Misogyny And Motherhood

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

From whatever quarter the scientist comes to the study of human behavior – psychology, sociology, education – he finds that the unwise behavior of the mother has had much to do with the wrong starting of the personality trend. —Ernest R. Groves and Gladys Hoagland Groves (1928)1

Childrearing practices in the United States underwent a radical alteration during a period from the last decade of the nineteenth century through the first few decades of the twentieth. In 1929, psychologists William Blatz and Helen Bott looked back on the changes they credited to Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, whose childcare manual was first published in 1894 and continued to come out in new editions every few years:

The publication of Dr. Holt’s Care and Feeding of Children marked an epoch. . . . Previous to this mothers had brought their children up by rule of thumb, the child’s demands being the gauge of the mother’s behavior. Thus, if the baby cried he was fed, if he was fretful he was rocked or dandled, if he had colic he was walked the floor with, this being accepted as all in the day’s work in bringing up a baby. All this Dr. Holt and his followers significantly changed. Instead of the baby’s demands, the rule laid down by the specialist prescribed the rule for the mother to follow.2

The subtitle of Holt’s book was A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses. In it, in question and answer form, he taught mothers to apply in their own homes the lessons which he had learned as the first attending physician at the New York Babies’ Hospital. Those lessons included that all babies were to be fed the same quantities at the same intervals and put to sleep at precisely the same time every day. Infants who were hungry when it was not feeding time would have to wait; those who were sleeping when it was feeding time would be awakened. Practically from birth infants were to be held over chamber pots twice a day, with a piece of soap introduced into their rectums to induce a bowel movement. By this method Holt claimed that the baby could be trained to regular action of the bowels by three or four months of age.

Between these carefully spaced episodes of physical care, little attention to the infant was permitted. Applying to the home his hospital-trained anxieties over the transmission of disease, Holt raised “serious objections” to kissing a baby: “Infants should be kissed, if at all, upon the cheek or forehead, but the less even of this the better.” Other forms of contact were similarly discouraged. “Babies under five months should never be played with; and the less of it at any time the better for the infant.” Bottle-fed babies could be fed without being removed from their cribs. Other forms of attention or touch were unnecessary indulgences, and the baby’s cries for them could safely be ignored. “A young baby gets his exercise by screaming,” Holt advised. The proper approach was to “never give a child what he cries for,” leaving him or her to wail for two or three hours if need be.

The motivation for this new approach, as well as the reason for its wide acceptance, lay in the profound changes occurring in the broader society over the decades in question. There were wonders of technology and science to be seen at every turn, in the factories as well as the hospitals. The population was changing from primarily rural to primarily urban. More than ever before, residents of the United States lived in association with large institutions – medical, educational, and industrial – and those institutions required them to accept a new level of standardization. The assembly line did not permit its employees the autonomy of the family farm. It was with the hope of finding methods of growing children into compliant workers that the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research gave Dr. Holt his funding. And just as businesses were establishing kindergartens where their workers’ children could learn that “The clock helps us to be good,”3 mothers were advised that “If formerly it was believed that mother instinct or mother love was the simple and safe basis for the problems of training, it is now known that a much more adequate guide is the kitchen timepiece.”4

The inadequacy of “instinct and maternal love” was precisely the point which Dr. Holt had made when he addressed, in 1899, the third annual convention of the National Congress of Mothers (later to become the PTA). What mothers needed instead, he said, was guidance akin to the advice on livestock which farmers could obtain from the Department of Agriculture.5 And with that, the words of the previous year’s speaker, one Helen Hickox Heller – “Go, read your child”6 – were rendered obsolete.

