The reputation and position of women in today’s America directly corresponds to women’s roles in society since the beginning of America’s fight for independence. Maternalism is defined as an ideology or viewpoint that extends the capacity of a woman to be a mother to a society, and as a result, supports the importance of women’s roles in society. Since the American Revolution, we can see how a woman’s role in society has changed to be considered less important in comparison to a man’s role, despite women’s constant efforts in American society. By examining time periods such as the American Revolution, WWI, WWII, the Cold War, and their Post-war eras, historians have identified certain patterns of women’s roles expanding, yet contracting revealing major points of maternalism for each period, often as a result of wartime efforts. Certainly, women’s roles in regards to maternalism have grown over time, becoming more positively accepted, but the pattern has held as the need for support for women’s roles in society still continues today. It is important to analyze how maternalism played a significant role in this pattern. The pattern revealed itself in the Revolutionary period, and served as a course for women in America thereafter.
Maternalism in the American Revolution
Before the American Revolution, women’s roles were limited to the “Domestic Sphere” and women were not considered trusted enough to be part of the political community. However, It is no secret that Women participated in boycotts and crowd actions during the Revolution, proving that their roles had expanded during this time.[i] Women were first recognized as patriot leaders when they proved their loyalty by actively participating in the Revolution. Furthermore, women’s participation in the Revolution widely shifted attitudes and ideas of what women could do. Abigail Adams in her letter to her husband (see below), encourages him to “Remember the Ladies” as a way to force society to recognize the expansion of women’s political roles.[ii] Subsequently, women like Abigail sought to reinforce the idea that women could be both a patriot and still fulfill their domestic duties. The idea that women could unite their roles as both an active political participant and a wife/mother was soon known as “Republican Motherhood.”[iii] The critical expansion of women’s roles that Abigail and other women during this time period recognized, reveal an important point of maternalism during the Revolution. The support for women’s roles as a mother to their society and a mother at home, proving their loyalty and capability to do both, set a precedent for women’s future. However, historians discovered that their roles as political agents contracted in the Post-war era structurally, and legally limiting women as political participants, creating the pattern for women’s roles.
Maternalism in the World Wars
For the first time, America experienced a total industrial war that required all parts of society to participate. America’s Great War revealed a significant continuation of the historical pattern and a major point of maternalism the U.S.. Women were encouraged through highly influential propaganda (see examples below) to take part in the war by fulfilling industrial jobs, and were encouraged to embrace their caregiving and maternalistic attributes by joining the military as nurses. The role of women as a mother in WWI was crucial to getting the rest of the American people to supporting the war effort. The idea of the “Patriotic Mother” emerged as women were labeled as good mothers for sending their sons off to fight in support of the war.[iv] Women’s duty to be a mother to their country and support the war effort was often compared to women’s duty to be a mother at home. Women during WWI and the idea of the home were seen as an important part of society, however, many of the jobs that were granted to women during the war were contracted immediately and given back to men creating the continuation of the pattern for women’s roles. In return, there was a widespread push for women’s right to vote. It was because of this emphasis on the maternalistic qualities of women to gain support for the war that promoted President Woodrow Wilson to urge the Senate to grant women the right to vote in a speech, indicating, “The tasks of the women lie at the very heart of the war…”.[v] The role of maternalism during WWI created an expansion of women’s roles, contributing to the pattern of women’s roles that historians have identified.
Similarily, WWII required women to participate in the war effort, but in different ways than in the Great War. Women were no longer being told to embrace their job as mother and expand their roles away from maternalism, telling them “It’s Your War, Too” (embedded below). Moreover, women were able to have a significant role in society without the impact of maternalism. Women were allowed to go into the military in WWII, suggesting that they were just as capable as men. Not only did the number of women joining the military go against the maternalistic propaganda of WWI, but women were stepping into male dominant jobs, which is most famously represented by Rosie the Riveter (embedded below). Rosie the Riveter was an example of how ad campaigns glamorized war work for women, appealing to their femininity in which they were told could still be embraced while working at plants. Since the women of America continued to maintain the domestic sphere after WWI, women joining the military in WWII created a big backlash and caused a turn back to maternalism after the war as women that were laid off from dominantly male jobs returned to “women’s work.”[vi] As a result, the American values of the domestic sphere and the conservative family model remained. The pattern of women’s roles, both due to maternalism and the strain away from maternalism, during WWII set a precedent for women’s fight for equality.
