Preparing girls for motherhood, c.1930-1970

Angela DavisIn a recent issue of History of Education, 37(5), Angela Davis examines the post-Depression debates regarding the proper behaviour of mothers and, more specifically, the preparation of young girls to take on that role.

This article investigates how girls were educated about sex, pregnancy and childbirth during the years 1930 to 1970. Based on the results of 92 oral-history interviews with Oxfordshire women, it explores how national debates surrounding sex education influenced what girls in Oxfordshire were taught. In addition, it examines how successful the women themselves thought this education had been in equipping them for maternity and whether they believed women could indeed be educated for motherhood.

The result is a fascinating look at the contexts in which many of the contemporary theories of mothering have emerged. (Related readings are provided below the fold.)

Related Readings

  • Grolnick, W. S. & Gurland, S. T. (2002). Mothering: Retrospect and prospect. In J. P. McHale & W. S. Grolnick, eds, Retrospect and prospect in the psychological study of families (pp. 5-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Argues that history of theorizing about mothering has been one of “mother blaming,” an exclusive focus on mothers as responsible for children’s negative behavior. The authors also suggest that, at the same time mothers have been the recipients of excessive blame, their roles in their children’s lives have been ignored as they are seen as the backdrop against which other caretakers are considered. Following this thesis, the chapter turns to a review of literature on parenting. In reviewing the literature, the authors highlight 2 parenting dimensions that most researchers agree benefit children: warmth-involvement and control.
  • Halberstadt-Freud, I. (1985). Historie van de moederliefde. / The history of a mother’s love for her child. Tijdschrift voor Psychotherapie, 11(6), 370-385. Discusses inherent and learned aspects of mothering. A mother’s love and care of her child is considered a natural phenomenon today, but previously, these aspects of mothering had to be taught. The desire to foster the well-being of children became a social goal in the 18th century, when moral demands on mothers were made explicitly for the 1st time in history. Moral demands still are not placed on fathers routinely, although their symbolic value in early childcare has been recognized for a long time. The increasing scientific evidence of the importance of early emotional development for later mental health can enhance mothers’ feelings of moral responsibility, and ultimately lead to guilt feelings. The problem of the conscious and unconscious consequences of psychoanalytic knowledge is discussed.
  • Knaak, S. (2005). Breast-feeding, Bottle-feeding and Dr. Spock: The Shifting Context of Choice. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 42(2), 197-216. In today’s environment, breast-feeding represents both a medical gold standard for infant feeding and a moral gold standard for mothering. The morally charged character of this discourse makes the notion of choice in infant feeding particularly problematic and fraught with difficulty. From an historical content analysis of selected editions from 1946 to 1998 of Dr. Spock’s famous child-care manual, this paper explicates the process through which the breast versus bottle discourse has shifted over the last half-century, and how these shifts have shaped the context of choice within which mothers must make their infant-feeding decisions.
  • Thurer, S. (1993). Changing conceptions of the good mother in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Review, 80(4), 519-540. Traces the changing explicit and implicit requirements for good mothering through classical and post-Freudian psychoanalysis, object-relations theory, self psychology, and the ideas of contemporary analysts. Freudian analysis placed little emphasis on mothering. Later theories viewed mothers as all-powerful figures and blaming the mother became a prominent theme. Recently belief in the singularity of the mother’s influence has diminished, and mother-infant relationships can now be conceptualized as interactional. Many psychoanalysts believe that neurosis results not from a “bad” mother or a “bad” child, but from a “bad” match, implying that therapists should empathize with the patient and the patient’s caretakers. The implication is that there is no universal norm for good mothering, because the concept is historically specific, culture bound, and tied to intellectual and social fashion.
  • Sandelowski, M. J. (1990). Failures of volition: Female agency and infertility in historical perspective. Signs, 15(3), 475-499. Discusses the link between women’s emancipation and their fertility status within the context of medical literature and social movements in the US from the early 1800s to the present. Infertility was often linked to individual choices, and men, until recently, were not considered an important factor in sterility. Sterility was seen as resulting from women’s actions to control their lives (i.e., birth control, elective abortion). Freudian interpretations of unconscious processes causing infertility became prominent after World War II. Infertile women are still blamed for their condition today.

See also:

  • Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New Yor: Viking. As the author researched further and consulted with colleagues studying family life around the world, she came to believe that the current rearrangement of both married and single life is in fact without historical precedent. When it comes to any particular marital practice or behavior, there may be nothing new under the sun. But when it comes to the overall place of marriage in society and the relationship between husbands and wives, nothing in the past is anything like what we have today, even if it may look similar at first glance. The forms, values, and arrangements of marriage are indeed changing dramatically all around the globe. Almost everywhere people worry that marriage is in crisis. The United Nations kicked off the twenty-first century with a campaign to raise the age of marriage in Afghanistan, India, and Africa, where girls are frequently wed by age twelve or thirteen, often with disastrous effects on their health. On the other hand, in Singapore the government launched a big campaign to convince people to marry at a younger age. In Spain, more than 50 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine are single, and economic planners worry that this bodes ill for the country’s birthrate and future growth. In the Czech Republic, however, researchers welcome the rise in single living, hoping that will reduce the 50 percent divorce rate. Each region also blames its marriage crisis on a different culprit. Reviewing the historical trends behind these various concerns, the author began to see some common themes under all these bewildering differences. Everywhere marriage is becoming more optional and more fragile. Everywhere the once-predictable link between marriage and child rearing is fraying. And everywhere relations between men and women are undergoing rapid and at times traumatic transformation. In fact, the relations between men and women have changed more in the past thirty years than they did in the previous three thousand, and the author suspects that a similar transformation was occurring in the role of marriage. The author now thinks that there was a basic continuity in the development of marriage ideals and behaviors from the late eighteenth century through the 1950s and 1960s. In the eighteenth century, people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love. The sentimentalization of the love-based marriage in the nineteenth century and its sexualization in the twentieth each represented a logical step in the evolution of this new approach to marriage.
  • Gordon, L. (1988). The frustrations of family violence social work: An historical critique. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 15(4), 139-160. Discusses the 19th-century punitive orientation of charities and corrections, the contributions of casework, and the influence of psychology on family-violence social work. Contrary to the view that social work has been characterized by substantial shifts in treatment methods over the last 100 yrs, a historical study of case records from child protection agencies in Boston, 1880-1960, reveals little improvement or change in the social-work response to family violence cases. The continuity in social-work response rested, at its best, on workers’ common-sense apprehension of the complex (intrapsychic, relational, and environmental) causes of family violence and, at worst, on several constricting ideologies about proper family life. These embraced gender assumptions that made women’s domesticity and mothering essential and a public/private dichotomy that assumed that the stable family must be economically self-supporting.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.