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Government, Professional Expertise, and the Reconstruction of Fatherhood and Motherhood

Digital History TOPIC ID 88

Since the 1870s, mounting public anxiety over the family has resulted in two important responses: increasing government involvement and intervention in the family and the emergence of distinct groups of professionals offering expert advice about childcare and proper mothering and fathering. During the late nineteenth century, public concern over divorce, abortion and contraception, and an influx of immigrants ignited influential reform movements aimed at 'family preservation' and 'child protection.' These movements condemned women who failed to mother properly and lazy, dissolute working-class fathers who deserted or beat their wives and economically exploited or abused their children. In response, eleven states made desertion and non-support of destitute families a felony and three states instituted the whipping post where wife-beaters were punished with floggings (Apple & Gordon, 1997; Gordon, 1988, Griswold, 1993; E.H. Pleck, 1987).

To combat the economic exploitation of children, reformers pressed for compulsory school attendance laws; child labor restrictions; and orphanages and 'orphan trains' to place abused and neglected children (many of whom who had one or two living parents) with farm families in the Midwest. Meanwhile, there were concerted campaigns to reduce the divorce rate (which an 1880 report had revealed to be the world's highest) by reducing the grounds for divorce, extending waiting periods, and establishing family courts. There were also concerted efforts to eliminate segregated male-only forms of recreation, campaigns which achieved ultimate success with the destruction of red-light districts throughout the country during the 1910s and of saloons following adoption of Prohibition in 1918 (Cohen, 1990; Peiss, 1986; Rosenzweig, 1983).

Around the turn of the century, the way that family problems were socially and culturally constructed underwent radical redefinition. Alongside heightened efforts to promote the male family wage, to allow a man to support his family without the contribution of his wife and children, there was a growing concern about the immigrant father, who seemed to symbolize Old World values and obstruct efforts to Americanize his children. To promote assimilation, self-conscious efforts were made to use schools, settlement houses, and peer relationships to help first-generation wives and children break free from traditional cultural values, often symbolized by the bearded, unassimilated, foreign language-speaking adult man (Griswold, 1993).

During the 1920s, public concern shifted away from working-class and immigrant men to the "new" middle class of salaried employees. Between 1880 and 1920, a fundamental shift occurred in the way that urban middle-class men earned a living, as individual proprietors, professionals, or artisans rapidly gave way to wage earners with far fewer opportunities for economic autonomy and independence. As older sources of male identity in independent work, sex-segregated politics, and community leadership seemed to be disappearing, a host of educators, psychologists, sociologists, and advertisers argued that in a changing society men would find their greatest satisfaction in private life, especially in their relations with their wives and children (Griswold, 1993).

Like fatherhood, motherhood was subjected to heightened public scrutiny. During the late nineteenth century, physicians, academic experts, educators, philanthropists, reformers, and women's groups (such as the National Congress of Mothers) called for the 'reconstruction of motherhood' along 'scientific' lines. Influenced by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, a 'child study movement' in England and the United States conducted detailed observation of children's weight, height, and activities, delineated stages of child development, and called on mothers to respond appropriately to each developmental stage. During the Progressive era, municipal health departments created special divisions of child hygiene to help reduce infant and maternal mortality, provide nutritional and health care advice, and disseminate information on child development. In 1912, the federal government established the Children's Bureau to report on children's health and welfare and to educate mothers in the principles of 'scientific motherhood' (Apple & Gordon, 1997; Rothman, 1978).

Early twentieth century childrearing advice recommended a degree of maternal detachment that we would find surprising today. Childrearing experts advised mothers to establish strict schedules for their children and avoid picking them up or caressing them. Writing in the 1920s, behaviorist psychologist John Watson warned about 'the dangers of too much mother love'; and a Children's Bureau manual expressed concern that maternal love presented mothers from adopting "the most intelligent approach to many problems of childhood." One reason for the emphasis on detachment was that authorities on the family placed a greater stress on the spousal tie than on the mother-child bond, in an effort to combat marital instability (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

During the 1930s, the mother-child axis began to stand at the very heart of the family relationships, as children overwhelming identified the mother as the family's source of emotional sustenance. Many observers were convinced that the Depression drastically reduced men's involvement with their families. With no wages to punctuate their authority, large numbers of men lost self-respect, became immobilized, and stopped looking for work, while others turned to alcohol and became self-destructive or abusive to their families. Still others walked out the door, never to return. A survey in 1940 revealed that more than 1.5 million married women had been deserted by their husbands. Convinced that preserving men's breadwinning role was a special national priority, government job programs focused largely on putting the male jobless to work. The goal of public policy was to restore the male breadwinner ideal (Griswold, 1993).

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