Because, of course, it was not just the experience of childhood which had changed; it was the experience of motherhood as well. The end of the Victorian-era “empire of the mother”7 did not just mean that the maternal “kisses, hugs, and frequent embraces” celebrated as having “magical power over the child’s destiny”8 were now forbidden. It meant also that mothers were no longer trusted to gauge their children’s needs and adapt their behavior accordingly. To the “experts,” the inclinations of mothers were only an obstacle to be overcome. “The very love of the mother for her child may be the ‘stumbling block’ that prevents her from successfully fulfilling the obligations of her parenthood,” advised the federal government in a 1925 pamphlet.9

Indeed, the belief that children needed professionals to rescue them from “the hothouse affection of the home” was the original motivation behind the establishment of nursery schools. Virtually non-existent in the teens, they numbered in the hundreds by the ‘20s and the thousands by the ‘30s. Taking children as young as sixteen months, often located in university laboratories and supervised by psychologists, nursery schools were intended to counter the process by which “the continued presence of the young child in the home may lead to an unwholesome emotional attachment between mother and child.”10 They would do this by positioning themselves in the middle of the mother-child relationship, as “agencies for determining the needs of the child and interpreting these to the parents.”11

From the very beginning, however, the ability of the movement for “scientific motherhood” to determine the needs of children was undermined by the fact that there was little that was genuinely scientific about it. It was driven instead by an infatuation with the style of science – with measuring, sterilizing, timing, and charting, with impressive substances that deserved the name of “formula.” Plausible-sounding hypotheses didn’t need to be tested, only implemented. Given the new understanding of the role that germs played in causing disease, for example, it seemed only reasonable to sanitize the baby’s stomach by enforcing long intervals between feedings, during which it would be “swept clean.” And so over a few short years the recommended regimen for breastfeeding a newborn dropped from ten feedings12 in a twenty-four hour period, to five.

Parents and children had essentially become guinea pigs as the moneyed benefactors of the “experts” pushed for immediate real-world implementation of their ideas, no matter how frequently those ideas might change. Hence the observation of a child development educator in 1930: “One of the things [parents] tell you in despair – I thought two years ago, three years ago, you told us this; is not this what you said? – because they can not get flexible about moving into new areas of experimentation.”13

By then there was a new best-selling author, one who had also received Rockefeller funding and who insisted on yet more reasons to distance mother and child. Whereas Emmett Holt’s emphasis had leaned towards the care of the child’s body, John Broadus Watson was far more concerned about the harm that a mother could do the child’s psyche. Founder of the influential “behaviorist” school of psychology, Watson believed that virtually every characteristic manifested by the growing child was a direct result of environmental conditioning. His response to those who sought to “allow the child to develop from within” was that “[T]here is nothing from within to develop.”14 In particular, there was no inborn need on the part of the child for affection. The “love response” would not exist in the child unless the mother created it through physically pleasurable contact, and once created it would threaten the child with lifelong dependency, an inability to cope with the world characterized by hypochrondia, broken marriage, and professional failure.

The only way to avoid this, to ensure that the child grown to adulthood would be able to manage life on his or her own, was to see to it that pernicious “nest habits” never developed in the first place.  The ideal was to raise a child “as free as possible of sensitivities to people and one who, almost from birth, is relatively independent of the family situation.”15

Put [the child] out in the backyard a large part of the day. . . . Do this from the time it is born. . . . Let it learn to overcome difficulties almost from the moment of birth. . . . If your heart is too tender and you must watch the child, make yourself a peephole so that you can see without being seen, or use a periscope.16

The book in which that counsel appeared, Watson’s Psychological Care of Infant and Child, came out in 1928 and outpaced The Great Gatsby in sales. Still, it is hard to read such advice today without wondering whether any of this was taken seriously. But while few parents might have invested in periscopes, there is ample evidence that the experts actually achieved their goal of distancing mothers and children. Some observers considered that fact a success – like the psychologists Blatz and Bott, who celebrated the fact that so many mothers withstood the “struggle of frantically wanting to do something when the baby cries.”17 Others were more critical. One 1910 observer wrote that “Perhaps the greatest recent upheaval of nursery law is that which has been disciplining the young mother to hear her child crying and make no response whatever. Perhaps it might be better for many young mothers if they had never heard of such a thing.”18 Another commented in 1934 that “So much has been written recently about the dangers of over-coddling a child that many young parents have become almost afraid to notice their infants during their first year. As a consequence they have banished them during their earliest months to what approaches very nearly solitary confinement.”19

