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Working Mothers and Mothers in the Home, During and After World War I

Published onApr 11, 2022
Working Mothers and Mothers in the Home, During and After World War I

Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, a white woman with a reverend father, wrote Motherhood and the Relationship of the Sexes in 1917. At the time of the book’s publication, World War I was coming to an end and women had become more prominent in the industrial workforce as so many of the country’s men had been deployed for war.

In “The Family and the Home,” Chapter VIII of Motherhood and the Relationship of the Sexes, Hartley argues that the primary focus of the mother should be her home: her husband, children, and household chores (Hartley, 1917). Hartley puts a focus on the rise of working mothers and feminist organizations, claiming that those who push for women in the workforce are making a mistake.

In this piece, I will address the question: What was the rhetoric around working mothers versus mothers in the home in the early twentieth century?

Primary Source Analysis

On pages 168-169 of Motherhood, Harley writes:

Such talk of my sex as “freewomen” and of a liberation from the sexual life, as if that could be possible, fills me with impatience. I would not wait to notice it did I not believe that the hurt done to women had been deep and far-reaching. It has increased for them the difficulty of unifying life. And this uncertainty of desire is, as I believe, the modern disease which has worked such havoc in the souls of women. I would like to silence all useless, impious negators; those who, seeking to be clever, really are blinkered, and unable to see the results that would follow from their destructions. The error in all these outcries is the error of blindness, of getting into a condition of confused intellectual excitement, and because some women are dissatisfied and have been unhappy, saying, therefore, and usually with passion, that they would be more satisfied if all the sex were freed from its own duties. As if freedom were ever gained by running away. The intellectual reformer is so very far from understanding the real human needs. There is, for instance, a significant omission in the quotations I have given—no mention is made of the results of all this to the child, and no suggestion is offered except that it should be trained and cared for by experts and apart from its parents. The home is to go because it restricts the liberty of women and will hinder their earning power, as if this were all that had to be considered. I can hardly find a more striking example of how far the apparently simple and elemental things can escape the attention of the intellectual reformer.

Hartley is infuriated with the idea of women’s liberation, specifically from constraining gender roles. The author sees such freedom as a desire to abolish responsibility, an act of “running away”. She believes the feminist reformers to be confused, forgetting a woman’s “essentials”: raising children, tending to husbands, and maintaining the home (Hartley, 1917).

Hartley was not alone in holding this sentiment. Instead of viewing women who wanted to work as ambitious and self-determined, they were deemed ungrateful and foolish. It was difficult for many to fathom how a woman could be unsatisfied in her home because for so long the narrative for women was that getting married and having children was the ultimate desire. How, therefore, could a woman who had these things possibly want more?

On pages 171-172, she writes:

Now to the self-assertive, feminist mind, imbued with industrial ideals, this scene may make no appeal. Its peace is too quiet. Here is none of the modern unrest, the boredom, the moving about in worlds unrealised. But I do not think this will be noted. The one suggestion that will leap to the thoughts is the dependent position of the women. This is true, but it is equally true that the power of the woman is far greater than it is in any industrial home. And we find that such power is not exercised by the young women on account of any sexual attraction, in the way to which we are accustomed and have come to expect, but the power is held by the mother, whose desires through life are a law to her son. I can hardly emphasise too strongly this power and influence of the mother at all times when the family is firmly established. I think it must be granted that the mother has lost her position of influence in the home wherever industrial views of life have penetrated. She has little power over her grown-up sons or even over her daughters. Self-assertion is also the desire of the children; they want to break away from the mother. Perhaps this is inevitable, and maybe it is right. It is very difficult to be certain.

