February 10, 2014

Vol. 29 , No. 08   

View Entire Issue (Vol. 29 , No. 08)

Selflessness versus Self-Realization: Motherhood Debates in the Twentieth Century
LUNCHEON 11:30 a.m.; PROGRAM 12:00 p.m.

Today, the debate over motherhood in U.S. seems inexhaustible. Commentators anxiously note women’s growing tendency to delay childbearing until they reach “advanced maternal age.” Journalists and bloggers write hyperbolically of “mommy wars” between stay-at-home mothers and those employed outside the home. Feminists decry the “motherhood penalty” that women with children suffer in the workplace, while conservatives argue that mothers’ lower wages reflect their own individual choices. Meanwhile, an endless stream of maternal memoirs contribute to the widespread sense that motherhood and childrearing have become highly vexed issues.

Yet heated debates over motherhood are by no means a new phenomenon. In Selflessness versus Self-Realization: Motherhood Debates in Twentieth-Century America, Rebecca Jo Plant will look back to the period prior to the mid-twentieth century, an era that many Americans now envision as a simpler time, when familial roles were more clearly defined. In fact, the cultural ideal of motherhood underwent a major shift in these decades, as Americans rethought some of their fundamental assumptions about what it meant to be a good mother. Previously imagined as an all-encompassing, life-long identity rooted in self-sacrifice, motherhood increasingly came to be seen as one component of a more multifaceted self – a source of personal fulfillment rather than suffering. In surprising ways, this new conception of motherhood helped to facilitate the rise of liberal feminism in the 1960s.

An associate professor in the History Department at the University of California, San Diego, Rebecca Jo Plant is the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America and the co-editor of Maternalism Reconsidered: Motherhood, Welfare, and Social Policies in the Twentieth Century.