, I would love to use it as a basic text. I could see students taking different sides on the debates among those who have advocated for mothers in the past.  I imagined how knowing the roots of some of decisions about motherhood and womanhood might help students negotiate the choices facing them personally and as a society.  They could see that they have options earlier women did not have around reproduction and motherhood. Yet some issues keep reappearing.  What has been gained with the increased availability of birth control, and more involvement outside the home, could be taken away.  As I read this book, ironically the US Supreme Court was debating birth control, something that changed women’s options dramatically 50 years ago which the radical right is trying to take away.

I consider this a “must read” book for everyone, female and male, everywhere. It provides a structure with which we can understand how we got to our current institutions and experiences around motherhood and thus the tools to work toward a world where mothers have a say in the forces which shape their options.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Rutgers University Press for sending me this book to review.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2014 12:37 pm

    Thank you so much for this kind review! This is the first review I’ve seen of my book, and I was delighted to find it.

    • April 26, 2014 5:05 pm

      Thank you for writing such an impressive book. I hope it is widely read as it deserves.

  2. Prof Emeritus, James Parker, History permalink
    April 28, 2014 1:18 pm

    It is amazing that we had to wait until 2014 to finally have a comprehensive, preeminently competent and readable history of motherhood! Vandeburg-Daves is to be congratulated and we are all the better for it!

    • April 29, 2014 5:00 pm

      Yes. Absolutely. And it is even a truly diverse account.


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