A woman born in 1936 remembered her own mother’s account that “The last half-hour before a feeding was hell,” but that she felt she had no choice but to “obey” the experts’ orders.20 Among the mothers who reported that the crying might go on far longer than that was Jane Spock,21 whose husband Benjamin would become the postwar childcare guru. The experience of the mother having to endure her infant’s cries was at times treated lightly – a cartoon in The New Yorker showed a young mother holding a bottle and studying her watch as she stood by the crib of her bawling infant22 – but also described in more harrowing terms by novelists like Doris Lessing.23 A large part of the mother’s day had come to consist of a task for which her relationship to the child made her particularly unsuited – namely, to listen to the wailing and keep her distance.

Some mothers would later come to regret their acquiescence. In a piece entitled “Did Our Children Survive Our Upbringing?” Sylvia Seaman recalled that “In those days, when my son cried, I inspected his simple, white flannel nightgown with the sleeves tied around his hands to prevent thumb-sucking, and examined his diaper for open safety pins or wetness; if he persisted, I was allowed to turn him on his side or stomach, just once, but never, never, on pain of acquiring an everlasting guilt complex, could I pick him up or fondle him.”24 The fact that Seaman was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement highlights one of the great ironies of the era – that during the time period in which women won the vote, they were widely considered incompetent to raise their own children.

Though it was educated women who most enthusiastically adopted the new ideas, it was also a Progressive Era project to disseminate them widely. In the cities even poor women might remain in the hospital long enough after giving birth for the establishment of the breast-milk supply to be threatened by the separation of mother and infant for unreasonably long intervals. Social workers and health care professionals continued their influence campaign on mothers once they had brought their babies home. In 1920s Boston, an Armenian immigrant expressed how much pressure she was under to conform, complaining that her infant seemed to belong “to the doctor and the nurse more than to me . . . . And they say to me always, ‘This is a free country.’ What does it mean? It is not free for the mother and child.”25

Like other nursery schools, those sponsored for immigrant children were intended to correct the behavior of parents: “If the nursery school movement does not result ultimately in better mothers and better homes, it will of course be a failure.”26 Sara Josephine Baker, who campaigned for child health in New York City, prefaced her advice to mothers thus: “My first caution is, don’t ask your neighbors to tell you what you had better do with your own baby. If you do that, I might just as well not give these little talks, for anything I might teach you may be undone by the guess work of some foolish woman next door.”27

The Great Depression took some of the shine from the industrial model of child-rearing, and the war against Fascism might also have placed in a less favorable light a style of childcare characterized by regimentation and obeisance to authority. After World War II, mothers would look for guidance to Benjamin Spock, who had a far friendlier tone and unhappy memories of his own mother’s strict adherence to Dr. Holt’s rules. But the demoralization of mothers was not easily corrected. Their need for “expert” advice continued unabated, given that the chain by which childrearing advice had once been passed from generation to generation had long since been severed. As Dorothy Canfield Fisher observed in 1952, the “old aunts” from whom her generation had hidden Dr. Holt’s book – that is, the women who had learned childcare, before scientific motherhood, from other women and from “reading” their own children – were all “dead and safely in their graves now.”28