Hartley implies that mothers who work and prioritize their job will lose control of their children by stating that “industrial views” will disrupt home life. Hartley attempts to make a compromise later in the chapter that if women were to work in the industrial field, they should require shorter hours, longer breaks, and more frequent vacations. These demands, Hartley feels, arise because women cannot physically match the efficiency of men in the same task. Additionally that it would be impossible to care for children while working “like a man” (Hartley, 1917). While this ideology is laughable at present, it was a very real and prominent mentality in early twentieth-century America. There was a firm belief that men were superior to women, and that life should be constructed accordingly. For example, on page 179, she writes:

What is paramount in woman is secondary in man; her dominant qualities are not the same as his, but different. And by using her subordinate qualities, as she must do, in competition with a man, she is up against the dominant qualities in him and will be beaten by him: on the other hand, if woman develops her dominant qualities with a wise education in youth and afterwards by training herself in the right performance of her own work, she cannot fail increasingly to occupy a position of power. And this is only another way of saying that woman can achieve her highest position only as a woman. As a worker she has at all times and in all races occupied a secondary place, as woman she is the strongest force in life. We cannot escape from nature, and no matter how seemingly urgent it is for women to train themselves to act like men on account of prevailing economic conditions, it is always wrong at the bottom to yield to those conditions: the result will not fail to bring evil in the future.

Let us know where we are going.

Here Hartley creates a stark contrast between men and women, placing women into a role subordinate to men. She feels, as did many others at the time, that women had value in their subservient roles, and should be grateful for such a position (Hartley, 1917). There was also an expectation and responsibility of women to fulfill their “inherent duty” as subordinate partners. In this mindset not only are women doubted in their capabilities but they are given no room for individuality. They are defined by what they are not, men, and confined by what they cannot do, have autonomy. With the notion that women were unable to be self-sufficient, all that they had was given to them by someone else: a husband, father, brother even. As they had nothing to claim for themselves, it was anticipated that they prioritize the home, their children, and their husband. In doing so, women were trapped in a cycle of servitude, while men continued to have power in all facets of life. Working mothers threaten the patriarchy because they create self-sufficiency, a freedom that jeopardizes the very foundation of society.

Perilous Leisure

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. In her 1995 article “Inventing the ‘Postmaternal’ Woman, 1898-1927: Idle, Unwanted and Out of a Job,” Gullette discusses the result of women’s restriction to the home in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She writes:

It is one of the painful ironies of women’s history, of feminist history, and of my own subject, midlife representation, that the postmaternal woman, who could have been the heroine of a feminist life-course revolution that is still in the works, became so demeaned. In a pronatalist, essentialist, patriarchal system, postmaternal life had very nearly been a conceptual impossibility, because the seamless tasks of reproduction, mothering, marrying off the children, and grandmothering were assumed to coincide with a (married, fertile) woman’s entire life span. This concept I call “the universal life course” - the gendered biography produced for women and men separately by dominant discourses and practices (Gullette, 1995).

Gullette explains how the course of women was already written with no room for ambition or autonomy. She brings to light the idea of “the universal life course” and states that women were not envisioned to have a life past marriage and motherhood. Nevertheless, this imagined impossibility came to fruition in the early twentieth century and created a new woman: one whose children were out of the home and was facing a new sense of leisure and lack of purpose (Gullette, 1995). Women were given few but rigid aspirations at the time: to get married, bear children, raise said children, and take care of their home and husbands. For most of a woman’s life, she was occupied with her children, though eventually these children became adults and were either self-sufficient or supported by a spouse. This result leaves a mother practically “unemployed,” and many were subject to dullness if not depression.

Here one can see a clear contrast. If women were in fact destined for marriage and motherhood, why would the course of life allot time for anything else? It is evident, then, that the rhetoric around working women in the early twentieth century was not a positive one. Despite the industrial and technological advancements of the time, the growth in gender expectations was not parallel. Even in a book written by a woman, patriarchal ideals were abundant. The notion that women could have interests outside of the home was inconceivable, despite the clear lack of satisfaction apparent in women who did restrict themselves. Therefore, it is clear that the mindset and beliefs we hold as a society are fluid and ever-changing. The growth we have made today would seem impossible to Hartley and others of her time. It is thus inevitable that fluidity in societal expectations will cause humans to continually adapt and break the boundaries of predetermined possibility.

About the Author

Maggie Cowher is a second-year student at Wake Forest University from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

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