Maternalism in the Cold War and the ERA
As a contraction of WWII and as the threat of communism emerged, American government began to campaign families with “good American values.” This notion was also known as domestic containment and upheld values that embraced maternalistic values of caregiving and motherhood, with women at the heart of the household, and men as providers (example embedded below). The new Affluent Society placed the stability of American society in the idea that women would remain at home. As part of the Cold War, women participated in the Vietnam War as a way to fulfill traditional roles, mother, and caregiver.[vii] Subsequently, women’s participation in the Vietnam War promoted a counterculture in which women wanted equal rights as men. The Women’s movement and push for the Equal Rights Amendment was widely supported by women in the U.S.. However, Phyllis Schafly, leader of Stop ERA, in her speech, described women as already privileged and the role of a woman as a caregiver and a mother was to be reinforced as the very reason why the ERA should not be passed (embedded below). More notably, Phyllis Schafly, though unaware, was the perfect example of how maternalism was used to gain support for women’s roles. She embraced her role of being a mother and a wife, yet she enjoyed the freedom of politically campaigning as way to be a mother to her society. The expansion of women’s roles over the course of the Cold War and the fight for equal rights, demonstrate both arguments for ERA: one revealing a major point of maternalism, and the other pushing away from a woman’s role to be a mother to more important aspects.
The Importance to Understanding the Role of Maternalism
As our society becomes more and more accepting of women of all backgrounds, including those who choose to embrace their role as a stay at home mother, and those women who prefer to be on the front lines, it is important to understand how women, over the decades, have expanded their roles either as a result of, or in favor of maternalism. More importantly, it is crucial to understanding how women are in a second status compared to men due to women’s roles in society and how society has accepted these roles. Maternalism in the U.S. since the American Revolution has drastically changed how women are perceived by society, as a result of their constant devotion and duty to be mother to society.
- a more recent article on women’s employment status
- Women’s archive
- Women and Social Movements archive
- Black Women’s Military Contributions
- African American Women and the American Revolution
Possible Related Lesson Plan Topics
- How Women’s Roles Have Changed Since the AR.
- How Other Countries Have Used Maternalism as a Guide for Leadership (comparing to the U.S.)
- The Role of Maternalism in Relation to the Civil War
- Women’s Wartime Roles and the Importance of Women Employment
Unfortunately, the primary source or secondary source documents included mainly white women and do not account for the experiences of African American women. This topic may need more explanation to account for the experience and roles of African American women during these time periods. Please see “Further Reading” for related articles.
“Chippers.” Women war workers of Marinship Corp. 1942. Department of Labor. Women’s Bureau. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Chippers.%22_Women_war_workers_of_Marinship_Corp,1942–NARA-_522889.jpg
How to Cite This Article:
Bailey Gray, “The Role of Maternalism in the U.S. Since the American Revolution,” Digital History at USC Aiken, 2021, https://wordpress.com/post/digitalhistoryusca.com/793.
[i] Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920” The American Historical Review 89 no. 3 (1984), 620–47
[ii] “Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0241.
[iii] Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980)
[iv] Ana C. Garner and Karen Slattery, “Mobilizing Mother: From Good Mother to Patriotic Mother in World War I” Journalism and Communication Monographs 14, no. 1 (03, 2012): 5-77
[v] Woodrow Wilson, Speech to Senate, September 30, 1918. Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Cary T. Grayson Papers, Staunton, Virginia. http://www.woodrowwilson.org/digital-library/view.php?did=4438
[vi] Santana MC (2016) From Empowerment to Domesticity: The Case of Rosie the Riveter and the WWII Campaign. Front. Sociol. 1:16. doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2016.00016
[vii] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3