Knowing the prewar history may make it easier to understand how the postwar era became tagged as a time of “permissiveness,” of limitless indulgence of the child, though by today’s standards it was nothing of the sort. It was true that mothers were no longer urged to ensure that their children’s bowel movements came on schedule, that they slept precisely the prescribed number of hours nor cleared their plates of precisely the food that nutritionists had determined necessary. As I wrote last month, children regained a fair degree of autonomy over their own bodies. But they continued to be kept on short rations of hands-on nurturance, with mothers still warned against “spoiling” their children with too much attention or physical contact, still urged to let the baby cry while they attended to the priorities of housekeeping and husband-care. The subsequent portrayal of the “feminine mystique” era as epitomizing an excessively intense mother-child relationship, one which proved to be bad for mothers and children both, misunderstands the history. The legacy of “scientific motherhood” continued to color the conformist postwar era. It was a legacy of painful tensions for mothers, in which they were expected to stay home with their children yet keep them at arm’s length, in which they received extraordinarily mixed messages to the effect that their children needed them yet many of the infant’s observable needs were illegitimate to meet. Understanding that helps to explain what some see as the “contradiction” whereby women would later increase their workforce participation at the same time they embraced a more intensive style of parenting. For middle-class women to leave Donna Reed and June Cleaver behind didn’t just mean seeking work more meaningful than readying themselves and their homes for their husbands’ return at the end of the day. It also meant rejecting the decades-long insistence by prominent men that in the matter of childrearing there was something pernicious about the inclinations and influence of women.


1 Ernest R. Groves and Gladys Hoagland Groves, Parents and Children, 1928, quoted in Maxine L. Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed, 1984, p. 53

2 William E. Blatz and Helen Bott, Parents and the Pre-School Child, 1929, p. 7

3 Sheila M. Rothman, Woman’s Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present, 1978, pp. 101-102

4 Blatz and Bott, op. cit., p. 39

5 Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, 1978 edition, p. 200 n. 34

6 Harriet Hickox Heller, “Childhood, an Interpretation,” Proceedings of the National Congress of Mothers Second Annual Convention, Washington, D.C. May 1898, p. 81, quoted in Ehrenreich and English, op. cit., p. 203

7 Mary Ryan, The Empire of the Mother:  American Writing about Domesticity 1830-1860, 1982

8 Bernard Wishy, The Child and the Republic: The Dawn of Modern American Child Nurture, 1968, p. 48

9 D.A. Thom, Child Management, Children’s Bureau Publication No. 143, U.S. Department of Labor 1925, p. 3, quoted in Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework, 1982, p. 234

10 Margaret G. Reid, Economics of Household Production, 1934, p. 364

11 Edna N. White, “Preschool Education and What it Involves,” Journal of Home Economics, 1924, p. 229, quoted in Marjorie Brown, Philosophical Studies of Home Economics in the United States, 1985, p. 432.

12 Glenn Davis, Childhood and History in America, 1976, p. 63

13 Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers, 1998, p. 166

14 John Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928, pp. 40-41

15 Ibid., p. 186

16 Ibid., pp. 84-85

17 Blatz and Bott, op. cit., p. 75

18 Margaret Sutton Briscoe, “The Hospitalized Child,” Good Housekeeping Magazine, 1910, pp. 543-544,  quoted in Celia B. Stendler, “Sixty Years of Child Training Practices: Revolution in the Nursery,” The Journal of Pediatrics, 1950, p. 128

19 Grace Adams, Your Child is Normal:  The Psychology of Young Childhood, 1934, p. 192

20 Marie Winn, “New Fights Over Spoiling Your Baby,” New York Times Magazine, April 16, 1989, p. 61

21 Lynn Z. Bloom, Dr. Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical, 1972, p. 88

22 Shari Thurer Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother, 1994, p. 237, citing Jessie Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, 1974, p. 96

23 Doris Lessing, A Proper Marriage, 1964, pp. 156, 157

24 Sylvia S. Seaman, “Did Our Children Survive Our Upbringing?” unpublished paper, quoted in Glenn Davis, Childhood and History in America, 1976, p. 63

25 Julia Grant, op. cit., p. 84

26 Ibid., p. 81

27 Ibid., p. 83

28 Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “Introduction” in Our Children Today: A Guide to their Needs from Infancy Through Adolescence, 1955

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